Jeremy Prynne lectures on Maximus IV, V, VI

Simon Fraser University, July 27, 1971

Transcribed by Tom McGauley and published in Iron (October 1971); reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #28 (April 1999).


Part 1 (of 2)



 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 dont 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, thats a long way away from here, now. When we came up here this morning, oh, we didnt 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 Olsons, IV, V, and VI; and its 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 Olsons, 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. Its 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

drives on,

the whole of it


to this pin-point

to turn

in this days 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 youre sailing over, there is that question of getting up your own fish, of not being a petrified fisherman cowering behind a dried fish factory. Thats 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 its 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. Thats 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 Aristotles 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 worlds directions

Adam, you see, the new man, the new man as the metaphor for the whole man: thats 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 first Maximus 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.



ow 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. Thats 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.

a coast

is not the same

as land

he said.

the world

is an eternal


he says.

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 mans 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


Thats got to be from the first Maximus. I stood estranged from that which was most familiar: thats 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 hes 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. Thats entirely permissible. You could be at home in some, oh, the ranch back in Kansas, gee, it was great. But to be at home in that larger sense is not permitted to the lyric. It is permitted only to the great epic performances: and whats more, to the great epic performances that can carry across that distance, and which you can carry with: thats to say, the obscure epic.


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