Weekend 14-15 January 2017
These two days are dedicated to Charles Olson’s Maximus. Shakespeare in the Mountains is all about the power of reading aloud and this weekend I gave my time to reading the Maximus poems aloud in their entirety. I have posted the readings as podcasts on Podomatic.
Go to Amazon to find the version of the Maximus poems I have used.
Charles Olson started the Maximus poems when he was still at Black Mountain College. My interest in this community of misfits in the mountains of North Carolina comes from fellow-feeling: I lived and worked at Summerhill School in England; as Martin Duberman says in his book on the college, A.S. Neill of Summerhill is an unacknowledged progenitor of the educational experiment. As a bubbling pot of ideas and creativity Black Mountain College has no parallel and Olson’s method of teaching was at the heart of this. He insisted that the students find their own place, their own feet, in the world. It was a far cry from systematic modern education, with its emphasis on grades and assignments, as each course was tailor-made around the needs of the student. You can think this is inspiring or you can think it is idealistic nonsense supported by little more than bombast.
You can have the same reaction to Olson’s poetry. It is inspiring in its breadth and humanity. Not content with making little pretty things, he wants to take on the whole universe and force it through the experience of one man. At times, it is frustratingly opaque and you come away with the sensation that Olson has read too much. You seem to be following him into a thicket. He is like a wild, precocious, hyperactive impresario. Many readers and reviewers from his time to today have found it so frustrating that they have dismissed it out-of-hand. Neill is often dismissed in the same manner and for similar reasons: he set himself against the whole of the prevailing thought of the world. Critiques of Olson are similar in my mind to critiques of Neill: they can be “clever” and “sharp” but they essentially miss the point.
What is the point then? For me the crux and the nub of the matter is what it means to read and write. When Ted Hughes, a poet I idolized as a teenager, became the poet laureate in England I felt deeply betrayed; when Benjamin Zephaniah turned down an OBE I shouted, “Yes!” Why? Because I want the writer to give me, the reader, the respect of his absolute seriousness in his vocation; reading and writing are a dyad; and neither can be subsumed into the banalities of the establishment, whether English or American. Accepting a gong is a betrayal. So, Olson, suffering the poverty, sickness and hunger of his later years, does not seem to me to be an artist in decline, but a magnificent and virtuoso writer/reader who deserves my dedication of two days to his magnum opus.
His first publisher, Jonathan Williams, had been a student at BMC and produced editions of the first two sets of Maximus poems in 1953 and 1956. The final poems are dated 1969. Reading them through in their entirety is like following Olson through his life. There are themes that reappear throughout the collection. Gloucester, a fishing town on the New England coast, is the locus. Olson mines mythology from all traditions to underpin a vision of a deeper history and geography that runs counter to the world that he sees developing around him. He goes deeply into the history of Gloucester as a settlement relying on archival research that can be difficult to follow. The purpose of this research, however, becomes clearer as the poems develop. He declares it late in the collection:
And this I write about is only subject, is strings
I play on to invoke the world
It is important to bear this in mind as you read or listen. It would certainly be possible to verify Olson’s facts. No doubt specialists in mythology, religion and seventeenth-century colonial history would find motives to cavil with the detail of his assertions. As a non-specialist, I am drawn along by the evolving story. The precise details are subsumed in the music of the words and ideas as they go to create the whole persona of Maximus. It is certainly true that some of the historical investigations are not poetical or musical in a conventional sense, but then neither is Wordsworth. For the same reason that it makes sense to read The Prelude in its entirety, it makes sense to read the Maximus poems in their entirety: the drier prose-like sections provide the necessary ground for the soaring or staccato sections. Some poets write occasional pieces. For both Wordsworth and Olson, the whole is the thing.
Whereas Wordsworth defected from his early radical verse, however, Olson always remained an outsider. He aroused antipathy in his time. It was not just the ideas, but the way they were put across: too cerebral, too incoherent, too downright. As a radical he was also just too old. He was too old to benefit from the Beat phenomenon and already felt himself to be side-lined when Kerouac and Ginsburg were assaulting the world in the early sixties with a new way of writing, a new challenge to orthodoxies. Even when he was chosen as the lead poet of the seminal Grove Press Anthology, The New American Poetry in 1960, he came in for some severe critical bashing. You can read a selection of these reviews in the illuminating biography by Tom Clark (Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, Norton, 1991, p.288-9).
Following Olson through into old age as he wanders the docks in the night, suffering hunger in his cold house alone, was deeply moving to me. Since I am 51, I instantly felt a tug as he reached my age and was filled with admiration at his fidelity to his poetic vision despite the adversities in his life. His language opens up in the later poems: he cusses and swears; he admits to the foibles of his common humanity. He allows himself to merge with Maximus. Michael Rumaker (Black Mountain Days), also a student at Black Mountain College, tells how angry Olson was that he had confused Maximus, the mouthpiece of the poems, with Olson the poet. In the later poems, there is no question of the identification and as Tom Clark shows in his biography the self-identification of Olson with Maximus was a means of mythologizing himself. We come to see his life as the nexus of meaning in the poem. This not only gives the poems a greater human appeal but opens up the drier historical sections. What is it all about? We learn as we progress. When he meditates on the death of his father, for example, the father meditations that precede this point in the cycle achieve a new importance.
Why read Olson today?
Reading Olson I made many connections with today. He was breaking new ground with his emphasis on the deep geological past of the earth beneath his feet. This is now a commonplace. Ted Dorn, another BMC student of Olson’s, incorporated a similar sensitivity to his poetry and brought it to the University of East Anglia as a tutor there. In the UK it is now a commonplace in a certain type of writing to look for this deep substratum of current life. For example, I have been reading a book called Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel and could not help but think that the author is the inheritor of the Olsonian tradition.
This tradition is environmental in a way that was outside of his time. Olson was horrified by the narrow modern emphasis on consumerism in post-war America. There are several strident comments in the Maximus poems. The grandeur of Olson is revealed even more by the fact that he does not allow this to unbalance the rhythm of his words and ideas: occasional acerbic jibes at modern parents, modern shoppers, modern politicians do not deflect him from the grander purpose. The historical investigations lead him to dig around the idea that the myth of an America founded as a home for religious dissenters from the oppression of England is a chimera: the business of fishing drew the settlers in. This is extraordinary. Contemporary historians are only now beginning to write with more insight about how doubtful all history is precisely because of the forms that it takes: history takes narrative forms that are predictable and repeatable; historians create stories relying on documents that themselves are not reliable. If you have the patience to follow Olson in his sifting of dates and people, his distrust of the testimony of written witnesses, questioning their ages and their sources, you emerge with a new respect for the man. This is the man who invented the term post-modern.
Olson wrote an influential article called Projective Verse. In the fifties, he and Robert Creeley worked together on a new way of writing. Creeley’s poems of these years, in the period when he was living and working in Mallorca, are crystalline examples of this new poetics. This poetic form is “composition by field”. Olson emphasises the breath as the guiding principle of poetic composition, not mere syllable or foot counting.
I am conflicted in this, perhaps because I do not intellectually understand the arguments. I still have a long journey to go before I even understand the principles of classical poetics. Reading Olson is not easy. My natural tendency is to give the poetic line respect as a reader: that is to say, when I read a line, even in a vers libre format, my tendency is to feel that the writer has chosen the line length for a purpose and give the line ending emphasis; enjambment doesn’t make logical sense in free verse. W.H. Auden said that it was “always correct” to emphasise line endings and I had to drop this prescript with Olson. You may notice, if you listen to the podcast, that I make some mis-readings because Olson confounded my expectations as I read: he put together long strands of thoughts and ideas with erratic punctuation and line endings that were counter-intuitive.
I could not help but notice how he works against conventional poetics and metrics. You can only do this if you are aware of them, of course. The iambic stress is natural to English speech. “But soft what light through yonder window breaks,” is strictly iambic and does not sound unnatural. Olson seems to want me to say a whole string of equally-stressed words- nouns even- in a row. That is why I used the word staccato above.
I had read these poems before to myself and was not aware of the influence that reading them out loud would have on the sound of the verse. This is the great reason for reading out loud. Poetry is performative- even when it is intellectual, even when you can sense Olson writing the poems on a bench by the water or huddled over the typewriter in his cold kitchen. Even when the poems are examples of concrete verse, I feel they cry out for performance.
Would you give over two days to reading Maximus? Does the idea get your juices going? If so, we should talk. I live in Asturias in the mountains of northern Spain. This is the place for reading and I welcome people here who have a similar passion for reading.