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Charles Olson Projective Verse Essay

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Charles Olson literary criticism

Charles Olson (1910-1970)

A selective list of open access articles on American poet Charles Olson, favoring signed articles by recognized scholars, articles published in peer and editor reviewed sources, and web sites that adhere to the MLA Guidelines for Web Sites

literary criticism

Allen, Donald and Benjamin Friedlander (eds.) In a review of The Collected Prose of Charles Olson John Palattella discusses the challenges of reading Charles Olson, "the first postmodern writer." Boston Review, February/ March 1998 (moved).

Anastas, Peter (ed.), foreword by Gerrit Lansing. Review of Maximus to Gloucester: The Letter and Poems of Charles Olson to the Gloucester Times, 1962 - 1969 A review of an unusual publishing project, the publication of Olson's letters to the Gloucester Daily Times from 1962 until his final letter in 1969 when, embittered and aware of his impending death, he was still trying to encourage people to create their own mythology out of the material at hand. The book is important, says reviewer Karl Young, because "it firmly and irrefutably throws the emphasis of Olson's work back on the local." American Book Review, August-September, 1993.

Bezner, Kevin. "A Location Constantly Reoccurring: Creeley, Olson, and the Genesis of Black Mountain Poetry." Oyster Boy Review, 1999.

Creeley, Robert. Preface to Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. Poet Robert Creeley reflects on the aims he shared with Charles Olson. Jacket 12 (July 2000).

Creeley, Robert (ed.) Review of Charles Olson. Selected Poems (Univ. of California Press, 1993.) A review of Robert Creeley's new selection of Charles Olson's poems notes that the reception of Olson has suffered because of Olson's posture as public moralist. Creeley corrects the picture with a more rounded selection of Olson's poetry. Reviewed by Peter Quartermain in the Durham U Journal (March 1995).

Foley, Jack. "Projective Verse At Fifty." On the decision by the editors of Poems for the Millennium not to anthologize Charles Olson's often-anthologized article "Projective Verse," and whether Olson's theories have fundamentally shaped twentieth century poetics. From

Gümüþbaþ, Barýþ. On the interaction between politics, economics, and the poetical in Charles Olson's works, particularly in The Maximus Poems. "Charles Olson's Poetical Economy," in Journal of American Studies of Turkey 5 (1997).

Lawrence, Nick. "Olson's Republic" Essay on the political in Charles Olson, by poet Nick Lawrence.


An introduction to Charles Olson which includes reliable articles on Olson's life and poetry; On "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele"; On "Cole's Island"; On Charles Olson--by Robert Creeley; and Olson Book Jackets. From Modern American Poetry (U of Illinois).

An introductory article on Charles Olson's career, discusses his techniques and ideas, and includes samples of his poems, from the Poetry Foundation.

"Charles Olson." An introduction from educational publisher Heath.

A newsletter article describes a 1995 tribute to Charles Olson in Gloucester, Mass. Panel members Robert Creeley, Vincent Ferrini, Hettie Jones, Jean Kaiser, Ingeborg Lauterstein, and Edward Sanders offered recollections. By Loss Pequeño Glazier, Poetry Project Newsletter.

1998-2009 by

Other articles

Реферат: Charles Olson

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Olson, Charles (1910-70), was born and raised in Worcester,

Massachusetts, and educated at Wesleyan University and Harvard, where he studied American

civilization. During the Second World War he worked for the Democratic Party and for the

Office of War information as assistant chief of the Foreign Language Division. His first

two books, Call Me Ishmael (1947), a study of Mellville’s Moby-Dick, and The

Mayan Letters (1953), written to Robert Creeley from Mexico where he was studying

Mayan hieroglyphics, cover a range of subjects–mythology, anthropology, language, and

cultural history–and use the fervent informal style that were to distinguish all his

discursive prose. Olson’s influential manifesto, Projective Verse, was published in

pamphlet form in 1950 and then quoted generously in William Carlos Willams’s Autobiography

(1951). In the "projective," or "open," verse it recommends, which

aims to transfer energy from the world to the reader without artificial interference,

syntax is shaped by sound, not sense; sense is conveyed by direct movement from one

perception to another, not rational argument; and the reader’s rendition directed by

freely varied spacing between words and lines on the page. Olson himself had started

writing poetry in the late 1940s, and "The Kingfishers," the longest poem in his

first collection, In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953), remains his most striking

demonstration of projective verse. The Distances (1960), his second collection, is

less formally innovative but more ambitious in treating personal dreams and universal

myths. In 1951 Olson succeeded the artist Josef Albers as rector of Black Mountain

College, North Carolina, and remained there until it closed in 1956. He taught again–at

the State University of New York, Buffalo (1963-5)–but, settling in Gloucester,

Massachusetts, devoted most of his time and energy in subsequent years to The Maximus

Poems, his most substantial work.

Begun in 1950 as a sequence of verse letters to his friend Vincent Ferrini, and

modelled formally on Pound’s Cantos, The Maximus Poems is, in Olson’s words,

"a poem of a person and a place." In the first volume, The Maximus Poems (1960),

Maximus (named after an itinerant Phoenician mystic of the fourth century, but referring

also to Olson, who was six feet eight inches tall), dismayed by the culture of

contemporary Gloucester, examines its origins in the European settlement of America. In

the second volume, The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI (1968), his interest widens to

embrace ancient myths and religious texts, and narrows to scrutinize certain documentary

details of Gloucester’s past. The unfinished final volume, The Maximus Poems, Volume

Three (1975), imagines a new Gloucester in which material and commercial values have

been abandoned and spiritual and communal values restored. The complete work, The

Maximus Poems (Berkeley, Calif. and London, 1983), and the rest of Olson’s verse, The

Collected Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley, 1987), have both been edited by George F.

Butterick. Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley,

1965), is the most generous selection of his prose. See also Charles Olson and Robert

Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, ed. George F. Buttrick and Richard Blevins, 9

vols. (Berkeley, 1980-90), and The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer, by

Thomas F. Merrill (Delaware, 1982).

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian

Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright. 1994 by Oxford University

Robert von Hallberg

The didactic poetic that emerged from the Black Mountain writers had two often

contradictory aspects. On the one hand, poets agreed with Zukofsky (who was quoting

Wittgenstein) that all adequate literature "must communicate a new sense with old

words" — the exact reverse of the Popian formula. The example of Parker radically

revising such worn melodies as "Cherokee" and "Embraceable You" made

this point musically; to the bebop aesthetic, innovation was a matter of style, not

theme. Edward Dahlberg, Olson’s predecessor at the College, wrote of the poet as sage, but

Olson claimed that wisdom was never anything so stable as a "new sense," but

rather the expression of an engaged person in the moment of engagement. Wisdom for Olson

was tied less to ideas than to acts and even performance.

Olson’s poems mix rhetorical directness with an enigmatic generality. Many of his best

poems, like "La Pr?face," are oratorical, Whitmanesque. It is American, to

speak with a clear objective in view. The opening of "The Kingfishers" –

"What does not change / is the will to change" — is a regular thesis statement

no academic could miss. The directness of this approach to poetry must have seemed

refreshing when the poem first appeared in 1950, for then the prevailing literary taste

was tuned to the delicate obliqueness of Wilbur, Merrill and other young poets who were

influenced by Stevens and Marianne Moore, as well as Auden. Although Olson took up the

didactic office from Pound, whom he calls his "next of kin" in "The

Kingfishers," the opening of the "The Kingfishers" alludes to Stevens’s Notes

toward a Supreme Fiction, and when Olson refers in "In Cold Hell" to

"the necessary goddess," he must have meant to invoke Stevens’s necessary angel.

Stevens and Olson wrote poems given over more to thinking than feeling. Neither had a

great deal to say of particular experiences or powerful emotions. The second line of the

poem: "He woke, fully clothed, in his bed." Who is he? He is named Fernand, but

he could as well be Crispin or Canon Aspirin — a cipher. There are other unidentified

"he"s and "she"s throughout Olson’s poetry — and even in this poem.

Their identity matters less than what they say and what can be done with what they say. At

the end of the poem one of them (actually Pound, in Guide to Kulchur) asserts:

"I commit myself, and, / given my freedom, I’d be a cad / If I didn’t."

"Which is most true," Olson says: the truth or falsehood of a statement

establishes its authority, not its source. Unlike Pound, Olson obscured most of his

source, because his ideas, like those of Stevens, were more general than specific.

To be in different states without a change

is not a possibility

We can be precise. The factors are

in the animal and/or the machine the factors are

communication and/or control, both involve

the message. And what is the message? The message is

a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events

distributed in time

is the birth of air, is

the birth of water, is

a state between

birth and the beginning of

another fetid nest

These lines from "The Kingfishers" read like a radical condensation of

several paragraphs of an essay. Olson wanted a truncated ratiocination in his poems,

without whimsicality, facetiousness, or anything sufficiently artful to be called

precious. The differences between Olson and Stevens, Creeley’s two masters in the early

1950s, were many and great, but they both conceived of poems as tools for putting together

and taking apart general ideas about what constitutes the life of the mind.

From The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 8, Poetry and Criticism,

1940-1955. Gen. Ed. Sacvan Berchovitch. Copyright. 1996 by Cambridge University

Olson, Charles John (27 Dec. 1910-10 Jan. 1970), poet and essayist, was born in

Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Karl Joseph Olson, a postman, and Mary Hines. A

gifted student, Olson distinguished himself early at Classical High School in Worcester;

in his senior year he took third place in the National Oratorical Contest, winning a

ten-week trip to Europe, where he met the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He attended

Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, from 1928 to 1932, graduating Phi Beta

Kappa, and completed an M.A. in English there a year later. For two years he was an

English instructor at Clark University in Worcester. In 1936 he entered the graduate

program in American studies in its inaugural year at Harvard University but left in the

spring of 1939 without finishing doctoral work on a study of Herman Melville. A year later

he received the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships (a second followed in 1948) to write a

book about Melville, a draft of which he completed in his mother’s house in Worcester.

Like other bright youths of the depression years, Olson was drawn to politics and the

Franklin D. Roosevelt revolution. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union in New York

in 1941 and worked his way up the ranks of the Democratic party to become assistant chief

of the foreign language section of the Office of War Information (OWI), an agency set up

to monitor and protect U.S. minorities as ethnic tensions built during World War II. In

August 1941 he began living with Constance Wilcock in a common-law marriage; they had one

A promising political career was cut short in 1944 because of Olson’s dispute over the

censorship of his news releases at the OWI, the forerunner of the U.S. Information Agency.

Olson lingered briefly in other offices of the Democratic party until 1945, when Roosevelt

died and an era of liberalism in Washington came to an end. Olson declared himself a

"post-liberal" soon after and retreated briefly to Key West, Florida, to

dedicate himself to poetry.

Olson brought wide learning in the sciences and history to the writing of poetry; he

challenged old assumptions about form and lyric content and widened the boundaries of

verse discourse to include mythology, psychohistory, geography, comparative culture, and

the methodical analysis of social events gleaned from his years at Harvard. After 1950,

when his work became better known, the experimental tradition had a new master to whom

many younger poets were attracted.

Olson first drew attention to himself with the publication in 1947 of his study of

Melville, Call Me Ishmael, which had evolved from his master’s thesis at Wesleyan

into a wide-ranging critique of American culture. Olson perceived Melville’s central work,

Moby-Dick, as a new myth of the West narrating the long era of planetary wanderings

begun in Sumeria and ending with the death of the whaling captain, Ahab. The narrator,

Ishmael, the lone survivor of the tale whom Olson hails as post-individual man, serves as

the counter to the egocentric and imperial Ahab. The title of the study declares Olson’s

identification with Ishmael.

Ishmael was Olson’s ideal observer, a figure more interested in the life around him

than in himself. Olson is at pains to demonstrate Ishmael’s close scrutiny of life,

achieved through disinterested curiosity. The body of work following Call Me Ishmael

was Olson’s attempt to apply Ishmael’s selfless attention to poetry, essays, a few plays,

and his long poem, The Maximus Poems, on which he spent the better part of his

In 1949 Olson published one of his finest poems, "The Kingfishers," which

weaves themes relating to Aztec religion, modern Mexico, archaeology, and world events and

in which the poet renounces his European heritage and embraces the Indian cultures of the

New World. The poem ushered postmodernism into being, a radical new mode of poetic

expression that embraced the tenets of modernism, objectivism, and related movements

stemming from Whitman’s poetry, and which hailed the return of native cultures at the end

of European colonialism.

To explain his method of writing "The Kingfishers," Olson published a

manifesto titled Projective Verse in 1950; in this statement he set forth the main

principles of his projective mode. In brief, it reorients meter to the breathing of the

poet in the act of composition and places sound before sense in the construction of the

phrase. The projective poem took on a sprawling appearance on the page as it attempted to

transpose (project) the flow and mingling of words in the poet’s mind onto paper. Olson

praised the typewriter as a tool for registering the process by which language formed in

A second part of the essay explored the attitude, which he called

"objectism," or the role of poet as mere object among other objects in nature,

required for writing such poetry. Olson rejected humanism’s tendencies to privilege the

human observer and to demote surrounding nature as resources and implements. Objectism was

Olson’s term for Ishmael’s selfless scrutiny of life, which he now found in Aztec and

Mayan art, where human subjects are cast among the flowers and animals of everyday life.

Soon after publication of Projective Verse, Olson made his pilgrimage to the

Yucatan Peninsula to study Mayan temples and artifacts. Letters to the poet Robert

Creeley, collected in Mayan Letters (1953), report Olson’s researches into Mayan

hieroglyphs, which he began to translate, and his conviction that objectism rested on

sound aesthetic principles.

Olson’s speculations about Mayan thought follow Ezra Pound’s arguments regarding the

Chinese written character, and both poets concluded that pictographic languages stand

closer to nature than do the more abstract, and egocentric, languages of the modern West.

Western humanism ignores the interplay of nature, reducing consciousness to logic.

"If man is active, it is exactly here where experience comes in that it is delivered

back, and if he stays fresh at the coming in he will be fresh at his going out. If he does

not, all that he does inside his house is stale, more and more stale as he is less acute

at the door" (Human Universe and Other Essays, p. 10).

Indeed, for Pound, William Carlos Williams, the lesser poets of the objectivist

movement of the 1930s, and Olson and postmodern writers of the 1950s, nature was an active

field of events expressing a plurality of souls in matter. Pound’s ideogram was the

shorthand verse recognition of spiritual forms in nature; Olson’s projective poem was a

similar expression of the poet’s perceptions of living matter. The reanimation of nature

as ensouled and self-cohering was the motive of experimental poetry from the beginning of

modernism to Olson’s time.

Many short poems followed the publication of Projective Verse, variously

collected in In Cold Hell (1953), The Distances (1960), Archaeologist of

Morning (1970), and The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (1987). Not all were

cast in the projective mode, however, which worked best with large subjects like war,

death, and the nature of history, where the poet introduces many separate themes and draws

them together through a chain of connecting perceptions. Smaller subjects inspired fresh

language but little experiment in form.

Human Universe and Other Essays, published in 1965, brought together most of

Olson’s reviews, essays, and speculations on objectism and its animistic roots in

non-Western thought. "Human Universe," the title essay, comments at length on

Mayan myth and its relevance to contemporary poetry; in "The Gate and the

Center," Olson gives more shape to his argument in Call Me Ishmael that human

migration formed a stage of human history where Western alienation from nature formed and

gave rise to the individual.

In 1948 Olson replaced Edward Dahlberg on the faculty of Black Mountain College, an

innovative arts school in rural North Carolina, where he joined such illustrious artists

and thinkers as Buckminster Fuller, choreographer Merce Cunningham, painters Franz Kline

and Josef Albers, and poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. From 1951 to the school’s

demise in 1956, Olson was rector. During those years he set in motion the literary

movement known as Black Mountain poetry. At Black Mountain his verse experiments,

researches into Mayan art and religion, and his theories on history and myth drew admiring

students and gained wide recognition among fellow poets. In 1956 he separated from Connie

Wilcock and began a new common-law relationship with a Black Mountain music student,

Augusta Elizabeth "Betty" Kaiser; they had one child.

From the mid-1940s on, Olson was preoccupied with writing a long poem to be called The

Maximus Poems on the origins of America and its long cultural background reaching back

to Mesopotamia. He chose as his speaker the itinerant mystic and writer Maximus, who had

lived on the Phoenician coast in the fourth century A.D. and thus occupied a geographical

locus parallel to Olson’s on the Gloucester coast of North America. Like many long works

of the twentieth century, Olson’s engaged the present and informed it by means of ancient

cultural paradigms: myths, cultural morphologies, and the archetypal events underlying the

civilizations of the Western descent.

The project was slow in forming, but by 1953 much of the first volume of the work had

been written, and part of it, The Maximus Poems 1-10, was published. Another

installment, Maximus 11-22, followed in 1956, with the complete first volume

appearing in 1960 as The Maximus Poems. The second volume, Maximus IV, V, VI

was issued in 1968, but the final volume, The Maximus Poems: Volume Three, appeared

posthumously in 1975, reconstructed from among Olson’s working drafts by a former student,

George F. Butterick, and by Charles Boer, a colleague at the University of Connecticut.

Like its predecessors, Pound’s The Cantos and Williams’s Paterson, Olson’s

epic remained unfinished at the poet’s death, with various drafts pointing to an ongoing

The overall structure of the poem is complete, however, and shows a poem growing out of

the work of its forebears and steadily evolving its own unique, if sometimes chaotic,

structure. The Maximus Poems narrates the beginnings of a fishery off Cape Ann that

became the Plymouth Bay colony and then Massachusetts. Olson dissects the historical

records to show how a small community of fishermen was taken over by British investors,

and thus America itself came under corporate control at its inception.

In the next volume, Maximus IV, V, VI, Olson employs "field

composition," the use of the page as a landscape on which to represent the play of

forces in nature. He called his method "reenactment," and the cascade of words,

numbers, and documents maps phases of Western migration, the origins of Gloucester, and

the growth and decay of American culture. The shape of history is organic. The upside-down

lotus representing the spread of the cosmos in Hindu mythology appears in the poem as a

motif of the organicity of all events.

The Maximus Poems, Volume Three, though edited by other hands, follows the logic

of the preceding books to close the epic. Maximus explores modern Gloucester through eyes

that have witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations elsewhere. The poems, or

"letters" as they are sometimes called in the text, are by turns elegiac and

contentious, but elegant in their grasp of myth in everyday life. The grand cosmic design

is partly revealed in the minutiae of the town, and Maximus, like T. S. Eliot’s

Tiresias, bears a memory that is the "history of time."

Olson left Black Mountain College in 1957 to write in Gloucester, and from 1963 to 1965

he taught modern literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In January

1964 Olson’s second wife was killed in a car crash, which stunned him and haunted his

poetry toward the end. Work on the Maximus cycle slowed in the final years of his

life, but his reputation as an innovator and thinker was secure despite the critical

controversies raging around him. American poetry would never be the same after him. In

1969 he was invited to teach at the University of Connecticut, but after several sessions

he was stricken with liver cancer and was forced to withdraw. He died in New York.

Olson’s papers are housed in two major depositories, the Olson Archive of the

University of Connecticut and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas,

Other works by Olson are Causal Mythology (1969), The Fiery Hunt and Other

Plays (1977), and The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father (1974). Olson’s

reading list for poets is in A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn (1964). Selected

Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (1966), and Additional Prose, ed. George F.

Butterick (1974), reprint short works. The Special View of History, ed. Ann

Charters (1970), and Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews, ed.

Butterick, contain his work on history. Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at

St. Elizabeths (1975) reprints his notes on Pound.

Biographies include Tom Clark, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life

(1991) and Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut (1975), on the last days.

Studies include Ed Dorn, What I See in the Maximus Poems (1960), Sherman Paul, Olson’s

Push (1978), Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (1978), Paul

Christensen, Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael (1979), and Don Byrd, Charles

Olson’s Maximus (1980).

Olson’s correspondence is in Letters for Origin, ed. Albert Glover (1969); Charles

Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, ed. Butterick (1980- ); and In

Love, in Sorrow: The Complete Correspondence of Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg, ed.

American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 15:44:56 2001

Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University

Press. All rights reserved.

Olson, Charles

Olson, Charles. "Projective Verse". Summary Introduction

The essay contrasts the traditional non-projective verse (or, closed verse), which is the kind of verse bred by press, and the new projective verse (or, open verse), which should become the mode of the future. The new verse form is characterized as prospective, projective, and percussive. Projective verse uses composition by field. as opposed to the inherited line, stanza, and over-all form.


1. As to the kinetics, it must transfer the same amount of energy from the poet through the poem to the audience.

2. As to the principle, form must never be more than an extension of content.

3. As to the process, one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.


Projective verse is based on the possibilities of breath. The poet must register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath. Rime and metre should be less in forefront of the mind than the syllable. The two halves of a poem are the syllable. born from the head by the way of the ear, and the line. born from the heart by the way of the breath. The syllable and the line together make a poem.


Rhetorical devices must be used carefully. Simile is to be avoided. Descriptive functions are to be watched so that they should not drain on the energy of the poem. Any slackness takes off attention. The law of the line is superior to tenses, syntax, and grammar generally.


The essay points out with appreciation the pioneering works of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. It does not appreciate the Romantic poets, John Milton, or T. S. Eliot. It recommends the use of various spacing to indicate breath, e.g. an indented line means hold breath for the duration of the indention.

Projective Verse Essay - California

American Sentences: Catching the Shadow of the Moment. If poetry and science cannot change one’s life, they’re meaningless. – Michael McClure.

Charles Olson (1910-1970) What does not change/ is the will to change -Charles Olson (opening line from The Kingfishers) In the documentary about Charles.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” appeared in theaters in February, 2004. I saw the movie in a local theater in early March. The film had raised a great.

The Black Mountain poets, sometimes called projectivist poets, were a group of mid 20th century American avant-garde or postmodern poets centered on Black Mountain.

The Academy of American Poets is the largest membership-based nonprofit organization fostering an appreciation for contemporary poetry and supporting American poets.

  • The full text of Olson's essay is available at the Poetry Foundation website. “Projective Verse” and the “Open Text” Considered as Practices of Body by Sam Cha.
  • Rhythm, in poetry, the patterned recurrence, within a certain range of regularity, of specific language features, usually features of sound. Although difficult to.
Projective Verse Essay Definition

Is a spontaneous composition process in which the writer engages speech “at its least careless and least logical” in the words of Charles Olson from his 1950.

Introduction. Charles Olson’s influential manifesto, “Projective Verse,” was first published as a pamphlet, and then was quoted extensively in William Carlos.

Printer’s Devil Review is proud to present two critical works on poet Charles Olson’s 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse” — a seminal modernist essay that champions the primacy of speech and breath in poetic composition. In the first essay, poet Sam Cha offers a personal reflection on Olson’s ideas, as well as those of language poet Lyn Hejinian. The second essay, by PDR editor Thomas Dodson, mounts a postmodernist critique of Olson’s approach to the tension between written and spoken language.

Projective Verse at Fifty


    As an echo of contemporary despair, as a picture of dissolution, of the breaking- down of the very structures on which life has modeled itself, The Waste Land has a certain authenticity. But an artist is, by the very nature of creation, pledged to give form to formlessness; even the process of disintegration must be held within a pattern. This pattern is distorted and broken by Eliot's jumble of narratives, nursery-rhymes, criticism, jazz-rhythms, Dictionary of Favorite Phrases and a few lyrical moments. Possibly the disrupton of our ideas may be reproduced through such a melange, but it is doubtful whether it is crystallized or even clarified by a series of severed narratives--tales from which the connecting tissue has been carefully cut--and familiar quotations with their necks twisted, all imbedded in a formless plasma of associations that are clear only in Eliot's mind. Dadaism, with its glorification of incoherence, is scarcely a step away.

              --Louis Untermeyer, American Poetry Since 1900 (1923)

I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately.

            --Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)

    "Verse now, 1950," wrote Charles Olson in his famous essay, "Projective Verse," "if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings." The question Olson is raising is how to make verse come alive ; if it isn't "breathing," it's dead.

    Towards the end of the essay he adds, "If [the poet] sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself." If, on the other hand, the poet "stays inside himself," if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist's act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. I would hazard the guess that, if projective verse is practiced long enough, is driven ahead hard enough, along the course I think it dictates, verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans. But it can't be jumped. We are only at its beginnings.

    The word "dictates" points in a direction which is always problematical for Olson--the assertion of authority--but in this context that problem is muted. "Projective Verse" is now fifty years old. Is it still valuable? Are we still only at the "beginnings" of Olson's "project"? Or has that idea run its course?

    In an interview dealing with his anthology, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Jerome Rothenberg commented on the fact that he and co-editor Pierre Joris had included Olson's prose piece, "The Resistance," but had not included "Projective Verse": Olson's resistance piece--a very short statement by Olson--is one of the many pivotal works in the anthology. I think our choice was to use that as a representation of Olson's poetics rather than, for example, his best-known work, "Projective Verse." There is no projective verse to speak of in Poems for the Millennium. There could have been. There are references to it. One acknowledges its presence, its importance, but I think our choice here (given that it's a book of choices) was to focus on Olson in the "resistance," Olson as one of the figures doing something that does have a particular Americanness to it: that is, the merging of poetry and history.

    The editors' decision not to include "Projective Verse" in a book dealing with the major currents of the twentieth century suggests that--at least in their opinion--the essay did not have a lasting influence; indeed, Rothenberg points out that "there is no projective verse to speak of" in the anthology.*

    In contrast, Michael McClure, in his book, Simple Eyes. writes that "My poetry is not written in free verse, but in a poetics that Charles Olson called projective verse: Those who have not read my poetry before will discover that I write with a breath line and that I listen to the syllable as it appears in my voice or on the tip of my pen or on my screen or on my field of energies.

    Rather than being an untutored or naive form of poetry, projective verse is the most difficult to write; not only is it the most new, it is also capable of including, and sometimes does include, the old shapes of iambs and metric counts and rhymes and near rhymes."

    The Charles Olson who described rhyme as "the dross of verse" in "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master. " would probably not have agreed with McClure's assertion that projective verse "sometimes does include. the old shapes of iambs and metric counts and rhymes and near rhymes," but it is clear that projective verse remains for McClure a living tradition, as it was for poets like Larry Eigner and Robert Duncan and continues to be for Diane di Prima, Sharon Doubiago, George Quasha, Charles Stein, and Jake Berry, who was favored by what he believes to have been a ghostly visitation of Charles Olson. Olson's insistence on "breath"--and his powerful performances of his own poetry--connect him to the "spoken word" movement, though his innovative use of the page is also one of the influences on Language Poetry, a more silent, "writing"-oriented practice. Some of Susan Howe's work graphically resembles the work in Olson's Maximus IV, V, VI. Even the New Formalist poet Paul Lake--who criticizes Olson--admits in "Verse That Print Bred" (published in the anthology After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition ) that "Projective Verse" "has proved to be hugely influential, amounting to something like a theoretical cornerstone to the Black Mountain poets, as well as to later writers of free verse; and today it continues to influence strongly even poets who have never read it."

    Paul Nelson, a poet younger than any of the ones I have mentioned--and who was deeply moved by the work of Michael McClure--recently opened a discussion with me about projective verse. I was delighted by his interest and enthusiasm and could see ways in which Olson's essay (via McClure) had affected his work. For him, the central issue was a word which doesn't actually appear in Olson's essay: the word "integration." Nelson wrote, "One might be considered an integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism, along with other systems."

    Were The "Maximus" Poems like that? Certainly it sounded initially as though they might be: "Maximus" / "larger organism." But I began to wonder. It occurred to me that the rather Blakean model my friend was suggesting had been with us for a very long time: it's the concept that lies behind the idea of the "United" (integrated) "States" (system of organs that make up a larger organism).

    "Fragmentation" was another topic of discussion, and we talked about the movement from "fragmentation" to "wholeness"--terms that seemed extremely problematical to me. I wrote him that words or concepts such as

    "fragment" as opposed to "whole"

    "fragmented" as opposed to "integrated"

    "part" as opposed to "whole"

    "particular" as opposed to "universal"

couldn't be used to "solve" the problem of "fragment/wholeness" precisely because such terms and concepts CREATE the problem of "fragment/wholeness": i.e. they can't solve the problem because they ARE the problem. It occurred to me that Olson's work--and that of others--begins to question this entire house of cards: it implicitly proposes other modes of ordering. In "Maximus to Gloucester Letter 15," someone complains to Olson, "You go all around the subject." He replies, "I didn't know it was a subject."

    What follows is a passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein's book, Philosophical Investigations. I have quoted it in various essays because it seems to me to be a wonderful example of "other modes of ordering." In this passage, Wittgenstein is questioning the idea of "essence"; he is asking whether there is some "essence" to the concept of "games," some quality without which an entity can't be considered a game. Wittgenstein is unable to find any single quality which applies to ALL games, though he finds many which apply to some, even many games. He writes, And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

    I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.--And I shall say: 'games' form a family. And we extend our concept. as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

    What the philosopher is describing in "the overlapping of many fibres" is very different from "an integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism." There is no "integration" and no "larger organism" here--at least not in the sense of something made up of "an integrated system of organs." It is a situation in which there are various unifying features, various patterns--the way some members of a family may resemble one another. But some entities included in the group have little to nothing to do with one another.

    Olson's poetry--and behind it, Pound's poetry, with its questioning of its own coherence--seems to me to be similar to what Wittgenstein describes in this passage. There are plenty of patterns and you can find them, but there is no overall pattern, no "unity," no "coherence"--no "integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism."

    The problem of "fragmentation"--and all the problems that arise from it--comes about precisely because of a "metaphysics" (or "mindset") in which "fragmentation" is conceived of as the opposite of "wholeness." I realize that many people believe that such a conception is obviously true. But in fact it is a construct like any other, and there is no law that says you have to think in that way. The entire situation can be redefined--i.e. conceived of in a different set of terms in which there are no "fragments" because there is no "wholeness" (and no "wholeness" because there are no "fragments"). What I'm saying here is more than a question of mere terminology: it is the perception of certain patterns, certain kinds of "unities," rather than others: it refers to a different "arrangement" of things. It seems to me that anything which claims to speak for "wholeness" or "universality" or "integration" is an affirmation of precisely those patterns which cause the problems of fragmentation. Wittgenstein's "overlapping of many fibres" does not speak for such things. It may create its own problems, but they will at least be different problems from the ones that have been plaguing us for the past couple of hundred years.

    Pound's Cantos and Olson's Maximus Poems are important in part because they DON'T speak for wholeness or universality--because they DON'T create "an integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism." Judged by such a criterion--the criterion of the creation of an integrated system--they are obviously failures. They don't "cohere." And yet they are obviously NOT failures: they are poems people return to again and again. We need different criteria to judge them, make sense of them--criteria which are at some remove from the categories of fragment vs. wholeness, etc. What Wittgenstein asserted in his passage about games begins to suggest how we can value such work explicitly, how we can talk about it.

    I realize that to say that the concept of "wholeness" is to be fought against flies in the face of the "wisdom" of many disciplines--yet that is what I'm saying. And I think that a genuine reading of Olson (and others) will support me in this. Indeed, in a political sense, "wholeness" or "integration" or "universality" may well be the philosophical guise of imperialism--a concept which certainly values at least one kind of "wholeness."

    In his introduction to Michel Foucault's This is Not a Pipe. James Harkness remarks that, in Foucault's world, "things are cast adrift, more or less like one another without any of them being able to claim the privileged status of 'model' for the rest." That is precisely the way in which the various "fragments" in Olson's poems behave. It also suggests the kind of "disorder" Foucault refers to in Les Mots et Les Choses (translated as The Order of Things ): "I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately."

    George Quasha, who has spent a good deal of time thinking about Olson's essay, told me that in projective verse, the field is alive **. it has a mind of its own which is constantly asserting itself--at times against the mind of the poet. Olson's essay--which the poet admits is only a "beginning"--is an attempt to bring the artist into an area in which such things happen, in which the field becomes alive. This is part, I think, of what he means by "listening." To quote from "Projective Verse" again: if [the artist] is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist's act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. The poem is "projected," thrown forward, thrust before us in its extraordinary livingness. It "makes its own way." It is "larger than the man." It "glitters" with possible orders. It is scarcely a step away from Dada.

    And it is not "closed" but "open."

    * Jerome Rothenberg writes, "I'm a little concerned that the sentence 'There is no projective verse to speak of in Poems for the Millennium' is being a little misunderstood. What I meant, anyway, is that there are no excerpts from the essay in Millennium but not, as you say later, that 'the essay did not have a lasting influence.' In fact I think it had a considerable influence and that the influence, while not the only or even the dominant one and while sometimes separated from Olson as source (a half-century later!), can be felt today in many quarters."

    ** A New Formalist might argue that it is not the field which is alive but the form--that the form is not a burdensome dictation from the past but a living entity which has its own agendas and insistences.

Jack Foley is an innovative, widely-published poet and critic who, with his wife, Adelle, performs his work frequently in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the past several years he has hosted a show of interviews and poetry presentations on Berkeley radio station KPFA. His current show. "Cover to Cover," is on every Wednesday at 3 p.m. His poetry books include Letters/Lights�Words for Adelle (1987), Gershwin (1991), Adrift (1993), (nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers' Award), Exiles (1996), and (with Ivan Arg�elles) New Poetry from California: Dead / Requiem (1998). He is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash.

Additional reviews and interviews can be found on his website Foley's Books. Email: Jack Foley