Charles Olsons archaic postmodern

[Part 3]



f we follow the Gilgamesh theme in Olson (as we could alternative archaic themes such as the She-Bear, the Tarot, the Maya, or dreams etc) we come to the Bigmans series. In these quasi-translations, Olson takes the important concerns he sees in the Gilgamesh epic (which because he sees them them as important are indeed his own) and expresses them in vigorous speech as a demand on the hero/self in relation to, for instance, the mother (Collected Poems p. 148):

Let go, hulk, pull out

from her house, dispose

your strength where others are, where they lie

as things do, as cities, waiting

to be waked.

Personal inertia pulled upon by the wish to do good in society: Bigmans is not some exotic from the mystical past; he is Olson.

We do not need to guess what Olson saw in Gilgamesh when he says it plainly in his early essay The Gate and the Center (1951): As I read it, it is an incredibly accurate myth of what happens to the best of men when they lose touch with the primordial and phallic energies and methodologies which, said this predecessor people of ours [the Sumerians], make it possible for man, that participant thing, to take up, straight, natures, live natures force (Collected Prose p. 173). The essay notes a few general precepts of government which come down via the king lists, and Olson makes a broad claim: The whole question and continuing struggle to remain civilized Sumer documented in and out (p. 173); but he does turn immediately to Gilgamesh and suggests it is there we find guidance by listening to how it presents itself.

Bigmans II is a long poetic disquisition of 8 August 1950 (Collected Poems pp. 149-154). One recognizes it as the opening of Gilgamesh amplified by Olsons passionate engagement with the same life problems. The poem begins:

He who saw everything, of him learn, o my land, learn

of him who sought out to know what lands are for, & people, to turn

to fruitfulness after the wastings and the idlenesses, the ways

to use what is called strength after its misuse, he who had tidings

of times when deltas were of use as deltas and not floodings

of excrement. . .

G the human hero, Olson wrote in making notes on the Kramer offprint that had been sent him and that he was using; and he quotes Kramer: The need for friendship, the instinct for loyalty, the impelling urge for fame and name, the love of adventure and achievement, the all-absorbing fear of death, and the all-compelling longing for immortality. It is not insignificant that Olson wrote these notes on the fly-leaves of his copy of the Modern Library Complete Works of Homer, placing them there as the archaic matter behind Greek Olympian ethics. The adjacent notes Olson wrote there are from Victor Bérards Did Homer Live? (1931), on the Phoenician sailors periplum as source for the Odyssey journey, and from Rhys Carpenters Folk-Tale, Fiction and Saga (1946), on the märchen bearcult origin of the Odysseus figure: all this grist to the archaic postmodern mill.

The more one goes into Olsons use of Sumerian materials the more one finds enduring recognitions, not at all outside our ken. It is just that Olson prefers to take up these themes in the arena of these early texts rather than, say, of the nineteenth-century novel. It is, thus, to some extent a question of taste, of choosing the ground that is most congenially stimulating and fresh. Olson does claim that there is something objectively different about the pre-Socratic ages, and in 1963 found Eric Havelocks Preface to Plato a confirmation of his scourge of Platos destructive logic and classification in the Human Universe essay of 1951. But the evidence is sparse; it is hard to interpret what the differences are in the face of age-old on-going human problems. Olson would say that, since Western civilization has gone awry, we had better work with what we have from before the degradation.

Bigmans II, for all its length, does not take us far from what is quite evident in the character of Gilgamesh of the epic: his energies towards good that, unmatched by a missing something, become a liability to the polis. Bigmans III did go further, but only in notes (six typescript pages dated 24 August 1950, at Storrs). It is one of the amplitudes of Olson that any poem of his is only a partial consequence of a myriad brain activities going on at the time it is written, if it actually gets written. In this case it didnt, but to rephrase one of Olsons sayings at Berkeley, A poet, when hes alive, whether he makes notes or writes a poem is the same thing! These typewritten notes reveal a struggle to imagine a new heroic, drawing on the gauges of human life for both man and woman in the Sumerian-Phoenician-Greek position, with the conclusion that the essence of it is the double: The flesh as gate to soul, not, as in the ethical, as hindrance. And the job is to bring to bear on the DOUBLE the SINGLE INTELLIGENCE. He intends to make Bigmans a disclosure of the root principle that the PERSON accomplishes the SINGLE by way of the FACT that experience is always DOUBLE, that the single always proceeds towards its heroic goal between the poles or horns forever present and allowed. And applying this to Gilgamesh, the single that Gilgamesh seeks is by way of Enkidu and his Mother. (Olsons own neatened paraphrase of these notes can be found in the Olson-Boldereff Correspondence pp. 510-12.) As a message to himself from a sojourn in the Sumerian, these notes mark a high spot in Olsons intermittent delineation of the archaic postmodern.



lson failed to do a poem called Bigmans III and the Gilgamesh material faded into the background. Though Gilgamesh is listed with Heracles, Odysseus and others under the heading The Sea, or, the Hero in Olsons outline of topics for the Institute in the New Sciences of Man at Black Mountain College in March 1953, he passes him over, proposing to go straight from Cro-Magnon to Homer (OLSON #10, pp. 9 and 86). He does, however, reiterate the generalization that the Sumerian and Mayan are the back-doors of our own culture: And if I am right that the Americans are the last, first people, then just such a place of beginning as the Sumerian and the Mayan, tipping between ancient & present man, is a live place (OLSON 10 p. 60).

Some years later Olson calls this link between then and now a uroboros. This is in a letter to Donald Allen of 15 May 1960, where he is moved to summarize Gilgamesh as follows:

a ruler of the City who has gotten out of his own hands and so reeks he goes to his Mother and lays his axe (ceremonial I assume) in front of her and she tells him a thing or two — a lot of events then follow including the bringing in to him from the woods a buddy who has been transformed from a Nature Boy to a man of principle (like unformed clay stone wood bone shell — for a gorget): this man dies    this effects G G goes off to find. . .

And then Olson interrupts himself to say: We were the last first people, we have the advantage there is now — such as the above — real live first evidence of the first first people: they make much sense isnt around. And he then adds: The American-Sumerian hoop is a true uroboros.

This telling word recurs in what might be Olsons last turning to Gilgamesh (no mention gets into the Maximus), in a short poem in typescript at Storrs titled Fragment of Translation and Comment — where the word uroboros constitutes the comment if it is not that the Gilgamesh lines are a comment on that one word.

the uroboros, as of Gilgamesh crossing the lake of pitch

& losing the secret of life to                            (odor of resin or gum arabic of

the water snake (among his clothes              the mother become woman

on the bank washing himself

of both the tar and the salt from the dive

to the bottom of the sea to get the plant

which is the secret which he wishes for

for all men, after the death — the stupid death,

by an irrelevance of attention — of


With this poem, dated 12 December 1961 our introduction to Olsons archaic postmodern rests. To go to the furthest limits of the topic would, in my opinion, be to deal with everything Olson wrote in the decade after his first grasping the notion from the noumena of his time in August 1951. The final decade of the poets life, which was driven by Whiteheads Process and Reality and Corbins publication of Ismaili texts, is another matter, perhaps post-postmodern in what must turn out to be interesting in its consistency with what went before; for it is the same mans will to change, even to the extent of taking jet planes, while essentially staying home.



recently came across a passage in Kenneth McRobbies memoir in Minutes #6 that seems to bring this subject to a final focus. He recalled an occasion on which Olson showed a defensiveness, masked by indirectness, concerning the word socialism, retreating into generalities about the polis and Sumerian collectivism (p. 13). McRobbie may have meant this as a reproach, but it made me go back to the place where Olson is not defensive, where he says once and for all (and doesnt keep repeating himself thereafter) what he sees as the value in Sumer:

. . . from 3378 BC (date mans lst city, name and face of creator also known) in unbroken series first at Uruk, then from the seaport Lagash out into colonies in the Indus Valley and, circa 2500, the Nile, until date 1200 BC or thereabouts, civilization had ONE CENTER, Sumer, in all directions, that this one people held such exact and superior force that all peoples around them were sustained by it, nourished, increased, advanced, that a city was a coherence which, for the first time since the ice, gave man the chance to join knowledge to culture and, with this weapon, shape dignities of economics and value sufficient to make daily life itself a dignity and a sufficiency.

This is from Olsons essay on education, The Gate and the Center (Collected Prose p. 170). And with this sense of social morality in mind and Sargons injunction that the guardianship of the earth is the rulers especial province, Olson looks to the future:

I have this dream, that just as we cannot now see & say the size of these early HUMAN KINGS, we cannot, by the very lost token of their science, see what size man can be once more capable of, once the turn of the flow of his energies that I speak of as the WILL TO COHERE is admitted, and its energy taken up (p. 172).

With McRobbies prodding, surely we can see now that the archaic postmodern is a way of saying socialism, saying it without having to deal with all the grime that has unfortunately attached itself to that word. We all still secretly know what socialism is and that in some form it will provide the foundation for a world without greed. From its present defeated state, it may begin to do so by proving to be the vessel of behavior towards use of self (Olsons emphasis) in the fresh start that the archaic postmodern proposes, a regaining of that fantastic condition of the human race that everything mattered.


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