Walking Poets: Novoneyra and Jonathan Williams

Os EidosI have two books in front of me, both of them strange in shape:  Novoneyra’s Os Eidos and Jonathan Williams’s Blues&RootsOs Eidos is squat.  Its green spine calls to me from the bookshelf, an inch lower than its neighbours on the shelf.  Ediciones Ardora (Madrid, 2010) in a note on the inside back page say “we have used Garamond and Zurich type on 90 gr. light ivory oria paper on the inside, and banded linen keaykolour card of 300 grams for the cover.”  Their care for materials would appeal to Williams, who spent his life as a printer of quality editions of poetry, both his own and that of others.  He had his own Jargon Press, although the edition I have of Blues&Roots was issued by Duke University Press, in Durham, North Carolina in 1985.  It is almost 30 centimetres tall.  I keep it in a different place on the shelf.


BluesRootsWilliams was born in North Carolina in 1929.  Novoneyra was born in Parada de Moreda in Lugo, Galicia in 1930.  They did not know each other and I doubt they even knew of each other.  They come together now through my interest in walking poets.  Their deep local significance will have localists looking askance at me for picking them out.  For example,  Lori,  came to work as a volunteer on Carmen’s farm from Asheville in North Carolina and I showed her Blues&Roots.  She took it away and read it.


“I recognise all these places,” she said the next morning.  “I can hear the voices he puts on the page.  But you are an Englishman living in Spain, what are you doing with this?”


Olson poem from the Maximus poems. Williams edited the first edition. You can see the connection with Novoneyra below.

I came at both poets by walking through their territories- Novoneyra’s Courel, by frequently doing the Camino de Santiago over the past ten years; Williams’s Smoky Mountains by following an urge to visit Black Mountain College where he studied in the fifties.  This is the place where that eccentric genius Charles Olson started writing a different kind of poetry, read deeply and widely and pulled the whole of geography and history into what he wrote so that you could almost feel the earth turn beneath your feet while you read his words.


From that grandiose height, let’s go down and look at something beautiful and specific.


A Pileated Woodpecker’s Response to Four Dogwood Berries


Kuk kuk




This is a peculiar poem where the text- a sequence of sounds- has fewer syllables than the title.  Williams gives all his poems long titles.  They are presented as found objects, encountered on walks through the Appalachians.  Sometimes, as here, they are short and visual, at others the recording of longer conversations.  Being faithful to the sound is a large part of their charm and authenticity.

Compare the woodpecker to Novoneyra’s bird:

NO BICARELO do bico do brelo
canta o paxariño.
No mesmiño
bicarelo do bico do brelo.

Here the song of the bird (paxariño) has its word-sound correlation in bicarelo do bico do brelo which means something like “the peak of the beak of the branch”.   The poem invites us to consider the relationships between sounds and shapes: what exactly does the mouth do at b,b,b?  What does it do with o,o,o,o,o?  And then that internal rhyme elo/elo?


No bicareloThe poet took the word object a stage further than this by painting it out.  The image shows the same poem painted by Novoneyra.  Notice how the x in paxariño stands out from the looping calligraphy around it.  This is the axis with the louder phrase above and the fast, dense echo below.  It seems to be a suggestion of how the poem should be read.  And notice how the o has become an angular v shape in the writing, as though Novoneyra is telling us not to linger on the o sound except once o paxariño.


Novoneyra called these calligraphic versions of his poems  ergografismos.  They look like Japanese ink paintings from a Zen monastery.  Japan is an appropriate place to look for the origins of this kind of work.  The Imagist tradition was one of the roots of verbal/visual poetry in the English language.  Ezra Pound’s Faces on the Metro calls on a Japanese aesthetic for its defining image of petals on wet bough.   Both Novoneyra and Williams have something Japanese in the exquisite precision of their images and in the lyrical sharpness of flux and passing.  In 1995 Novoneyra came to collaborate with a Japanese poet, Ayako Sugitani, in a collection called Camelio xaponés.


The extreme terseness of both poets begs a comparison with haiku.


The first poem in Williams’s collection is:

A Valediction for My Father, Ben Williams (1898-1974)

all the old things
are gone now

and the people are


This poem sets a tone for the whole of Blues&Roots, which is tender, charming and thoughtful but always gives the sensation that things are passing away.  Compare it to this simple poem by Novoneyra:chiove


Chiove pra que eu soñe…


(It rains that I might dream…)


In the image you notice that he uses a lighter mark for the words of the poem itself.  The verticals come close together and the whole poem is tilted on its axis.  This becomes a visual embodiment of the rain itself.  The thick dark date 1953 allows the rain to float away from us.


The other tradition from which verbal-visual poetry springs is Dada wordplay, such as the typographical experiments of Kurt Schwitters, for example.  Williams was a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, when Josef Albers was teaching there.  It closed in the fifties, starved out of existence by the suffocating culture of fifties America, but in its time was the focus of an enormous creative vitality.  It was forward-looking both artistically and socially.  Williams set up Jargon Press when he was a student.  The immaculate and carefully-planned editions of key poetic and artistic texts form the bedrock of his reputation.  He published many poets’ work including the first edition of Charles Olson’s Maximus I.  It is no surprise that his mature work is rich enough to play with different threads.


OnecoononelonepineLook at this one:

As a typographer, Williams finds the OO of coon irresistible to suggest eyes.  He also likes the vertical play on the repeating shapes of oneononelone going down the page.  The cross invites us to pick up the reflection of religious imagery and speech throughout the book.   The lone pine makes us think of the song The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with its carolling “on the trail of the lonesome pine.”


It is funny.  A piece of verbal, visual wit rooted in its place and playing on direct observation and reflections of local culture.


You chuckle until you consider that, since the eighteenth century, coon has been an offensive term for a black man in the southern states.  And now you are caught in the dilemma of wanting the poem to still be a witty reflection of a raccoon in a tree and seeing a lynching behind it.


Let’s look at another poem that plays with the shape of the letter 0, this time by Novoneyra:


Cousos do lobo!
Caborcos do xabarín!
Eidos solos
onde ninguén foi nin ha d’ir!

O lobo!  Os ollos o lombo do lobo!

Baixa o lobo polo ollo do bosco
movendo nas flairas dos teixos
Ruxindo na folla dos carreiros
en busca da vagoada máis sola e máis medosa…

párase e venta
finca a pouta ergue a testa e oula cara o ceo
con toda a sombra da noite na boca.

(Domain of the wolf!// Gullies of the wild boar!// Lonesome places// Where no one goes nor should!//// The wolf! The eyes, the back of the wolf!//// The Wolf goes down through the eye of the wood//moving the branches of the yews//rustling the leaves on the paths//looking for the most lonely and most fearful stream…////It tracks along//stops and sniffs//pushes in its claws stretches out its head and howls with its head to the sky//and with all the shadow of the night in its mouth)

Coon=ollo: ollo becomes the wolf’s face.  The sequence of os becomes the wolf’s howl.

Williams and Novoneyra both list place names- compare A Round of Nouns in Jackson County to Covallo de Doña Briosa!  This is what Ignacio Castro Rey, in the introduction to the Ardora edition, describes as: “a sign of admiration that in some poems culminates the long series of names denotes a sensation of plenitude where the mountain and the eye, grass and ear are one.”  Williams uses the same artistic strategy by giving a listing of names from the telephone directory.


They are of the same generation.  They are both walking poets.  They both make formal plays with the visual forms of the words they use as well as their significance.  They are both defenders of the language of the place they live.   Yet there are differences.  Williams, for instance, maintains a distance from the idioms he so faithfully records and even gives us pronunciation notes- Carlos pronounced Carlus, for example- whereas Novoneyra speaks the language of his family.  Unlike Novoneyra’s work, Williams’s is full of people, with their pithy phrases and their human needs: sex, eating, talking, relationships.  The Courel, by contrast, seems to offer Novoneyra the opportunity for quiet, where the wind and the weather can be heard to speak and a leaf alighting can also talk.  Beyond him the wolf is a dark archetype.  Although both poets are modern, Novoneyra’s reading in the lyrics of medieval Galicia seeps through the pores of the verse.  Williams, by contrast, only makes poetic hints at modernists such as William Carlos Williams: a pecka real ripe tomaters make us think of the plums, and then there is  just a note to let you know, which nods knowingly at Williams’s more famous poem.


William Carlos Williams gives him an accolade on the back of the book, saying, “The democratic idiom is all there.”  This is one part of the challenge of poetry since the Romantics: to take the voices of ordinary people and have them speak; to keep the seriousness of poetry without making art that is distanced from those people.  Both Williams and Novoneyra share this intent.

Meanwhile, I am reading Anton Lopo’s imaginative biography of Novoneyra, A distancia do lobo  (Galaxia, 2010) and finding that there is more to the politics of the poet than I could possibly squeeze into one blog post.  I’ll come back to the theme.

You can support the work of the Novoneyra Foundation here.



Posted in Uncategorized, Uxío Novoneyra | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poets that Dig: Catalonia and Galicia

Catalonia is on my mind.   My friend Amand went to Barcelona to see the referendum on October 1.  He was born in Mallorca and studied in Barcelona as a drama student in the seventies, joining street protests against the Franco régime in its last years.  Like all of us, he is a complex mix of histories: as a witness, a participant and a victim.

“I stayed in a small hostel,” he said.  “There were three others in my dormitory.  One of them was Basque.  The other two were from Galicia.”

“Galicia,” I echoed, thinking of my own life as a walker and a reader.

“Yes.  They wanted to see this happening.”

Of course they did.  From the nineteenth-century to the present, through the Irmandades da Fala to Castelao and onwards, Galicia has sighed its unique identity onto the page.  And there is fellow feeling across the linguistic divides:  Manolo Rivas issued one collection of poetry in Galego, Basque, Catalan and Castilian Spanish.

Spain is a country of peoples.  Those peoples have felt their identities in the richness of their cultural history, their traditions, their music and above all their poetry.  The Spanish state has crushed the separatist movement in Catalonia with the force of the law.  I run around in circles in my head, repulsed by the authoritarianism of the state and equally horrified by the waving of flags in the streets of Catalonia.  I think about the different poets I have been studying over the past year and do not come away from the thoughts with a clearer picture.

R.S. Thomas dug in at the edges of Wales.  He had a visceral dislike of what he called the Machine that pushed the lives of the Welsh hill-farmers he served to the edge.  The English state represented for him what the Spanish state might represent for the Catalans.  His poems about the hills and the mountains, his mourning for the Welsh language and the tender bitterness of his meditations on relationships and landscape, make me think of poets in Asturias and Galicia and Catalonia.

256px-Uxío_Novoneyra_(Praza_Maior_de_Lugo)They particularly make me think of Uxío Novoneyra.

Galicia será a mina xeneración quen te salve?
Irei un día do Courel a Compostela por terras libradas?

He asks if his generation will save Galicia: will he one day go from the Courel to Compostela through liberated lands?

I have walked from the Courel, in the Ancares mountains, to Santiago perhaps one hundred times over the past ten years.  On those walks I have often carried Novoneyra’s collection, Os Eidos (1955), with me.  He was a poet who walked the hills.  I felt myself into his words, learning to love the Galician language in my own inadequate way.  His were the eyes of a wolf to see a landscape dressed in heathers.

You do not read Novoneyra because you want to back up your political opinions.  But his poetry, with its emphasis on places and people, seems to inevitably lead him to declare separation and difference.  It comes as the cumulative result of meditations on deep particular moments.


Carles Puigdemont © Yves Herman / Reuters

I look up from a the quiet particular to the cackling commentators who, like a pack of jackals, attempt to ridicule the referendum in Catalonia.  The vilification of Puigdemont  is an insult to the people who voted.  They were not sheep being led by a corrupt and self-serving leader.  They are hardly going to forget their deep-felt desire for their own national identity because Mariano Rajoy imposes the full force of the law to suppress their ebullience.  They may sink back, disappointed, into the grooves of their lives, but culture is not suppressed this way; it has its own life.

The Catalan poet, Verdaguer, gave voice to the equivalent of the Galician rexurdimento:

Poeta i fangador sói
en tot faig feina tan neta,
que fango com un poeta
i escric com un fangador

(I am a poet and a digger and in everything I do I am so clean that I dig like a pet and write like a digger.)  It is like Seamus Heaney considering his pen and how he will dig with it.  This is what poets do: they dig.

Translators on the other hand move from place to place.  They cross boundaries and frontiers and look for correspondences and ways of understanding.  I can’t help but feel that more translation is needed in this fracturing world of shouted identities.  I can’t help but feel that the imposition of “the law” on Catalonia is a heavy-handed mistake that will have the Catalans digging in.  Where is the listening ear?  Where is the open hand?  Who wants to listen to the stories?

The stories must be fascinating.

Amand was present as people went to cast their votes in Barcelona on October 1.

“Old people came tottering up on their canes,” he said.  “The young people formed aisles and applauded them as they made their way to vote.  The young people were crying and the old ones were trembling with emotion.  What had they seen in their lifetimes?”

There is something more powerful here than the realities of business or the harsh application of the word of the law.  There is something that cannot be shouted down with arguments, but demands to be listened to.


Posted in Uncategorized, Uxío Novoneyra | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pondal: A Celtic Bard in Spain

At the hour the sweet morning star
Begins to soften and melt,
His well-horned mountain goats
Trotting along in front,
Temenday the Celtic shepherd comes
Returning to his sweet fold
Alone and singing through the broom
Of Xallas, decked with heather so white.
Trembling vague with solitude,
He begins his song like this:
“Ancient tomb of Pïosa,
The wind so sad to hear
Moans in the mute heather
Over all the hills around you
And pierces with animal roar

Castromaior, near Portomarín

With pained groan.
Under your mantle
Brave Brandomil lies
Unforgotten, in the arms
Of sweet and eternal sleep:
He has on his right side
His golden pagan helmet
His strong spear and shield,
Where once the sun would sparkle
While with pleasure the Celts looked
Shut up in the waste lands of Xallas.

Oh, brave son of Ogas
And of sweet and noble Eiriz,
The long memory of you
Will forever remain!
And when the son of the Celts,
In times yet to come
Walking lost in thought
May happen to pass this way,
When in those times
He sees the moon shining
Spying you afar, he will say:
‘Brave Brandomil,
Of the good pagan race
Of Celts, lies here at rest!’”

Queixumes dos Pinos, ed. Miguel Mato Fondo ( Vigo: AS.PG, 1996)


Eduardo Pondal is one of the leading poets of the nineteenth-century revival of Galego along with Rosalía de Castro and Curros Enríquez.  The ‘complaining pines’ of the title of this book give you a fair indication that the work will be Romantic in tone, with an evocation of the lonely rural spaces of Galicia populated by the ghosts of Celtic ancestors whose remains are so evident in the castros, or iron age hill forts, that dot the countryside.

Pondal was and is popular: he is the author of the Galician national hymn.  He created for himself a poetic persona as the bard of his nation and his verses are full of high-blown phrases and rhythms.  In this particular poem he uses the word ‘sweet’ four times and ‘brave’ three times.  If this is a lack of care as a poet it is of a grand order: I cannot imagine any teacher of composition allowing his students this repetitive liberty, more particularly with such imprecise and woolly adjectives.

It is curious to me how the poem is still effective in spite of this.

The bardic tone is set by alternating feminine and masculine line endings that fall short of being a consistent rhyme-scheme but establish a rhythm to move the poem along in a song-like manner.   Pondal takes an everyday phrase and turns it into memorable poetry.  There is something special about this:

Debaixo das túas antes
‘sta o valente Brandomil,
Non no olvido, mais nos brazos
Do eterno e doce dormir.

This sounds to me just like a ballad.  Look at all the ‘o’ s in the last two lines.  When you read them aloud they just come tripping off the tongue like some lines of Edgar Allen Poe, the caesura marked by the comma after ‘olvido’ setting off that little alliterative cataract in the last line.

There is a healthy archaeological scepticism about the attempts of Galician nationalists to claim a Celtic ancestry, but if you have visited one of the hill-forts, which are always in stunning locations with extraordinary vistas, it is not difficult to be carried along with the Romantic reveries of Pondal.  The problem is that there is a Romanticization of the Celtic warrior that cannot help but seem sexist and old-fashioned these days (Misoxinia e racismo na poesía de Pondal, María Xosé Queizán, Laiovento, 1998, is a good place to start thinking about this).  Pondal himself was not a pleasant fellow and has come in for a good deal of criticism for his sexist and racist vision.  Have a read of this:


Vosotros sois de los cíngaros,                          You are of the travellers,
de los rudos iberos,                                            of the crude Iberians,
de los vagos gitanos,                                          of the lazy gypsies,
de la gente del infierno;                                    of the people from hell;
de los godos, de los moros                               of the Goths, the Moors
y árabes; que aún                                               and Arabs; so still
os lleven los demonios.                                     You can go to the devil.
Nosotros somos de los galos,                           We are Gallic,
nosotros somos de los suevos,                         We are Swabian,
nosotros somos de los francos,                        We are French,
romanos y griegos.                                              Roman and Greek.
Nosotros somos de los celtas,                           We come from Celts
nosotros somos gallegos.                                   We are Galician.


This unpleasant rant is one short part of an anti-Castilian poem by Pondal.  It would have been laughable even at the time it was written, like a Highland Scot or a Welsh sheep farmer singing about the dignity of his race.   It is lamentable that the Galician national anthem springs from the same source.  Here is the anthem:

I can’t stand this kind of nationalism so I found it difficult to get to the end!

If you are interested in getting a more rounded view of the Celts in north west Spain E-Keltoi is a good place to start.  You will quickly find that the denomination Celt is itself contested!

A few notes are in order:

Xallas is a real place in A Coruña.  The river Xallas is famously beautiful and hasn’t been completely ruined by modern development.

The hero Brandomil takes his name a town of the same name in A Coruña where there is an old bridge from the sixteenth-century that was thought to be Roman in Pondal’s time.


According to Wikipedia, Piosa is an old Irish name for a patch or piece, which can also refer to a musical composition.  Ogas and Eiriz do not have any particular significance that I can detect.  Eiriz is a common surname particularly in Lugo.


The suevos/Swabians were a Germanic tribe that settled in the north west of the Iberian peninsula on the fall of the Roman Empire.  They were eventually defeated by the Visigoths.

Posted in 19th Century | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trobadores- Johan Arias de Santiago

I saw a young girl walking
At Cresente through the woods
And there she started singing
Far from the view of the world
Tying her skirt at the waist
As the sun with dawn gold chased
The banks of the river Sar.

There were birds flying above
Through the breaking light of dawn
They were all singing their loves
Through the branches all around.
Well, I don’t know anyone
Who could have thought anything
But of love there, only love.

There I was, all quiet,
Wanting to speak but too scared
But finally, fearfully,
Said, “Lady, can I talk
A bit, if you will hear me,
And I’ll leave when you tell me
And I won’t be here any more…”

“Sir, by Our Lady,” she said,
“Don’t stay here any more.
Get on with you on your way.
It is best for you before
The others who are coming
See you and think something
Happened to me here, for sure!”

This poem is by Johan Arias de Santiago, a troubador poet working in the court of Alfonso X the Wise around the year 1270. A native of Santiago de Compostela he was writing at a time when Gallego was the courtly language of Christian Spain.

This shows typical features of the Provenzal tradition of love poetry with a local flavour. The unrequited lover with his ideal and courtly love of the distant lady is here replaced by a very real, if still unrequited, love for a peasant girl. The sense of place is vivid. It is worth noting that Rosalía de Castro’s last book of verse was titled ‘On the Banks of the River Sar‘.

Source: Locus Amoenus, ed. C. Alvar (Barcelona: Gutenburg, 2009)

I am reposting this poem with a link to another blog, Musica Antiguawhich has a beautiful rendition of a song by Martín Codax, which I translate below:

Ondas do mar de Vigo,
se vistes meu amigo?
E ai Deus!, se verra cedo?

Ondas do mar levado,
se vistes meu amado?
E ai Deus!, se verra cedo?

Se vistes meu amigo,
o por que eu sospiro?
E ai Deus!, se verra cedo?

Se vistes meu amado,
por que ei gran coidado?
E ai Deus!, se verra cedo?

Martín Codax gives his name to a fine Albariño wine.

Waves of the Vigo sea,
Have you seen my love?
Dear God, will he come soon?

Waves of the wind-blown sea.
Have you seen my love?
Dear God, will he come soon?

Have you seen my love
The one I am sighing for?
Dear God, will he come soon?

Have you seen my love
Who has me so worried?
Dear God, will he come soon?

Martín Codax wine is made in the south of Galicia in the pretty seaside town of Cambados, not far from Vigo.

(Cantiga de Amigo V)

Martín Codax was a mid 13th century to early 14th century Galician troubador, possibly from Vigo, we guess from the many references to the city in his poems.  There are scarcely any records of his life.

There are only seven cantigas de amigo attributed to him which are to be found in the old Galician-Portuguese songbooks and the Vindel Manuscript where his name appears as the author of the works.  This is his entire oeuvre.

The discovery of this manuscript was pure chance.  In 1914 the bibliographer Pedro vindel found it in his library where it was the inner frontispiece of a copy of Cicero’s De Officiis.

The Martín Codax poems in the manuscript are the following (the first line is used as the title):

Ondas do mar de Vigo
Mandad’ei comigo ca ven meu amigo
Mia yrmana fremosa treides comigo
Ay Deus se sab’ora meu amado
Quantas sabedes amar amigo
En o sagrad’ e Vigo (Solo texto, sin notación musical)
Ay ondas que eu vin veer

Thanks to the manuscript the musical notation of these compositions survives as well.

If you are interested in old music it is well worth looking up Jordi Savall and Eduardo Paniagua on Youtube.  It will inevitably lead you on a treasure hunt!

Try looking at Alia Vox for more information on Savall.

Posted in Trobadores | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Tempest at the Globe

Was Shakespeare written by Shakespeare?  People who want to poach his work for some noble pen ignore the references within the plays to the business of theatre.  The Tempest is a good example of this.  It gives knowing nods to the audience, the theatre and, in the figure of Prospero, Shakespeare himself.

The Globe Theatre in London does a solid job of putting the Bard on the boards.  In this extract you can feel the references clearly:  “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


mozatreeIt is 2017 and I have a number of projects that have kept me away from this blog for a while.  I have been thinking how to bring the separate strands of what I do together and playing around with different projects.

For the past year and a half we have been taking volunteers to help in our organic garden in Asturias.  You can see a bit of that work here:  www.villandasrural.com.  The website is not the best unfortunately and it does not focus on the gardens, which in my mind are the major attraction.

When I came to Spain with Carmen eight and a half years ago the garden was a field that she rented out to a neighbour and we have been planting trees, bushes, flowers and a vegetable plots since then.  Year by year it changes.  Last year we started taking in volunteers to help through the WWOOF organisation: http://www.wwoof.net/

These volunteers have been of all ages from 18-60 and have been a great help in the garden.  I realise, however, that they are not necessarily primarily motivated by organic farming.  They are on their own individual life journeys.  They enjoy the environment we live in and gladly help with the work that we are engaged in, but the attraction of being in the mountains is more than just the attraction of organic farming.  It is good food, healthy activity and stimulating conversations as well.

I came to think that I could share all of this without the umbrella of the volunteer organisation.  Why not read, walk and eat instead of gardening, talking and eating?  That is the motivation behind Shakespeare in the Mountains.  I hope to extend the range of activities that I engage in to attract more people and really promote the things that seem important to me in the world: good living and good reading, which I never separate.

In the meantime I have put an archive widget in the bar on the right to enable you to search through the translations here by month.  There is a lot of work there and I shall be going over it and re-working and re-issuing some of those translations with new commentaries through the year.  I have an idea that it might be a good idea to put together an e-book.  What do you think?



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

In Death’s Wake

In Death’s Wake

…barely a word to light youstarlilies
Under dead stars’ luminous shower.
Take a fardel of star lilies
to brighten your long way.
Between sky and earth in the magic
Of pure night, in the clear water wake
your starlit roaming leaves,
I must follow on a trail of grief.

Karmas and memories spread out
Drowned in the present, with no past,
Not even these immaterial dreams
That bring back the rose-blooms of your body.

Instead of burning, my transmuted bodywake
Will follow your wake over the ample blue
And on pressing my frozen lips to yours
The seven heavens will disperse in light.

This poem is by Eduardo Blanco Amor, whom I have spoken about here and on my other site Shakespeare in the Mountains.

Posted in Blanco Amor, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Funky evanescence – No / holds / barred //


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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?


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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Reading for Everyone


Here is something I wrote for Shakespeare in the Mountains.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment