Two months ago the only thing that I knew about Olson was that he had taught Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and that Twombly had dedicated a painting to him. I then noticed that reference is made to the Maximus Poems on the back of the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s poems. I read a bit more about Olson on the web and bought the Maximus volume edited by George F Butterick and published in 1985.
I have to say that the Maximus experience has been a complete revelation. This is a huge sprawling work centred on the town of Gloucester in Massachusetts and describes the town’s history and its geography in great detail. It has been variously described as ‘an essential poem in the postmodern canon’ and a weak example of ‘sub-poundian’ verse. I don’t think it’s either of these (by definition you can’t have a postmodern canon and it certainly isn’t weak) but I do think it’s an entirely honest attempt to write about space in a very original way.
This may not sound like much but space is fascinating and something we give far too little consideration to. Some of the finest writing over the last fifty years has been about what we do with and how we react to where we are (Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Ed Soja). Olson is one of the very few poets to give space its due. He traces the birth and growth of Gloucester both by means of its only industry (fishing) but also records the way that land and buildings were passed on from one generation to the next.
Olson lived in Gloucester and isn’t at all afraid to place himself in the poems. We see him on fishing boats, we see him wandering about the town and its environs, being struck by wonder at the strangeness and majesty of the sea. Someone else has observed that Olsen felt that the past was always present in the present and there are attempts to express this in the poem but what comes across most clearly to me is the celebration of place in all its contexts.
There are some longueurs, I could have done quite so many references to myth although some are quite effective, but the overall effect is a celebration of place. Nearly at the end of my second reading of this epic, I know what it is like to be in Gloucester both now and in the seventeenth century.
What I don’t understand is how this magnificent work has fallen from grace. Olson had his advocates in Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Jeremy Prynne yet ‘Maximus’ seems not to have inspired others to follow suit (with the exception of Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’) in writing spatially. Perhaps that’s because we’re still culturally obsessed with time (one of the things that postmodernism was meant to overcome) or because Olson has become ‘infected’ by the stain of Ezra Pound.
It’s no secret that Olson knew and admired Pound nor is it any secret that Pound was ferociously anti-semitic but the Cantos and the Maximus series (apart from both being long and ambitious) are as different as chalk and cheese both in terms of ‘voice’ and subject matter yet the stain still lingers. The other problem is that the culture we live in has no time for big poetry which takes more than five minutes to read and is layered with meaning – this is our loss as poetry should have space for the ambitious and the majestic.