Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Charles Olson's The Distances (1960): A Retrospective Essay.

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     Charles Olson is one of those poets of the American mid-century who seem to be slipping from view as the millennial tote board posts its official winners and losers in the Major Poets Sweepstakes. David Lehman, editor of the Best American Poetry annuals, recently asked the 12 guest editors of volumes in his series since 1988—themselves celebrated poets—to name the 15 best poems of the century just ended. The results were for the most part predictable, occasionally wry and quirky—John Ashbery put The Waste Land at the head of his list of runner-ups—and somewhat less occasionally, downright silly—Ashbery, in a second swipe at immortality, found space in his group of 15 for a poem appearing in the same issue in which the poll was featured—namely, Best American Poetry 2000, guest-edited by Rita Dove. But the truly surprising thing to emerge from the poll was that not one of the 12 respondents cited Olson as a major American poet of the 20th Century. The Objectivists made out all right—William Carlos Williams, especially; and the Black Mountain poets, with Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov managing a few mentions between them. Allen Ginsberg made the final cut—but the author of the Maximus Poems? Nothing but the shock of non-recognition.
     This is a judgment whose severity, while easy to understand, is difficult to square with his solid achievement and unquestionable, albeit peculiar, genius. No less august a personage than the famous German author of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius, described Olson's talent "as returning us to that same presence, of force, which is evident in a Mayan glyph." Robert Creeley (although, admittedly, a trifle prejudiced in Olson's favor) not only credited him with helping to redefine the conduct of the line in postwar American poetry, but argued forcefully that he was "a good deal more than a competent technician." There was, he went on to say, a reach in . . . [his] poems, a range of subject and a depth of perception, that mark him as exceptional. His language is exact, hangs tight to the move of his thought." And finally, "Charles Olson is central to any description of literary 'climate' dated 1960."
      How to explain this reversal (it's more than just a turn) of reputation? Some forty years ago, when Barney Rosset's Grove Press brought out The Distances to the acclaim of a readership for which his Evergreen catalog of nightware, made up of slamdunk absurdists, Zen masters, existentialist gurus and psychoanalysts (all Beat-approved and a-glisten with Luce publications contempt) was the finger-popping cat's pajamas, Olson was viewed as poet-heir apparent to the modernist Black Prince-in-exile, Ezra Pound. His American epic, Maximus of Gloucester, was to fill a niche never quite accommodated by the incomplete and lingering—indeed, even to some, malingering—epic Paterson by William Carlos Williams, the nation's oldest living Imagist, but by 1968 only six poems in the cycle had appeared grouped together in print. And the lineaments of the work were becoming more sprawling and diffuse, its defining elements less discernible and extractable. Its apologists, trying to fend off criticism, took refuge in the paradoxical. Why, they asked, should a poem of process be about anything but itself? Why should it leave a contrail to be analyzed and judged when contrails only appear when the engines causing them to become visible have already moved elsewhere? As a later defender, Paul A. Bové, put it in 1980, citing the title essay of Olson's Human Universe for support:

The "mind" immediately works upon "what is," the "inner" and the "outer," the "one," and transforms the act of the moment into the language of the moment. In "Human Universe," Olson insists upon writing a poetry in which the language is "the act of the instant" and not "language as the act of thought about the instant." The latter is at best discourse or the "suck of symbol." Olson hopes to differentiate his poetry from Wordsworth's poetic intent to write from "emotion recollected in tranquility." He wants to get the event down quickly before any of its energy is lost. His poems are like the Maya he admires so much: "O, they were hot for the world they lived in, these Maya, hot to get it down the way it was—the way it is, my fellow citizens."

Hot for the world actually lived in, hot for the means to get it down the way it was, and is—pretty much the theme and program of Olson's The Distances, first published in 1960.
     Though much in that collection was novel, not all that much of it was really new. A mare's nest of blisses and contradictions, it was, in its blarings of defiance and anal fixations on nerdy (and often inaccurately grounded) minutiae, the end of something and the beginning of a very different thing sprung paradoxically from the same anarchic American roots. What it represented the end of—or at least the beginning of the end of—was the love affair of many young American poets with the gospel of Modernism according to Ezra Pound, as contained in a repellant mutant-reptilian epic called  The Cantos, whose pus-sac of fascism and yellow bile had for years been apologized for or ignored by readers taken in by its bluebottle splendors. This paean to the revival of world civilization under Mussolini and a Hitler "furious with perception" had by the late 1950's (despite a brief respite afforded by the appearance of the Pisan Cantos and the furor over its winning the Bollingen prize in 1948) ground to a near-paralytic pace, whereby largely unintelligible fragments were giving way to wholly undecipherable fragments of fragments, many of them in mandarin Chinese of the Confucian period. (The advancing entropic demise of The Cantos had been speeded along in no small measure by its author Pound's 12-year stay in a Washington, D.C. lunatic asylum, but for some this merely added to it, and his, irresistible mystique.) What the publication of The Distances stood at the beginning of—after a decade of gestation—was the parturition of postmodernism in American verse and of a period that would see geniuses like Robert Lowell burst forth from chrysalids such as Lord Weary's Castle into pellucid moth fantasias like Life Studies and Imitations. And Olson's 1960 collection, with its two extremities "The Kingfishers" and "The Distances," separated by 12 years of maelstrom and qualified survival, straddles that interval of conception and birthing like a squalling colossus, as full of piss as of vinegar, but spoiling for a fight in every visionary jot and tittle. When all is said and done, Olson's The Distances accomplished no mean feat in establishing the direction a good deal of postmodern verse was to take. Turning away with finality from Pound's Imagist imperium he turned decisively toward a poetry of interpretation that effectively usurped the diction as well as the jurisdiction that had been criticism's. Not the New Criticism's, with its voyeur's taste for decadence at a safe Eliotic remove and genteel disgruntlements with anything smacking of la vie quotidienne, but the sort of homegrown crank Spenglerianism that had grown up in the most paranoiac of American academic fringes, where cult classics like The Law of Civilization and Decay by Brooks Adams (brother of Henry) were glossed in whispers. Not that Olson ever hid out in those salt marshes; bitten by flies; fought. The gleam in the eye of the poet who drew together the diverse strands that knotted into The Distances found inspiration elsewhere, in nighttowns more haunted by Melvillean dreams than maximal ones. And so perhaps it's best to begin where the most insistent of those dreams made its opening gambit in the fateful game of dots and crosses that was Olson's life as a poet: on the deck of the Pequod. 
     The order of Olson's writings was first set down and authoritatively dated by his Black Mountain soulmate Robert Creeley, at the conclusion of the Selected Writings (1966), which he edited. Olson's first major publication was Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville (1947), a quirky, brilliant, all-over-the-place book about his literary alter ego and Bloomian strong poet-author of the sprawling, megaphonic, elephantiastic book Moby-Dick (1851). Imagine a mythopoeic paean to a dead poet that simultaneously enshrines—in prose, mind you—the stylistics of Cézanne and Kandinsky and invents "soft copy" microprocessing on the printed page, and you have an idea of what reading Call Me Ishmael is like. Quirky? Here's a workaday "paragraph" (Olson hated paragraphs—and sentences: too marmoreal) from the second "chapter" of Part One, "What lies under":

    Melville prepared the way for Moby-Dick by ridiculing, in 1850, the idea that the literary genius in America would be, like Shakespeare, "a writer of dramas." This was his proposition:
          Great geniuses are parts of the times, they themselves are the times, and possess a corresponding colouring.
    Melville raised his times up when he got them into Moby-Dick and they held firm in his schema:

          e.g. his crew, a "people," Clootz and Tom Paine's people, all races and colors functioning together, a forecastle reality of Americans not yet a dream accomplished by the society;
          e.g. his job on the whaling industry, a problem in the resolution of forces solved with all forces taken account of: (1) OWNERS Bildad and Peleg (Aunt Charity interested party); (2) Ahab, hard MASTER; (3) the MEN, and TECHNOLOGY, killer boat, tryworks and underdeck storage of yield permitting four-year voyage. . . .

Impressive? Try this, the last splinter from the floating coffin as Olson-Ishmael's mighty subject sinks beneath the typographical horizon editorializing sea and sky:

   Porphyry wrote that the generation of images in the mind is from water.
   The three great creations of Melville and Moby-Dick are Ahab, the Pacific, and the White Whale.
   The son of the father of Ocean was a prophet Proteus, of the changing shape, who, to evade philistine Aristaeus, worried about bees, became first a fire, then a flood, and last a wild sea beast.

     Just as ticking off what is quirky about Passage 1 would necessarily involve idiosyncrasies of formatting and space, so fingering just what is brilliant in Passage 2 would require getting into the liquidities, molten as well as economic, of how prophecy retrofits myth to Herodotean specifications, and how mythopoeia recycles Annales-ian bookkeeping along the lines of, say, a Fernand Braudel into neo-Elizabethan extravaganzas of Leviathanesque proportions.
     But this, despite the congruency of its tenor with the vehicle of the later poetry, represents the hyped-up side of Olson, the finger-jabbing, Can These Bones Live-unrelentingness of the man, determined to pursue the argument broached in that very odd 1941 book by Edward Dahlberg—itself an arcane chip off the 13-year-older block of William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain—namely, that casting a cold Panzaic eye on the Quixotic heritage of American puritanism was both desirable and long overdue. The other, overtly poetic side emerged simultaneously, and cheek by jowl, with the laboriously statistical, that is to say, covertly prosaic side (what the heat turned up by the subjects of the poet's Mayan Letters [1953] showed them to be hot for), and so it is not easy to distinguish Olson's originary muse from the merely distaff side of his pedagogical impulse. Nor is this harping on sides mere psychological wheel-spinning. It points, and not just willy-nilly, to something that cannot be ignored in Olson's life and work, and indeed communicates itself in the form of a stark and intractable pleonasm. To a degree he shares with Robert Duncan, a fellow founder of the Black Mountain sodality, a penchant for certain of the effects of Hebrew poetry, which Marianne Moore in her poem "The Past Is the Present" describes as "prose with a sort of heightened consciousness," in which "[e]cstasy affords the occasion and expediency determines the form."
     Olson was by temperament a tub-thumper, just as his master in the epic, Ezra Pound, was. And being a large man—six feet, eight inches in his stocking feet—he availed himself of all the pulpit bulliness of his size. He was big in every dimension and respect, and occupying a volume of locus beyond most human beings' capacity to homestead that much physical presence, he had enormous difficulty understanding why his voice should not displace as much lexicographic air as vocalic. He was always, predispositionally, a teacher, a mentor, an abecedarian: never by repute all that generous with his immediate attention, he more than compensated for deficiencies of the ear with proficiencies of the larynx. As a lecturer in poetry and civilization at North Carolina's Black Mountain College in the mid-'50's, Olson could, with his booming haruspical voice, charm away the worms from the birds in the trees. If Orpheus could move rocks to dance with his music, Olson took a further step and went about choreographing immobilities. One of his projects at Black Mountain involved the teaching of the kinetics of posture, of "how to dance sitting down" ("Tyrian Businesses," "Letter 8," The Maximus Poems), as though it were among the mysteries celebrated at Eleusis. From the testimony of those who benefited from the hectoring of both his lecturing and epistolary voice, they were essentially one and the same, the products of the latter being, according to Creeley, "of such energy and calculation that they constituted a practical 'college' of stimulus and information."
     Yet, despite the good offices even of staunch defenders like Creeley, Call Me Ishmael's author, while blessed (so far as anyone could tell) with good hearing, would not, could not for the life of him listen to the opinions of others (unless prejudged as likely to agree with his own). For those practically unmodelable wisps of sound speech makes when, amid the ravelings of conversation, they wind about each other like smoke-wraiths in a roomful of cigars, he had almost no ear at all—as many of his maunderings in and about the mindscape of Maximus regrettably show:

The habit of newsprint
(plus possibly the National Geographic)
are the limits of

(tho that the many want any more than, who died
what scrod brought the Boston market,
what movies, Gorin's sales, the queer doings
Rockport—or Squibb's coynesses
about the Antigonish man was pulled out, 3 AM,
from under Chisholm's wharf, mumbling
                                                         ("Letter 5")

     Immediately following this, scrunched back against the margin, is a disclaimer not infrequently found in Olson (taken over bodily, perhaps, from the ABC's style of his master Ezra Pound), "I am not at all aware / that anything more than that / is called for." W. C. Williams's Paterson kinetics is there, if not too forcefully invoked, in the on-the-go net hauling of detail, of salient points defining, intuitively, a periphery, still not much more than glimpsed, never entirely to be battened down or kept solicitously from disintegrating. But the most disturbing thing about Olson's databook approach is its tone deafness in the face of even the minimalistic poetic needs that a "long poem that has history in it" (as Pound once described his own Cantos) must needs have in order not only to be more than a grab-bag, but also, when all is said and done, a poem as well. These include, at the very least, an ongoing sense (apparent everywhere to the reader) that the details tacked up on the poem's notice board convey more than just movement and the process of change; that they be more than just news replacing other news, with the intent of staying news (to conjure up the spirit-master of Pound, yet again); that they fly—disembodied wings of the passing scene though they be—under their own suggestive power and bring the larger palpabilities their flutterings are metonymically meant to evoke to life.
     Apologists for this mostly Poundian "composition by field" first cut their teeth apologizing for Pound, as Hugh Kenner found himself doing—on this occasion for the Adams Cantos—back in 1953:

. . .There seems to be general agreement that [the Pisan Cantos] cohere in certain obvious ways not manifested by the Adams sequence. This does not mean that the Adams Cantos fail: the discreteness of their materials is part of the meaning of the poem; events when they are actually going on look like that; they come to the attention in sharp fragments and episodes, seriatim. Men when they are actually before us make themselves known in that way: a gesture, a revealing bit of speech, shards of obiter dicta. From such glimpses we acquire like archeologists our knowledge of the civilization that is contemporaneous with us. . . .

     A lot rides on faith in such a prospective compendium, much of it depending upon the reliability of the poet's eye and ear. It is not enough merely to be fastidious, even scrupulous, about the details singled out for inclusion, or to be certain about the credentials of documentary sources cited in evidence. There must also be recourse to the higher, legitimating power of the rhythm of events, a rhythm captured but not immobilized by the poem's interweaving of language and fact. It is that which one feels is missing in Olson's temporizing chitchat about his poeticizing self's locus classicus. What we get is not so much the living core of fact as spores of facticity factitiously rendered, and without so much as an individuating signature to certify the rhythm of their recording.
     But there is also the matter of the scale of knowledge to be aspired to in poetry, and the uses to which knowledge can feasibly and desirably be put. From early on, Olson showed a marked distaste for everything in the pursuit of knowledge that followed upon the Socratic revolution, preferring the hands-on and rousting perspicuity of the pre-Socratic way with the enzymes of human thought. In "Some Notes on Olson's Maximus" Creeley adverts to his friend's "kinship with Pythagorean thought, and with the pre-Socratic sense of the world more generally." He quotes from "The Praises," in which Olson contemplates a distinctly non-Freudian discontent of civilization:

What has been lost
is the secret of secrecy, is
the value, viz., that the work get done, and quickly,
without the loss of due and profound respect for
the materials . . .

Creeley sees in this an indispensable badgering of the forces of wastefulness, of those pressures within civilization to untighten its grip on the haptic, the tactile, the palpiform undercarriage of perception keyed to making and doing.

It is a sense of use, which believes knowledge to be necessarily an active form of relation to term, with the corollary, that all exists in such relation, itself natural to the conditions. It is not, then, knowledge as a junk-heap, or purposeless accumulation of mere detail—which seems to derive too frequently from the manner of classification which follows upon the pre-Socratic world-view. It is knowledge used as a means to relate, not separate—which senses must, per se, prove very different. That is why the term, use, is to be met with so frequently in Olson's writing.

     Such "nominalizations" are to be found throughout the pre-Socratic canon, most notably perhaps in the musings of Parmenides of Elea, who opined that "The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered . . ."
     And that is very much the story throughout much of the Maximus cycle, which occupied Olson during much the greater part of his career as a poet. That is to say, from the publication of In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953) to his death in 1970. That most of his energy and attention were expended upon that long and at-lengthy poem about "Maximus, from Dogtown" should not distract us from the fact that he did write poems that because they were shorter and not open at either end achieved a composure and humanity largely unbroached in that linear accelerator ringing Gloucester, Massachusetts he viewed as a genuine epic built to American specifications. The Distances reincorporates a few of the pieces from the 1953 volume and extends itself outward from the mythic extemporizations of poems like "The Leader," with its easy Orphisms and Maenad-baiting misogyny, and "An Ode on Nativity," a poetic ephemeris, bare-breasted and loosely comparable to Dylan Thomas's "A Refusal To Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London," to poems that authentically contest the stereotypes and bought vision of an America "Fiftied out" and unmistakably on the ropes. The last twelve poems in The Distances move on from the world of In Cold Hell, in Thicket and both take up and take on issues of moral and cultural propriety only hinted at in the earlier collection. (This is no less true of Anecdotes of the Late War, a poem which is included in the present volume.) Olson also began about this time to bring acquaintances and acolytes and confrères from abroad into his poetry. Rainer Maria Gerhardt and Gerald Van De Wiele figure prominently in The Distances, if only as representatives of senescent Europe off whom Olson's theories and hypotheticals could be bounced.
     Or so part of Olson intended, part of him intoned; another part of him, larger and more breadth-conscious—though not, regrettably, deeper, since de profundis was not within his range—could reach out in 1951 to a scion of Germany in defeat and trade both anecdotal and sacerdotal lore with him. About grandfathers and fathers, of the death, as well as the deaths, of war and the silence that descends on ashes and on the lotus with equal forgetfulness. Not, Olson would have Gerhardt remember, the forgetfulness of the uncaring, but the forgetfulness of the healing power of an earth returned to with grace and gratefulness and a respect for place. War is a hardness exercised upon the soul, but all such hardness dies and its intransigence is well known for being exaggerated:

but war, too, is dead as the lotus is dead
                                            And our hardness
has been exaggerated. You see,
we see nothing downward: we walk, as your grandfather walked,
without looking at his feet...

     Europe's, and especially northern Europe's, curse is the mead of abstraction, the heady brew of Hegelian mis- and malfeasance where human grittiness is concerned. In America, Olson assures Gerhardt in a characteristically open parenthesis, "it is (as we say here, in our anti-cultural speech, made up / of particulars only, which we don't, somehow, confuse with gossip. . ." Particulars only: the very title of Olson's open letter to his German friend points to the role things play in this most gregarious of poets' schema: "To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe's Things of Which He Has Written Us in His 'Brief an Creeley und Olson' . . ." names, in avoidance of direct reference, what nominalisms normally skirt in their functional agglutination of accidentals looped into categorials—and that is the precise directional weave of this or that windswept topograph of pure process.
     Gerhardt understood such things because his finger was laid directly on the pulse of Europe's regeneration, its reassemblage into whatever it is that, like a film in rewind, takes the place of ruins in the twin cities of mind and heart. From his base in Freiburg he had managed to edit before his death the two amazing issues of Fragmente, in which works by Pound, Bunting, Michaux, Césaire, Olson, W. C. Williams, Montanari, Perse, Artaud, Alberti, and Lu Chi had all appeared. Creeley remembered about him that:

he wanted to bring back into the German context all that writing he felt the war had blocked, and at the same time he could not accept such makeshift "official" translations as would leave out eleven lines of The Waste Land on the grounds "they were too difficult." He wanted it right with such an unremitting intensity.

And Gerhardt is there, there, among Europe's things, a shorer of fragments against the same ruins he was determined to reconstitute. Olson, the poem seems almost at pains to remind us, absorbed Gerhardt's untimely death against the pathetic, though hardly tragic, backdrop of Pound, the tortured skald of that long unreadable poem, The Cantos, whose postwar trials were made even ghastlier by the Bollingen prize controversy that raged over a segment of it known as the Pisan Cantos. Yet, by dint of an irony even he had been incapable of imagining—he who had hitherto penetrated to all manner of unimaginable ironies in European history (rooted, as his poem had been at pains to show us, in Jewish manipulations behind the scenes)—Pound had acquired a Promethean mystique through his having been imprisoned, following his capture in 1945, in a U.S. Army Detention Training Compound in Pisa. His most recent group of cantos, named after that Italian city, seemed almost to identify him with the famous cathedral tower of that city and to suggest that he, a staunch supporter of the U. S. Constitution, had become something of a leaning tower himself, having been forced into subsidence by the powers that be. Returned to America in chains, and under threat of death for having done for his country what he thought was right, Pound found himself "the last American living the tragedy of Europe," with none of the ends or means he had remained on that continent to defend still intact. Gerhardt's Europe (more realistically envisaged from within a defeated Germany) had made and met its match in the weaving, and then unraveling, of a coat of many nationalistic colors too splendid not to inspire envy among those who felt both cheated by life and assaulted by failure. For all those upended by circumstance, the past was not a salve but a wound made magically healable through forgetfulness and the self-pitying dreams of denial. Olson's effort on Gerhardt's and his fellow countrymen's behalf was not just to patch the fabric but to reconsecrate that coat anew, amid freshly reconstituted shards of a more than merely cosmetic present. "For the problem is one of focus," Olson instructs his European friend and pupil,

                                       of the field as well as the point of
vision: you will solve your problem best
without displacement
                                                                 "One ear
                                                                 hears heaven,
                                                                 another ear
                                                                 hears earth."

     And he could make such assertions because he knew, and knew from the inside, the flexibility and elasticity of his own native element, his own American cornucopia of immediacies. Europe was a welter of thatnesses; his Massachusetts—stretching, having exceeded all states of mind, all the way to Greenville, N.C.—was everywhere and in all extendable particulars, a Lebenskeit that was purely and ineffably a thisness:

Or come here
where we will welcome you
with nothing but what is, with
no useful allusions, with no birds
but those we stone . . .

     No birds but those we stone: Hadn't Walt Whitman read all nightingales the Riot Act and placed under a ban all heirs of Philomela, her twit twit's and tereu's? In Whitman's America there was to be

                                                    . . . nothing to eat
but ourselves, no end and no beginning, I assure you, yet
not at all primitive, living as we do in a space we do not need to contrive

And with predecessors who, though they are not our nouns, the verbs
are like!

So we are possessed of what you cry over, time
And magic numbers

     Olson's friend and colleague Robert Creeley taught a whole generation of poets how to properly scan the Apollinairean, yet still New Jerseyan, "calligrammar" of a William Carlos Williams poem. In each of the good doctor's poems you're to pause to note how everything tilts inclinatively toward the gerund-effect of a line's terminal word, while not failing similarly to note, on the eye's return journey, how that line's preceding word mass prepares rhythmically what the syntax has been busily shaping for that precipitous, yet never quite headlong, run toward the line's closure and end. It is not that it is only the final word in the line that matters. Rather it's that the matter of every line only reaches critical mass when the fission that has been building from word to word and from phrase to phrase peaks at the summit of the energy buildup that is to take it all the way up the slope of the succeeding line. By the time Williams got around to beginning his long poem Paterson he had the technique honed to a fine touch:

                                       . . .Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months' wonder, the city
the man, an identity—it can't be
interpenetration, both ways. Rolling
up! obverse, reverse;
the drunk the sober; the illustrious
the gross; one. In ignorance
a certain knowledge and knowledge,
undispersed, its own undoing.

     If T. S. Eliot was right in claiming that poetry enacts the measure of its meaning, then mortal enemy or not, Williams took the measure of Eliot's meaning and enacted it splendidly in this brief snippet from Paterson's Preface. In fact, it has been done so well—so seamlessly—that it's hardly necessary to articulate the steps taken prosodically and syntactically to bring it off. Williams's technique—if that's what something so synergistically molten can be called—is a singular triumph of the so-called Objectivist method, and may be the only unqualified triumph of that Method: to have created an inclusive idiom that treats a poem's secreting of syntax in the same way and on an equivalent scale as the haiku-esque disposing of an image, say at the hands of a Basho or an Issa. As an unqualified triumph, it is Williams's alone: it is what distinguishes at day's end the journeyman brilliance of a Zukofsky or a Reznickoff from the effortless pas d'action that are to be found in poem after poem throughout the Williams canon. And distinguishable also—no less regrettably—from Olson's voluble, often garrulous pursuit of a flashing, plashing salmon's truth, whether in the spawning run of one of his marathon lectures-cum-conversations or in the even more intense drives upriver of the always-against-the-current Olson, of his "projective verse."
     But there should be little surprise in this cavernous difference between the Imagist-as-syntacticalist Williams and the documentarian-as-conga drummer Olson. For the one, nearness is all; for the other, it is distance. Or rather, distances: Olson thought mainly in terms of plurals, pluralisms, plurisignations—proliferations that are the stuff of perception not tied to any particular warp in time, beyond whatever knots the present might choose to make in the strands of occurrence in the interest of intercalation. It is only through distance that rhythms can be known and not just felt: patterning is only discernible from afar; its root calculative is the aerial perspective, the balloonist's overview. It takes an Olson to see more than irony in the fact that Peter the Great's capital, a city he prestidigitated whole and entire out of a Russian swamp and made to come alive with bridges and canals (people comprising a distant third), only appeared the architectural marvel that it was from the air. Distances isolate and protect; like time, they keep everything from happening at once. They are alive with blurs and dots and smudged peripheries; they both swim in depth-of-field and are suitable for framing—not to mention being extremely useful in keeping relations and relationships at a manageable remove.
     Tom Clark, whose Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life (1990) is an indispensable guide to the peregrinations, public and private, of this maximal catcher of Dogtown obliquities, sees them also as the means most frequently resorted to by the poet to ride herd on his own psychological checks and imbalances. Even university conferences, where he was the featured star, caused him to walk a:

competitive tightrope. . .spun largely out of his own inhibitions and distances. The self imposed struggles of the pecking order kept him, at most times, cut off even from friends—"like a fucking New Englander, & scaredy cat I stand above and away from [everybody]."

     Distances were there for him when he needed them, and whenever possible he took his bearings from the recessions they afforded. Never in his thinking or in those minute formulations by which the particulars of events enter the universe of discourse by the front and not the back door did he ever feel his love of distance compromised by his grasp of detail failing to justify his poetic reach. Lyric was what resulted when a visionary reach masqueraded successfully as a poetic grasp. It succored (another spelling was also possible) Tom and Dick feeling unwarrantably harried—indeed, gave aid and comfort to every conspicuous and consumptive roustabout fancying himself a visionary—and then used the language (duly consecrated, of course) of an enshrined Nature to promote the imposture. Olson's chosen mode of epic, on the other hand, strengthened rather than weakened the resolve of a poet who could elide his own will with the will of things and so at least hold out if not prevail against the ineluctable current of the current, whether experienced in the insidiously shapeless form of a McCarthyite hysteria or, as the pigging out of the '50s gradually ballooned into the acidulities of the '60s, in the formless shape of a Vietnamese war, with its Circean distractions fueled by a not-so-Great Society.
     Clark attributes Olson's distancing obsession at least in part to the complex father-son relationship he for a long time maintained with Ezra Pound:

. . . It was Pound's "world" which Olson had necessarily to enter and contest. . . Olson's need was to so think the given world that it might again be initial, a fact of its physical event, of lives thus admitted and recognized. The "universe of discourse" was his term for the abstracting, generalizing system of reference, which put the immediate always at a theoretic "distance," so that reflection and representation might then be the primary human acts rather than the very "actions" themselves. "I have this sense," he writes, "that I am one with my skin . . ."

     On this view, Olson found a basis in The Cantos for yoking together memory, thought and locale within a poetic environment fitted out with its own economy and ecology. This gave him the composite model he had long been searching for in his own earliest fumblings toward an orthography (in the sense of a drawing in correct projection) of wonder—first floated by a reading of Melville, and especially Moby-Dick—that could assume the proportions of a true "historical geography":

Just as Pound's Cantos proved a first time record of human thought so sustained for half a century, Olson then moved the art to an exceptional capacity for thinking itself. Given Olson's "methodology," a favorite term, poetry had no longer a simply literary or cultural practice. It became, rather, a primary activity and resource for what can be called "historical geography" . . . How needs one say it? A tracking of the earth in time? A place? Olson loved John Smith's curious phrase, "History is the memory of time." ...

     Such a "historical geography" may be viewed as pointing in two directions: place seen in terms of time, and time envisaged as impinging upon place. Only in epic—or at least in those morphings of it thrown up by the 20th Century—can tempus be said to trump topos.
Or is it the other way around? Does history memorialize the re-placings of time past, or are the historicizations that memory imposes merely localized time made real in the shape of culture duly localized by the fabulations of contour we routinely conceptualize as "geography"? If indeed family history is but the memory of time localized by topos and the tropes of originary emotions, then it too must know the tribe-ulations of distancing, which point Olson's poem, appropriately titled "The Distances," allegorically strives to make:

So the distances are Galatea
                               and one does fall in love and desires
                               old Zeus—young Augustus
Love knows no distance, no place
                                is that far away or heat changes
into signals, and control
                                 old Zeus—young Augustus

Death is a loving matter, then, a horror
                                   we cannot bide, and avoid
by greedy life
                          we think all living things are precious

     Allegorized here—old Zeus, young Augustus—is the stormy love-hate relationship Olson had with his own father Karl, by whom he was abused as a child and who remained lodged in his heart's craw as a deity vile with a rage that was cruel, colonizing and drunkenly unchecked. In this psychodrama Olson had given pride of place to distress, casting guilt and jealousy as mostly supporting players. His tendency to act the tyrant with his own son Charles Peter (born four years earlier) around the time this poem was written in 1959 provided an elaborate set-piece for its star emotion, leaving what Tom Clark describes as a susceptibility "to fits of paranoid jealousy involving Betty and various imagined rivals" to supply the impetus for Olson's lesser motilities in the domestic arena. "Something of this [self-dramatization] is betrayed in his poem 'The Distances,'" Clark writes, going on from there to characterize that work as "a consideration of the possessive love of the eternal siren-goddess." For Olson (who found much younger women incurably tempting), love between the sexes was inevitably a humiliating experience. After having fended off real and imagined raids on his various love-nests for years, he had discovered that merely crowing in the roost as old Zeus affords no protection whatever against the predations of young Augustuses on the prowl and on the make. Ultimately, "you can teach the young nothing / all of them go away, Aphrodite tricks it out, / old Zeus—young Augustus," the dash separating Zeus from "young" underlining the tale of generation's force putting it to an aging male who can only agonize over an ever-diminishing access to females who, in his own anguished view, have begun to stray all over the lot. Still, though his overall perspective on the love of women remained darkened by distrust, he was not entirely without hope that its distances could somehow be closed, its breaches overleaped:

O love who places all where each is, as they are, for every moment,
                       to this man
                                       that the impossible distance
be healed,
                        that young Augustus
                        and old Zeus
be enclosed . . .

     The bower of language, where contraries meet in all manner of conducements, containments, bedevilments and conjunctions, is never at a loss for bedmates, even if, for the nonce or the long haul, they prove unsuitable, yea, even nakedly hostile to one another. Olson's hope of niggling female inconstancy being reconciled with constant male niggling through a resolution of words and the space they occupy would later assume allegorical shape in the mantra (belabored in the essay composed about the same time, "Projective Verse"), "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT." This resolution—such as it is—was to be achieved via the agency of a trope (at best nuptial and at worst fornicational) of declension asleep in conjugation's arms, having earlier capped with slumber what cuddlesome attainment never quite brought to a head.
      Note, too, that the verb complement "be enclosed" allows Olson to include in this, his visionary company, younger males as well as older, irrascible caesars. Nor is this in any way untypical of Olson's penchant for translating the lugubrious fanaticisms of domesticity into inchoate mythopoeic terms, as does Eugene O'Neill in potboilers like Desire Under the Elms. But instead of opting for the Euripidean hell-on-wheels of a Phaedre-and-Hippolytus imbroglio, Olson invariably made a beeline for the more cut-and-dried scenario of the no longer young god, down on his sexual luck and being importuned by a miles gloriosus (or some such dissembler or impostor) who locks antlers with him over his ladylove. Then magically, through the intervention of an Ananke ex machina, the lovers' triangle folds back into the stale, flat and unprofitable missionary horizontal it began as; the proprieties of erotic eminent domain are (as may be expected in a fantasy) duly restored; and heaven, liberated at last from poetry's mean streets, is able to be shipped back to gods' country, where it belongs. "So [are] the distances"—these distances, at least—"Galatea," and by these imprecations made to "think all living things are precious / --Pygmalions."
     More than anything else it is the framing of these imprecations, these horrendously real psychological epoches (or phenomenological bracketings, in Husserlian terminology), that constitute the glory of The Distances, most of whose pieces were sparked off problematics contemporaneously broached in the lengthier, more diffuse Maximus poems. Perhaps the most impressive "offshooting star" in the collection is "The Librarian," whose landscape, Tom Clark writes,

. . . was the self-mythic Gloucester, its text [Olson's] dreams, in specific one in which his father had appeared first as a Gloucester bookseller, vending "materials for Maximus," and then in the guise of "the young musician" Frank Moore, "intimate with my former wife." This father / false friend became "the librarian of Gloucester," then turned into the poet's stillborn brother. The endless burden of dreams, a complex encoding of inner process with memories of being in time, was Olson's subject in "The Librarian," a poem whose terminal riddles explored that penetralium of "black space," awe and mystery he'd so often sensed at the inarticulate center of his life. "The best poem I ever wrote," he would come to call it.

     Clark then goes on to quote the concluding six tercets and end-line of "The Librarian." What stands out, more than is usual for Olson, in them is the sense that they invoke if not quite evoke some real horror that took place in East Gloucester. Earlier on in the poem Olson recalls, out of a mist of infidelities suffered but never quite expunged, the fugitive memory of a gang killing:

                            . . .I was outside. It was the Fort.
The Fort was in East Gloucester--old Gorton's Wharf, where the                                                                    Library

was. It was a region of coal houses, bins. In one a gang
was beating someone to death, in a corner of the labyrinth
of fences. I could see their arms and shoulders whacking

down. But not the victim. I got out of there. . . .

The scene is both real and "real," since the recollector is not simply Olson, but

The landscape (the landscape!) again: Gloucester,the shore one of me is
(duplicates), and from which
(from offshore, I, Maximus) am removed, observe.

   "The Librarian"'s stabbing rent in the membrane separating "reality" from reality leaves the reader stranded between a murderous actuality (whose veracity is left hanging like chad on a south Florida ballot), and a coercive reductio of animus, in which demonizations of Olson's father, his stillborn brother and Frank Moore battle one another for supremacy. These realities ultimately fuse into a "two-storied" dreamscape that by poem's end has looped around to reveal its two contending planes as constituting a Moebius strip.
     Other poems not included in The Distances, such as "The Writ," take up this theme of intercalated realities impinging upon one another's psychic sovereignty. None, however, catches this impingement as memorably as does "The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs," concerning a motorcycle gang taking over a beach, and "As the Dead Prey Upon Us," which Tom Clark describes as

a poem of painful but redemptive disclosure [. . . ] provoked by a dream encounter with [the poet's] mother in a living room of dead souls. Out of the poem's imagistic transformations arose Olson's vision of "the poverty / of hell": his mother's unfulfilled life, with its "ghastliness / of going, and forever / coming back, returning / to the instants which were not lived." Entrapment in tortuous nets of being, beguilement by the "false cause" of a Catholic concept of eternity—such a "death in life" had been narrowly missed by the poet himself. . . .

     Something not unlike a piercing Joycean drabness confers upon this poem and its bitter world a Celtic pall and dreary inevitability. We are back within the purview of Eugene O'Neill, agonist of A Long Day's Journey into Night, in which the interplay of familiar fatalities in the literal sense provides a death's head for a poet, blasted in his hopes, to luxuriate in. The temptation prompting many such transmogrifications of grief into a version of Beowulf's lament is the clearly narcissistic one attendant upon the elevating of a Yorick's skull, as though it were the host, and the dramatizing of the poet's self-sacrifice as though it were a celebration of the Eucharist. But Olson was eager to go deeper than mere Keatsian mythos can penetrate to, and so he proceeded ever lower, until he reached an extremity of entfremdung (another form of distancing) vestibular to the hell he shared with his mother, the author of his sexual woes. Since he felt enjoined to dream her death-in-life for her not once, but twice, he had to dream it first on the blasted heath where much of his own life has taken place, and then again within the textum of "As the Dead Prey Upon Us," in whose splayed images his dreams of disempowerment—one of unreal limbo, the other of actual hell—endlessly crossed.
     If all this seems to echo T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," with its dream and twilight kingdoms of death and "eyes I dare not meet in dreams," the impression is not wholly disenfranchised by Olson's oneiric mise en scène. He very obviously took a chance in allowing the paranomasia involving "prey" and "pray" to unleash an irony which is almost too militant to support the emotional bridge erected by the poem between a bridge too far and another not far enough. But perhaps this was unavoidable, caught up, like everything else in Olson's dreamscape, in what he terms the "five hindrances."

In the five hindrances men and angels
stay caught in the net, in the immense nets
which spread out across each plane of being, the multiple nets
which hamper at each step of the ladders as the angels
and the demons
and men
go up and down

     It is here that the influence of Robert Duncan, a spirit-voice from Olson's Black Mountain years, and second only perhaps to Robert Creeley's in its impact on the poet's thought and mythopoeia, beginning in the mid-'50s and extending right through the '60s, can be most strongly sensed. Their relationship may have had its ups and downs, but without Duncan's input in the crucial years 1955-56, Olson's poetic enjambment of disparate worlds and disjunctive realities would have lacked the means to effect their elision. Broadly speaking, this influence took the form of "a 'magic view' of the poem as spiritual alchemy," which, Clark claims, Olson found "following up on Duncan's advocacy—in the work of Rimbaud."

. . . He'd now recognized an affinity of confrontational stance that linked Rimbaud and himself . . . Both were poets of the "double-axe," engaged on the cutting edge of "mercy versus justice." In the poetic justice of Rimbaud's Time of the Assassins [sic] Olson could make out a sense of urgent counter-revolutionary necessity akin to his own. That the grimness of such justice should not go unrelieved was the lesson of "Ô saisons, ô châteaux," a poem in which the progression of Rimbaud's season in hell reached a turning point, "restor[ing] Beauty and Charity." . . .

     It seems odd, not to say incredible, that a writer as abrasive and pushy as Olson would need to borrow the "confrontational stance" of another poet and another time—even one whose chance to declaim from the Paris Commune barricades gave his poetry a visionary cogency and edge. But the flameless rancor of the McCarthy years, later squelched but not extinguished by the lineless Siegfriedism of not entirely likeable Ike, denied American poets of the '50s avenues of defiance that Rimbaud, not to mention his more prudential predecessor, Baudelaire, had strolled. Les Symbolistes, after all, had had their boulevards and fecund ennuis, their correspondances and communions with the abyss. Entranced by an evil eye whose Medusan gaze could turn stoned bodies into true believers, they embraced l'azur and the snuff dreams of Masoch and de Sade with equal ardor. For them de trop was more than enough.
     But in the final analysis it wasn't Rimbaud's visionary cogency, or even his edginess bordering on amphetamine antsiness that drew Olson to his side. It was his gift for rendering what descriptive precision felt like in the keenest sensory detail. When Rimbaud described hunger, he did more than perform a face-lift on a matronly metaphor. He made the reader hunger for the experience of being inside Rimbaud not just being hungry, but finding the precise words to nail "hunger" to the mast. Here are some soul-cinders from Une Saison en Enfer's "Faim":

Si j'ai du goût, ce n'est guères
Que pour la terre et les pierres.
Je déjeune toujours d'air,
De roc, de charbons, de fer.

Mes faims, tournez. Puissez, faims,
             Le pré de sons.
Attirez le gai venin
             Des liserons.

[If I've a taste, it's not alone
For the earth and stones,
Rocks, coal, iron, air,
That's my daily fare.

Turn my hungers, hungers browse
On the field of sound,
Suck up bindweed's gay venom
Along the ground. . .]

     Whereas an Eliot could transform the deft pilferage of a rhythm encasing a nominal bit of this and an implicative bit of that into "Gerontion"'s "Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds," Olson was more given to plugging directly into the power source which made Rimbaud's overdrive roar. Note how in this snatch from "A B C s (3—for Rimbaud)" how much energy is sent to the distributor and how little of it filters back through the transmission:

                          . . . We call it
                          trillings, cleanings,
                          we who want scourings

Or the watching of, the Passaic of
orange peels? Cats
win in urbe, NOT
usura or those queer long white (like finger bandages
balloons? The dyes
of realism? (Cats,
& industry, not even
violence . . .

     Though not without some cost to that curiously innocent rhymester who ultimately undergoes euthanasia in the cryogenic pages of the later volume, Illuminations. Zukofsky could catch the Rimbaldian cadence on the fly and make it a lure on his own curiously inflected hook, as in All's "The Immediate Aim":

Can dogs

Dogs in a vise,
and a wood saw
can saw an anatomy
of dog

Such as you never saw.

Which contrives a buttonhole, serviceable and more, for any "tender button" out of Gertrude Stein's mending box, as well as a corrective for Olson's hardbitten and essentially tuneless sprechtstimme. Zukofsky didn't appropriate Rimbaud; he recycled his legumes until their Villonesque shoots had been greenhoused into exotic American herbs, suitable for basting. Olson recycled Rimbaud rather differently, fastening on his "taste for stone," while reserving for his morning glory (or bindweed) the same coruscant deference as Pound accorded the sassafras root in his Rock-Drill cantos.
     These were not times when Olson could apply his mind to subtleties detached from survival and the fallout dwelling upon it seemed then to be having on his work. Black Mountain College had finally gone belly up and sucked as many of the hapless into its vortex as Moby-Dick in his thrashing of the Pequod. When The Distances was finally published by Grove in 1960, Olson's fortunes had fallen about as low as they could possibly get. His life, which is to say his domestic relations overlaid by his career, was a shambles, and his writing had reached an impasse where the fate of Maximus hung by a slender thread. The once promising tradition of the American epic, having careened through Leaves of Grass and a fistful of Malatesta cantos, had stalled in the noun-y wilderness of Crane's The Bridge. "What strikes me in [Crane]," Olson wrote, "is the singleness of the push to the nominative, his push along that one arc of freshness, the attempt to get back to the word as handle." But the governance of poetry for Olson doesn't end with the sovereign noun. He located "a loss in Crane of what [Ernest] Fenollosa is so right about, in syntax, the sentence as first act of nature, as lightning, as passage of force from subject to object, quick in this case, from Hart to me, in every case, from me to you, the VERB, between two nouns."
     Further along this only intermittently paved road could be spotted that weedy acreage of incompletion called Paterson; and then the orts and snorts (post-Thrones) of the Benighted One's Cantos, continuing to leak, unreliably, out of Schloss Brunnenburg and Gais. For the patient, there continued to be the long anticipated Zukofskyan masterpiece A—1-12, though it was not actually to be had in hand until 1967. So far as anyone could tell at the time, the panache of modernism had pretty much gone to the dogs. All that had been left of it after Joyce's death in 1941 were the ever-diminishing screeches to be heard from the aerie of that ageing eagle, T. S. Eliot, who having fallen increasingly silent after Four Quartets, seemed now content to pour what little remained of his talent into mannered comedies written in what even his admirers were calling— sotto voce and behind their hands—Euripidean doggerel.
     For reasons too numerous and depressing to go into here, Maximus Poems IV, V, VI did little more than bring up the rear of a long campaign to change the American poetic line as it was into what it quite notably failed, throughout Olson's tenure as post-Whitmanian point man, ever to become: something rich and strange, and broaching the prodigiousness of a bull, not a mule. Still, his groat's worth of manifesto aired capitally in the essay "Projective Verse" flowered into a mantra that was to clutter the hind end of verse anthologies for decades—what in the year of The Distances Donald Allen had put on the cover of his own acclaimed collection (also published by Grove), "the new American poetry":

And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.

     It might perhaps have been more accurate (though Olson would have been loath to admit it) had it read: "And the line comes from Robert Duncan, via the poems and letters of Rimbaud, and the variously suggestive promptings over the years of Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov as well as others; and that is how the daily work, the WORK really gets in." Because there is absolutely no denying that from the mid-'50s on, the projection of voice in Olson's poetry is increasingly informed by the notion—hawked by Duncan and handsawed by Creeley—that "what one can say, in any circumstance of poetry, is informed by a 'voice' not ours to intend or to decide."

     The most accurate way of measuring the distance Olson's poetry traversed from "The Kingfishers" of 1948 to "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele" almost a decade later is to contrast the Poundian metapoetics dominating the first with the hybridization of Whitman and Rimbaud driving the second. Olson's opening to "The Kingfishers," in some haste to score a Poundian point, sputters into Heraclitean gear (a translation of the philosopher's Fragment 23, Metabállon anapaúete, or "Change alone is unchanging") with a parallel to the homiletic note struck at the beginning of the Pisan Cantos, how Mussolini's lynching by partisans re-enacts the apotheosis of Manes on a mythico-historical plane. Olson even executes a characteristic pratfall by mistaking (and incorporating in his own poem's opening) the slash of Pound's shorthand notation for "should" (shd/) in "That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock" ("Canto LXXIV") for innovative punctuation—"a pause so light it hardly separates the words":

What does not change / is the will to change

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
remembered only one thing, the birds, how
when he came in, he had gone around the rooms
and got them back in their cage, the green one first,
she with the bad leg, and the blue,
the one they had hoped was a male

—while the "Variations," with a minimum of featherdusting, gets down to cases, those being the insistencies of the birds gilding the urgencies of a soul in the grip of insight, if not already matching flight plans with those responsible for the sound effects:

                          . . .
iris and lilac, birds
birds, yellow flowers
white flowers, the Diesel
does not let up dragging
the plow

                          as the whippoorwill,
the night's tractor, grinds
his song

                          and no other birds but us
are as busy (O saisons, o chateaux!

                          What soul
is without fault?

Nobody studies

Every time the cock crows
I salute him

I have no longer any excuse
for envy. My life

has been given its orders: the seasons

the soul and the body, and make mock
of any dispersed effort. The hour of death

is the only trespass

     No doubt there are grounds, and intelligent ones, for holding "The Kingfishers" up not only as the best poem Olson ever wrote but as among the greatest lyric poems of the entire 20th Century. Guy Davenport, hardly a man given to sauntering in minefields, makes a splendid if not wholly convincing case for maintaining this, first in "Olson" (an amazingly informative essay included in The Geography of the Imagination [1981]), and then again, more briefly, in "The Scholar as Critic" (in Every Force Evolves a Form [1987]). To read this poem as it was meant to be read, according to Davenport, one must have a working knowledge (with room for overtime) of

Heraclitus, [Prescott's] history of Mexico, Plutarch [his Moralia], geography, ornithology, Pound's Cantos, Albrecht Dürer's diary, archaeology, Mayan culture, Marco Polo, Rimbaud, Keats, the Bible, Shakespeare, French and Italian. It also helps to know the geological theories of Frank Taylor and Alfred Wegener, and the subject of cybernetics [in the writings of Norbert Wiener] as it was understood in 1948. In short, this poem . . . insists on a literacy that the 1960s seemed to be denying, and proposing to get along without.

Davenport sees "The Kingfishers" as "a canzone that divides decisively modern from postmodern poetry, [and whose] theme states that when our attentions change, our culture changes." In it Olson

uses the firm example of the Mayan cultures, overgrown with jungles. The Mayan shift in attention was culturally determined: every fifty-two years they abandoned whole cities in which the temples were oriented toward the planet Venus, which edges its rising and setting around the ecliptic. The new city was literally a new way to look at a star (this is one meaning of "polis is eyes").

     Probably the only trace of Pisan Pound surviving in the "Variations" is in the faint echo of "Canto LXXX"'s "sunset grand couturier" and "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world" carried over to ". . . the whippoorwill, / the night's tractor." Rimbaud's "O saisons, o châteaux!" and "Délires!" lie down amenably with the strains of Whitman emanating from "Every time the cock crows / I salute him," without the one getting cacaphonously in the hair of the other. (In postmodernism it is not always the case that Je est un autre; sometimes the je becomes too engrossed with jeu to be available for othering.)
     For Olson it never got better than this (Guy Davenport's view to the contrary notwithstanding), though his trajectory of effort would sustain its arc for a full decade more. There would be more of Maximus, though the epic's increasingly affective minimalism would eventually at the conclusion of VI meet its own expanding focus of interest in the middle and cancel itself out with an anagogic sputtering of local engines:

With the water high no distance
to Sargents houses Apple Row
the river a salt Oceana or lake
from Baker's field to Bonds Hill

nothing all the way
of the hollow of the Diorite
from glacial time to this summer night
with the river in this respite solely
an interruption of itself . . .

inspissate River
times repeated

             old hulk               Rocky Marsh

                          I set out now
                          In a box upon the sea

Ending quite where he began but not quite, with Ishmael on a coffin in a whale-tossed sea, across many distances and unopened fields.
     The Distances (as well as "The Distances") concludes with the koan, "I wake you, / stone. Love this man." As applied to the poet himself, it lays open a thing hard to requite, given the mess we know Olson to have made of his own life and the lives of those closest to him. His talent, it seems now unavoidable to observe, was neither largely great nor greatly large. What he did have in large measure (and it is often confused with talent) was proficiency, and it reached out and penetrated into a number related interests and fields. With the benefit of hindsight it is now possible to say that his influence—at its peak in the 1950's—was more magnetic than genial, more charismatic than substantial. Though it didn't look like it at the time, he got back rather more than was dispensed to his colleagues, acolytes and clones. The time—1947-60—proved propitious for him and his private obsessions, despite the Pandoran boxiness that so plagued his personal life, loves and progeny. A man of self-cancelling prodigiousness, he worked in bursts, both of energy and insight, but had difficulty coordinating the two in his poetry. While he had an ear that could catch the vibrations of things far off and even buried historically under landfills of neglect (like his beloved Mayan glyphs), that ear worked less well in capturing the rote spontaneities of American speech at midcentury. More "all over the page" than even Whitman's "barbaric yawp," the idiom he heard spoken in Gloucester, Massachusetts proved recalcitrant to Rimbaldian fireworks or Duncanesque channelings of prophecy and spirit-tropes. Like Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson, the materials of his Maximus just wouldn't cohere; there was something in the makings that stood in the way of a making do.
     Yet, in spite of all that went wrong with as well as for Olson, there remain a handful of true, if flawed, poems rattling around that Aeolian sack that is his collected poems. And a preponderance of them are to be found in The Distances, in a way both his first true book and his last, though other volumes would follow it. These never bettered it, but in that strange fashion books have of making the world safe for other books, made it better. So, while the bulk of Olson's writing will likely not survive past this new century, does the fate of dross really matter when what was loved so well in The Distances (and Call Me Ishmael) escapes remaindering and abides with us so long as dawning centuries and their light demand requiting?

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