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'Primordia: Checking on Charles Olson' by
Jeff Davis

Primordia: Checking on Charles Olson

Here’s the deal: if Olson is to prove as useful to the future as to the recent past, we need to recognize two (at least) essential facts about his work.

The first, that his vision was at its roots ecological;

and, the second, that he found much of the ground for that vision in the work of D.H. Lawrence. Pound gave him instances of the activity of imagination, procedures for poetry, models, etc. – but his larger vision, as Olson saw by 1948, was deeply fucked. Pound’s by-then deeply reflexive anti-semitism repulsed him. But Lawrence – like Melville, for Olson, a “prospective” imagination - provided connection to the deepest and best – most fundamental – possibilities for the human critter going forward.

To the first: This past summer in Vancouver, at the Olson Centenary Conference, Ben Friedlander, co-editor of Olson’s Collected Prose, remarked in one of the plenary sessions (and I paraphrase, there being no record as such) that the eventual publication of the many prose works in the Olson archive that never saw print during Olson’s lifetime, some 300 of them, would present us (or the future community of poets and scholars who might be concerned with Olson’s work) with a fundamentally different Olson than the one we think we know.

Here’s an instance: in 1947, just before he came to Black Mountain College for the first time, Olson, in an unpublished piece he titled “Imago” wrote this:

Love is bifurcate, it goes to man, it goes to god. When it goes to neither, as NOW, the life of men and women is confused. For love is root, and rank growths weaken a root.

The rank growths first – if we would go down the lost path, to the root. Of all, man, who is a rot of his own making. And society, which is of man’s making. And both – because the third of the great trilogy, nature, is missing.

It is of nature that we are bereft, the old mother. And thus of awe, and affection. Man and society, without nature, lose the soil, and the root love withers. All the old sense of the source as nature, and the mystery which attends it, is sacrificed to the human mass (as parent, child or society), which arrogates all things to itself in a cheap grab. There is still more wonder in the glomeruli of the kidney – to take nature’s lowest human seat, expurgation – than in all this psychological, sociological knowing.1

“Human Universe,” published just a few years later (in Origin 4, 1951-2), echoes this concern at the abuse of nature:

The trouble with the inherited formulations [those going back to the Greek “generalizers”] which have helped to destroy him (the notion of himself as the center of phenomenon by fiat or of God as the center and man as god’s chief reflection) is that both set aside nature as an unadmitted or suppressed third party … The result we have been the witness of: discovering this discarded thing nature, science has run away with everything. Tapping her power, fingering her like a child, giving her again her place, but without somehow remembering what truth there was in man’s centering the use of anything … in himself, science has upset all balance and blown value, man’s peculiar responsibility, to the winds.”2

So while Olson challenged “nature” as trope later, as he challenged others, including the trope “man,” it’s important to know that the rejection of that trope as used was grounded, literally, in a belief that nature is the essential third of the “trilogy” that comprises the world. Notwithstanding his simply throwing his trash over the cliff when he lived in Wyoming , NY, near Buffalo (a recollection of Meredith Quartermain, who visited him there - we do indeed do, as Olson put it, what we know before we know what we do), the project to recover a vision of human possibility grew from a fundamentally ecological vision.

And, to the second:

In the third section of his “Primordia” the paper that Olson presented to the faculty of Black Mountain College in 1948, and that secured his appointment to the faculty, Olson begins to define the changed mode of consciousness that would be enabled by a recovery of space as a vector of human phenomenology, a recovery he had announced first in Call Me Ishmael the year before, and the recovery, as he here defines it, of the mythic. The points of conflict (and so possibility of a new stance) with the inherited, very bounded, classical vision of the world, as you might expect, are fundamental. Olson thought big.

Principle among them is a shift in human subjectivity itself.

“Primordia” has this:

(1) Man as object is equitable to all other nature, is neutron, is on the one hand thus no more than a tree or pitchblende but is, therefore returned to an abiding place, the primordial, where he can rest again as he did once with less knowledge to confirm his humilitas.

       It is as force that the eye of nature sees man. Seen so, the animal and the bones of him do not disturb the remainder of organic and inorganic creation. As force man has his place, and wonder. It is enough, more than he knows. For instead of his own alone he is in touch with all life, and image and fable come back.

       They come back because the elements are not so dissimilar: season, cello, shield, trio, sphere. When man is reminded of his place in the order of nature, when he finds himself cut down to size, he goes through a franciscan or ovidian revolution, whichever you prefer, and acquires some of his original modesty about force, his own and otherwise. Beasts and angels, devils, witches, trees and stones, cocks and centaurs are necessary items of human phenomenology (and only, and exactly, in that science). They are dangerous outside that moral frame – as we have had recent occasion to know.3

Holy Parmenides, Rene! A good Cartesian might well ask, who does what to whom? There’s lots of opacity there: as “object,” one might be “subject” to various conditions, and so on. The language plays here on its own. The self-experience of oneself as other still requires an experiencing consciousness, a subject, in Olson’s terms.

It seems, upon deeper reading, that what Olson requires here is the development of the ability to see oneself as actor in a larger field, to see himself/herself as nature - “the eye of nature, ” as he has it – sees him or her. It’s an attack on Cartesianism in the service of what we would rightly see today as ecological consciousness – something sadly still much needed in our advanced (post or not) industrial world.

In another text composed just a few months after “Primordia,” “The Mystery of What Happens When It Happens,” Olson terms himself an “objectist,” and writes this about the object side of the duality in connection with a discussion of myth in DH Lawrence:

Which brings me to materialism, that nub of now. And will lead me… to quantity as an expression of force, and quantity as a birthplace of myth. I would argue that times of physical expansion (I do not say terrestrial, because ours is already both beyond the earth and below the particle of sand) provoke man’s sensuality, stir up what his spirit has caused to sleep or be blunted, and the result is a double thing, a huge sweeping sickness of materialism (due to man as brute), and the other expression of it, objectism, a sharp sure hunger of the senses that, if they pierce deep enough, if they ride this joy in the mortal particulars, they will find a dimension, a “spiritual dimension” if you like, to satisfy the soul.4

Remember, Olson had studied the expansion of the American frontier with Merk at Harvard; that’s likely the source of the qualification concerning “times of physical expansion.” The concern with the stirring up of “what his spirit has caused to sleep” is D.H. Lawrence given American context.

Notwithstanding some rhetorical differences, that formulation seems to be echoed a few years later in another contrast Olson used on multiple occasions, that between the “man of Will” and the “man of Understanding” (or “Power” in other places).

Check, for instance, a letter to Henry Murray from 1952, after Olson’s return to Black Mountain College from the Yucatan, which alludes to the distinction between Will and Understanding that becomes important to Olson at this time, and alludes likewise to its source in Lawrence:

“a potential set of dispositions which may be constellated in the personality by the occurrence of a certain kind of situation” BEAUTIFUL—and the more so, that you also say, “not, let me hasten to say, as an inherited fixed image

BEAUTIFUL—and the sort of contribution each of us needs: an EVIDENCE, of the essential mobility, and the necessity of the act of WILL (I am using Brother Lawrence’s 17th Century distinction of WILL from Understanding)5

Even Olson’s poetics, which had such useful impact during his lifetime, though most attention early paid to it focused on his emphasis on breath as measure, stands informed by a vision ecological physis. The language of the poem, like objective man, occurs in a kinetic field:

It is a matter, finally, of OBJECTS, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and, once there, how they are to be used. … [E]very element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world.6

It’s later in the same essay that Olson actually gives one of his most compelling articulations of “objectism”:

Objectism is getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature(with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages …7

It’s all one vision. And many of its roots Olson found in none other than Mr. Lawrence.

Re-read Olson in the light of Lawrence, and the value Olson found in his work, and the use he made of it, become clear. Olson was steeped in Lawrence’s work – and he steeped others in it. There were two writers who were taught every term at Black Mountain College during Olson’s tenure. One was Ezra Pound. The other? D. H. Lawrence.

Incorporating these two facts into what we know of Olson should in itself begin to shift our perception of what he was about, and how his work was grounded. And having delved a while in the Olson archives, I know there’s more to come.


1Charles Olson, “Imago,” unpublished ms., Prose No. 196, Box 31-Folder 1594, CORC.
2Charles Olson, Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p.160.
3Charles Olson, “Notes for the Proposition: Man is Prospective,” p.3.
4Charles Olson, “The Mystery of What Happens When It Happens,” Prose No. 28, Box 32- Folder 1638, CORC.
5Charles Olson, Selected Letters, p. 156. Lawrence explores the binaries of his cosmology most fully in “Fantasia of the Unconscious” (London, 1923, 1961); check especially the chapter “The Vicious Circle”.
6Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Collected Prose, p. 243.
1idem, p. 247.



Jeff Davis, a member of the advisory board of the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center in Asheville, NC, attended UNC-Greensboro’s MFA program in creative writing, received his Master’s from the S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo, and apprenticed to a Kwakwaka’wakh carver of ceremonial masks and totem poles in Alert Bay, British Columbia, from 1971 to 1975. He later taught anthropology and history at UNC-Asheville . His poems have appeared in Lillabulero, Iron, Asheville Poetry Review, the Nantahala Review, and other magazines; books include Transits of Venus (2005), and NatureS: Selected Poems, 1972 – 2005 (2006). Since 2005 he has hosted the radio program Wordplay, which celebrates poets and writers of creative prose; it airs each Sunday at 5:00 PM on Asheville FM. (


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