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What is New American poetry?

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 4

Poem-on-page jwb02a-olson-elegies

September 26, 2017

Donald Allen himself was an editor for Grove Press beginning in 1949. Grove Press was a small press featuring avant-garde titles from American as well as from the UK and the continent. But Allen was also the co-editor of Grove’s literary journal, the Evergreen Review. He was editor until 1970, first in New York and later in San Francisco. Thus Allen had already established a reputation as an editor of innovative literature before he began work in 1958 on the New American Poets Anthology. He had edited Evergreen Review in 1957 to include work of new poets from San Francisco including Brother Antoninus, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder. He began working on his new anthology in 1958 with much consultation from Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Duncan.

Particularly with Olson’s and Duncan’s help Allen began looking for a specific kind of poetry. He didn’t call it New American poetry. But he was looking for a certain kind of open form poetry that Duncan and Olson variously called field composition or Projective Verse. Olson described the compositional method of the new poets in his essay “Projective Verse,” printed in full in the section on poetics in The New American Poetry. You will read much more from me in future series in The Scene about this highly influential essay.

Three basic principles of composition make a poem projective, as opposed to “inherited line, stanza, over-all form,” or what is the traditional base of non-projective verse. The first basic principle is that of Kinetics: a given poem is “energy transferred” from the poet’s source through the poem to the reader. The problem, of course, is how the poet creates the energy. This process Olson calls Field Composition, where the poet puts himself or herself into the open by allowing the poem to develop in the only organic way it can develop and not to interrupt the open field. This necessary openness or “push” is an extension of Ezra Pound’s statement to go by the musical phrase, not the metronome.

The second basic principle Olson mentions that makes a poem projective is taken from Robert Creeley and echoed repeatedly by Denise Levertov. It is one of the Beat Movement’s most famous mottos: “Form is never more than an extension of content.”

The third basic principle is the process by which a poem is made. The basic premise is “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.”

This poetry Allen labeled New American Poetry—not merely because it was current or recent or even novelty poetry. The term evidently came from Charles Olson himself. In fact Donald Allen originally intended to title his collection Anthology of Modern American Poetry (1948 to 1958-59).

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Paul Varner



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



About The Scene: You Know Me

You Know Me


September 8, 2017

I can hear you saying:

Ok, you’ve written and published a lot about radical poets before, but who are you, Really?

Well, I’ve got pages posted at the top of The Scene with my semi-informal biography and with personal notes about why I ever got interested about The Beats.

But other than that, you know me. I’m just a writer like others all of you know. I’m the guy you always see at coffee houses over in the corner writing furiously in my black Moleskine, dressed like a writer with funny glasses and wearing clunky boots. You’ve seen me everywhere. Don’t expect me ever to look up unless you come over and say hi. Then I’ll tell you what I’m writing about. Of course I may be writing about you. But anyway—you know me.

I’m going to use a similar voice to Ezra Pound in his ABC’s of Reading and Robert Peters in his Great Poetry Bake-off series. I will be personal, confident, not angry or anything, but not academic and not full of jargon theory. I’m not going to feel any need to back everything up everything I say and believe with hard evidence or whatever. Editors, critics, and peer reviewers like that sort of thing. But, you know, the Enlightenment was supposed to have gone out of style when the Romantics came on THE SCENE. I also ramble a lot. So follow The Scene on WordPress by hitting the button on this page. And find me on social media as well.

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