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Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 5

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 5

September 12, 2017


Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, and the Black Mountain College scene

These two poems, “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” and “As the Dead Prey Upon Us,” however, do much more than possibly demonstrate Charles Olson’s view of death. The first poem exemplifies Olson’s interest in classical and ancient literature and his influence by Ezra Pound. “As the Dead Prey Upon Us,” which takes the views of “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” and develops them further, also shows us Olson’s belief in vision. Although the poem uses a persona, the visionary element coincides with the views of Olson. In a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley in 1965 he said, “I was very lucky once to have what poets call visions. And they’re not dreams . . . . They are literally either given things or voices which come to you from cause.” These poems lack the typical romantic element of visionary optimism. Instead they deal with one of Olson’s central themes—pejoracy. Faced with the dilemma of humanity in the middle of the twentieth century, Olson, in the two poems, has treated his subject first by referring the classical methods of the ancients and then by juxtaposing technological symbolism and mysticism, which synthesizes into a modern apocalyptic vision.

So there you have it. My reading of some of Charles Olson’s poems from The Distances. Pay attention, though, if radical poetry matters to you.

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Paul Varner




Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 4

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 4

September 7, 2017

In Cold Hell In Thicket5a204bbf182f5326ac818e1338e4c552

Ok, this post is quite a bit longer than the other ones in this series. But there is no cutting to be had here. Let’s go.

A key line in the “‘Homeric’ Hymn” is “Life/ is not of the earth. The dead are of the earth.” This statement is explained in the first two lines of “As the Dead Prey Upon Us”: “As the dead prey upon us/ they are the dead in ourselves.” The dead are in ourselves as spirits. The outward self is the “net of being.” This opening stanza sets the stage for the tenseness of the pejorative apocalyptic vision that follows. The work is a more developed vision of death than “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn,” and through its tension achieves the effect of Olson’s kinetic energy theory that is detailed in “Projective Verse.”

It is through a close call with death in the form of an automobile wreck that the speaker transcends the material world for a revelation of wisdom. He is able to see humanity and its destiny through the vision. The actual instrument of his vision is his mother who is dead but who comes back into his life to sit on her rocker under the lamp. The speaker sees dead souls wandering around the living room. When he questions their presence the vision abruptly changes to a collage of technological gadgetry:

And the whole room was suddenly posters and presentations

of brake linings and other automotive accessories, cardboard

displays, the dead roaming from one to another

as bored back in life as they are in hell, poor and doomed

to mere equipments….

Here is the first of many statements on the decadence of society as a result of technology. Along with this is the motif of the “net of being.” This net is humanity’s physical life as it has made it. We are trapped in our shells of existence. In order to escape we must “disentangle the net of being.” Thus the true hell is for it is equated with the mother’s living room, which is a material manifestation.

The vision itself is divided in two elements, which are interspersed throughout the narrative sequence. The first deals with the pejoracy of the material level of existence itself. The symbol of the oppression of natural “man” by technology is the blue deer and the Native American woman (Remember this poem is from the ‘60s, thus the language):

and the Indian woman and I

enabled the blue deer

to walk


and the blue deer talked,

in the next room,

a Negro talk


it was like walking a jackass

and its talk

was the pressing gabber of gammers

of old women….

The one symbol of hope, then, in the whole vision is the blue deer, ordinarily an animal swift of foot but now hobbling around like a jackass (clearly a reference to a caricature not the actual surefooted animal). As the speaker despairs of his own life, his descriptions of the animal change to that of a “filthy blue deer.” All hope is lost for humanity in its natural state. The speaker pleads for death: “O my soul, slip/ the cog.” This plea becomes an obsession with the speaker. Technology, which really becomes a manifestation of humanity itself, or the “net of being,” drives the speaker to his death wish.

O souls, in life and in death,

awake, even as you sleep, even as in sleep

know what wind

even under the crankcase of the ugly automobile

lifts it away, clears the sodden weights of gods,

equipment, entertainment. . . .

The second element of the vision concerns the realm of the dead, revealing Olson’s strong Catholic belief in heaven, hell, and purgatory. Hell is constantly equated with both poverty and material existence. The net symbolizes a person’s life. It has a number of knots in it that are described with fire imagery throughout: “each knot is itself its fire.”

The untying of the knot, then, preoccupies the mind:

each knot of which the net is made

is for the hands to untake

and knot’s making.

In addition to the knots in the net, there are five hindrances. In these hindrances perfection is hidden. The five hindrances transcend the physical world and, in fact, affect both realms of existence:

In the five hindrances men and an angels

stay caught in the net, in the immense nets

which spread out across each place of being, the multiple nets

which hamper at each step of the ladder as the angels

and the demons

and men

go up and down….

The obvious reference is to Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28, but here, instead of a vision of encouragement we read a message of gloom.

The five hindrances tie in with the description of purgatory. They keep one from heaven. These sins must be burned away:

O souls, burn

alive, burn now


That you may forever

have peace, have


what you crave

Life is a net that entangles us. These nets are flames of hell. Only through the process of untangling the knots of the net can one enter into purgatory to have the five hindrances burned away.

Our destiny as humans is determined by ourselves. Through our technology we have created our own hell. It is a hell of poverty—the poverty of our humanity. We can, however, reshape our destiny and shoot

through the screen of flame which each knot

hides as all knots are a wall ready

to be shot open by you

The speaker, then, has shaped his destiny, perhaps by his works through the sacraments, and “slipped the cog.” There is no indication that slipping the cog refers to suicide, but it is permanent death, which brings one back to the automobile crash. Did the speaker actually die in the wreck? Whether he died at that time or not he has entered paradise:

I ask my mother

to sleep. I ask her

to stay in the chair.

My chair

is in the corner of the fence.

She sits by the fireplace made of paving stones. The blue deer

need not trouble either of us.


And if she sits in happiness the souls

who trouble her and me

will also rest. The automobile


has been hauled away.

The chair has already been equated with purity and the blue deer has no place in a spiritual existence.

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Paul Varner

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