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Micro Essay #2 – Comparative Criticism of Charles Olson

Comparative Criticism of Charles Olson by Andrew Miller

Olson’s use of the stasis of the moon as a prominent phanopoeia in the two pieces selected for this close reading may seem a bit on-the-nose, but I was interested in how two similar openings can lead a reader through significantly different narratives.

In “Moonset, Gloucester, December 1, 1957, 1:58 AM” the poem opens with the two lines: “Goodbye red moon / In that color you set”. This opening is mimicked later in Olson’s writings with the piece “May 31, 1961”, with the opening phrase: “the lilac moon of the earth’s backyard”.

Both phrases set up the reader with an understanding that the Field is to be set within the context of that state of the moon. The first, a “red moon”, invokes a sort of power which a reader expects to consume the poem. A red moon feeling less settled, more mysterious than a yellow moon – or merely a moon, new or otherwise. Followed with the phrase that this red is the color that has been “set”, as well as being the color of the moon as it sets – leads the reader’s emotions to feel the power of this moon consuming the new day.

Juxtaposed from this however is “the lilac moon” which casts an image of calm, settled existence. Reading of “the earth’s backyard” furthers this notion, asserting that we are in a familiar and relaxing place. The following two lines then in “May 31, 1961” explain that we are here, also, at the moment when the moon is setting.

2          which gives silence to the whole house

3          falls down

Only the words “falls down” feel specifically energized and awakened – with greater impact as it is set in opposition to words such as “lilac”, “backyard”, and “silence”. “Moonset, Gloucester” instead used a single word, red, to deliver the reader into high energy. This departure is merely the setup however, resulting in the coming disparate poems.

“Moonset, Gloucester” becomes violent with the setting of this “red moon”.

3          west of the Cut I should imagine

4          forever Mother

Olson connects the moon and the mother in the next three lines, somewhat obtusely using the words “you set” and “I rise”, allowing for a good deal of interpretation.

5          After 47 years this month

6          a Monday at 9 AM

7          you set I rise I hope

Is this the birth of Olson? Was his mother killed in his delivery? Researching the matter has not turned up any answers as of yet. Olson’s second wife, with whom he did not have any children, died in an automobile accident in 1956, so I questioned what motives may have been found from that incident in this poem, but no connection seemed plausible for me. No answers are to be found in the second half of this poem either. Further bluster, but no resolution. Oddly, this section is where the path of each poem find yet another intersection with each other; not of content, but of context.

From an image of this thing – the moon – we are drawn into a dialogue. Within “May 31, 1961” the dialogue turns the tables on the reader’s initial perspective. Instead of viewing the moon from the earth, the reader finds themselves firmly planted on the lilac moon gazing upon the “silence” and “quiet” of the earth. Here, the reader hears what it is that the moon has to say to the earth and its inhabitants.

6                                  poor planet

7                      now reduced

8                      to disuse

9          who looks so big

10        and alive

11        I am talking to you

Conversation of “Moonset, Cloucester” is automatically energized and violent, as the way the poem’s first line opened had been.

8          a free thing as probably

9          what you more were Not

10        the suffering one you sold

11        sowed me on Rise

12        Mother from off me

13        God damn you God damn me my

14        misunderstanding of you

Then, with the final line, these poems diverge significantly again.

15        I can die now I just begun to live

As opposed to the final lines of “May 31, 1961” sleepy eyelids entering the new day: “lilac moon / old backyard bloom”. Olson follows through on his promise from the first line to the last in these poems. Similar subjects and structure – both poems being fewer than 25 lines (one page), invoke the shared human experience of the moon, and of conversation – result in drastically different narratives. First the reader experiences the anger of an aging person, who seems upset with their mother over having been born into the world; potentially without the mother remaining in it to help them along the way. In the second, the reader meets the moon and learns the perspective of what plant Earth might appear like to a body only viewing it at slumber, and conceptually at peace.

12        The shades

13        on the windows

14        of the Centers’

15        place

16        half down

17        like nobody else’s

18        lets the glass lower halves

19        make quiet mouths at you

Objectionist, as defined in his manifesto by Olson, is represented in both of these poems by giving an equal amount of emotional intent to the moon-object as to the human-animal-object. Similarly, a sort of consciousness is even bestowed upon “the windows” with their “quiet mouths” from “May 31, 1961”.


A new series of micro-essays

Charles Olson Selected Poems – “The Lamp”

by Andrew Miller

Olson’s “The Lamp” (Selected Poems 1993 ed.) is an interesting example of projective verse both in the meaning ascribed by Olson in his manifesto, but also in a very literal way as we see this projection of energy, power, and life behind the meaning of the piece itself.

“The Lamp” is particularly interesting in that it relies more on very subtle variations in what Olson refers to as “the Field”, whereas so many of his poems in Selected have strong visual variation. Regardless, the subtlety of these variations in “The Lamp” are every bit as effective in managing “all the syllables and all the lines … in their relations to each other.” (“Projective Verse”, Charles Olson, Poetry Foundation 2009)

On first reading of the piece, an interesting feeling of having walked in on something occurs to the reader, due to the phrase starting with a lowercase “y” in “you”. Upon a second reading, the final line without period feeling as though it is left to the reader to circle back and finish the phrase with the title of the piece, “The Lamp”, which once again launches the reader into the poem.

From that first line: “you can hurry the pictures toward you”, the reader is initially directed to make haste, and then in the final breath, to take caution. The word “but” changing direction. This dialectic pulse driving “the kinetics of the thing” (“Projective Verse”) in the energy being exchanged between poem and reader. This pulse being an example of “both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressure of his breath.”

In the second argument from Olson’s manifesto, the “stance taken toward reality outside a poem as well as a new stance towards the reality of a poem itself.” Here the reader finds the relationship between denotative and the connotative.

2:         there is that point that the whole thing itself

3:         may be a passage, and that your own ability

4:         may be a factor in time, in fact that

7:         an event. Otherwise—and surely here the cinema

These lines get to the gist of the relationships between realities. The “projective purpose of the act of verse” (connotation) is to overcome passivity and be creation itself. Denoted by a story of hurried “pictures” beamed by “The Lamp” “toward you”, may be the whole of life itself the way a film in the cinema runs its course, an event beginning to end witnessed by everyone in the large “auditorium” (line 8) but ostensibly not created by anyone sitting there.

Directly, Olson states that the power of the creation of the film does not exceed the power of the reader, it is a “matter of creation” (line 14). In this second half of the poem, not unlike the dialectic exchange of energy from the beginning of each phrase to the end, Olson is shifting the energy of the poem from passive reader to call-to-action. Hinging this pendulum seems to be the non-word “wld” (line 13) which implies to the reader that what humanity prescribes as reality is what is the world, but Olson goes further to imply that the world must be created by active participants, and in that way he takes his passive audience and demands that the reader create the word WORLD in full spelling from those three simple letters – W L D.

Activating the reader’s creativity is a perfect example of how Olson has, as described in the piece “Creativity and the Fully Developed Bard” by Ed Sanders, “setup a creativity zone / in a Field of two or more dimensions … / To have ideas in mind / and then, as a flow / of positing / to inscribe the FIELD”.