Tag Archives: maximus poems

Process, Reality and Maximus

Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Sunrise over the Channel from our garden. Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Looking at the wordpress dashboard gizmos, I now realise that I haven’t blogged since August which (for me) is a very long time indeed. This was a conscious break to get away from the poetry blogging mentality and to do Other Things. These are ongoing works in progress in both the creative and political ends of my life and I’ve recently begun to polish/refurbish the arduity project primarily because people like it and it gets a consistent level of traffic that I know I can grow.

Whilst doing other things I’ve been reading Langland and other middle English stuff and engaging with bits of philosophy. This wasn’t deliberate (I’m supposed to be immersed in the more arcane parts of social policy) but I fell across ‘Selves’ by Galen Strawson which tackles an aspect of one of the creative collaborations that I’m involved in. This prodded me into another attempt at Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which, in turn, has caused a bit of a re-think of Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ which I’ll outline here.

I’ll start with ‘Maximus’, regular readers will by now have gathered that I think this is one of the greatest poems of the 20th century and one of the most accomplished. Olson was a great fan of the above mentioned Whitehead tome and it is possible to read ‘Maximus’, at least in part, as a working through of the Whitehead thesis. I don’t intend to spend too much time on the intricacies of ‘Process and Reality’ but I do want to quote two bits that might put ‘Maximus’ in a slightly different light.

Before we go any further I do need to confess that I’m yet to complete my reading of ‘Process and Reality’ and some of what follows is loosely based on/in argument with what others have written. The following are the first and ninth of Whitehead’s 27 ‘Categories of Explanation':

That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures; they are also termed ‘actual occasions.

and

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’

It strikes me that these two require a fundamental shift in our current ways of thinking because they indicate that, instead of thinking of things as fixed and reasonably stable objects, we should be thinking of everything in terms of an ongoing process of becoming. The issue I want to raise is whether ‘Maximus’ reflects the very radical nature of this shift or presents a poeticised position which is at least one step removed from Whitehead.

I’m going to use ‘Oceania’ from the third volume of the sequence because it is a brilliant and technically accomplished poem but also because it contains at least two overt references to the Whitehead project.

The poem is ‘about’ Olson walking around Gloucester’s harbour in the early hours of the morning and writing and making a note of the time as he writes and describes what he sees. It’s lyrical and fiercely intelligent and manages to make the technically difficult feel effortless. ‘Oceania’ begins with:

                  OCEANIA,
                           the Child
              of the Moment of Mind 
              and Thought


            I've seen it all go in other directions
            and heard a man say why not
            stop ocean's tides
                              and not even more than the slow
            loss of a small piece of time, not any more vibration
            than the small wobble of the earth on its present axis

         no paleographic wind will record these divergent
         and solely diverse animadversions - some part also of emotions
         or consciousness........

So, we appear to start with an exploration of the temporal and the cerebral and end with a reflection of what Whitehead says about the importance/centrality of feelings. There are however a couple of areas of ambiguity- what has been seen to ‘all go in other directions’ and which ‘animadversions’ won’t get recorded?

Later on the poem has:

       As a stiff & colder 
       wind too, straight down
       the river as in winter
       chills  cools
   the night - people had sd

   earlier they'd hoped
   wld have been a
   thunderstorm  I had sd no
   the wind's still
   where it was 

       Excuse please  no boast
         only the glory of
               celebrating

       the processes
         of Earth
              and man.

This can be read as a straightforward reiteration of the first Explanation above but, given the radical implications of this and the rest of the principles of ‘Process and Reality’ it does feel a bit thin. I’m saying this because I’ve previously read ‘Oceania’ as one of the best examples of philosophic poetry that we have and now find myself a little disappointed at it’s lack of daring. The poem does elucidate both the principle of process and the consequent focus on the relational but it doesn’t give full voice to what is really revolutionary about what Whitehead appears to insist upon- that it’s a fundamental error to think in terms of objects rather than of the potentiality of events (becoming).

Some might argue that the first few lines are a stab in this direction but they’re too vague and I’m still reading them as a nod towards the notion of the past always existing in the present which isn’t the same. I need also to state that this is my own readerly (rather than expert) response and one that is based on the beginnings of my understanding of all things Whitehead. I do however think that it does throw into sharp relief the problematic and endlessly convoluted relationship between poetry and philosophy.

I read philosophy because it can enable me to think about things in different ways and to confront challenges to my current beliefs. For example, I’m having this intensely enjoyable readerly argument with Galen Strawson on the singleness of the self. I don’t get this level of challenge from poetry even though, at its best, it does aim at a kind of accuracy, rather than truth, about how it is to be in the world. The difference between the two is that poets can/should use ambiguity whereas philosophers have this need to be absolutely clear about what’s being said- even when they’re acknowledging the ambiguous and provisional nature of things.

The other difference is one of brevity. ‘Process and Reality’ runs to 353 pagtes of densely worded text, Strawson’s ‘Selves’ weighs in at 425 pages, the UK press is at the moment bursting to the seams with the latest dismal assault on the welfare state which J H Prynne brilliantly encapsulates as “great lack breeds lank / less and less” which manages to combine elements of Rawls and most of Marxian philosophy at once but does so without finding fifty different long-winded ways to say the same thing.

In conclusion, ‘Oceania’ is a shining piece of delightful brilliance in it’s own right but it isn’t philosophy because the two activites will always be different.

Poetry as History

The title is a deliberate inversion of the Geoffrey Hill poem published in ‘King Log’ in 1968. In that collection there is a sequence entitled ‘Funeral Music’ and at the back of the collection Hill has placed a short ‘essay’ on the sequence and the Wars of the Roses. There’s also a similar note at the end of ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy which gives a clear account of Peguy’s life and death.

I’ll get on to what Hill says shortly but the purpose of this is to consider the doing of history as a function of poetry. There are two or three ways to think about this:

  • poems that are about or are set in the historical past;
  • poems that comment on or are about contemporary public rather than personal issues which then serve as part of the historical ‘record';
  • poems that consciously bear witness and/or memorialise those who have died.

About now I need to declare an interest, in that I am keen on history and enjoy reading serious history which is written by grown up historians. In the UK at the moment we have a number of exceptionally gifted historians who are a joy to read and this is what I do when I’m not reading poetry. I say this to make it clear that I have a bias but I hope what follows will that many of our more accomplished poets do the historical past in a way that adds to the record rather than simply embellish it.

The brilliant David Jones wrote about his personal past in the Battle of the Somme in ‘In Parenthesis’ and provided accounts of different periods in ‘The Anathemata’. In his preface to ‘The Anathemata’, Jones provides a succinct reading of the relationship between poetry and history:

I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product.

I think this is entirely sensible in that language itself is caught up and mired in the clutter and detritus of the past and it can be argued that this is why language can never be neutral and is always compromised. With this in mind, I’m going to look at how modernist poets have explored their relationship with the past.

Charles Olson and ‘Maximus’

Olson’s relationship with the past works on several levels. To start with ‘Maximus’ has the town of Glocester at its centre and Olson tells the story of the town from when it was first settled to the second half of the twentieth century. In order to tell this story, Olson makes extensive use of archival records and some of these are reproduced verbatim. He also interweaves myth and mythical figures into the sequence whilst having running argument about the best way to do history, taking the side of Herodotus instead of the less fanciful Thucydides. Olson was greatly influenced by A N Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which (amongst many other things) questions our current thinking about the relationship between the present and the past, an interrogation undertaken with great skill in ‘Maximus’.

I want to give two examples, the first is the second half of ‘Letter 23′:

What we have here - and literally in my own front yard, as I said to Merk,
asking what delving, into "fisherman's field" recent historians......
not telling him it was a poem I was interested in, aware I'd scare him
off, muthologos has lost much ground since Pindar

The oldish man sd: "Poesy
steals away men's judgement
by her muthoi"(taking this crack
as Homer's sweet-versing)

"and a blind heart
is most men's portions." Plato

allowed this divisive
thought to stand, agreeing

that muthos
is false. Logos
isn't - was facts. Thus
Thucydides.

I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said: Altham says
Winslow
Was at Cape Ann in April,
1624

What we have in these fields in these scraps among these fishermen,
and the Plymouth men, is more than the fight of one colony with
another, it is the whole engagement against (1) mercantilism
(cf. the Westcountrymen and Sir Edward Coke against the crown,
in Commons, these same years - against Gorges); and (2) against
nascent capitalism except as it says the individual adventurer
and the worker on share - against all sliding statism, ownership
getting in to, the community as, Chamber of Commerce, or theocracy;
or City Manager

I think this shows how focused Olson was on ‘doing’ what we think of as the historical path in a new and challenging way. I am of the view that ‘Maximus’ is one of the towering acheivements of the twentieth century for all kinds of reasons but mostly because it manages to do justice to enormously complex subjects in a deceptively straightforward manner so that the reader does not appreciate at the time just how much is going on. Here we’ve got the suitablity/reliability of poetry as a means of doing history, the reasons why the doing of history might have taken a particular course and Olson’s preference for ‘the evidence of / what is said” before a detailed example of how this might be applied to Gloucester together with the working out of one aspect of the Whitehead thesis.

Before we get on to the next Olson example, it may be worthwhile to consider what poets hope to achieve by giving voice to their relationship with the past. Is the making of such a poem akin to the creation of a monument? Is it a signature or a trace amongst many of the same thing? Are we meant to be educated or informed, is there a didactic purpose behind the new configuration of the past? Or might it simply be the need to tell a story and to have that story be heard as story? I think what I’m trying to identify is what poetry adds to the past and now I’ll have a look at the role of the archive in Maximus. This is from one of the later poems in the sequence from July 1968:

Only
one such possible person so named at sd date wld
be her son Henry's mother - and therefore
Margaret Cannock herself. John Josselyn's
Sister-in law & hostess Black Point 1671
[just before the Indian attack, 1676, after which
no further record* of Henry, or of Margaret his
wife until

*not true. He died, Pemaquid, 1683.

this strange message out either
Upper Cheery or of Gee Avenue itself, that

The references to and quotes from the local archive recur throughout the sequence which was written over twenty years and indicates that Olson was prepared to demonstrate and put into practice his view about how history should be done. As someone who has spent many happy hours with the archive, I am fascinated by Olson’s use/appropriation of primary sources and his confidence in spelling out his practice throughout Maximus.

I’m sure that many people would argue that Olson was an anachronism and that his archival verse hasn’t actually led anywhere. This may be so but there are other important poets who have done the past as a way of ‘informing’ the present.

John Matthias

I could write for a very long time about Matthias because he is one of the five most accomplished poets currently at work with the English language. He does several things very, very well but I ammost attracted to his work that focuses on aspects of the past because he manages to modify and intensify our historical consciousness. I’ll try and explain this a bit further- we all have some notion of various periods in the past and for the English terms like ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Enlightenment’ conjure up a specific group of images and thoughts about what things might have been like during the time that those phrases refer to.

I’ve written before about ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’, ‘Kedging in Time’ and the ‘Trigons’ sequence but now I’d like to use them try and demonstrate the ways in which my sense of certain terms have gained greater depth. I like to think of ‘Laundry Lists’ as an extended riff on the sadness of the list throughout history. This is the third poem in the sequence;

We have the record of the stranger's deeds, his wily ways,
His journey home when washed and dressed and
celebrated at the court of Alcinous. We have the history of
Abram's offspring after Babel. But Shem and Ham and Japheth,
Gomer, Jadai, Gavan, Tuval, Meshech, Tiras, Riphath,
Togarmah and many others on the J & P lists might as well be
Coat and tie and shirt and trousers on the one Nausicaa left at home
That floats up on a foreign shore right now.
Of Nausicaa little else is known (though more has been
surmised.) She went on with her wash.
Zeus and Yahweh went on to become Suprematists
(The empty squares of cities not, as Kasimir Malevich
Was to say, mere empty squares.)

Here we have Homer, the Old Testament and post revolutionary Russia lightly woven together so have cause to think again about these three reference points. The poem does many things but in particular but it takes a number of these points and ‘re-works’ them in surprising ways to the point where my way of thinking about them has changed which is odd because my thoughts about and notions of the past are fairly fixed.

The same effect is achieved with ‘Kedging’ which is presented as a tribute to Matthias’ mother-in-law but is also a very astute take on what could be called our national consciousness in the early part of the last century. Briefly the terms that I’ve had to modify are ‘Casement’, ‘Scapa Flow’, ‘music hall’ ‘Hitchcock’ and ‘John Buchan’ as well as ‘code breaking’ (which is one of the most durable myths that we like to tell ourselves.) All of these are presented with great skill and intelligence with a refreshingly different scrutiny. It’s also a poem that seems to be burying itself deeper into my head.

‘Trigons’ is a longer and perhaps more ambitious sequence about cognition and perception but featuring specific times and places during the last century, Corfu in the late thirties and during WWII, London during the Blitz, Berlin, Moscow, Paris in 68, California all of which offer us a mostly musical / literary take on the century but also use aspects of each location to say something deeper about place and the passing of time.

Incidentally, here’s a chapter from the ‘Salt Companion to John Matthias’ which is a very perceptive analysis of the role of music in the work. It’s good to see that Matthias is beginning to get the attention that his work deserves.

Geoffrey Hill

Hill does history oddly, the most obvious candidates for poems as history would be ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’. The first of these is written in the voice of Offa and is partly set in early medieval Mercia but also flits in and out of the present. It is brilliant, one of the most important poems since 1945 but I’m not entirely sure that Hill is doing history here, it seems more likely that he’s doing key aspects of the nation and the inherently violent structuring of power.

‘Charles Peguy’ is described as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat'” and this is much more directly historical but only in the sense of providing context. This is the opening of the ninth poem in the sequence:

There is an ancient landscape of green branches-
true temperament de droite, you have your wish-
crosshatching twigs and light, goldfinches
among the peppery lilac, the small fish

pencilled into the stream. Ah, such a land
the Ile de France once was. Virelai and horn
wind through the meadows, the dawn masses sound
fresh triumphs for our Saviour crowned with scorn.

Hill would argue that he isn’t attempting to do history but he is still a historical poet by which I think I mean that particular elements of the past are almost soaked into all of the poetry. Hill’s academic expertise lies in 16th and 17th century England and there are recurring personalities and events referred to in almost every publication- the first and second world wars, the fate of the Jews during WWII, religious martyrs (especially Robert Southwell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). There is a didactic feel to some of this but the history that Hill does is about providing context to what he has to say rather than adjusting our view of the past. ‘The Triumph of Love’ which is as brilliant as the Offa sequence is about our moral and spiritual recovery after the two world wars (hence the title) but it is much more about the nature of our moral landscape than about those terrible events.

I’m not sure that I’ve got very far with this other than to demonstrate the nature of some of the attachments that poets have to the “mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product”. In the near future I’ll give some thought to the role of poet as a maker of the historical record with specific reference to Jones, Spenser, Milton and Marvell.

Open letter to Joe Luna re Oslon and Temporality

Dear Joe,

I hope you don’t mind but I’ve wanted to respond to your piece on Maximus since the end of last year and have only just reminded myself whilst looking for your insightful thoughts on Jonty Tiplady.

I think that finding ways to think and write about Maximus as a whole rather than relying on the various threads or aspects is really important, to that end I’d like to begin with the background to my first encounter. About two years ago I decided that I should try and engage with Prynne and in order to combat my ongoing bafflement I decided to read what I could find of Prynne’s prose on the web. I came across part of that 1971 lecture that you refer to and reasoned that a more rational way into Prynne might be via Olson. I then bought Maximus and started to read. Prior to this my only knowledge of Olson was his relationship with Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College so it was a major shock to read how compelling the Maximus poems are. Of course they are no help whatsoever in engaging with post-71 Prynne but I was hooked.

The other preface that I need to add is that this isn’t in any at variance with your thoughts but more of an attempt to add mine into the ‘mix’.

‘Maximus’ is slippery because it covers so much ground in a great deal of depth. I think yemporality is important and that we need to bear in mind that it was written over twenty years. I think I’d like to make a plea for a little more emphasis on the ‘relational’ aspect. By this I think I mean that we are invited to consider the nature and quality of the relationship between things rather than the things themselves. I also think that by ‘process’ Olson is referring to changes in these relationships rather than just something happening sequentially.

I want discuss a bit more your remark that Maximus can be read as a working through of the poetics ‘which are yet to be found out’. I was once of this view but now I’m less clear about the presence of Whitehead in the work and I think this alters as the poem progresses where it becomes more about immersion and the fruits of the archive. I have to admit a degree of bias because I’m rather keen on the use of archival material that is placed in contemporary poetry. I’m also rather keen on archival research being seen as an essential ingredient in creative activity.

Olson once expressed the view that in order to write about something you must first of all immerse yourself in it. I think he said this about the Melville book but I think it can also apply to his immersion in Gloucester and its history. Reading the history within the poem I don’t get a sense of temporality per se but I do get more of an impression of the results of embedding himself in both the process of making history and Gloucester itself. I think this springs from the mixture of myth, historiography and the archive. I can’t give any more detailed evidence for this but it does reflect the poem that’s in my head.
Here’s a final and vaguely contrary thought. In one of his earlyish letters to Robert Creeley Olson relates conversations he’s having with Cy Twombly about the nature of the line and remarks how rewarding it is to talk with someone without having to go back to first principles. I don’t want to make too much of this but there are similarities between the two, interest in the line as line, in myth, in the sea and in ‘natural’ processes.
Hope this makes sense.
John

Keston Sutherland and the verse / prose divide

A while ago I spent some time enthusing about ‘Odes to TL61P’ and have now added a page on the first ode to arduity. The reason for doing this is not just my enthusiasm for the work but also the fact that it manages to push certain types of difficulty into newish territory.

The page has produced a helpful and positive response from Sutherland who tells me that it might not yet be finished and Chicago Review wants to publish Ode 1. He also takes me up on my assertion that most of the Odes are in prose-

that while you must be right that they are
“mostly in prose”, I wonder whether they might not at the same time, and in just those justified, block passages, be something other than prose, too? Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as “verse”; I don’t know how to conceive it yet, but the function of that smashable edge must be somehow to introduce a generic contingency or blur, so that we are never fully “in prose”. I think so anyway (though of course you may not).

Before I throw this around, I think I’d better clarify my personal take on prose poems and the relationship between poetic prose and verse. In my adolescence I came across two examples of prose which was really verse. These were ‘Lessness’ by Samuel Beckett and a number of prose poems by Zbigniew Herbert. I understood the prose poem as something which couldn’t be said in ‘ordinary’ prose but couldn’t be versified either. At this point (in about 1971) my thinking on this issue stopped and I’ve spent the last forty years with the same level of understanding.
I’ve now had a bit of a think in response to the above prod and now realise that there are different kinds of prose poem and that poets use prose for all sorts of reasons. Then there’s the ‘form’ issue with some works being entirely in prose, other being predominantly in verse but making use of prose as well and those that are mostly prose interspersed with bits of verse.
I’m now in the process of looking in some detail at the way poets that I admire make use of prose. David Jones, Neil Pattison, Charles Olson, J H Prynne, Sean Bonney and Geoffrey Hill have all made use of prose, either to create ‘prose poems’ or to incorporate both prose and verse into a single poem. Jones, Olson, Prynne and Bonney are of particular interest because they have placed verse and prose together. All of these are distinctly different from the way that the two elements interact in the Odes.
I agree with Sutherland’s assertion that prose can be ‘more’ than prose when used in a poem.
I’m not of the view that the use of prose implies a weakness or lack of ability on the part of the poet but it does seem to me that the notion that ‘it’s a poem because I say it’s a poem’ is more than a little suspect. I’ve just realised that I’ve left out Kenneth Goldsmith from the above list, his appropriation of prose and the subsequent re-framing does result in poetry even though the banal and everyday original text has been left intact.
This is taken from Ode 1:

Isn‟t it the fact that I want you to stare at me until our eyes trade sockets, not the suggestion that hooding was banned in 1972, that asks for an adaptation on bliss in memory? Light
sockets, the penetration of bodies by power and remorse,
devoured in a shadow life sends back?
Remember this: I sort through the boxes,
my first poems are there, the
drawings I made at school are
and my toys are, lead prodigies and barbarians,

It’s difficult to know where the verse prose boundary is in the above, in the pdf the line beginning ‘sockets’ fills the full width of the page and is more part of the prose section than the verse that follows it but there’s also room for the word ‘socket’ to appear at the end of the line above. I’m either taking this too seriously or this is an attempt by Sutherland to create a ‘porous’ edge to the prose. This blurred break occurs in the most personal section of Ode 1, the edges between prose and verse are much clearer elsewhere in the ode as are the reasons for those edges.

Leaving the question of the ‘smashable edge’ to one side for the moment, consideration of other poets’ use of prose within a poem reveals a wide range of approaches. The Maximus Poems contains a few paragraphs of prose, some of which refer to events from Gloucester’s archives whilst others express Olson’s point of view. Given that Olson frequently versifies complete extracts from these archives, the prose/verse rationale isn’t immediately apparent but I’m prepared to accept the complexity of Olson’s thinking about form and structure.
With regard to Prynne, there are two prose paragraphs in ‘High Pink on Chrome’. Both of these are placed at the foot of the page, like unmarked footnotes. The first of these reads as a scientific elaboration of the poem whereas the second is more oblique and deliberately odd. As far as I’m aware, this is the only occasion where Prynne mixes the two elements and he does it such a way that the reader isn’t entirely sure whether the paragraphs are to be read as part of the poem or as a comment on the poem. This is also an example of having your cake and eating it in that both prose sections are very clearly delineated by the acre of white space above them leading this reader to view them both as somehow ‘optional’. The only other instance of Prynne using prose is in ‘The Plant Time Manifold Manuscripts’ which contains only a few lines that might be construed as verse.
We now come to David Jones who makes extensive use of prose in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I remain of the view that these are two of the most important poems of the twentieth century and thus make no apology for using these as examples of the ‘porous edge’.
‘In Parenthesis’ is concerned with the WWI Somme offensive and the Battle for Mametz Wood in particular. The following occurs in Part 4 (‘King Pellam’s Laund’)-

He noted that movement as with half a mind – at two o’clock from the petrol-tin. He is indeterminate of what should be his necessary action. Leave him be on a winter’s morning – let him bide. And the long-echoing sniper-shot down by ‘Q’ post alone disturbed his two hours’ watching.

His eyes turned again to where the wood thinned to separate broken trees; to where great strippings-off hanged from tenuous fibres swaying, whitened to decay – as swung
immolations
for the northern Cybele.
The hanged, the offerant:
himself to himself
on the tree.
Whose own,
whose grey war band, beyond the stapled war-net -
(as grey-banded rodents for a shelving warren – cooped in their complex runnels, where the sea-fret percolates).
Come from outlandish places,
from beyond the world,
from the Hercynian –
they were at breakfast and were as cold as he, they too made their dole.

(The two lines beginning ‘himself’ should be indented).

It’s interesting to note that Jones doesn’t address the prose/verse issue in his preface, he refers to the poem as a writing and points out that ‘In Parenthesis’ is so-called because it is written in a ‘space between’ yet he acknowledges that he’s not sure what it is between.

I’m not sure that this gets us very far but it does identify some ways in which verse and prose forms may ‘play off’ against each other in productive ways. It also demonstrates that the edges between the two can function as giving additional meaning or significance to the work.

I was going to conclude this by giving an example from ‘The Anathemata’ but wordpress won’t let me indent as I would wish. I’ll finish instead recording my agreement with Sutherland that some poets do manage to produce a ‘generic contingency or blur’ and that this can work to good effect. I’d add the rider that it also means that we are never ‘fully’ in verse either.

Difficult Poetry and Philosophy

This may take some time, I’ve been writing about ‘The Maximus Poems’ the arduity project and I really wanted to talk about the influence of Alfred North Whitehead on the work but didn’t because I feel that this may deter first-time readers. Since then I’ve been giving more than a little thought to the complex relationship that poets have with philosophy. It seems to me that writers of difficult poetry are, in part, difficult because they are dealing with fundamental issues and in this there is a big similarity with philosophy.

The issue becomes more problematic when we consider the exact relationship between the two. Olson is relatively straightforward in that ‘Maximus’ can be read as a reworking of ‘Process and Reality’. We know that this was one of the most thumbed and annotated books on Olson’s shelf and that Olson referred to it as his guiding light. So, it would appear that Olson’s view of our perception of time and space was informed by Whitehead and this conceptual framework was used to shape ‘Maximus’. The next question to be asked is was this a conscious thing – did Olson deliberately set out to write a poem about the world according to Whitehead or was the work so ingrained under his skin that this had become his reading of the world?

The situation gets more complex with other difficult poets, a straight line can be drawn between Henri Bergson (via T E Hulme) and the early work of Pound and Eliot. On closer inspection however this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. In terms of form Bergson may have been influential but Bradley is certainly more influential on Eliot in terms of content. It would also be impossible in my view to point to any straight lines influencing Pound.

Then we come to the Heidegger problem. I’ll leave aside my previously stated view that Heidegger was wrong about poetry and consider instead his  well-documented influence on the work of Paul Celan.  The relationship was never an easy one as Celan could never forgive Heidegger’s studied silence about his Nazi past but it is clear that Celan read Heidegger from the early fifties on over. As a lifelong reader of Celan, I’ve looked for traces of the existential Heidegger in Celan’s work and they aren’t apparent.  I’ve also read long and learned essays that purport to show me that they are apparent yet I’ve never been convinced. What can be said is that there is a lot of mysticism in Celan’s work, as there is in Heidegger’s later output but we also know that Celan was an enthusiastic reader of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Unpacking these various threads in Celan’s notoriously resistant verse is almost impossible.

J H Prynne’s debt to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Marx and others is fairly well-documented but again we have the problem of many ‘influences’ coming together in different ways. I’m currently giving priority to Merleau-Ponty but this is only because I’m reading him and his thoughts on perception seem to tie in with the way that I read Prynne. The socialist perspective clearly comes from ‘Capital’ and the notion of poetry as truth stems from Heidegger (amongst many others).

As a (weak) practitioner, I try and write poetry that makes sense of the world but I don’t do this with any particular philosophy or ideology in mind. I do however acknowledge that the way that I live my life is formed by a cognitive map that has many influences. My understanding of the way power works is informed by Foucault, my reluctant comprehension of how culture functions is informed by Bourdieu, my personal relativism is influenced by Richard Rorty, my sense of place I get from Henri Lefebvre and I wish I could write like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida. I’m currently writing a long poem about the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday and no doubt all of the above will ‘inform’ what I write but even I couldn’t begin to sort out the strands.

So, poets write about fundamental stuff and sometimes take from philosophy a framework for thinking about their subject. Undertaking an objective analysis of that ‘influence’ is however immensely difficult and often a waste of time

Olson and past and present

past in the present

I was directed to the above by the indispensable Wood s lot where I found a remarkable series of images put together by Sergey Larenkov. I can’t read Russian but he appears to have taken pictures from World War of several European cities and ‘mixed’ these with pictures taken this year of the same scene. This shot was taken in Leningrad during the siege and carries this incredible juxtaposition of dead bodies, crumbling buildings and contemporary  pedestrians trying to cross the road.

Coincidentally, I’m still trying to write something intelligent and coherent about Olson for the Ardutiy project and my mind leapt to his views on the relationship we have with the past. I’m aware that the ‘past in the present’ thing is a bit of a cliché and doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Olson’s thinking on this but the fact remains that Maximus makes great use of archival material and Olson is deeply aware of the history of Gloucester when he writes about himself in its landscapes.

Reading Maximus brings home to me both the importance and complexity of this awareness and has changed the way that I experience my place in the world (I live in a fading resort town on an island off the south coast of England).

These images should make us reconsider our relationship with the tragedy that was World War 2- they certainly have this effect on me.

Is Charles Olson Postmodern?

I’m not very good with labels because I don’t think that they’re all that helpful and because I get more than a little tired of the adherents of one label pouring scorn on the others. That isn’t to say that I think that postmodernism is simply a phantom, I realise and accept that the culture in which we live started to experience major shocks in the mid-seventies and that Lyotard’s analysis of these shocks was fairly accurate. I also accept that some poetry can be described as post-modern in that it can be seen as a reaction against the worst excesses of modernism. I can see a reasonable case for describing Paul Muldoon as being more post-modern than modernist and many American poets as being thoroughly postmodern.

I’m a huge admirer of Charles Olson’s ‘The Maximus Poems’ and was about to re-read it when I glanced at the back cover.  This was a mistake as part of it reads: “The Maximus Poems is one of the high achievements of of twentieth-century American letters and an essential poem in the postmodern canon.” The obvious response is that this simply isn’t the case, Olson writes firmly within the modernist idiom and all of the features that we come to expect from modernist poetry are fully present in ‘Maximus’. Or does this assertion simply mean that the publishers were so desperate to move a quite expensive book from the shelves that they gave it a tag to make it seem more relevant?

The other problem is that this tome was published in 1983, was there a ‘postmodern canon’ in 1983? Is there one now? How long does a movement or style have to be in existence before it can be said to have a canon?

I have read someone describe ‘Maximus’ as ‘sub-Poundian’ and this was meant as a sneer but I find it much more helpful than the ‘postmodern’ tag. I can make a strong case, if pushed, for Olson as a late modernist poet but I also acknowledge that this term carries such a broad range of connotations as to be almost meaningless.

Jeremy Prynne’s definition of postmodern poetics (in ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’) is quite dismissive: “I don’t think this is equivalent to post-modernist playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way….” Olson never lets meaning go skimming across the surface in any kind of way. He’s a modernist, as is Prynne.