Quick Notes on Charles Olson

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Charles Olson

Charles Olson (1910 – 1970) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Black Mountain poets. He is influenced by Ezra Pound, whom he spent time with when Pound was in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but he was also influenced by W. C. Williams, who was also influenced by Olson enough to include Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. Olson’s first significant text was Call Me Ishmael (1947), his free flowing interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His primary texts include the highly influential essay “Projective Verse,” which I will focus on, and The Maximus Poems, a long poem spread across a thick book of 8.5″ x 11″ pages, where he maps Gloucester, Massachusetts, both geographically and temporarily. He uses Gloucester as a focal point from which to understand his universe. Its central character is Maximus, who according to David Perkins “is Olson, but also Olson composing poems” (502). Olson’s poetry explores the use of the page and the use of breath. He has an interest in the “primitive,” by which Olson means “‘primary, as how one finds anything, pick it up as one does new – fresh/first” (“Letter to Elaine Feinstein” 28). He is concerned with getting at the origins of things, before the habits of language interfere with their original uniqueness, that time when the Mayans “cut [hieroglyphs (words)] in stone, they [the hieroglyphs] retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (“Human Universe” 58).

On re-reading “Projective Verse” (1950) for the first time since the mid-90s, I realized I missed quite a bit of what Olson was getting at. He, of course, is concerned with the idea of breath in its relation to poetry, its lines, and its involvement with the body. This time, however, I noticed something more interesting, or at least, different. It begins with his use of scientific terminology (mainly terms from Newtonian physics and electromagnetics), such as “kinetics,” “energy,” “propelled,” “forces,” “principle,” “process,” “speed,” “particles,” “field,” and even in his letter to Elaine Feinstein (1959) he uses “vector” and a mathematical fraction to portray the double nature of the image. This creates the feel of Olson as scientist of poetry, which may be the essence of Projective Verse, which is the removing of the ego.

A scientist, at his/her best, is without ego when interacting with the physical world. The scientist’s prejudices and assumptions (ego) are withdrawn in the act of observation. For Olson, this act of observation is two-fold, and both folds lack ego (though not necessarily the self). Fold one involves poetic form and fold two involves “objectism,” which is different than “objectivism.”

Olson writes in “Projective Verse,” “It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter [. . .] were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable” (18). This is similar to what I mentioned about form with Creeley. Form constrains perception and limits content. Here, Olson is saying a little more when he says, “were less in the forefront of the mind,” which I take to mean ego. The ego is bending, manipulating, encouraging in what it wants to see, as well as the clever truth it wants to present in its poem. The ego does this not only with the form but also with the “elements and minims of language [. . . the] logical” (18). So the ego uses all these forms, techniques, rhetorics, and literary devices to shape reality. But as Creeley says, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Typically, we understand this to mean that content dictates form, and that is partially correct. However, there is the key word “extension.” Form extends from the content, which is the reality the poet is experiencing. Form is an extension of reality, and this reality has two modes of experience. One side is the ego-less or language-less experience, and the other is the experience of composition, and both find themselves in “objectism,” the second fold of Olson’s observational method, or as he might call it in “Human Universe,” a “threshold of reception” (60).

Olson says, “Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego [. . .] that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature [. . .] and those other creations of nature which we may [. . .] call objects. For man is himself an object” (“Projective Verse” 24). Now here’s the tricky part, Olson then says if man “sprawl”s himself across, he “shall find little to sing but himself” (25). That’s the ego interference, which seems counterintuitive. Also counterintuitive is that “if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participating in the larger force [nature], he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share” (25). In other words, he is advising the poet to keep her hands in her pockets, don’t touch anything with her assumptions and prejudices, and just observe. When one observes without ego-interference, nature will present its secrets in ways the poet could not experience or create with language constructs, logic, and preconceptions. This same idea holds true on the field of composition, which I take to mean to mean the page when it is being actively inscribed. Just as there shouldn’t be ego-interference in observing reality, there shouldn’t be ego interference in writing the poem, for “[f]rom the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION – he put himself in the open – he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself” (16). Even though the poem seems in the submissive position (“under hand”), the poem provides the track for composition, and the poet must listen to and follow where the poem wants to go. And the:

objects [in the poem . . .] must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being. (20)

In other words, I think, a tension is created when the poem moves from one object to the next, or as “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (17).

I’m not sure Olson achieves his goals. He may, and I may not be keen enough to notice it, but at least in “The Kingfishers” he gives directions on how to do it:

     When the attentions change / the jungle
     leaps in
                even the stones are split
                                                they rive     (169)

The poet needs to keep changing to immerse him/herself into the world different each time in order to experience the universe anew and fresh. In other words:

     What does not change / is the will to change    (167)


Works Cited

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966. Print.

Perkins, David. “Charles Olson.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. 497-505. Print.


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