Charles Olsons archaic postmodern

[Part 2]



he Kingfishers makes a good terminus ab quo because, contrary to expectation, it contains nothing of the archaic postmodern. It is pre-postmodern, a culmination of Olsons preoccupation with historical origins. This went back to the time of his acquiring William Prescotts History of the Conquest of Mexico with its flyleaf date, Spring 1941 — towards the West. In order to be a new American one has to face the Conquistador in the mirror:

. . . if I have any taste

it is only because I have interested myself

in what was slain in the sun.

The Kingfishers ends with the poet hunting among stones, a slight, optimistic movement within the waste land.

Curiously, Olsons first reaction to Prescott back then in 1941 was a poem of very different spirit (drawing on pp. 47 and 73 of that volume):

Hold the beating heart

Up to the sun

Throw down the heart

At the feet of the god.

Where is our heart?

The night of the land

before the white

was lit by fire

fed with heart

on sacrifice pyre

Where is our fire?

On p. 73 of Prescott Olson had underlined the passage where, at the turning point of the fifty-two year cycle, the priests climbed a mountain with the noble victim and at the precise moment when the Pleiades approached the zenith the new fire-was kindled by the friction of the sticks placed on the wounded breast of the victim. Where, asks Olson in this unpublished poem, is the fire of our own making commensurate with this?

May we not, however, see this as a false question, based on the assumption that the primitive has to be brutal? No wonder that working through an answer was arduous for Olson, years of scholarly digging into the perceived cannibalism of Red, White and Black America, the unfinished Guggenheim book that should have followed Call Me Ishmael. The Kingfishers was the humbled stasis at the end of the tether. The pumped-up feeling for Maos revolution as a new dawn to match the E of the Delphic cradle of Western civilization was actually second-hand stuff, borrowed from his friend Riboud, a French resistance fighter, hence the nous devons nous lever. Olson had not found a way to say it in his own American tongue. He did not know what is yet to be said, except for the vaguest of hopes:

but under these petals

in the emptiness

regard the light, contemplate

the flower

— and light turns out not to be the answer in the end.

If only Olson could have connected with his own best instincts, he would have known that the benign answer was literally nearer home. In the story Stocking Cap, written around the same time as the agonized The Kingfishers (1948) we get the flip side, the mediocre humanity of the 1920s scene when the boy Olson, still in the cocoon of his family, is taken ice-fishing by his father on a lake near Worcester, Massachusetts. This involves the stone age technology of cutting the ice, threading the lines, attending the tilts and gathering wood for the fire. The boy Olson was the guard, the mother of the fire and it was a precious thing: I was proud of its care, and built lives around it. . . I fetched the wood and started it. I kept it alive. I tore my mittens feeding it. I burnt my coat hugging it. This cave life in its ordinariness is the answer to Where is our fire?



harles Olson never actually used the term archaic postmodern, presumably because to him there was no other kind but the archaic. His radical view of our position in history suggests that, rather than play the hand we have been dealt by various clever dealers since Plato, we can fold, and play a different game by attending to what D.H. Lawrence in Fantasia of the Unconscious called ancient knowledge. This would be Tarot, say, as opposed to contract bridge. We have been taught how we are supposed to be able to win, but in the great scheme of things (it has been noticed) we are not winning. The supposedly civilized world needs to stop all the destructive victories and find the basis for a different way, what Know Thyself meant at Delphi long before Socrates, even before Homer, whom Olson liked to call that late European poet.

One crucial moment of revelation for Olson can be pinned down to the morning in March 1949 when an offprint of S.N. Kramers The Epic of Gilgames[h] and its Sumerian Sources Journal of the American Oriental Society 64 (1944) came through the mail from Frances Boldereff. Some might say that it was this lady herself who was the Inanna of Olsons awakening, but the psychology of that is out of our reach and we stick to the literary causes, and the immediate literary result, a gem of a poem, La Chute, made from phrases in Kramers Gilgamesh text.

The curious thing is that, again, we are drawn back to the 1941 efflorescence. For before anything else, before reading the Kramer offprint even, Olson set to rummaging through his papers for an old poem of that date, titled Tomorrow, and beginning I am Gilgamesh: a rather disingenuous way of claiming priority in the face of Frances Boldereffs slam dunk. He wanted it known that he had made some kind of leap forward years before.

We dont know the exact source of Olsons Ur-Gilgamesh poem. William Ellery Leonard had done a version for Viking in 1934, but the poem actually doesnt require there to have been a source more than a summary of the Sumerian myth sufficient to capture the poets imagination. Here, then, is the first act of the archaic postmodern, eight years before the concept itself began to be formulated:

I am Gilgamesh

an Ur world is in me

to inhabit.

We interrupt the poem (it can be found in Collected Poems p. 9) to suggest that it should not be taken as dramatic monologue. The I is not Gilgamesh imagined stage center but rather the poet appropriating the Gilgamesh figure for himself at 77 Washington Place, Greenwich Village, at the point in his life when he has left the protection of the academy, testing himself in the affairs of men.

Race of waters run

in the blood

red with the fathers.

Olson has got quite a productive pun there with race: his genetic make-up is pounding in a swift current to the present. His ancestral blood makes the connection between the pre-lapsian time and the broken world he has inherited:

They told me of flood,

of the earth dissolved,

of drowned mountains.

But his job is in the polis of the new (which was of course Gilgameshs rightful place):

I live in the land

and know people,

see love recur.

Then the poem makes the crucial expression of faith that we are as the first peoples were in their newness:

They said the heart

knows no evolution:

it is as it was when it is.

Is and was are the same. History is what we are possessed of in our own hearts, and Ur is still available therefore as a frame and force for action:

They called me Gilgamesh

and gave me Ur

where I dwell.

The I is, I believe, Olson speaking in his own voice, using Gilgameshs situation as a metaphor for his own, trying to express the newness he felt at a time when he did not have the poetic power to say it the way he does in, say, Maximus, to Gloucester (I.107) of 1957:

He left him naked,

the man said, and


is what one means

that all start up

to the eye and soul

as though it had never

happened before

These are the lines that Robert Creeley chose as the general epigraph to his Selected Writings of Charles Olson, explaining in a lecture (printed in A Quick Graph p. 66): In poems we realize, not in discursive or secondary manner, but with this implicit and absolutely consequential fact of firstness, terms of our own life, manifestations of that life which, otherwise, are most awkwardly acknowledged. This I am Gilgamesh poem, therefore, can be seen as a prior glimpse of this quality of origin. The title that Olson gave the poem, Tomorrow, is further confirmation that he sees origins are not only of the past but also of the future.


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