Is Charles Olson Postmodern?

I’m not very good with labels because I don’t think that they’re all that helpful and because I get more than a little tired of the adherents of one label pouring scorn on the others. That isn’t to say that I think that postmodernism is simply a phantom, I realise and accept that the culture in which we live started to experience major shocks in the mid-seventies and that Lyotard’s analysis of these shocks was fairly accurate. I also accept that some poetry can be described as post-modern in that it can be seen as a reaction against the worst excesses of modernism. I can see a reasonable case for describing Paul Muldoon as being more post-modern than modernist and many American poets as being thoroughly postmodern.

I’m a huge admirer of Charles Olson’s ‘The Maximus Poems’ and was about to re-read it when I glanced at the back cover.  This was a mistake as part of it reads: “The Maximus Poems is one of the high achievements of of twentieth-century American letters and an essential poem in the postmodern canon.” The obvious response is that this simply isn’t the case, Olson writes firmly within the modernist idiom and all of the features that we come to expect from modernist poetry are fully present in ‘Maximus’. Or does this assertion simply mean that the publishers were so desperate to move a quite expensive book from the shelves that they gave it a tag to make it seem more relevant?

The other problem is that this tome was published in 1983, was there a ‘postmodern canon’ in 1983? Is there one now? How long does a movement or style have to be in existence before it can be said to have a canon?

I have read someone describe ‘Maximus’ as ‘sub-Poundian’ and this was meant as a sneer but I find it much more helpful than the ‘postmodern’ tag. I can make a strong case, if pushed, for Olson as a late modernist poet but I also acknowledge that this term carries such a broad range of connotations as to be almost meaningless.

Jeremy Prynne’s definition of postmodern poetics (in ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’) is quite dismissive: “I don’t think this is equivalent to post-modernist playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way….” Olson never lets meaning go skimming across the surface in any kind of way. He’s a modernist, as is Prynne.

18 responses to “Is Charles Olson Postmodern?

  1. Hi John—
    Just to refresh your memory, we had a little exchange over a Robert Lowell poem some time ago.
    Regarding Olson and postmodernism, you’ll be interested in this quote from a letter Olsen wrote to Robert Creeley in 1951: ‘And had we not ourselves (I mean postmodern man) better just leave such things behind us—and not so much trash of discourse, & gods?’ Paul Hoover uses it in his introductory essay to a Norton anthology of postmodern American poetry. Hoover starts with Olson.
    Olson of course can’t be blamed for not having the associations we have today with postmodernism. I suppose he simply wanted to clear some ground for his own work, and couldn’t bring himself to tell Creeley to ‘make it new’. Still, it’s interesting that he had the word on this plate (or at least in his pantry) as far back as 1951.
    It might amuse you to look at ‘Long and Hard’ (July 17) on my blog; it might infuriate you as well; and it might bore you to tears—I won’t deny any of these as goals—but it does work its way to some thoughts on difficulty and poetry.
    I do look at your blog on a regular basis. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Jim,

      I remember well our debate on ‘Skunk Hour’ and you did manage to soften my position even though I’m still not keen on Lowell’s confessional stuff.
      With regard to Olson, the term ‘postmodern’ after Lyotard carries a whole range of different connotations than it would have done in 1951 but it is interesting that he coined the term then. I just get deeply weary of publishers and others trying their hardest to mislead the reading public and I still find the notion of a postmodern ‘canon’ to be absurd.
      I’ve read your post and am now consumed with guilt because there’s only one title that I recall reading years ago but I do agree that it is essential that we should all try to read difficult books and difficult verse.

  2. If I remember rightly, Perry Anderson, in his _The Origins of Postmodernity_, credits Olson with having invented the word “postmodern”. I think you’re right though that his work is difficult to fit at all snugly into the category that later sprouted under his word.

  3. I’m working my way through the 1951 letters to Creeley to get some context but keep getting distracted by all the wonderful observations that he makes.
    Other epithets have also been applied to Olson, ‘sub-Poundian’ being almost as bad and one that Olson resented.
    I think we should just label him as being very, very good.

  4. They have reissued Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain. It’s been a long time since I read it, but as I recall it was quite good on Olson and Creeley (And Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers, John Cage, etc.) Olson was for a time in charge of Black Mountain. I’m rather tempted to read it again one of these days. It should be a help in understanding the Olson/ Creeley relationship.

  5. I first knew about Olson because of his relationship with Cy Twombly at Black Mountain but I’ve only read about this with regard to Twombly. The whole Black Mountain thing is fascinating to me so I’ll have a look at Duberman.

  6. Pingback: Olson’s place in “time.” | Climbing both walls at once

  7. I remember Robert Duncan once saying, in answer to some question, that, re: Ezra Pound’s “I cannot make it cohere,” that Pound should have realized all along that it wasn’t going to cohere, and that was fine (to Duncan). And it’s something of this sense of the unending openness of the long poem, which has defined Olson and Duncan’s postmodernism to me, which I agree is a bit afar of Lyotard and other more recent thinkers. Yet it is a valid sense, I believe, one that still is a point of separation in some thinking about poetry.

    • I can live with Duncan as postmodern but I’m still of the view that Olson is writing in an almost hardcore modernist vein and this prevents me from seeing him in the same way that I think of Duncan. I’m generally mistrustful of labels that put things into empty boxes but the modernist tag does denote for me a density and a deadly serious intent that I get from Olson and David Jones.
      I’m also aware that my understanding of the term comes from politics rather than literature so I might not have a full grasp of the notion of postmodern verse.

      • I don’t like the labels so much, either, but I particularly don’t like the “hardcore modernist” one for Olson, particularly when I’m in the midst of all the wonderful “pieces” in the second and third volumes of Maximus (I still prefer reading them in the earlier separate volumes — and by volumes here I mean the big books, not Olson’s numbering of volumes). I think the notion that postmodernism is not “deadly serious” or can not be such, is definitely a post-Olson idea, but I wouldn’t want to think that postmodern work, in any sense, is banned from being serious.

      • I think what I should have said is that seriousness is usually an important feature of modernist work and this isn’t always the case with the postmodern which isn’t excluding or denying the serious in any way but trying to locate my entirely subjective marker between the two. I think I may be prepared to modify ‘hardcore’ but it does strike me that the working through of Process and Reality and engaging with historiography in verse is a modernist thing to do.

      • And I’ll give you that Whitehead is very much a ‘modernist’ philosopher, maybe even pre-modernist in some ways, if you think of Wittgenstein as modernist. The volume we published of Proj Verse II, from the Olson archive, partly was not published earlier because Olson thought it was a bit too close to Whitehead, or too much W in it. Olson’s tone is serious, but there’s a lot of playfulness with structure, shape, connectivity, etc. But if you look at postmodernism through what has come to stand for that in architecture and visual art, I would agree that Olson seems to have a more serious end in mind, at least as a possibility.

  8. The source of your misunderstanding seems to be isolating Postmodernism to Lyotard’s or any philosopher’s view of it. That Lyotardian business only works well with fiction which makes it a poor tool for understanding the broad scope of postmodernism–things like skimming the surface, play, lack of seriousness, these are just effects and not definitions. Postmodern poetry (and thus, arguably, all postmodern literature) starts with Projective Verse in 1950 (arguably as all these things are arguable) and that was anticerebral antiphilosophical, proaesthetic,,prosubjectivity, etc. Olson disqualifies Eliot as a projective writer on that front. It’s an aesthetic development rejecting the sort of ideals Eliot was attempting to maintain, and as an aesthetic development, Olson is the best starting point. I acknowledge that labels are mostly nonsense, merely oversimplified tools, but understanding postmodernism as starting with Olson/Projective Verse instead of starting with Lyotard, etc., is a much much more useful approach.

    • Thanks, fsimongrant. I think I”m almost in total agreement with you, though I don’t consider Olson anti philosophical, rather that he wants to bend philosophy toward a less “humanist” center. And “pro subjectivity?” When Olson specifically issues in “objectism” where the person is one object among others. Olson as a beginning point for postmodernism, yes, but not “pro subjectivity” and only “anti philosophical” in a limited sense.

      • I believe Olson was responding to the false identification of Williams, etc., as Objectivist. He was redefining Williams’ use of the object as not objective in the sense of the opposite of subjective. At least that’s the way I read, hence identifying Olson as central in the movement away from Eliot’s impersonality. As far as “antiphilosophical,” anything can be philosophical in a secondary application, but Olson placed the starting point not in philosophy but in the aesthetic and in the exchange of energy, etc. How do you write about that without being philosophical? That’s all I meant.

      • Thank you both for reminding me of the knee jerk reaction I had to the pm tag. It’s always tricky to try and work out why some reactions are so extreme. I’ll try and unpack the various and entirely subjective elements elements that may have contributed. First, there’s the view that the Maximus project can be viewed as a re-working of Whitehead’s Process and Reality. There isn’t space here for whether the three Whitehead tomes of the mid twenties are ‘modernist’ or not but the radical and deadly serious refiguring of objects as events is neither antiphilosophical nor unmodernist. The other point is that the letters to Creeley in the mid fifties display a deep concern with the line and not just the poetic line.
        Labels are never very helpful and my European grasp of the post-modern may not make much sense on the other side of the Atlantic but in my head this process goes: Pound – Olson – Prynne and, whatever this strand is, I can’t think of it as post-modern.

  9. Why? This is pure curiosity. Definitions of these things are so nebulous it’s hard to even know what someone means when defining something as modern or postmodern. I could define Pound as modern and Olson as postmodern in totally different ways than you do (and the whole notion of the name “postmodern” is that postmodernists follow/reject/modify modernist concepts, so simply following Whitehead’s modernist concepts doesn’t necessarily make Olson modernist), so I’m curious what particularly about Olson makes him modern and not postmodern. Your post just seems to locate postmodernism within Lyotard’s perspective, and that’s what I was rejecting as limited (the idea that such definitions would start with philosophy instead of starting with literature), but is there anything beyond the superficiality and playfulness, etc., that defines postmodernism and disqualifies Olson? If it’s just that, we can agree to disagree but if there’s something beyond that, I’m very interested in understanding. I mean does your distinguishing between line and poetic line mean the nonpoetic line is philosophical or modern in some way? I just don’t get why that would be an answer to what I said.

  10. Craig Stormont

    Charles Olson didn’t invent the term postmodernism, but he was the first to declare himself a postmodernist in his Mayan Letters to Robert Creeley in 1951. Be wary of the information in Norton footnotes pertaining to Olson. The poem “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [Witheld]” is included in one of their past anthologies of Contemporary American Poetry. The poem includes the name “Hines,” and there’s a footnote referencing the Duncan Hines cake mix company. The editors, who I contacted in reference to the error, were unaware that Olson’s mother’s maiden name was Hines. They stated that they would make a correction in the next edition. Instead, they removed the poem.

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