Of O’Hara and Williams and Olson
By Jonathan Chan
In a 'statement of poetics' written for Donald Allen's 'The New American Poetry', Frank O'Hara offered the following observation:
While its simplicity seems to rest on the bifurcation of subject and object, upon closer inspection, O'Hara's position presents a productive tension out of which we can interrogate poetry's malleability, its propensity to order objects into narrative, or to draw intangible qualities of thought and feeling from objects themselves. Belying this is the recognition that the text itself is an object. Thus, it can never find itself negotiated on a field of pure abstraction. O'Hara's thinking finds some antecedent in the objectivist position advanced by William Carlos Williams, who writes in his autobiography:
Williams's enthusiasm was for a revival of the impulse of Imagism: to seek new poetic forms that measured out the relationship between words and experience in ways that were not constrained by familiar conceptions of what poetry should look or sound like. Williams's refutation of loose verse as haphazard emphasises the intrinsic necessity of organising principles in a poem, some inherent logic not defined by established convention. In this formulation, the object and 'his day', the zeitgeist of a historical period, are coterminous, with the poet's consequent task being to reconcile the nebulous to the concrete. Williams's democratising impulse resisted a prioritising of narrative tension over everyday textures. This bespeaks his influence in the development of modernism and the avant-garde, the former demarcating expertise and the latter indicating provocation.
Yet, Williams's aversion to authority and prestige is often read as a form of crudity. Charles Olson once complained, in correspondence with Robert Creeley, that Williams's 'lack of intellect is sabotaging […] all our positions'. What draws Olson back into a shared sense of poetic purpose with Williams is the challenge of conveying a local history, one often inseparable from a personal history. As Williams asserts, the local refers not to a 'narrow sense of parochialism' but consists of the 'material before' the poet, providing 'the freeing agency to all thought, in that it is everywhere accessible to all'. If for Williams the crucible of the 'local' is New Jersey, for Olson it is Gloucester, Massachusetts, the town at the center of The Maximus Poems. Herein the concrete and circumstantial give way to the intangible, a folding outward from the material and vice-versa. As with Williams, Olson rejects 'academic' verse with its closed forms and alleged artifice in favour of projective or open verse. He asserts:
Framed in the lexis of an energy cycle, Olson aspires to eradicate the pretentions of inherited verse structures by restoring the body as the mediator of poetic rhythm. While the breath forms the basis of a rhythmic scoring, the ear must be discriminating in establishing the syllabic intelligence of a poem. By reinstating the breath as the fundamental unit of the poem, the object can then be treated 'exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas of preconceptions from outside the poem.' As Olson elaborates in 'Projective Verse':
By demonstrating a seamless flow of energy from breath into language, poetry itself becomes solidified as object, and the tangible and intangible in O'Hara's formulation becomes continuous. Olson's formulation is grounded in a circularity, one that proceeds from Williams's assertion that poetry must inhere in a logic that invents an object 'consonant with his day'. These positions will be examined through close analysis of their poems.
That an intangible quality is brought forth from the solidity of a poem's objects is a crucial point of anchorage in Williams's poems. Williams's preference for the quotidian object as a point of focalisation is deceptive, variously opening him to charges of confusion if not simple-mindedness. This is exemplified in 'This Is Just To Say' (1934), in which the 'plums' in the 'icebox' seem not to portend any heightened philosophising, but a straightforward admission of guilt and plea for forgiveness:
That Williams's pared-down language replicates a conversational quality obscures the organisation of his verse. It proceeds from the concrete 'plums', to an admission of guilt in recognising that the speaker's partner was 'saving [them] / for breakfast', to dissolution into tactile and gustatory pleasure. The poem's superficial banality seals and segments the moment of transgression, separating apology and memory, and anatomises the guilty pleasure into its subsidiary sensations. Here, Williams situates the object, the plum, in a network of emotional and sensory relations. This yields a sense of narrative economy as well as of the inadequacies of language in containing the consumptive moment of pleasure.
Williams's focalising on specific images, as in 'The Great Figure' (1921) or 'The Red Wheelbarrow' (1923), similarly hinge not on the complexity that unfolds from a single object, but also the provocation of a sparse mise-en-page. Analysis of these poems benefits from their brevity; in Williams's 'The Rose' (1923), we are provided with a lengthier interrogation of the metaphoric possibilities of an object. Williams's poem is a disquisition of sorts, commencing with the assertion, 'The rose is obsolete', before continuing:
Williams dwells on the tactility of the rose, one that inheres in its ability to occupy space, its shape 'cementing the grooved columns of air'. It is the rose itself that renders the space around it solid, that 'cuts' through space and to the vision of the viewer. The omission of punctuation, save for Dickinson-esque dashes, relies on the sensemaking properties of enjambment, but also demarcates a sense of the rose's symbolic renewal through a feeling of elision. This enables the speaker to assert, 'if it ends / the start is begun / so that to engage roses / becomes a geometry'. The semiotic possibility that emerges from the rose seems recursive, like a mobius strip, constantly returning to itself. The speaker writes, 'at the edge of the / petal that love waits / Crisp, worked to defeat / laboredness –––fragile / plucked, moist, half ––– raised / cold, precise, touching' and yet, 'From the petal's edge a line starts / that being of steel / infinitely fine, infinitely / rigid penetrates / the Milky Way / without contact.' Williams's charge is that the rose must defeat its cliched uses, alluding both to its most commonly cited tactile properties and the clinical nature of its repetitive invocations. This results in what may be considered a performance of semantic satiation, as the object is considered and reconsidered until its meaning is no longer stable, breaking through to an intangibility.
It is a similar sensation that Williams touches on in 'Overture to a Dance of Locomotives' (1916), which concludes
If the recursion of the rose's symbolic possibilities are evinced through description of shape, the locomotive remains in a position of literal circling. Williams draws out the dissonance between the apparent staticity of the locomotive and the dynamic transformations it forcibly enacts through the development of urban infrastructure to support it, with rivers 'tunnelled' and 'trestles [crossing] oozy swampland'. The poem itself renders its human subjects subsidiary to the locomotive, but anthropomorphises it through the image of 'dance'. There is a curious ambivalence toward the train, located somewhere between wonder and pessimism as an unstoppable piece of technology. It is one similarly expressed by Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854):
Like Williams, Charles Olson's poetry is anchored in the solidity of the image as object, one that draws out the intangible sensations that shape an intellectual and emotional response. Olson described in The Special View of History this problem of engaging with the relation between subject and environment as the 'stance toward reality'. In the case of 'The Kingfishers' (1949), this takes on a more expansive frame as a critique of modernity, centred on the process by which the kingfisher is commodified, itself a reflection of the colonisation of Mexico and destruction of the Mayans at the hands of the Spanish. Consider the figure of the archaeologist Fernand who enquires, 'the kingfishers' feathers were wealth / why did the export stop?' and later on:
Olson draws close to the epistemic violence that refashions both kingfisher and gold as commodity, wresting them from their significance within Mayan ritual. The catalogue presented is almost clinical in its replication of an archaeological voice, mining artefacts for semantic coherence. Thomas Merrill asserts that the invasion of the conquistador, with the 'disheveled' priests calling on people to 'protect their gods', inaugurated a perceptual shift. Gold changed from being a substance valued for its ceremonial significance to a commodity whose value was assigned from without, a grim transition from an attentively poised and coherent culture to one which was dispersed by acquisitiveness and 'discourse'. This alchemical obsession, one central to the twist-fold of modernity, lends Olson's poetry a certain philosophical ballast, a concern with the process by which value is wrested, destroyed, and reconfigured.
To draw this discussion back into the remit of locality, Olson's 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]' (1985) bears a more singular commitment to the topography of place. The Gloucester of The Maximus Poems is not merely a geographical location but the site of a continual engagement between Maximus, the poet's persona, and his environment, an engagement that, for the poet, constitutes reality. It is out of the concrete and the circumstantial that Olson renders the ambivalence of antecedence, of trying to inscribe Gloucester within a recognisable set of mythic structures. The poem's first half dwells in the nebulous realm of memory, grounded in objects:
The locality of Gloucester is rendered by recognition of its immediate materiality – the cliffs, the buildings, and the sea. The habitat is rendered biographically by Maximus, Olson's poetic alter ego. The poem seems to recall a mode of childhood elegy, of waxing nostalgic for familiar places of juvenile abandon. It is furthered by the speaker's recollection of his father 'with a bread-knife in his teeth' prepared to attack 'Rexall conventioneers' should they make a pass at his wife, a detail remembered by the speaker amidst a 'tent spread to feed lobsters'. Olson takes the circumstantial, the nebulous shape of memory, and upends any presumption of nostalgia by asserting, 'this is no welter or the forms / of those events', and resisting 'the imposing / of all these antecedent predecessions'. Perhaps there is a sense that Olson refuses his literary models in his articulation of childhood affinity. This turn creates a sense of disaggregation as the poem's lineation expands and spaces out:
Olson here plays with the 'American' as image, resisting the simplicity of metaphor and rendering a sense of personhood in increasing degrees of abstraction: the American as an aggregation of historical incidences, but also a form lacking an inward semiotic significance. Instead, it is 'the geography' that presses meaning onto the citizen, on which the speaker compels not a return to a mythicised origin, but to some meaning that precedes the banality of the quotidian. Olson refuses the homogeneity of a conventional narrative of Gloucester vivified by childhood affection. Instead, he impresses upon it a sense of an epochal return, receding into deep time.
While Williams and Olson demonstrate the potential for the concrete to unfold into the abstract, they are just as committed to demonstrating the continuity between poem and 'the dispersed and distributed thing', a porosity between text and object. The seamlessness of movement is demonstrated in Williams's 'At the Ball Game' (1923) and in Olson's 'As the Dead Prey Upon Us' (1987). Williams and Olson demonstrate the outward projection and circulation of energies from and within the poem. 'At the Ball Game' encapsulates the movement between circumstantial and intangible by capturing a sense of the forces that affect the audience of a ball game. This is the poem's first movement:
Williams seems to borrow a lexis of pneumatology to describe the imperceptible forces that move the ball game's crowd. On first reading, one may be led to consider the scene as displaying the geist of a kind of camaraderie or sportsmanship, but the invocation of 'uselessness' portends the poem's inflection toward something more sinister. It is the rousing force of spectacle that informs the interaction between crowd and ball game, a seamless intangible quality that mediates the shared experience of sports. Williams goes on to describe this force as:
The sparseness of Williams's couplets draws attention to the ordered rhythms of his poem, each in turn enabling a focalisation on the elements the speaker dreads– the manipulative potential of mass ecstasy and hysteria. It is perhaps Williams's commitment to egalitarianism that lends his poem an antifascist strain, one sensitive to the possibilities of demagoguery, however innocuous the circumstances. The circulation of energy from baseball players to crowd and vice-versa, the excitements of 'the escape, the error / the flash of genius', create the spiritual conditions for this manipulation.
The enumeration that follows – that the 'flashy female' and 'The Jew' both '[get] it' – indicate the potential for collective sentiment to turn on the axle of prejudice along the lines of class, gender, ethnicity, or religion. His direct comparison to 'the Inquisition' and 'the Revolution' situates the potential of mass tyranny in relation to its European manifestations, both the Spanish Inquisition in its attempts to weed out the heretics amongst the Moriscos and the Marranos in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the revolutionary fervour that gripped France in the late 18th century. Williams yokes the horror of this violence to a beauty 'that lives / day by day in them / idly', reflected in 'the power of their faces'. The moment cannot remain deracinated, for Williams's poem seems to serve as a warning against 'laughing […] seriously without thought'. Herein, Williams indicates the possibilities of a manipulation of these energies to malicious ends, an impulse for the subject to resist.
If apprehension is the force that renders the poem and circumstance coterminous, in Olson's 'As the Dead Prey Upon Us' (1987), the speaker is drawn to the twin forces of grief and indignation. Olson resists the interference of the elegy by eschewing a reliance on pastoral imagery and a movement toward consolation. Instead, as the title itself suggests, the speaker is subject to the predation of 'the Dead', in the poem's case the outstanding obligations that remain in the aftermath of his mother's death. The poem is anchored in several images, primarily the automobile and the net. It is the image of the automobile that opens the poem,
The circumstance of the speaker's mother's death is brought into shape by the disarray of the automobile, with the pressure of contending with what are implied to be distant relatives seeking a portion of his mother's inheritance. The sense of an unravelling is brought into material view by the 'masses of rubber and thread variously clinging together', emphasised by the hypostasising of overwhelming stress into 'posters and presentations of brake linings' and 'cardboard displays'. The form of difficulty that the speaker is confronted with – the desperation of the poor, the unresolved consequences of his mother's death – is grounded in the automobile metaphor, the dead 'doomed to mere equipments'. The image of the car in disrepair is deepened by the introduction of the 'old man' who 'merely removed it […] and put it in a corner of the picket fence / like was it my mother's dog?' Herein, the object functions not only as a figurative reflection of disarray, but also as a metaphor for deteriorating familial relations.
This sense of recursive disarray is furthered in the image of the net. As the speaker elucidates in the second section of the poem,
Like the decrepit automobile, the net's knots foreground the complexity of interpersonal relationships. Each 'topological corner' cannot be cut by a 'sword', and though 'each knot is itself its fire', it is for the 'hands to untake'. Even so, touch 'can turn the knot into its own flame.' The conundrum this presents to the speaker is the futility of attempting disentanglement, the elliptical difficulty of resisting the 'death in life (death itself)'.
And yet, the searing sensation of the net's flames remains elusive. The anaphoric invocation of the speaker's mother suggests the avoidance of pain through distance. The sense of an emotional entanglement is given some relief by the end of the poem as the speaker asserts, 'the nets of being / are only eternal if you sleep as your hands / ought to be busy.' The skittishness of this image is placed in contrast to its eventual juxtaposition: the speaker's mother sitting 'in happiness' and the automobile having 'been hauled away'. The perpetuity of the 'knot' is enabled only by the anxious attention given to it. It is here that the play of energies in the poem comes to a rest, that the circulation between text and object finds some degree of resolution. By this cessation of an interplay between separate energies, Olson brings both the nebulous and the tangible to relief, a composure that proceeds from grief.
Williams and Olson both demonstrate a commitment to foregrounding the material qualities of the poem, one that takes the shape of an emphasis on concrete images of the quotidian. In this regard, they support O'Hara by their favouring of the immediate and the familiar rather than the arcane and allusive, and by aspiring toward a coterminous relationship between the 'reality of verse' and the 'distributed thing'. An anchorage in the concrete and circumstantial allows the poets to tease out broader political and philosophical considerations, but just as easily allows them to move back from the nebulous to the tangible. It is this resistance to an overt polemic that accounts for O'Hara's view that
Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.
Olson may very well deserve a place on his list.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022