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Collected Prose
Charles Olson
Edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander
University of California Press, $50, $19.95 (paper)

by John Palattella

Charles Olson was the first American poet to label himself "postmodern." By this he meant not simply that he succeeded modernists like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Rather, he aspired to move beyond them by besting their epic attempts to rejuvenate culture through literary experiment. Olson longed to produce an altogether new kind of cultural humanism. What he said of Herman Melville is equally true of himself: he "did not see man as measure of man, but as limit." Accordingly, in his epic, The Maximus Poems, Olson endeavored to language a world liberated from logic and classification, subjective habits of thought he believed had stifled Western consciousness--including that of the modernists--since the time of Socrates.

Any reader who has reckoned with Olson during the past several decades has shouldered a difficult task, not the least because his Maximus boasts some patches of incredibly opaque--and lyrical--writing. Those who have turned to his essays to gloss the poetry haven't had much to work with: for years, the only volume in print that included any of Olson's numerous essays was the Selected Writings, edited by Robert Creeley, which contains only the barest essentials: "Projective Verse," "Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself," and "Human Universe." Thankfully, the publication of Collected Prose goes a long way towards making Olson both a little less difficult and a little more approachable. This landmark volume helps us grasp a poet who was at once daring, discursive, and didactic, and whose "thots" remain as provocative as when he first started voicing them in the buttoned-down poetry world of postwar America.

Collected Prose brings together a wealth of material written between 1947 and 1969, including the entire contents of four books: Human Universe and Other Essays, Additional Prose, The Post Office (Olson's memoir of his father, who was a mail-carrier), and, most importantly, Call Me Ishmael, an eccentric and iconoclastic study of Melville.1 Supplementing this is a handful of uncollected essays first published in obscure venues like The Magazine of Further Studies) as well as several essays not published during Olson's lifetime. Additionally, editors Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander have outfitted the collection with an editorial apparatus that is both unobtrusive and indispensable. Their notes (which account for nearly a quarter of the volume) identify quotations and offer clues to themes and procedures. "Where Olson points," they explain, "we shine a light; where light no longer penetrates, we let the opacity of the gesture stand."

Thanks to such equanimity, one learns in a note that Olson coined the term "postmodern" in "The Present Is Prologue," a 1952 autobiographical essay which, ironically enough, he hammered out in imitation of that ur-modernist Ezra Pound. From 1946 to 1948 Olson acted as Pound's informal secretary while the elder poet was held on charges of treason at St. Elizabeth's, a federal hospital for the insane in Washington, D.C. Although he denounced Pound in 1948, after Pound had disparaged Olson's hybrid ethnic background, Collected Prose reminds one of just how much he continued to labor under Pound's mantle. (At the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference--the transcription of which unfortunately is absent from Collected Prose--Olson admitted he'd been "dragging his ass after Pound all these years.") Only a poet who apprenticed himself to Pound could boast, as did Olson in "The Gate and the Center," that "the poet is the only pedagogue left, to be trusted." Only such a poet could trumpet formal openness in a belligerent tone, as did Olson in "Projective Verse." Only such a poet could mistake "maleness" for human consciousness, a mistake often evident in Collected Prose.

Perhaps most crucially, it was Pound who led Olson to Ernest Fenollosa's "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium For Poetry," an essay that proved to be a revelation for Olson. Fenollosa introduced him to the concept that a language of natural processes lies concealed beneath the trappings of linguistic convention. This notion underpins "Projective Verse," especially its dictate that instead of signifying ideas and objects, poetic language should incarnate processes and rhythms. And just as importantly, Fenollosa's advocacy of a return to a natural state of primal phenomenological immediacy, a state the linguist maintained still flourished in the Chinese written character, forever altered Olson's own prose. He read "The Chinese Written Character" in 1946 while struggling with early drafts of Call Me Ishmael. Fenollosa's linguistic theories offered Olson justification for abandoning the turgid scholarly style he acquired as a graduate student at Harvard for a kind of assault prose, a dynamic mix of bold assertion and documentary material lacking conventionally logical connectives.

This prose style, which loosely resembles Olson's poetic style, dominates Collected Prose. Its compressed phrasings and limber syntax afforded him the liberty to ruminate on ideas in a radically associative manner. Olson manages the style beautifully in a number of works, including Call Me Ishmael, especially its early chapters: "Human Universe," an early statement of principles; "Against Wisdom As Such," a rebuke of Robert Duncan's mysticism; and a review of Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato, in which Olson claimed affinity with Homer and Hesiod based on their use of parataxis.

At times Olson's assault prose afforded him too much liberty. In "Projective Verse," his headlong advocation of a "poetics of breath" seemingly prevents him from catching his own and adequately assaying the ideas under discussion. Olson conceded as much: "But an analysis of how far a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests, is too big for these notes." Then there's "Proprioception," a series of nine prose-poems Olson proudly referred to as "incongestible signs." The series' extreme opacity is reason enough to speculate whether he sometimes used assault prose to mask his impatience with thinking itself.

Impatient or not, Olson had a boundless curiosity, writing with passion about Mayan inscriptions and Melville's marginalia, Shakespeare's tragedies and Cy Twombly's paintings. Whatever the topic, he tended to approach it in dualistic terms--pitting projective against non-projective verse, Melville against Poe, Pip against Ahab, Williams against Pound, Mayan civilization against the West--and refusing to resolve these dualisms dialectically. He sought out opposition, a tactic that bolstered his heroic stance. After all, this is a poet who announced in "Human Universe," with utter self-assurance, and without a trace of irony, "We have lived long in a generalizing time, at least since 450 b.c."--a generalization not only bold but convenient, as it perfectly positions Olson as the poet who will shatter the abstractions that have shackled Western consciousness for two millennia.

Oddly enough, Olson's heroic swagger was rooted in a sense of profound humility. He believed that when people resorted solely to logic they not only imposed a mechanical order on the plurality of experience but exaggerated their ability to master it. Steeled by hate, such desire for mastery was Ahab's folly--and his crew's misfortune. Olson drew that lesson in Call Me Ishmael, and it prompted him to write from the awareness that any individual is a small participant in a larger reality, the "phenomenal world which is raging and yet apart."

Through their editing, Allen and Friedlander have done their best to cultivate Olson's strain of humility and de-deify him. Their notes are thorough and illuminating while not being pedantic or cultish, as is sometimes the case with the late George Butterick's A Guide to the Maximus Poems. Similarly, their decision to arrange Olson's essays topically instead of chronologically signals their determination to emphasize not the definitive evolution of his mind but rather the recurring preoccupations of his thought. Their concern even extends to the volume's design, which is modest yet elegant. Previous editions of Olson's writing have literally monumentalized the bard. Take Butterick's paperback edition of the Collected Poems. Its cover showcases a low-angle photo of a nattily dressed Olson--the poet as revered elder statesman. Gracing the cover of Collected Prose is an altogether different image, one that makes him seem eminently approachable. Above the volume's title is a small photo of Olson seated at a kitchen table: His posture is relaxed, as though unburdened of a heroic mantle; his lips are parted, as though in mid-sentence; and his eyes are turned toward the camera, as though gently inviting a response.

1 Call Me Ishmael has also just been reprinted separately in a paperback edition by Johns Hopkins University Press. The University of California Press recently issued paperback editions of both Olson's Selected Poems (edited by Robert Creeley, and first published in 1993) and his Collected Poems (edited by George Butterick and first published in 1987). Creeley's volume notably contains 41 poems from the epic Maximus, while Butterick's includes a fine introduction that explains Olson's writing habits and details the sleuth work

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review

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