Saturday, 24 January 2009

Olson...and on....and on...

I am not, normally, an impatient reader; the ever-expanding nature of my book-pile is motivated by the quaint piety that all those books which people tell you are worth reading probably are. But sometimes a particular volume weighs heavily upon the reader, in both the physical and the literal senses, and The Collected Poems of Charles Olson , at 675 pages in hardback, is one such. Excluding Olson's greatest work, the unfinished Maximus Poems (published separately in a volume of similar heft), The Collected Poems form nearly 700 pages of - strange paradox - iridescent dullness.

I'd not heard of Olson (1910-1970) until I'd finished my English degree. In literary terms, he was the last of the great first-wave American modernist poets that included Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and his work forms a link between the impenetrable tedium of Pound's Cantos and the tedious impenetrability of Ashberry's Flow Chart. He was fearsomely learned, a chronic alcoholic, and, at 6'7", nearly a giant (but not, as the Los Angeles Times hilariously assures us, 'literally...a behemoth'.) At Olson's funeral, Alan Ginsberg trod on the coffin-lowering pedal accidentally whilst saying kaddish for him, and the poet's coffin lurched and got jammed half in, half out of the grave. (What a way to go. The man knew how to make an exit.)

Olson is acknowledged to have produced one 'great' poem, 'The Kingfishers', with its Heraclitean opening line 'What does not change / is the will to change.' It bored me rigid. However, over the years, I've learned the art of stepping back from my own snap-judgements about poems and poets; my undergraduate English essays, on the other hand, were usually just exercises in articulating those instinctive snap-judgements with precision and justifying them with a bit of well-placed explication de texte. However, only occasionally have I completely changed my mind.

Olson is fond of the usual Poundian topoi: shoehorning bits of foreign languages into the lines, fragmentation, classical allusion and bricolage, a certain hermetic or ideogrammatic obscurity. Take this section from 'The Kingfishers':

that other conqueror we more naturally recognise
he so resembles ourselves

But the E
cut so rudely on that oldest stone
sounded otherwise,
was differently heard

as, in another time, were treasures used:

(and, later, much later, a fine ear thought
a scarlet coat)

- and so on. Guy Davenport made a brave attempt at interpreting this kind of thing in his essay 'Olson' in the excellent The Geography of the Imagination, part of which amounts to a section-by-section commentary on the poem. That rudely-cut E turns out to be a mysterious incised letter on the omphalos or navel-stone at Delphi, about which Plutarch wrote in the Moralia. (I should have read Sir Thomas Browne more carefully, it seems.)

Allusions to Mao, the meeting of east and west in pre-Conquest Mexico, the nest-building habits of the kingfisher of the title, cybernetics, Pound's conception of history - all are deftly unpicked by Davenport from the poem's elusive textures. The 'ideogram' of the kingfisher, looked at one way, is an emblem of culture and its cyclical triumphs and horrors; turned another way, it is a symbol of non-human nature. Davenport writes:

Men (and history), then, are both discrete and continuous; the kingfisher's history, for instance, is continuous (and eventless), evolution being a process by which all advantageous feedback is built henceforth into the design. Human culture is discrete, discontinuous: this is the subject of Pound's Cantos and the concern of most historians after Vico and Michelet. Nature phasing out the Brontosaurus was adjusting a totality of ecological design; the fall of Alexander's empire was tragedy.

Fine. Davenport then reduces the poem to some cogent ponderables: 'Does meaning drain from art, for instance, 'when the attentions change?' Is Mayan culture lost to us forever, like the meaning of the E on the Delphic navel stone? Is there really a feedback operative in history, so that men learn from history?' He goes on to say, alarmingly, that this tricky, allusive, and windy poem, which at moments glitters with flashes of lyric beauty and at others knuckles along with all the charm of a piece of Windows software documentation, is 'rich material for classes in schools'. If 'schools' has the American sense 'Universities', yes, I can see that, but if not, then I would have liked to have watched Davenport introducing truculent teenagers to modern poetry using 'The Kingsfishers'. If anyone could have done it, he could.

Olson produced a number of good little lyrics, some veering oddly between the delicate pre-Raphaelite voice of HD and a Ginsbergian beat laxity. Compare two poems on facing pages. First:

the dogwood comes out yellow
& then flares white
it is so, with each spring
of my soul, the body first
and then, the flare
my body is my soul as
dogwood is yellow
& then white

and then:

right in my eye the west sun zing saying
level glance dig man I'm setting what are you
doing today

I don't think either of these are especially good, but the first I think is better, and would not seem out of place were it by Seferis. Some are playfully clever, like this weird fusing of Blake and Freud in the voice of an uncanny, larval infant (no typo involved, by the way):

Sut Lovingood

papa eats bread
mama eats danderlions
and the worm
am at the end of it

The poem and the line are erratic in Olson, but he can do a great three words. 'The Kingfishers' ends, in Eliotic fashion:

        I pose you your question:

shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?

        I hunt among stones.

This is good, dense stuff: the image of course is of the bougonia, the idea (referred to by Greek authors such as Philetas and Nicander, and, famously, by Virgil in the fourth Georgic) that a swarm of bees could be induced to grow from nothing in the flesh of a pulped ox. (A related idea occurs in Judges 14, in which Samson finds a swarm of bees in the carcass of a lion.) But we moderns know, of course, that the legend must have arisen from the phenomenon of animal corpses blown with flies, whose buzzing might have been mistaken for that of bees. Ancient and modern, legend and fact, are encapsulated in a riddle, reminiscent of the one posed by Samson in the same chapter of Judges about his find of honey. Davenport, as it happens, sees these lines as a riposte to Pound's Canto LXXIV, in which the 'dead bullock' eaten by maggots is Mussolini's corpse, strung up by the heels at Milan. Thus - can anything be reclaimed from the morass of history, from the wreckage of a war-sapped world? Can spiritual and aesthetic renewal be found, and sweetness come forth from strength? Olson hunts the stone fragments of the archaic past for stones that may also be bones, or eggs, or cells, or gems.

I sense about the Collected Poems a kind of fetishisation of his own work on Olson's part - but this may be to do with George Butterick's editing. (If ever a poet would be better served by a 'Selected' rather than a 'Collected', it would be Olson). The sheer heft of the book gives the misleading impression of a body of work that is uniform in all directions, that presents as undifferentiated a texture when read through from front to back as it would if you sawed through it horizontally with a breadknife. The size means that much of what the casual reader comes across is simply not much good. Take this self-contained poem on p. 494, for example:

All pink from the bath she slept
while he ate from the second joint of turkey
with pretzels and grapejuice in the

We could all find something to say about this if we really had to, but it's what I think of as celery-poetry, in which, as supposedly with the calorific content of celery, the effort required to get any nourishment out is more than the eventual return one gets from said nourishment. I'm reminded of something Camille Paglia said about scouring contemporary poetry for her recent Break, Blow, Burn, along the lines that, these days, the overall body of work of a particular poet is sometimes impressive, but that the strong, stand-alone individual poem is hard to find. Quite so. The impression that Olson's Collected Poems leaves me with is one of a curious inarticulacy: an odd thing for a poet. The focus is too close: it gives the reader eye-strain. Much of it is too like the stuff one scribbles on the back of a beer-mat when inspiration strikes. (I woke up recently to find I had written on the bedside pad:

      below the tonguestone
      milk burrs bolted
copses latched with rot

among cresses
      and worts


root for the frost


Which was drivel I wrote in my sleep but is frankly indistinguishable from much of Olson's oeuvre.)

On the other hand, sometimes we find the pleasingly-pharaonic likes of this little personal pyramid text:

King of the Wood
King of the Dead

die in the grain
waste away
in the water

come over
the horizon
to come forth
from the earth

a ramp
is trodden for you
to Orion where he lies
with his eyes out

Davenport concludes that Olson is a poet who wanted us to pay attention; a kind of Antiwhitman, 'a prophet bard crying bad weather ahead'. Maybe. But I felt, reading through a large chunk of these Collected Poems, that these were works which were dragging their potential parodies behind them, like a cat guiltily drags a dead rabbit in through the catflap. I always feel the same about Frank O'Hara (a better poet than Olson): it would be easy to write a pastiche that could be slotted neatly into the poet's oeuvre and never be found in the least out of place. Too easy, perhaps, to really consider the poet's voice strong.

To contrast an American poet with an English one, Geoffrey Hill has said on numerous occasions that he does not consider his poetry to be 'difficult', and that he assumes the reader's alert intelligence. Olson, in contrast, seemed to assume the reader's endless forbearance. But in truth it must be said that there are very few poets who can manage to command consistent interest in the reader over nearly 1400 pages (if one counts the Maximus Poems as well), and Charles Olson, alas, is not, for this reader at least, among their number.

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