The Maximus Weekend

olsonCharles Olson

Weekend 14-15  January 2017

These two days are dedicated to Charles Olson’s Maximus.  Shakespeare in the Mountains is all about the power of reading aloud and this weekend I gave my time to reading the Maximus poems aloud in their entirety.  I have posted the readings as podcasts on Podomatic.

 

Go to Amazon to find the version of the Maximus poems I have used.

Charles Olson started the Maximus poems when he was still at Black Mountain College.  My interest in this community of misfits in the mountains of North Carolina comes from fellow-feeling: I lived and worked at Summerhill School in England; as Martin Duberman says in his book on the college, A.S. Neill of Summerhill is an unacknowledged progenitor of the educational experiment.  As a bubbling pot of ideas and creativity Black Mountain College has no parallel and Olson’s method of teaching was at the heart of this.  He insisted that the students find their own place, their own feet, in the world.  It was a far cry from systematic modern education, with its emphasis on grades and assignments, as each course was tailor-made around the needs of the student.  You can think this is inspiring or you can think it is idealistic nonsense supported by little more than bombast.

You can have the same reaction to Olson’s poetry.  It is inspiring in its breadth and humanity.  Not content with making little pretty things, he wants to take on the whole universe and force it through the experience of one man.  At times, it is frustratingly opaque and you come away with the sensation that Olson has read too much.  You seem to be following him into a thicket.  He is like a wild, precocious, hyperactive impresario.  Many readers and reviewers from his time to today have found it so frustrating that they have dismissed it out-of-hand.  Neill is often dismissed in the same manner and for similar reasons: he set himself against the whole of the prevailing thought of the world.  Critiques of Olson are similar in my mind to critiques of Neill: they can be “clever” and “sharp” but they essentially miss the point.

olson7What is the point then?  For me the crux and the nub of the matter is what it means to read and write.  When Ted Hughes, a poet I idolized as a teenager, became the poet laureate in England I felt deeply betrayed; when Benjamin Zephaniah turned down an OBE I shouted, “Yes!”  Why?  Because I want the writer to give me, the reader, the respect of his absolute seriousness in his vocation; reading and writing are a dyad; and neither can be subsumed into the banalities of the establishment, whether English or American.  Accepting a gong is a betrayal.  So, Olson, suffering the poverty, sickness and hunger of his later years, does not seem to me to be an artist in decline, but a magnificent and virtuoso writer/reader who deserves my dedication of two days to his magnum opus.

His first publisher, Jonathan Williams, had been a student at BMC and produced editions of the first two sets of Maximus poems in 1953 and 1956.  The final poems are dated 1969.  Reading them through in their entirety is like following Olson through his life.  There are themes that reappear throughout the collection.  Gloucester, a fishing town on the New England coast, is the locus.  Olson mines mythology from all traditions to underpin a vision of a deeper history and geography that runs counter to the world that he sees developing around him.  He goes deeply into the history of Gloucester as a settlement relying on archival research that can be difficult to follow.  The purpose of this research, however, becomes clearer as the poems develop.  He declares it late in the collection:

olson6And this I write about is only subject, is strings

I play on to invoke the world

It is important to bear this in mind as you read or listen.  It would certainly be possible to verify Olson’s facts.  No doubt specialists in mythology, religion and seventeenth-century colonial history would find motives to cavil with the detail of his assertions.  As a non-specialist, I am drawn along by the evolving story.  The precise details are subsumed in the music of the words and ideas as they go to create the whole persona of Maximus.  It is certainly true that some of the historical investigations are not poetical or musical in a conventional sense, but then neither is Wordsworth.  For the same reason that it makes sense to read The Prelude in its entirety, it makes sense to read the Maximus poems in their entirety: the drier prose-like sections provide the necessary ground for the soaring or staccato sections.  Some poets write occasional pieces.  For both Wordsworth and Olson, the whole is the thing.

olson4Whereas Wordsworth defected from his early radical verse, however, Olson always remained an outsider.  He aroused antipathy in his time.  It was not just the ideas, but the way they were put across:  too cerebral, too incoherent, too downright.  As a radical he was also just too old.  He was too old to benefit from the Beat phenomenon and already felt himself to be side-lined when Kerouac and Ginsburg were assaulting the world in the early sixties with a new way of writing, a new challenge to orthodoxies.  Even when he was chosen as the lead poet of the seminal Grove Press Anthology, The New American Poetry in 1960, he came in for some severe critical bashing.  You can read a selection of these reviews in the illuminating biography by Tom Clark (Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, Norton, 1991, p.288-9).

Following Olson through into old age as he wanders the docks in the night, suffering hunger in his cold house alone, was deeply moving to me.  Since I am 51, I instantly felt a tug as he reached my age and was filled with admiration at his fidelity to his poetic vision despite the adversities in his life.  His language opens up in the later poems: he cusses and swears; he admits to the foibles of his common humanity.  He allows himself to merge with Maximus. Michael Rumaker (Black Mountain Days), also a student at Black Mountain College, tells how angry Olson was that he had confused Maximus, the mouthpiece of the poems, with Olson the poet.  In the later poems, there is no question of the identification and as Tom Clark shows in his biography the self-identification of Olson with Maximus was a means of mythologizing himself.  We come to see his life as the nexus of meaning in the poem.  This not only gives the poems a greater human appeal but opens up the drier historical sections.  What is it all about?  We learn as we progress.  When he meditates on the death of his father, for example, the father meditations that precede this point in the cycle achieve a new importance.

Why read Olson today?

edward-dorn

Way More West!

Reading Olson I made many connections with today.  He was breaking new ground with his emphasis on the deep geological past of the earth beneath his feet.  This is now a commonplace.  Ted Dorn, another BMC student of Olson’s, incorporated a similar sensitivity to his poetry and brought it to the University of East Anglia as a tutor there.  In the UK it is now a commonplace in a certain type of writing to look for this deep substratum of current life.  For example, I have been reading a book called Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel and could not help but think that the author is the inheritor of the Olsonian tradition.

This tradition is environmental in a way that was outside of his time.  Olson was horrified by the narrow modern emphasis on consumerism in post-war America.  There are several strident comments in the Maximus poems.  The grandeur of Olson is revealed even more by the fact that he does not allow this to unbalance the rhythm of his words and ideas: occasional acerbic jibes at modern parents, modern shoppers, modern politicians do not deflect him from the grander purpose.  The historical investigations lead him to dig around the idea that the myth of an America founded as a home for religious dissenters from the oppression of England is a chimera: the business of fishing drew the settlers in.  This is extraordinary.  Contemporary historians are only now beginning to write with more insight about how doubtful all history is precisely because of the forms that it takes: history takes narrative forms that are predictable and repeatable; historians create stories relying on documents that themselves are not reliable.  If you have the patience to follow Olson in his sifting of dates and people, his distrust of the testimony of written witnesses, questioning their ages and their sources, you emerge with a new respect for the man.  This is the man who invented the term post-modern.

Projective Verse

Olson wrote an influential article called Projective Verse.  In the fifties, he and Robert Creeley worked together on a new way of writing.  Creeley’s poems of these years, in the period when he was living and working in Mallorca, are crystalline examples of this new poetics.  This poetic form is “composition by field”.  Olson emphasises the breath as the guiding principle of poetic composition, not mere syllable or foot counting.

I am conflicted in this, perhaps because I do not intellectually understand the arguments.  I still have a long journey to go before I even understand the principles of classical poetics.  Reading Olson is not easy.  My natural tendency is to give the poetic line respect as a reader: that is to say, when I read a line, even in a vers libre format, my tendency is to feel that the writer has chosen the line length for a purpose and give the line ending emphasis; enjambment doesn’t make logical sense in free verse.  W.H. Auden said that it was “always correct” to emphasise line endings and I had to drop this prescript with Olson.  You may notice, if you listen to the podcast, that I make some mis-readings because Olson confounded my expectations as I read: he put together long strands of thoughts and ideas with erratic punctuation and line endings that were counter-intuitive.

I could not help but notice how he works against conventional poetics and metrics.  You can only do this if you are aware of them, of course.  The iambic stress is natural to English speech.  “But soft what light through yonder window breaks,” is strictly iambic and does not sound unnatural.  Olson seems to want me to say a whole string of equally-stressed words- nouns even- in a row.  That is why I used the word staccato above.

I had read these poems before to myself and was not aware of the influence that reading them out loud would have on the sound of the verse.  This is the great reason for reading out loud.  Poetry is performative- even when it is intellectual, even when you can sense Olson writing the poems on a bench by the water or huddled over the typewriter in his cold kitchen.  Even when the poems are examples of concrete verse, I feel they cry out for performance.

Would you give over two days to reading Maximus?  Does the idea get your juices going?  If so, we should talk.  I live in Asturias in the mountains of northern Spain.  This is the place for reading and I welcome people here who have a similar passion.

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Reading for Everyone

https://shakespeareinthemountains.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/reading-for-everyone/

Here is something I wrote for Shakespeare in the Mountains.

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Iglesia Alvariño- O Longo das Ribeiras

???????????????????????????????Ó Longo das Ribeiras

 

 Along the water’s edge, in longing

I go, my girl.

 

Where are the boats and flowers?

 

The rivers no longer flow anywhere.

The far distance and the sea don’t exist.

Everything is here at the edge and clear.

 

The hour, anchored,

a barren stretch with no birds, no wind.

 

The sources of sleep

are full of dust,

and these eyes are tired and ageing.

 

But night must come

that was lost behind the mountains of Urbazán,

with the happiness of its wake of longing.

 

And then I will hoist all the sails

of these anchored hours,

poor, barren, with no birds, no wind.

 

 

 

Ó longo das ribeiras, arelante,

eu, meniña.

 

¿Ónde as barcas e as froles?

 

Os ríos xa non corren pra ningures.

Non esisten os lonxes nin a mar.

Todo está â beira e craro.

 

A hora, ancrada,

insua erma sin páxaros nin vento.

 

As fontelas do sono

están cheas de pô,

e os ollos están cansos e velliños.

 

Mais ha vir a noitiña,

que se perdéu nos montes de Urbazán,

coa alegría do seu ronsel de arelas.

 

I-entón eu ergueréi as velas todas

destas horas ancradas,

pobres, ermas, sin páxaros nin vento.

 

Aquilino Iglesia Alvariño, Cómaros Verdes, 1947 (Voz de Galicia, 2002)

 

Aquilino Iglesia Alvariño (Seivane, Abadín, 1909-Santiago, 1961) emerged before the Spanish Civil War publishing the collections Señardá (1930) and Corazón ao vento (1933).  These books continue the landscape poetry of Noriega Varela.  He reached his poetic maturity with Cómaros Verdes, from which this poem is taken.

 

Here he abandons rhyme and achieves a richness of poetic tone using short lines and repeating key words, particularly arelante/arelas.  The themes of the collection are saudade, reflections on nature and the strange linking of death and longing that are such common features of Galician poetry.

 

I bought this book for myself for my fiftieth birthday.  This poem that talks about ageing seemed appropriate.  The rhythm of the day is seen reflected in the rhythm of a life.  We are taken to the hot middle of the day along the water’s edge where everything is still.  The sources, or fountains, of sleep are full of dust.  Night brings sleep and dreaming.  It has a “ronsel de arelas”, “a wake of longings”.

 

This wake of longing reminds me of Eduardo Blanco Amor’s Ronsel da Morte.

 

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Xosé Vázquez Pintor

Xosé Vázquez Pintor-  The Longing Won’t Win Out

You can listen to this blog on Podomatic

searaI am revisiting a poem by Xosé Vázquez Pintor.  I want you to hear it in the original and in translation, now that I have connected my blog to the podcast service at Podomatic.   First I will read the translation.  I want you to pay attention to the line endings because they are important.  Vázquez Pintor has a jazzy style.  He topples the stresses towards the end of the line and then allows them to cascade into the next.  This is not formal scansion but it is curiously effective.

 

The longing won’t win out

if only the summers keep ready after so much

winter, which leaves us scared like the cloud

that comes from the Tropic and suddenly it drops below zero.

Around about now we’ll all be getting old, that

station where the train comes from afar without warning

and makes its last stop

for the final hi, welcome, what’s up, a coffee

with milk and now what doesn’t matter is the track that

is behind you because the journey is

only short and a sign on the platform reminds you that, no,

there’s no going back to man’s end but a metaphor

of return, a voucher buffet

that is rented out in dreams and is so pricey that

it would maybe have been better not to have come, ever.

 

Now let’s see it (and hear it if you can) in the original:

 

NON VAI TRUNFAR A SOEDADE

Se é que atentos permanecen os veráns despois de tanto

seara

Seara

Inverno que nos deixa ateridos como a nube aquela

Che chega do trópico e de súpeto entra en baixo cero.

Hogano estaremos todos entrando na vellice, esa

Estación onde o comboio vén de lonxe sen aviso

E pára-se definitivo

Para o derradeiro ola benvidos, que tal, un café

Con leite e xa non importa o camiño de ferro que

Se fixo atrás porque a viaxe é

pintor

No Corazón Mancado

Sosmentes breve e un monolito lembra no andén que non

Hai ese regreso a cabo home senón una metáfora

De volta, un comaquén de tíquet

Que se aluga no soño e ten un prezo tan alto que

Máis valera acaso no ter vido, nunca.

 

Xosé Vázquez Pintor, No Corazón Mancado (1989)

 

vpintor

Image from Wikipedia

Xosé Vázquez Pintor was born in Melide in 1946.  I have a particular affection for Melide because I work on the Camino de Santiago and Melide is one of the beads on the rosary that leads to Santiago.  It is a medium-sized town on a crossroads at the heart of Galicia where the four provinces join like the sponge pieces of a slice of Battenburg cake.  Growing up in Melide in the 1950s must have been different to the world of today: Franco was alive, there was no motorway linking Galicia to Castilla-León, the villages were still bustling with life, even if it was hard scraping by with little cash and fewer conveniences.

 

I bought the collection Seara (A Coruña: Espiral Maior, 2011) after finishing a Camino.  It includes work that covers four decades. Of all the work in the collection it was No Corazón Mancado that most appealed to me.  In the introduction the poet says that the collection shows “the intermittent beat of another skipping in the way I work the lines.  I want to get out in the open, give my fears a lashing and kiss all the wild weather.”  There are many poems in the collection about time passing and the approach of death: rather unusual for a poet of 43, except that these themes run deep in Galicia and the sense of having lost something must be greater still.  There is all that was lost under Franco and all that has been lost to the new Galicia, with its crude modernity.  You can’t even be nostalgic.

I am interested in the way that Vázquez Pintor plays with the poetic line.  He has the lines topple into the next.

after so much// winter

getting old, that// station

a coffee// with milk

 

and, cleverly, this line:

 

now what doesn’t matter is the track that

is behind you

 

and again this:

 

a metaphor

of return

 

The poem does not have a conventional structure.  All the same I think the line endings should be stressed.  The poet wants to create an imbalance that topples along to the close.  And he creates just enough structure in the line endings to hold it together against that centripetal force.  If you look carefully you will see that there is a scheme that is almost imperceptible when you read it:  there are only three vowel sounds; O,A,O,A,O,O,E,E,E,O,A,E,E,A.  Now tanto, cero and aviso are not rhymes unless you pronounce them absurdly.  But to have them as full rhymes would have taken away from the improvisational feel of the text.

 

We have to take the poet seriously in his own description of what he is doing:  going after an intermittent beat, a skipping through the lines.  And when he uses unusual line lengths there is a reason for this.  That is why I believe it is correct to emphasise the line endings in the reading, not to the point of absurdity- like saying tantO, cerO and aviso- but enough to hear where the line ends.  If I have to choose I tend to go back to the architecture of the classics, but I enjoy this jazzy line as well.  I appreciate the way that it can go out and kiss the hardness of the weather in a way that classical balance, perhaps, cannot.

 

I have been listening to A Desaparició da Neve by Manuel Rivas in the car.  Manuel Rivas is perhaps the most successful of all contemporary Galician writers.  Desaparició  includes a cd with the book and the readings are accompanied by voices that echo the text, incant above and below it and, at times, take it into music.  I would love to hear Vázquez Pintor in this strange mixture of chant and poem.  The poetry seems to demand the musical and rhythmic connection.  Perhaps it demands performance more than mere reading.

 

What does the poem mean?  Well, if you have been following this blog and do not know what saudade is, your best bet is to read some previous posts that deal with this most Galician of ideas.  It is a sense of longing for the unattainable that is said to be particular to Galicia and Portugal.  The 28 poems in No Corazón Mancado, build towards a crushing sense of mourning-  Total Ausencia, for example.  This makes the first line of this poem strangely ironic: to say that saudade, or longing, will not win out in a poem that is all about things that are strangely, dreamily out of reach.  Saudade is timeless; the irony marks it out as modern.

 

Man’s End- Cabo Home– comes up in Cangas 2 as well, Onde o mar non chega a ser adulto.  What is the end of man?  In that poem he explains it a different way:

 

And that’s the way we are, two universes of happiness

up to the confines of Cabo Home, Cíes, Soavela…

where I dream of you my friends in the loving

embrace of the water and the flowers when

the sun is called April and never winter.

 

I find it strangely moving.

 

E somos así dos universos da ledicia

Ata o confín do Cabo Home, Cíes, Soavela…

Onde vos soño amigas e amigos na almofía

Amorosiña das augas e das flores cando

O sol se chame abril e nunca inverno.

 

Read more about the poet here:

http://www.aelg.org/centro-documentacion/autores-as/xose-vazquez-pintor

 

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the International Poetry Incarnation, Royal Albert Hall, June 11, 1965

‘…the Underground was suddenly there on the surface’ Jeff Nuttall, author ‘All these people recognised each other and they all realised they were part of the same scene.’ Barry Miles, author “…

Source: the International Poetry Incarnation, Royal Albert Hall, June 11, 1965

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Ibn Sahl- The earth has donned a green cloak

The earth has donned a green cloak
and dew spreads pearls across the hills,
the flowers awake, seeming like camphor,
and penetrating musk the dust;
the lilies salute the roses,
a pearly mouth that kisses a red cheek.
The river between its banks seems
a sword hanging from a green sword-belt,
and the zephyr that runs across its surface,
a hand that writes on this page;
you might say, if it shines like silver,
that the sun’s hand converts it into yellow gold,
or even that a cheek, that was white,
goes blushing for shame.
The birds rise up, giving prayer
having the whole wood as their stage.

Ibn Sahl of Seville from Locus Amoenus (Barcelona, 2009)

Ibn Sahl (d.1251) “his love poems as well as his melancholic descriptions of evenings, have captivated his listeners, and his moaxajas are still present in the musical repertory of the North of Africa.”


Locus Amoenus is an attempt to gather together in one volume the lyric poetry of seven centuries of what we might call medieval verse. We have already seen some of the Goliard poetry of the Cancionero de Ripoll. Now I have turned my attention to the south, to Sevilla. There are personal reasons for this: I am not an academic writer; the poetry follows the patterns of my life.
Last week I went to Sevilla with my daughter who is a keen student of archaeology. We went to Mérida first and then on to Itálica and Sevilla. As you might have guessed, her interest is Roman culture and she is currently on a dig in Valladolid which will hopefully find evidence of the immediately pre-Roman civilization in the area.
I was struck by the continuities. Imagining myself into a Roman villa, with its pools surrounded by arcades and it gardens set into patios, then going to the Alcázar in Sevilla and walking around the Jewish quarter afterwards, I started to think that the invention of the patio was necessary to the place; that it was not really important who invented it, whether it was Roman or Arab or Jewish. The fact that there were Muslim craftsmen working on Christian Pedro the Cruel’s palace speaks to me profoundly about these continuities. States, religions and rulers go to war. People get on with living, borrow good ideas, steal designs and thoughts and talk across cultures unless they are coached in fanatacism by their leaders. This would mean that Arab poetry should be intelligible to us.
It is, isn’t it? I love that metaphor of the wind on the river surface like the hand that writes on the page. It is something that makes the world of sense when I look at the page of Arabic in the dual language edition.
Here I am going to translate from the introduction, by Carlos Alvar and Jenaro Talens, to help you understand what a moaxaja is.

The earliest testimony of lyric poetry in romance language comes from the jarchas, short compositions that are found at the end of some poems in Arab or Hebrew (called moaxajas), the authors of which are, except in a very few instances, from between the mid eleventh-century andthe end of the twelfth-century, contemporary with the goliards and a half century before the first Provençal troubadors.
The jarcha is the base from which the moaxaja is built and in many cases it exists apart from it, so that one jarcha may be used by various different authors of moaxajas. It is not surprising then that modern critics should have suggested the chronological precedence of the jarcha and, just as much, its character as testimony to traditional lyric poetry pre-dating the troubadors.
The jarchas make up the end of the last strophe of the moaxajas, compositions written in classic Arab or in Hebrew, although the jarcha can appear in any of these two languages, in its vulgar form (the most common cases) and, partially or completely, in Romance language (Mozárabe). However, the Arab or Hebrew alphabet is always used, even in jarchas in Romance language, so that the written form is Semitic, whilst the morphosyntaxis comes from Latin. This mix (aljamía) poses considerable problems in the interpretation of the texts, which are made worse by the fact that Semitic languages only rarely have vowels in the texts.
Jarchas are usually formed by just one strophe (verse) of four lines, with rhyming on the even lines and not on the uneven lines; the lines are of six or eight syllables. This is the most common metric scheme but it is not the only one.
As for the content, they are, fundamentally, love songs put into the mouth of a disconsolate woman, who complains to her mother about the absence of her lover and about the suffering she goes through because of her love. In spite of all this, the girl expresses a joyful and passionate love, which might be related to other compositions of a similar type in the European west: villancicos or carols, Frauenlieder, chansons de toile, etc.

[Note in Spanish a strophe is what we typically call a verse in English and a verse is what we typically call a line.]
Locus Amoenus, Carlos Alvar, Jenaro Talens, Jarcha, Moaxaja, Ibn Sahl, Sevilla, Lyric poetry

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Wordsworthing

Sometimes you come across a webpage that rings a bell.  Here is one that rings a bell for me:

http://wordsworthing.com/

Have a look and see what you think.

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