MOORE: Do you think of leaving the isolation, and Gloucester?
OLSON: Jeez, I don’t know. I got to finish this attempt to retake the lines into my hand. I mean, you know. . .
MOORE: When did you get started on the second Maximus?
OLSON: Fifty-nine, with that marvelous — partly with that visit of McClure and LeRoi Jones and Don Allen and — the one that, in fact, the poem, the “Maximus from Dogtown,” that Auerhahn published. You know that by now the way a pamphlet is. . .
MOORE: I haven’t seen it.
OLSON: You haven’t seen it? I think it — wait a minute, no, I think I used it later, I tell the story of, you know, Whalen was here, and both he and Mike it was their first trip to the East, and they both in a sense funked it. As a matter of fact, as you know, Mike even cut out and went, flew home before he did his thing in New York. But they were both ill, I mean literally, when they got here, no, I mean physically, legitimately, had colds, okay? As a matter of fact, it was cold weather; it was the fall, November; and Whalen didn’t even leave the house. In fact, he stayed here with Bet; and my wife was pretty gone on Philip in San Francisco in ‘57, and I thought to myself, “Well, this is one of those times you just braves the storm by turning your back.” And I was very interested. Of course I come back to see if anything had happened, and I learned that Philip just lay on the couch and. read the Apollonius of Tyana, and my wife all the time felt, “Jesus, what could — I mean, how can I make a pass at that big dodo bird, dodo bird?” And at night, later — you know, we’d prepared Mike to go out — my wife got him a vapor rub.
. . . ‘Cause I liked — last night when I was looking this stuff over in terms of. . . I hit this thing, and I don’t know why but it still makes. . . And I don’t know, I guess I once read it, but I think this is only the second time. I don’t know, jeez, it sits in the sequence I was reading last night till. . . I’m a little jumped up.
MOORE: Do it the way you feel like.
OLSON: Well, so. . . Because of the map we can do it this way.
[Reads “The Cow of Dogtown”]
OLSON: That’s a lovely poem, kooky; it was just made of nothing but Shaler’s geology.
OLSON: And one day I was up — I got lost, by the way. Everybody laughs. . . I got lost. And, in fact, people get lost and die. And, like, I’m supposed to know, like, everything; but here I am, the first time up on top of the goddamn thing and I couldn’t find my way out, like any other goddamn fool, blueberry picker, or anybody else. They have to send fire departments up there and boy scouts and — I mean, it’s a kooky — and here am I, the big pro of the Memphite Theology of the whole of creation, and I can’t even get the fuck out of there! I don’t know which way I had to go down, so — I got my ears. I’m supposed to know directions and all this, and I’m listening to the hoots of the railroad trains and the noises off in the distance, and I can’t figure out — because in a funny way, you know, that is one of the crazy things about that kind of a condition: it is not locable. It’s better than locable, that’s what I mean. It’s like when I said in the Gerhardt poem about “come on over here, we’ll teach you American vocables.” I was even saying, “That’s nothing. That’s where you start. Creeley, and new bicycles, and automobiles, and America. If we didn’t start with vocables, we wouldn’t be this other thing, hm?”
MOORE: You got interested in the first Maximus when did you say?
OLSON: Well, I come here in I’m pretty sure it’s ‘47, and I — my wife and I had sort of just visited my mother. It was early, it was May, like, and you never — it’s always you do something because you haven’t anything to do.4
4 See postcard to Monroe Engel (Selected Letters #28) dated 13 June 1947: “1st time Gloucester clear & not home town. Very exciting. Ears wide open. . . Busy as hands in a storm. Connie fishing the Cut, I listening to wharves and men.” Olson’s meeting at this time with Alfred Mansfield Brooks, director of Cape Ann Historical Society, is taken to mark the inception of the Maximus poems (Butterick’s Guide p. lxii). Also the conversation Olson listened in on between Frank Miles and Lou Douglas about the voyage of the Schooner Ella M. Goodwin pushed forward in the poem the Gloucester fishing theme (see Maximus I. 138).
MOORE: You got the Maximus Poems out of it.
OLSON: No, I did. I suddenly thought, “Why don’t I really do something with this thing?” I mean, I’ve spent more of my life in Gloucester than I did anywhere else, that’s all. And I think the first “Maximus” was written in ‘50; and my plan was to write them only as letters to Vincent Ferrini whenever I chose; and the first few were — they’re quite — six months, maybe a year and a half, apart.
MOORE: You know, I don’t know much about Ferrini.
OLSON: Well, you know, there is one man that’s almost my contemporary; he’s two and a half years younger. That’s a curious thing. I, like, I call him and Mary Shore my — the only brother and sister I’ve had, that’s true.5 And they are; they’re both here in Gloucester. And they are; they’re the only that kind of family. And I don’t know, I — as a matter of fact, again it’s due to Bill Williams. He wrote a poem on a postcard, you know, that snappy way you do. “These days” — this is to Bill Williams, penny postcard:
Whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
Just to make sure
where they come from.
5 A proper footnote on Mary Shore — or a biography — is still to be written by someone in a position to do so.
And Bill sends the thing to a magazine at Muhlenberg or Allentown or Allegheny college, edited, you know, one of those things, called Imago. . . Imagi. And in the issue was a poem I liked called “The House” by a poet named Ferrini; and, you know, I look up under “contributors,” and the guy is Gloucester. So the next time I come back to visit my mother I — you know, you say, “Hello, Ma,” and that’s it. I mean, you eat one meal and you think, “Oh, Jesus, I got to get back to. . . “ Well, you can’t leave, you know; your mother wants you to stay overnight at least. So I went out to — after I had supper, I said, “Look, I got to go over town,” like; and I went over and I looked up — I went to a captain whom I knew his daughters taught the High School. I don’t know how I had the idea Ferrini’s wife taught school. I don’t know, maybe the contributors thing said that or something. And they told me he lived on Liberty Street, and — oh, yeah, I had this Frenchman’s — the Frenchman I mentioned earlier — Riboud’s beautiful Mercury I’d driven up;6 and, you know me, I wouldn’t know about the Simonize.
6 For Jean Riboud, see What Does Not Change pp. 39-41.
. . . Well, on Hart Crane and Marsden Hartley and my father and the Whale Jaw, an early “Maximus,” where my father is throwing a big joke. He’s in between the — you know, the Whale Jaw is really an enormous, again, a glacial split, and a huge rock just left right up, from nowhere, like a clown scene, you know, ah-oo-wah! And this thing is sitting way the hell up on the top of Dogtown in one of those, a secondary level of what I was — it’s in that “Cow of Dogtown” poem. And my old man is standing there, pushing the jaws of the — of this, literally, it’s like a whale’s mouth, open this way, coming out of the earth. And he’s just shoving the fucking jaws aside like big powerful Olson men are supposed to, you know.7 And I don’t think I ever was there again, since that time that picture was taken when I must have been about seven or eight. Break it up! [Laughs] Break it up!
7 George Butterick does not mention in his note the location of the photograph of the poet’s father in the Whale Jaw; so we must presume it does not now exist.
MOORE: You know what I want to hear about?
MOORE: The breath.
OLSON: The breath? Jesus! You know, I ain’t — I mean, I got, I mean, you know, I just was the first time in my life told by a doctor, “You know, you don’t breathe, Olson.” I says, “What?” And he taught me how to breathe. He says. And the other day I went back, and I said, “Jesus,” I said, “you know, you really put me on to something.” And he says, “Well, do you know that’s true of everybody. “Oh,” I says, “you’re not as wise as I thought you were*” “No,” he says, “almost everybody takes sixteen breathe a minute, and,” he says, “they’d be much better off if they took eight, because they — their lungs — .” And he gave it to me. He says — you know, I’m having trouble because I got emphysema and all that shit now. . . I thought I had — I thought I’d been holding my breath to make breath for poetry, like; so, you know, the way you up those. If somebody tells you you’re sick, then you got to have a good reason for being sick, so I thought, “Well, it might have been. . . “
. . . only six in Washington, and I would — you know, I’m so rational that I decided, well, I did have a few poems and sold them easily to Harper’s Bazaar and Atlantic, enough to buy some nice underwear for my wife, from Harper’s Bazaar. You know they call poems in Harper’s Bazaar “bra fillers,” technically, a poem in a bra. They call down and say, “You got a fourteen line or so bra filler?” I published in Harper’s Bazaar; the first poems all were there, until one time I wrote a poem on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and they put it next to a Modess ad; and that just finished me — a whole page in a green spring thing, the lawn, linen, and all this shit. That was enough.
. . . I discovered there wasn’t an Are Poetica in existence . . . and the last, the only poet that I knew that ever wrote one was Dante’s De Vulgare Eloquentia, and that’s a marvelous essay.8 As a matter of fact, I’m just about — I wrote the last letter to get the Frontier Press to make an issue, a book, out of it, and reissue the damn thing, ‘Cause, by the way, it’s all the technical problems of syllables; and, meanwhile, without knowing that then, I did — I thought — I didn’t know the Dante, and I wrote the thing. And in a sense, I guess because you think an ars poetica is technical, I wrote technical, uh? But I now find out that what I really was talking about was, even using the word “projective,” was to either discover or to regain some difference of art and reason, and propose that there be that. In other words, the “Projective Verse” piece is the — really the last section of the “Human Universe,” which . . . If you know Bill Williams put the first section in his Autobiography, and it hurt me a little because he left out the second section, where I thought the humanism lay. . .
8 Olson used the sections from Dante’s De Vulgare Eloquentia that were included in The Great Critics edited by James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parke (New York: Norton 1939), especially for his essay “Quantity in Verse, and Shakespeare’s Late Plays” of 1956 (included in Selected Writings and Collected Prose).
. . . to enter the subject matter, and that. . .”Projection” is where you permit your feeling to flow and go out through the subject matter. And that’s not the thing to do. There isn’t. . . like my great master, Whitehead, said: “All is there for feeling. All does flow.” That’s objectively true. That is the creation. You don’t use that for creation; that’s like suckin’ off the tit, for Christ’s sake. You do your own act, which is to separate yourself from that expression of feeling. You put the feeling back on the other side entirely. It’s an act of both mind and creation itself, on your part. And that that’s what I proposed in the “Projective”: that that adjective has nothing to do with projection of that order. It has to do with the search to undo the inherited reason in art that we have had for so long, and is based upon a false, a poor discourse and a poor aesthetic. And I was after something that I didn’t know, but I started with an ars poetica, to in fact supply an ars poetica, not even knowing that there was a great one, which I didn’t even know at that time, the Dante.
MOORE: You went through this whole damn process in a week or less than a week, one day less than a week?
OLSON: This last week? I sure did. A poem was sent to me, and I went for it hook, line, and sinker. And I couldn’t really tell you what the fucking thing all amounted to, but, good god, was I hooked!
. . . The only way I can say it now, because I still feel so much is really going on, and it’s still going on here, and, I mean, for some reason I’m a — jeez, I don’t give a goddamn about, I’m not talking about America, except I can’t see that the American thing isn’t still going out. And I don’t mean the species and the space-ship, that’s a lot of crap, and the war and the whole thing, ‘cause that’s not a nation, that’s the abuse of the nation. But I mean that when I mentioned Charles Peirce earlier, that that way that that man was thinking — in fact, as you may know, in the Popular Science Monthly, January 1878, he wrote, 1878 he wrote, and even James didn’t know it till about 1906; 1878 that man established the whole thing. And it’s a very simple principle, by the way; I can even say it quickly: Thought is Belief, Belief is Action. That’s just what is the famous so-called American pragmatism. And I’ve lived fifty-five years, and this year found out that, of course, that’s it. When I think, I believe; and when I believe, I act it. And only that way, that consistency or that order, is so true, and there’s no, there’s no — I mean, that gets the absolute around, as Whitehead says, the right way: the absolute is the end, not the beginning. You pick up on the matter; you pick up on the particular; and then you yourself, if you run into the eternal, you propose the same thing God did in creating the damn thing from the start. And He doesn’t even know that the end of his creation. . . He’s a part of the acts which we are the — present ages are instruments of only. He’s a part . . . I don’t mean to sub — to make Him small there. I mean, only if the imagination — it’s that beautiful thing that the Muses, by the way — I also worked it out by carefully going at that goddamn beautiful.poet, who I think is the greatest poet now for us is Hesiod, because in the Theogony it gets perfectly clear in Havelock, in the Preface to Plato, that marvelous analysis of The Republic and the poetics that are in The Republic, by the way, that beautiful book by Havelock, which opens on Theogony, he also — and I did, I’d done this in ‘63 here, and wrote that down, the second “Maximus” — oh, no, the second “Gravelly — .” It was published in the Psychedelic Review, the one that the mushroom people edited. I deliberately did it, by the way. They asked me for a poem ‘cause I’d been under the early experiments on the poets and the mushroom; and I deliberately gave them this, which is really my idea of a translation of Hesiod.
. . . the idea that we have become tactile. See? It’s like I’d said earlier about food processing. You know food processing goes on in our stomachs; that’s what stomachs are for is to process food, that’s what the whole juices in our mouth are for. Well, language preceded even diet. And if you overt these processes in creation, you have no — as a matter of fact, if you saw that crazy, marvelous projection of the next twenty years, excuse me, of the thirty-six years from now, 2000, they have come to the point where they propose skin — babies will be — so that women won’t have to go through the pangs of pregnancy, they will have the babies outside. But in addition, the damn thing says that they can produce skin and then put features on it. Now I believe that that is just what might become possible; and I believe that we’re proceeding at a rate of speed and a rate of progress which leads to these. . . It’s really interesting, it’s — talk about contra naturam, it’s much worse than that. It is literally denaturing Nature. . .
. . . We arrange the measurements, now we have to get the Nature. That’s where we are today. I mean, science and poetry today is brilliant because it’s already now returning to what, again, my great master and the companion of my poems, Mr. Whitehead, called his cosmology: “The Philosophy of Organism.”