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Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 3

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 3

September 5, 2017


Charles Olson’s poetry is, for the most part, collected into two volumes, The Maximus Poems and The Distances, both published in the1960s.

Two Points:

  1. A major theme of both collections is pejoracy, an Olson word meaning the inevitable changing for the worse.
  2. Here are two poems from The Distances, “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” and “The Dead Prey Upon Us,” that I’ll use to demonstrate Olson’s
  3. pejoracy
  4. and vision,
  5. especially as they relate to death.

In “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn,” Olson treats the subject of death in a detached manner. He doesn’t write like Homer did, obviously, and the poem contains hexameters and no typical Homeric devices like Homeric epithets, but the poem is a conscious effort to imitate the Homeric style. The uniqueness of the work is found in Olson’s juxtaposition of the exalted epic tone with contemporary conversational language: “Hail and beware the dead who will talk life until you are blue/ in the face.” The poem, as a result of this, back to Canto I by Ezra Pound whose The Cantos. The context of the poem also seems to be the same setting as Pound’s canto—Book XI of the Odyssey.

The speaker of the “Hymn,” who might or might not be Odysseus, tells the listener to “Hail” the dead. The dead deserve respect if for no other reason than that they are different from mortals. At the same time we must “beware” the dead. Thus Olson develops the theme of the poem. One must beware because contact with the dead is death itself. The dead will torment the living. They will “talk life until you are blue/ in the face.” One must beware of them because they come from a different place. That place is known only by the dead:

Hail and beware them for they come close from where you have not been,

They come close from where you cannot come, they come into life

By a different gate. They come from a place which is not easily known,

It is known only to those who have died.

The dead are always drunk from “the pot.” In the Odyssey the dead drink blood of Odysseus’s sacrifice out of their own internal craving. It is only through this “drunkenness” that the dead and the mortal may approach each other, as was the case of Odysseus. The dead, however, can be the only ones to drink. This is not to be a common celebration but only a one-way affair:

Hail them, and fall off. Fall off! The drink is not yours,

It is not yours! You do not come

From the same place, you do not suffer as the dead do,

They do not suffer, they need, because they have drunk of the pot,

They need. Do not drink of the pot, do not touch it. Do not touch


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Paul Varner


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