From Mexico, “Olson’s second book of “Maximus Poems” arrived yesterday. At a glance it appears to me much better than the first let which seemed to need cutting. I have varying feelings about Olson. Sometimes he seems terrific and at others incredibly bad and self deluded. Have you read this book?” This brilliant critical précis of Charles Olson’s poetic worth was sent to me in a letter by a woman whose judgment in literary matters I much admire.
Challenged either to agree or reject this summary of Olson’s poems I must come to a decision. If I agree I must be able to demonstrate on the page what I see of the man’s ability and failures.
He is full of the most violent prejudices, which could be a good thing in a poet if they are intelligently ordered. Olson’s prose passages among his verse are often wrongheaded, full of vicious attacks upon his friends, but the poems if they stem from the same root can be assigned no more than to a critical loneliness which all poets must feel when their techniques are brought into question. All poets, except among their friends and apparently not even there are the same in this, feeling themselves to be rejected especially at the beginnings of their careers.
Poems are a serious business to the race. No poet can be tolerated who wavers in his devotion to the art, his ability or intelligence. The public is cruel in its rejection of bunkum, is ignorant and lethargic, seldom catches up with the generation where anything that is serious and important is in the wind.
One of Olson’s chief faults which he shares with such a poet as Ezra Pound is his disconnectedness. To the reader his sentences or rhythmic assemblies do not make sense too much has been omitted. The poet replies that only the inessential details have been so, that requires judgment in poet and reader, as in modern painting if you look too close you are likely to see nothing. But, at times, in my judgment Olson leaves out too much or includes too much of the inessential which gives the effect my correspondent complains of in her letter especially in the first book. This book is much better and when it comes through, which it does for the most part, it is brilliant indeed, breath taking in fact. What more can be asked of a poet?
For instance: This is an account of a man’s experience, in graphic terms, in and about Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the fishing front of that region where he grew up and became a man, the sea where all good narrative must begin, put down economically in a well organized manner to give the feeling of the whole. You can see by this book how the difficulties of the task, not to wander too far afield, are likely to unhorse the unwary artist. Olson faces the problem admirably with a selection in the details of his scheme which does him credit.
It takes off from the waterfront of the City of Gloucester and courses over the world or as much of it as Olson has had the cash and the inclination to visit, especially Mexico was one of his principal stamping grounds. Yucatan, the Maya Indians, the American beginnings which Cortez despoiled. This the general background, an essentially American poem with no apologies to China, Russia and the rest of the world or antiquity. He is not modest, which no poet can afford to be in this modern world, quite the opposite, which may at times be extremely irritating to the reader but no more so than shall be necessary to wake him up.
The opening of the second section of the present book is wholly admirable:
I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.
The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with a man’s argument
but such postponement
is now the nature of
that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily
But right here begins the difficulties, has too much, even here, not been elided? That must always be as in all art a question of comparative quickness of wit and mental agility to leap from one sense of impression to another.
To go on:
It could be, the sharpness (the achiote)
I note in others,
makes more sense
than my own distances. The agilities
they show daily
who do the world’s
And who do nature’s
as I have no sense
I have done neither
I have made dialogues,
have discussed ancient texts, etc etc
which is a poets business.
It goes on: The Song and Dance (showing one of Olson’s typical foreshortening devices), Maximus, to Gloucester, in which occurs
on John Hawkins / on the puzzle
of nature of desire / the consequences
in the known world beyond
the terra cognita / on how men do use
Maximus, to Gloucester, another letter, No 15, continued from the first book, a continued account on the life of Captain John Smith quoting from poetry, which I do not recognize but which is presumably his as an early 17th century man of letters and ideas; no matter: On first Looking out through Juan de la Cosa’s Eyes: The Twist: Maximus, to Gloucester, Letter 19 (Pastoral Letter
to the care of souls
Maximus, at Tyre and at Boston, including Letter 22 (out of sequence) with which the book ends.
Reading it is a rewarding, even a thrilling experience for the most part. Categorically this book is much better than the first by the same author and by which I was largely defeated. My correspondent is quite right in finding, at a glance, in finding this a poem that attracts the eye, I am ready to say in addition that it holds up well on deeper scrutiny, a major contribution to the contemporary literary scene.
Jonathan Williams and the Jargon Press, have presented this oversize book with great distinction.
William Carlos Williams
9 Ridge Road
Rutherford, New Jersey