In a recent interview published in the latest Paris Review 218 (Fall 2016) as The Art of Poetry No. 101, British poet Jeremy Prynne makes some surprising – some might even say shocking – judgments of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and the culture of Black Mountain College. Dispatches thought it would be enlightening to compare Prynne’s remarks to those he previously made in a talk he gave in Vancouver on Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI which we reprint here from The Minutes of the Charles Olson Society.
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I said I would talk to you today about the second batch of Maximus, which I am glad to do, because my sense of the completion of that poem varies very strongly according to where I am, and this is a new place to be, so I have what seems to me a new poem with me, which it would be good to see if you could take some measure of. Some of you will no doubt already know this poem quite well; and to those I imagine I have little to say. I address myself to those of you who either don’t know it, or know it only very partially, because that seems to me to be the useful thing to do.
Where I come from, just down the road, oh, less than a block, William Wordsworth got his education, and just across the road John Milton got his. So, that’s a long way away from here, now. When we came up here this morning, oh, we didn’t take the road: no, sir, intrepid Professor Maud, we went right up the track, right up the middle of the track. So, here we are in the wilderness, with Wordsworth and Milton in the sock. Now, why I think of that is because there are two things in my mind right now about this poem of Olson’s, IV, V, and VI; and it’s what I want to put in front of you.
Firstly, that this is a noble poem. And secondly, that it is a simple one. Now I come right round to that, I hope, in the concluding arc of what I might come to say about that. You see, I mean, both of those guys were never lyric poets. Milton was never a lyric poet, never wanted to be, trained himself for years not to be, systematically disqualified himself from writing the lyric. And Wordsworth, when he wrote what looks to us like lyrics, was simply teaching what he knew in the most directly didactic effective method he knew how. So, that particular span of operation, the great angelic history of Paradise Lost, the great memory of a personal time of the Prelude: those things are not lyric. If we come to this poem of Olson’s, we are in the condition of something which is not lyric.
That is something which it took me a long while to recognize, but which once recognized is clear. It’s not easy to see, certainly from the first stage of Maximus because there are all sorts of sections in there which sound to be lyric and seem to justify themselves as lyric, and seem to operate in just those terms. Example, “The Twist,” as it goes towards the end:
the flowers break off
but the anther,
the filament of now, the mass
the whole of it
to this pin-point
in this day’s sun,
in this veracity
there, the waters the several of them the roads
here, a blackberry blossom
That sounds like lyric. It has all that gracious behavior of the lyric occasion. That we allow the long poem its own destiny, and that particular kind of apparent lyricism, is fulfilled and brought right round by the second stage of the poem. How is it done? What is the particular localism of that section from “The Twist,” and there are others, there are other sections like that in the first section, the first set, of Maximus? Well, there are those flowers, there is that pinpoint, there is that particular notion of knowing what bottom you’re sailing over, there is that question of getting up your own fish, of not being a petrified fisherman cowering behind a dried fish factory. That’s a particular kind of fixing the local instant by what seems to be like all the devices of lyric metaphor. So the second poem, what does it do? Building out on what is already implicit in that poem, it takes in a condition which will retrieve that from the lyric. How it does it is to take the whole condition of something called the cosmos into its aim, so that the mere lyric particular can transmute itself beyond that point.
Now here I have a warning to give to you. I said that I think this poem is simple, and I really do think it’s simple. But there is a complication to add to that. The poem is simple, but the life it came out of, and the pre-occupations that surround it, immeasurably dense and confused and packed with a kind of fertile obscurity. You should beware of those who knew him: they will tell you so much you will just die of it. The man has to have, had to have around him a great mass of dense information and confusion, a great mass of pressure, from which at any moment he could spring out another section of the word. So that the life he lived, that particular kind of mythology, that is something I think is something which will not tell you what this poem is, the poem as the simple set of its occasion.
Well, it brings in the cosmos. And what is the cosmos? I will pause to offer some definitions at this point. Cosmology, the knowledge of the cosmos, cosmology proper is the knowledge of the universe considered as a whole. And by universe we mean that class of object whose set is filled by a unique instance, that there is no other, that anything we can imagine which we could add to the cosmos is already part of it. That means that the universe is already the most completely prime particular thing. That’s to say, it is the absolute particular, because there is nothing other like it, there is nothing other related to it. It is particular. Knowledge of it is therefore first philosophy, in Aristotle’s sense: the study of being as such, the grounds and condition of being, as it would have been understood, for example, by the pre-Socratic philosophers, or by Newton, or by anyone else in that order. Knowledge of the local and component parts of it, where each set is occupied by numerous instances, where there are more than one kind, is not first philosophy, though it may participate in that. So, if you have a condition of that order, then there is no lyric, because the lyric relies on the gracious condition of metaphor, and metaphor transfers the small into the large, and the one thing into the other; and the lyric is therefore not a condition of the whole, but a condition of the part.
Now, this poem operates in a curiously double way. And the way I think of it is this, that the first part of this poem, occupied as it is with the settling of Gloucester and the way out into the ocean, into Okeanos, the way out into space, has that prime set on the Figure of Outward, on the out as a “coat of wonder, “ as he puts it. And there is a kind of apparent lyric thrust out into the open space, which that seems to involve. He says in “Letter 14” [“Maximus, to Gloucester / Letter 14”]:
The old charts
are not so wrong
which added Adam
to the world’s directions
Adam, you see, the new man, the new man as the metaphor for the whole man: that’s what it sounds like. How can that condition be retrieved from the apparent lyric opening, and expanded?
Well, right at the beginning of the new Maximus, the IV, V, and VI, we are told we turn our backs on the sea. We have been right out to sea. And by sea, of course, Olson means space and means the large condition of the cosmos; and we must understand that for Olson to look from the Gloucester coast out into the Atlantic is to look into the livelihood of the past, to look into the economic support of the whole of the beginnings of that race from which he felt he came, to look back to the cultural origins of the whole settlement of New England, and to look back to the mid-Atlantic ridges, those upthrusts of mountain ridges down beneath the Atlantic, which figure so largely in his imagination as the last residues of the birth of the great continents in the original orogenies which formed the earth as we know it. And when he talks about cosmos, what he does not mean, of course, is that squalid astral picnicking, recently propagandized by Dr. von Braun, which is an essential technological vulgarity of an entirely different order.
So, that particular kind of outset, which the first Maximus seems to offer, that voyage, that wide-eyed voyage, that confident trusting voyage with whole stretches of apparent lyricism, then gets switched into the reverse stance. You go back down the line that you have already taken, you fold back into yourself just like that kind of tube, and you take what has been story and you fold it back into legend. Both of those terms are, of course, still within the range of muthos, of myth, that myth which is the telling the story of where you are. The first story of where you are is knowing where you came from, of what sand you have on the bottom. The second story is less local, is more grand:
in stately motion to sing in high bitch voice the fables
of wood and stone and man and woman loved
So, that condition of the cosmos brings about a condition also of myth as the structure of the language used, which allows for an extension into mythography, the writing of where one is.
Now, here we have the condition of coast, which creates the possibility for mythography. Coast: I mean that ambiguous delicate line between the land and the sea, with its prime sexual ambiguity that Whitman recognized with such delicacy — that you look out to sea, recognizing that you come back to land; that you do what Melville did, and you make the excursion in such a way that the land becomes enlarged behind you and occupies your dreams. The sea occupies your vision, and in between the two you whirl. That condition of coast now it seems to me is the condition of the relation between these two poems, these two sets of poem, the firstMaximus and the second Maximus, except that the first Maximus is the sea, the second Maximus is the land. You come right round in that way.
Now when, as I say, Maximus looks out to sea, he looks through the sea, down into the sea, out into the cosmos, we have the whole of Okeanos, we have the whole of the void, we have the whole of the condition of that circular curve to the condition of space. That circular curve is an important condition of the lyric, because the cosmos, in his sense, comprises the rearward time vector, back to the past, and all the space vectors extended until they go circular, that is to say, until you reach the ultimate curvature of the whole, so that they solve themselves into myth. That circular, that curving rhythm, the condition which you can finally reach to, is the condition of the cosmos where the cosmos becomes myth. That’s true about the scientific condition as well — that there is no doubt in my mind at all that the limits of space and the limits, for example, of absolute temperature, the curvature to which they attain, are all very closely isomorphic. So that, once that curvature is reached, the lyric concludes, and what takes over is the condition of myth.
The same is true in some implausibly grandiose way about the Miltonic narrative, in that his narrative has certainly no beginning. I mean, the beginning of time is a quite unreal concept. Similarly, the poem has no end. It is essentially a circular construct with a fault. The Maximus poem, not predicated on a theology, is a circular poem without a fault: that is to say, no Fall, no original sin — my god, plenty of other sin, but no original sin. The sin in Maximus is mostly a matter of wit, and humor, and which woman happens to be within the ambience of which particular phraseology at any one time.
is not the same
is an eternal
I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the land out, or to cross
a wet deck.
The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man’s argument
that such postponment
is now the nature of
that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily
That’s got to be from the first Maximus. “I stood estranged from that which was most familiar”: that’s a man looking out to sea. And how does a man standing on his particular piece of coastline, which is not the same as land, know what the land is? And by land I do not mean that superficial notion of terrain, but the whole compact history of the planet. How does he know that? There is only one place you can see that from and that is from the curvature of the limits. The local technique, the local trick for seeing it is for doing it by the delicate inversions of the lyric. The larger, more extended, more sophisticated approach to have that whole is to go right out to the curve, right round, and then from that focus, from the burning glass of the whole round of the far side, then you find you truly were estranged from that which was most familiar. What was most familiar? What was most familiar was home. And what is home? Home is the planet on which you live. Nowhere have I been more struck, oh more passionately struck by the notion that the planet, the whole globe, the earth upon which we live, is home to us. There was that unbelievably gross photograph of the earth taken across the surface of the moon, which is now in all the soap ads, which was supposedly the first picture of earth as home. My god, the stunning alienation of that piece of sentimental whimsy disguised as hatred was unbelievable. We have to go to the exactness and completeness of poetry to tell us what such a condition of home would be like. And if you want it in its largest sense, you have to go the largest distance from it in order to come right back round to take it in at one sweep. That condition of home, as I say, is quite stunning. When the German metaphysician Heidegger was trying to get himself straight with the poems of Holderlin, the German Hellenic lyric poet, the great mage of that nineteenth century German presence, he seized onto the phrase, “poetically man dwells on this earth”; and he ponders it, and he turns it round, and he’s asking himself what is the condition of being that makes it possible for man to be at home on the earth. Well, nothing, nothing in your lyric set-up will allow you to be at home on the earth. You could be at home in, oh, some cozy little piece of North Alberta. That’s entirely permissible. You could be at home in some, oh, the lyric. It is permitted only to the great epic performances: and what’s more, to the great epic performances that can carry across that distance, and which you can carry with: that’s to say, the obscure epic.
Wow, that’s a failed epic. I mean, that’s finished. The obscure lyric you can get a kind of touch to the spinal column from. There is a thrill you can get from a certain kind of dense suggestive cheesecake kind of lyric language. But the obscure epic, oh, — and there are obscure epics, I mean, well, obscure small epics anyway. The obscure large ones, I mean, just perish. There is an amazingly delicate review that the great English classical scholar Porson did of one of Robert Southey’s epics, and he must have written, oh, about two dozen, I guess. And he offered the remark that the latest confection of Mr. Southey will be read and cherished long after Homer and Milton are forgotten, and not until then. And no doubt there are others, lurking in that great hinterland. Or there are those which are freighted down with information! There are those which are so obscurely ingested into their own origins that even now the intention of the non-lyric performance is clear, but the intention of what lies beyond that is absolutely open to argument. Chapman is the case in point. The nobility of Chapman’s idea that it was not easily to be understood, that the obscurity was part of the process, that there was a kind of grandeur in the smoke and clouds of the far reaches of the learned imagination, oh, it’s a great idea, and if only, if only we could really follow it. I mean, we have the glimmers, we have the lurking glimmers of what it’s like, and then there comes the point when it could be one thing or it could be the other thing: and we carry the fork in our minds and we go on, and then we come to another point where it could be one or another thing, and we carry the fork in our minds. And finally we just yearn for a spoon. I mean, the situation is that desperate.
So, it must be clear. It must be simple. And the second Maximus, what it gives us is something so simple as homecoming. Oh, we’ve heard that before. So we have. The other great poem of homecoming — there are two great poems of homecoming across the sea: the other, of course, is the wandering of Odysseus. What struck me last night, as I was re-reading the whole of Maximus right through just to see what it felt like, was how extraordinary it is that Pound should conduct his homecoming epic right the other way round, so that the moment of that particular resonant vibrant curved voyage of coming home should appear right at the start of the Cantos. That furry moment when the, you remember, when the row-locks become vine tendrils, oh, the pathos, the sheer affection of that moment carries great swathes of meaning right forward into that great poem. That poem is, in that sense, therefore, not opened up in those arcs at all, but continuously interlocked with itself, going out, coming in, going out, coming in, going out and coming in, all the way across. That poem therefore could be indefinitely extended. Olson’s poem could not be indefinitely extended. They tell me there is a great mass of further material. But I know for myself that the primary structure of this poem is already complete. And complete in two major movements: the going out, the asking the great questions, the making of the great statements: and the coming back, the coming back across the sea, the coming back through the ocean, coming back to the shore, and then the shore fades into a condition of land, and the condition of land approximates to the condition of the planet. And you see the condition of the planet doesn’t then have to be some horrid little bit of the galactic village. Oh, no, I mean, that’s the other thing we could get wrong, you see. And that’s what these Newtonian people, who run the whole universe according to celestial mechanics, would tell us: that we’re just one little bit, that all we are is just, you know, like, — you hypothesize the total mass of the universe and then you fix a notional fraction for what we got. I mean, the rest of it, you know, think of the mining out there. That’s an entirely different notion, which we fortunately have no truck with. That’s the limit, that would be the limit. You see, when if one read those great “Lucy” poems of Wordsworth’s as lyric
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
If we took that as a lyric, then it would always be partial, it would always be incomplete. There would always be that pathos of something more. Those rocks, those stones, those trees, however, participate in the whole, Each of those little fragments that lie on those large pages in the second batch of Maximus participate in the whole; each of those little phrases has within it the curvature of the whole of the spatial condition.
And now let all the ships come in
pity and love the Return the Flower
the Gift and the Alligator catches
— and the mind go forth to the end of the world
That condition right round to home is one of the things which that earlier part:
there, the waters the several of them the roads
here, a blackberry blossom
fulfills itself in, by taking itself to that completeness. So, that curvature is present continuously in what we hear. It becomes the singular condition, so that everything we take is literal, and not an instance of something else, we escape the metaphor. We participate in the condition of being. And the condition of being is thankfully beyond the condition of meaning. Oh yes, the whole language has that vibrancy, that steady vibrancy of the singular curvature which is equivalent to what was anciently called nobility.
That’s what they meant, that’s what the ancients meant when they talked about the noble. They meant that it was single. They meant that it participated in the whole. They meant that it communed with the music of the spheres. That’s what they meant by the noble. It is the nineteenth century psychologists, of course, that tell us it means something to do with the class structure. Oh, yes, that’s something which, I guess, you have the old world to thank, and perhaps one or two little off-shoots of Boston.
It is the singular, then, that makes it possible to consider the question of love as a complete part of the cosmos, and as love for the planet, as love for the whole. You see, if you talk about a love poem, huh, there’s got to be someone there. But if you talk about the love epic, then the someone who is there is so large and so extended that it can really be the larger condition of love beyond the condition of the person. That’s something which Pound realized when he came to Cavalcanti: he realized that that Cavalcanti poem really had some understanding of the condition of love which could be extended through the language into the absolute curvature of the way a person’s mind was open to what he heard and to what he saw and to what he felt. And indeed that particular notion of having one’s nerves set open is referred to affectionately by Olson in his poem as he passes through the poem, a nod to Pound to show that he knows that that’s going on. Otherwise this poem could be a poem of love only insofar as particular instances of affection offered themselves out of his own past, out of his own experience, out of the people he knew. We’d be back in that particular localism of “my story.”
There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of
Keats has the phrase which burns out of his letters about how completely now, how more and more he is convinced of the holiness of the heart’s affection. He had difficulty with the condition of that which was not lyric. How he yearned for it. You can see him struggling in Hyperion to get out of that particular sense of lyric entrapment. That the thing would burn fusingly to a centre, would glut itself in a moment of intense preoccupation, and burn out: how much he wanted to get beyond that, how much he absolutely geared his whole condition to be able to give and take and feel the whole love for the condition as something larger than that, as something that could be sustained, and something that could be lifted out of that local other then by the gesture of that metaphoric extension. He knew that the heart’s affections were holy. And so it’s clear Olson did, so it’s clear that was the condition of mind for him: that affection, that love occupy the universe, because the curvature of the further side of the ultimate ocean — you go from land to shore, shore to sea, sea to ocean, ocean to Okeanos, Okeanos to the Great Void — and the curvature of that is love.
Now, this might seem to be another piece of the Olsonian obscurity. But it’s absolutely the great tradition, right the way back, oh, as for as one can begin: Empedocles, Bruno. The curvature of the universe is love. I mean, you can know that; I mean, you can feel it; I mean, it’s just unmistakable. Some people can get it just like that from the night sky; for other people, I suppose, it takes a little longer. There are great moments in Blake’s poems where he knows that too. There is that extraordinary poem where he decides to re-work Milton and to arrange for the demonic possession of himself by Milton. And there are extraordinary congestions of personality which result from that unlikely genetic interchange. But there are moments in that poem of Blake’s, Milton, which are the absolute presence of love. Because, well, I mean, you take an orthodox Puritan theology, and you ride that out until it burns away, and then you ride beyond that on the visionary presence of the ancient prophets, and you reach it. It is a two-stage rocket. And you get there. And where you get is the curvature of the universe. And that’s what Blake in that early poem, not being able to reach in one thrust, had two shots at, and comes right out to it, and oh the flowers, and oh the astral bodies. There is a most fantastic spread across the rim of the horizon. And the condition of affection, oh it’s unmistakable. If I had all my books around me, I would read it to you. And if I had all my books round me, I wouldn’t be here. So isn’t that great.
Finally, what this takes us right round to is that it is simple. Simple in a technical sense: that’s to say, the universe is simple. Any part of the universe is complex. In fact, there are only two things in the universe which are simple, and one of them is the universe taken as a whole; and the other is its language, because its language is its capacity for love. And the capacity of the universe for love is that for which man was born. Oh yes, I am an absolute predestinarian in that sense. I believe utterly in that it is man’s destiny to bring love to the universe, I mean, to fulfill the universe’s potential for love. It’s great, you know; in France — they keep things alive longer there — the word for magnet is “aimant” (lover). I just flipped when I heard that. Always, I mean, in all the ancient cosmologies, the planets were moved by love, or carried round. The First Mover was certainly love. It’s a very curious thing that all our notions of how the sequences and linkages of one to one, and part to whole, are determined, derive from the celestial mechanics for a particular era — that’s to say, not from the early celestial mechanics, and not from all sorts of alternatives, but from that particular Newtonian mathematics. It would be very interesting to think what kind of a system we would have if we derived our sense of what constituted a cause and what constituted a direction from patterns other than the mechanics of celestial motion considered in the eighteenth century sense. Like, for example, the passage of animals. There’s something very close to the condition of the celestial universe up to about 1590 in the movement of animals. That’s what you have to try and see. If we get ourselves to that condition of the universe, any animal will do, like birds, any of the omen animals, of course, we have some literary sense of, but like fish in the pond, those planetary movements. I mean, think of the extraordinary unlikelihood of what such a thing like Stonehenge or Avebury were built to predict. They never thought they would work. Oh, never. I mean, they were chance shots. Like, sooner or later it must come round again, and it must come round again because it was wanted: and if it was wanted, it would come. There is this immense controversy now about how they knew over those immense periods of time that there were cyclic repetitions in the movement of heavenly bodies. They didn’t know. They just wanted it. That’s how it happened.
And the Olson poem also wants it. And if you read it, and if you hear it, then you also want it. Then you can also have the particular condition of transpiring through the noble arc, from the land to the shore, from the shore to the sea, from the sea to the ocean, from the ocean to the void, from the void to the horizonal curve, which is love. You have the condition. You turn it round. You bring it all back in. You come right down, and you are home.
Transcribed by Tom McGauley and published in Iron (October 1971); reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #28 (April 1999).