The Violets: “A Cosmological Reading of a Cosmology”

by Robin Blaser

Robin Blaser, poet and essayist, is Professor of English and Professor in the Centre for the Arts at Simon Fraser University, Bumaby, British Columbia, Canada.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 8-37, Vol. 13, Number 1, Spring 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The writer attempts to convert metaphysics into poetry, thus connecting it to the “real.”

Alfred North Whitehead has an established and central position in the history of American poetry, and the American poet who has made the most profound use of Whitehead’s thought is Charles Olson. On this occasion, when I am to mull over the interchange between them, I am reminded of John Russell’s remark as he begins his book on the meanings of modem art: . . . in art, as in the sciences, ours is one of the big centuries."2 Out of the gloom, so to speak. Olson and Whitehead are not, of course, alone, but they stand there among the most important figures. And I like to note that Olson many times expressed his view that the finest compliment one can pay to another mind and work is in the use made of them.

In his field Olson was as remarkable a man as was Whitehead in his chosen disciplines. When he died in 1970, just turned sixty and by his own reckoning ten years short of the time he needed to complete his work,3 Olson was well into the third volume of a major verse epic, The Maximus Poems, which stands alongside Pound’s Cantos and Williams’ Paterson as a major poetic world. Besides The Maximus Poems and the poems that did not find a place in that epic structure, there are the essays and letters which propose the necessary poetic and record the struggle to find it. Olson’s poetics are argumentative about the way we stand in the world and how we belong to it (stance and ethos).

For Olson, as for any poet, the poetry is primary, but this poetic places before us the argued ground both of practice and of world view. Poets have repeatedly in this century turned philosophers, so to speak, in order to argue the value of poetry and its practice within the disturbed meanings of our time. These arguments are fascinating because they have everything to do with the poets’ sense of reality in which imagery is entangled with thought. Often, they reflect Pound’s sense of ‘make it new’ or the modernist notion that this century and its art are simultaneously the end of something and the beginning of something else, a new consciousness, and so forth. It is not one argument or another for or against tradition, nor is it the complex renewal of the imaginary which our arts witness, for, I take it, the enlightened mind does not undervalue the imaginary, which is the most striking matter of these poetics; what is laid out before us finally is the fundamental struggle for the nature of the real. And this, in my view, is a spiritual struggle, both philosophical and poetic. Old spiritual forms, along with positivisms and materialisms, which ‘held’ the real together have come loose. This is a cliché of our recognitions and condition. But we need only look at the energy of the struggle in philosophy and poetry to make it alive and central to our private and public lives.

The problem of reality -- what do we mean by the real? Part of what is meant is a valuation that includes the world of earth and sky. In the greatest poetry, ancient or modern, the sense of the real is certainly not limited to that other terrifying face of humanism, necessity, an abstract word for the very real limit and terror of poverty and deprivation.4 The pleasures of art, of philosophy, and of science are joined to us insofar as We are freed from necessity. In Europe and North America, where necessity, as yet, does not widely rule, we have the curiosity that mercantilism controls form while art, philosophy, and science do not belong to the daily round.5 Yet, they are, indeed, the elements of a reality, if we try to put one together. (I have in mind Hannah Arendt’s moving sense of the possible "recovery of the public world.") I think the fundamental problem here is a ‘scientism’ of the real, from which, in my reading, the gift of Whitehead’s searching thought, as corrective, was to allow us to escape: that is, to see and work whatever real we can manage differently. It is this broad, general, rumored sense of Whitehead, summed up in his word ‘process,’ that I believe brings him so forcefully into American poetics.

What I have noticed in the poetry and poetics of the most important poets is that they are arguing, weaving, and composing a cosmology and an epistemology. Over and over again. There is no epistemological cutoff or gash in our deepest natures, nor in our engagement with life. Nor is the ambition of what is known short on its desire for cosmos. It is this structuring, large and deep in the nature of things, that still thrills us in Hesiod’s struggle for the sense of it. Such concern, because it does tie to experience, is central to the historical role of poet and poetry. Lam not denigrating the song of poetry, for the sense of self is always a part of poetry and reality, and so one sings. But repeatedly in the history of poetry, we find ourselves returning to epic structures and the bases of epic in the shape, size, and feel of the world, in cosmos. I suggest that great poetry is always after the world -- it is a spiritual chase -- and that it has never been, in the old, outworn sense, simply subjective or personal. Of course Whitehead’s subjective principle, his theory of prehensions, and his notion of ingression to the real do not leave the subjective to itself alone. It is this aspect of poetic experience, its yen for largeness and fullness, that has brought poetry throughout its history into close proximity with the modes of theogony and theology, with science in its deepest concerns, and with philosophies which propose a world. It is in this context, then, that we may hope to understand the way in which Whitehead enters so commandingly into Olson’s poetic world.

I. Whitehead And Olson

Whitehead’s sense of reality as process, which stands to correct both materialism and idealism in their command over us, did not enter upon our thought and imaginations without preparation, without forerunners. Hugh Kenner, in his discussion of the importance to Ezra Pound of Fenollosa’s "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," notices the depth of preparation for such a view:

The Descartes who (Boileau complained) had "cut the throat" of poetry, and the Locke who made poetry a diversion of relaxed or enfeebled minds, lived among learned men . . . [who thought] of words naming things, and words as many as there were things, and language a taxonomy of static things, with many an "is" but ideally no verb. And it was just such notions . . . that Ernest Fenollosa, encouraged by ideograms, set out to refute, on behalf of "the language of science which is the language of poetry. . . ."6

In a letter of 1916, before Fenollosa’s essay was printed in 1919, Pound articulates the same vision:: "‘All nouns come from verbs.’ To the primitive man, a thing only is what it does. That is Fenollosa, but I think the theory a very good one for poets to go by."7 It is of singular importance that among poets the effort to regain a world view is also a search for a different stance in language. Olson will make a similar move by giving attention to the Hopi language as revealed in Benjamin Whorf’s studies.8 And it fascinates me that when I turn to science I find the physicist David Bohm undertaking the same search:

The subject-verb-object structure of language, along with its world view, tends to impose itself very strongly in our speech, even in those cases in which some attention would reveal its evident inappropriateness Is it not possible for the syntax and grammatical form of language to be changed so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than the noun?9

This involves, I think, a renewed sense of literature, particularly poetry, in which the work of an active, undistanced language goes on, a parataxis.

I note the influence of Whitehead’s conceptuality in yet other contemporary cosmological writings -- in Bohm, in Ruth Nanda Anshen’s beautiful essay "Convergence," and in Bernard Lovell’s Emerging Cosmology. Lovell closes his book with this quotation from Whitehead:

There is no parting from your own shadow. To experience this faith is to know that in being ourselves we are more than ourselves: to know that our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet sounds the utmost depths of reality: to know that detached details merely in order to be themselves demand that they should find themselves in a system of things: to know that this system includes the harmony of logical rationality, and the harmony of aesthetic achievement: to know that, while the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal moulding the general flux in its broken progress towards finer, subtler issues.10

This wonderful voice, guiding science (and, as we shall see, through Olson entering into poetry), draws attention to what is most to be attended to in art -- it draws attention to (if I may cadge some phrases from an author writing on Melville, who was Olson’s first master) "the mode of [the] engagement with life, the capacity of the deep-driving literary imagination to plunge to the bottom of human experience and to find there what is funded as ontological possibility."11 Funded by Olson and Whitehead on this occasion.

But to return to Kenner and the forerunners of the process mode of thinking:

And behind that effort. Behind it, preparing for it, a chain of philosophers, a chain which "leads back through Hegel, Lotse, Schelling and Herder to Leibnitz (as Whitehead constantly recognized), and then it seems to disappear": seems to disappear because we are looking for European predecessors, and Leibnitz was indebted to China. So runs Joseph Needham’s remarkable hypothesis, which attributes European organicism, via Leibnitz’ Jesuit friends of the China Mission, to neo-Confucian Li and the school of Chu Hsi. . . . 12

Kenner is surely right to point to this history, however much modern relativity theory, as interpreted by Whitehead, placed a premium on process.

Olson, modern as he is, is also New England; he had those roots. In an old fashioned New England education, Emerson was encountered simply because he would be found among the books on the family shelves. In terms of poetry and process, Olson’s first debts are to Pound (and through him to Fenollosa and Confucianism) and to William Carlos Williams’ early interest in science (reflected in his poetry, serving as a means to gain objectivity and emotional accuracy). Mike Weaver has finely drawn these concerns together in his discussion of science and poetry in Williams’ early work. There we find out that Williams requested a copy of C. P. Steinmetz’ book on relativity in 1926 and that he was given a copy of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World in December, 1926. Williams wrote in that copy: "Finished reading it at sea, Sept. 26, 1927 -- A milestone surely in my career, should I have the force and imagination to go on with my work."13 Because Whitehead’s vision of reality influences stance and, thereby, form in so powerful a poet as Williams, it is fair to say that the beginning of the involvement of Whitehead in American poetry has something like a precise date -- Sept. 26, 1927.

Among Olson’s books, now collected in The Charles Olson Archives in the University of Connecticut Library at Storrs, only two of Whitehead’s titles turn up: Process and Reality an Essay in Cosmology and The Aims of Education and Other Essays.14 This tells us only so much: that certain titles remained in his library, others did not, and that his personal collection is not the record of the breadth of his reading. Charles Boer, in his fine memoir of Olson’s last months in Connecticut, recalls an evening’s conversation on Whitehead. His narration is addressed to Olson himself:

The Wesleyan University undergraduate curriculum in your day had been revamped along "general education" lines and Whitehead’s book, published in your freshman year at Wesleyan, became one of the core texts in this curriculum. Its "philosophy of organism," its "subjectivist principle," and especially its scientifically minded efforts to offer a cosmology for the twentieth century were facets of Whitehead’s thought that remained with you throughout your life.15

Olson was an undergraduate at Wesleyan 1928-1932, and he received his MA. there in 1933.16 He was later to continue graduate studies at Harvard. Boer’s descriptive terms for Whitehead’s book seem more suitable to Process and Reality than to any other title, though all the elements noted are concerns present in Science and the Modern World, which would be the likely book for an undergraduate programme. The latter was first published in 1925 and the former in 1929. The conversation, Thanksgiving Day, 1969, here remembered, may well have contained some fusion of the two books, since Process and Reality tends to drink up and then clarify the vocabulary of the earlier book. In a lecture at Black Mountain College, dated 1956, Olson describes and dates his early exposure to Whitehead:

I am the more persuaded of the importance and use of Whitehead’s thought that I did not know his work -- except in snatches and by rumor, including the disappointment of a dinner and evening with him when I was 25 and he was what, 75! -- until last year. So it comes out like those violets of Bolyai Senior on all sides when men are needed, that we possess a body of thinking of the order of Whitehead’s to catch us up where we wouldn’t poke our hearts in and to intensify our own thought just where it does poke. He is a sort of an Aquinas, the man. He did make a Summa of three centuries, and cast his system as a net of Speculative Philosophy so that it goes at least as far as Plato. And his advantage over either Plato or Aquinas is the advantage we share: that the error of matter was removed in exactly these last three centuries. I quote Whitehead: "The dominance of the scalar physical quantity, inertia, in the Newtonian physics obscured the recognition of the truth that all fundamental quantities are vector and not scalar." (Scalar, you will recall, is an undirected quantity, while vector is a directed magnitude as a force or velocity.) So one gets the restoration of Heraclitus’ flux translated as, All things are vectors. Or put it, All that matters moves! And one is out into a space of facts and forms as fresh as our own sense of our own existence.

This lecture was "preceded and followed" by study sessions on Process and Reality.17 Doubtless, it comes as a shock to find the mathematical vocabulary of’ Whitehead so quickly translated into ‘existence.’ This is characteristic of Olson’s use of Whitehead, a kind of translation throughout, beginning with his considered reading of him in 1955. Such translation is founded in Whitehead’s own method, as Paul Christensen points out:

The breadth and comprehension of Whitehead’s metaphysical thesis in Process and Reality suggested to Olson another manifestation of the new will to cohere. Whitehead proposed to explain through his philosophy of organism how all the evolving forms of the totality are tending toward some final harmonious order which, he argued, will be the material embodiment of God. . . . The movement toward harmony is not directed from any outside force acting upon the chaos; it is occurring through the success of its own accidental combinations. . . . It is not this thesis by itself that stimulates Olson; rather it is the very grandeur of the act of Whitehead as he "takes thought" on his own perceptions. His speculation is that the bewildering prehensive activities of all levels of matter do have a goal, and he speculates boldly on what that goal might be. Part of Whitehead’s argument has to do with the precise formative event in nature; to explain how it is that some entities receive formation and others deny it, he ascribes to any entity or formal group stages of "feeling." Olson finds this explanation the most compelling feature of Whitehead’s book.18

This summary statement brings us a long way into a sense of Olson’s response to the philosopher, but we should remember that, for Whitehead, the universe was incomplete and in process. And so it stood for Olson. I shall return to the stages of "feeling" in a moment.

What strikes me most in the passage from the Olson lecture is the predominant sense of freshness of view and stance -- "out into a space of facts and forms as fresh as The violets in Olson’s neighborhood are remarkable. Sherman Paul, who has written a beautiful, insightful book on Olson, has elegantly gathered together the pieces of his use of the image of a violet, or of a bunch of them: he writes, "Whitehead’s thought is a violet," and he notes Olson’s reference to violets in the dance-essay, Apollonius of Tyana – "how men spring up, when they are needed, like violets, on all sides, in the spring, when winter has been too long." Finally, he draws our attention to Olson’s first use of the image in a poem of 1950, "The Story of an Olson, and Bad Thing," in which.... Olson associates the fragrance of violets with blood and the smell of life -- with birth." In the same context, Paul marvelously reminds us of a parallel instance of such a’ freshening of view in William Carlos Williams’ poem, "St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils, On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in spring of 1921," wherein

Einstein, tall as a violet

in the lattice-arbor corner

is tall as

a blossomy peartree19

A fresh world view, then, indebted to science by way of Einstein and Whitehead, neither otherwordly nor transcendent to life, is what is at stake. And further, the imaginary, the thought given by way of image is not denigrated but made dynamic in the perceptual field. That field is large, relational, in the sense of operative, and alive.

This aspect of the translation of science into poetry leads to an enormous change in the formal mode of a poem. William Carlos Williams entitled his lecture at the University of Washington in 1948, "The Poem as a Field of Action." Therein we find this statement:

How can we accept Einstein’s theory of relativity, affecting our very conception of the heavens about us of which poets write so much, without incorporating its essential fact -- the relativity of measurements -- into our own category of activity: the poem. Do we think we stand outside the universe? Or that the Church of England does? Relativity applies to everything, like love, if it applies to anything in the world.20

Paul Christensen describes the look and feel of Olson’s Maximus Poems in just such terms:

the unfinished, in-process look of the pages, the large leaves, the workbook appearance express the nature of his poetic composition. The poems are the partially stated connections between objects in the Gloucester field; they are "soundings" or, for that matter, the "field notes" of its metaphysical and cosmological exploration. The infinite potentiality and complexity of the field make any one effort at best a fragment of understanding; and the final books are just this, the partial filling in of a vast totality.21

Olson’s direct uses of Whitehead’s thought by way of reference, borrowing, and quotation can be traced to Process and Reality and to Adventures in Ideas.22 George Butterick points out that Whitehead’s "philosophy of process underlies The Maximus Poems," that, in one important instance, he names the philosopher "my great master and the companion of my poems," and that the meeting of the two men, referred to in Olson’s lecture, occurred in Cambridge in 1938. And, out of his familiarity with the entire Archive, he notes: "The copy of Process and Reality [Olson] acquired in February, 1957 is one of the most heavily marked and annotated in his library."23

Reading through Olson’s copy is an intellectual delight. There is the complexity and profundity of Whitehead’s thought, often in fine prose, and then there is the layered record of Olson’s poring over the text to find the use of it. Inside covers, back and front, flyleaves, and title page, all are heavily written over in pencil and ink of various colors, mainly blue and red, offering a kind of personal index of passages and of ideas Whitehead sparked. The first flyleaf contains a dated record of Olson’s repeated readings, including those which preceded his purchase of this copy: "1st read sprg 55/ again sprg 56/ now spring 57/ 3rd [4th?] spring -- Whitehead 58," and above those entries, "now 1964," and to the side, "Jan. 3, 1966." On the inside cover one finds the notation "Sept. 11th 1969." Other dates turn up in the margins of the text, sometimes to date the place where he started rereading or to date a specific passage as it took on particular significance. The text itself, frequently underlined, contains remarks, exclamations, phrases copied from the text -- a kind of memory device, I take it -- reflections, schematizations, and mythological notes now and again, which extend the text into image. All in all, a record of the richest kind of reading. On the title page Olson sketches a chronology: beside Whitehead’s name, "born 1861/ (Yeats born 1865)! Charles Peirce born 1839 22 years only younger!/ (H. Adams 1830)! Wm. James 1842 -- 3 years." Where the title page identifies Whitehead as Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University, Olson writes " (date of this?)," then, having found out, "1924." And where the title page identifies Process and Reality as "The Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh during the session 1927-28" (Olson’s underlining), he notes: "I was 16-17, & in Europe that summer." At the bottom of the page is added "[D. H.] Lawrence 1885/ 24 years younger/ than W’h/ came to US/ when?" The date of Lawrence’s coming to the U.S. is not filled in; it was, of course, in 1922. This chronology reminds us of Olson’s violets (men springing up), and it is interesting because, in it, Olson seems to have tried to tie together the modern English writers who most interested him, Yeats and Lawrence, with Whitehead and his English background. He also places Whitehead in the American philosophical tradition. It is noteworthy that Olson singles out Peirce, a physicist and founder of pragmatism (the term was current by 1878). As for the mass of the notations, it is not possible accurately to date them according to one reading or another, unless Olson has done so himself. The notations do seem to lead in two directions, one toward an understanding of Whitehead’s argument and the other toward the use of the material. When we enter upon the use of Whitehead, I do not find the relationship between the two men systematic, but rather companionable, as Olson himself said, and creative.

This move away from a systematic relationship to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism should be noted by the reader, and is, indeed, pointed out by Olson himself in the 1956 lecture:

In the pleasure of these substantiations of Whitehead I should like myself to gather up in a basket -- or all it will take is a hand -- my own pre-propositions to a knowledge of his thought. And it might be interesting to someone else in this sense, that, like violets we are a bunch!

It comes down to fact and form. A writer, I dare say, goes by words. That is, they are facts. And forms. Simultaneously. And a writer may be such simply that he takes an attitude towards this double power of word: he believes it is enough to unlock anything. Words occur to him as substances -- as entities, in fact as actual entities. My words were space, myth, fact, object. And they were globs. Yet I believed in them enough to try to reduce them to sense. I knew they were vector and in Ishmael [Olson’s first book, Call me Ishmael, 1947, scholarly on Melville and directive to his own work] treated them as such, but they didn’t, for me, get rid of scalar inertia. Whitehead, it turns out, would say that I was stuck in the second of the three stages in the process of feeling: "The second stage is governed by the private ideal... whereby the many feelings, derivatively felt as alien (the first stage of a response, the mere reception of the actual world), are transformed into a unity of aesthetic appreciation felt as private." [Olson’s parentheses.] I cannot urge on you enough to remind you that these stubborn globs one sticks by, and is stuck with, are valid, at the same time that I urge you, one day, to recognize them as "losses" of the vector force In exactly the sense in which Whitehead goes on to characterize this second stage further: "This (the second stage described above) is the incoming of ‘appetition,’ which in its higher exemplification we term ‘vision.’ In the language of physical science, the ‘scalar’ form overwhelms the original ‘vector’ form; the origins become subordinate to the individual experience. The vector form is not lost, but is submerged in the foundation of the scalar superstructure." So they sat for me, space myth fact object.24

I want to draw attention to the passages from Whitehead which Olson introduces here. They are from the chapter on "Process" (Part II, Chapter X, Section III), better than halfway through the argument of Process and Reality. Olson’s purpose appears to be to move directly to the "process of feeling" and to emphasize it. It is striking that, knowledgeable in mathematics himself, he continues to maintain Whitehead’s mathematical vocabulary. Olson is here approaching the problem of a language that will hold onto reality as process. As it turns out, the solution will be found, not simply in the words, but in the form as well. Where one may have missed the point of Olson’s earlier definition of scalar and vector, which were strictly dictionary definitions, it may be useful, with Whitehead’s sense of "the foundation of the scalar superstructure" in mind, to emphasize that the scalar is "a quantity fully described by a number" and a vector is "a complex entity representative of a directed magnitude, as of a force or a velocity."25 Understood as Olson appears to understand them, the one is complete (say, the subjective poetry of the old humanism) while the other is coming into form by attention. The emphasis is upon prehensive activity. By maintaining Whitehead’s vocabulary of the physical sciences, Olson accomplishes two things: he places human nature in the physical, like Whitehead’s actual occasions, and he shifts the attention to the vector, "the original vector forms," "the origins." This is important to Olson because origin, beginning, and renewal are finally the true subjects of his poems, and such an emphasis transforms the finitude of modern humanism with its despair and terrorisms. He was to search for active form, rather than the referential kind which he reads as entrapment in the present cultural conditions (a dead duck, if I may so express myself).

From the passages quoted by Olson, Whitehead turns to a further consideration of the "second stage of feeling," which makes the issue even clearer: ". . . the reason why the origins are not lost in the private emotion is that there is no element in the universe capable of pure privacy" – "to be ‘something’ is ‘to have the potentiality of acquiring real unity with other entities’" [this is the third metaphysical principle] – "Thus emotion is ‘emotional feeling’; and ‘what is felt’ is the presupposed vector situation" – "scalar quantities are constructs derivative from vector quantities." Whitehead, at this point, makes one of those brilliant adjustments in his argument:

In more familiar language, this principle can be expressed by the statement that the notion of ‘passing on is more fundamental than that of’ a private individual fact. In the abstract language here adopted, for metaphysical statement, ‘passing on’ becomes ‘creativity,’ in the dictionary sense of the verb creare, ‘to bring forth, beget, produce.’ Thus, according to the third principle, no entity can be divorced from the notion of creativity. An entity is at least a particular form capable of infusing its own particularity into creativity. An actual entity, or a phase of an actual entity, is more than that; but, at least, it is that. (PR II, X, III)

Thus, without abstraction, we may read the physical and mental entity as coming into form by process, a flowing from its origins.

Because I want the reader to gain a sense of the longhand of Olson’s effort, I will continue to select a few passages from Whitehead. This chapter on "Process," in which the three stages of feeling are described, opens with a consideration of the ‘flux of things’: "That ‘all things flow’ is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analyzed intuition of man has produced." It is there, Whitehead tells us, in the Psalms, for philosophy in Heraclitus, and "in all stages of civilization" in poetry.

Without doubt, if we are to go back to that ultimate, integral experience, unwarped by the sophistications of theory, that experience whose elucidation is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is the one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system. (PR II, X, I)

This "ultimate, integral experience," which is a kind of continuance of feeling, is then distinguished from the "rival and antithetical" notion:

I cannot at the moment recall one immortal phrase which expresses it with the same completeness as the alternative notion has been rendered by Heraclitus. The other notion dwells on permanences of things -- the solid earth, the mountains, the stones, the Egyptian Pyramids, the spirit of man, God. (PR II, X, I)

The ensuing discussion brings face to face "the metaphysics of substance" (which Olson repeatedly in conversation with me, 1957-1959, argued that we must change) and "the metaphysics of flux," "the static spiritual world" and a "fluent world." I cannot emphasize enough the Importance of the disclosure here. It is the phrase "static spiritual world" which points toward what is dead in the modem cultural condition.

Olson’s 1956 lecture is in great part a record of the way in which Whitehead’s thought entered into his as both corrective and companion. He uses it as an occasion to reflect back on his own work. "Space as such of course I opened Ishmael with. . . . I behaved better in Ishmael than I knew. Even, for example, to jamming in the other two terms as well as myth and space, hammering object and fact as process of composition He connects this with words out of a dream:

of rhythm is image

of image is knowing

of knowing there is

a construct,

and he draws our attention to Whitehead’s sense ofa "blind perceptivity of the other physical occasions of the actual world." He had "stumbled and was stumbling" on those four words as they would direct the lifetime of his work. The problem was the vectorial, the fluency of the world. In the same section of Whitehead, where Whitehead remarks on Bergson’s "charge that the human intellect ‘spatializes the universe,’ that is to say, that it tends to ignore the fluency and to analyze the world in terms of static categories," Olson underlines and dates it 1959 -- still at it, three years after the 1956 lecture. The problem was to make space alive in time by image. That would, of course, mean myth.

Olson consistently translates Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and its magnificent vision of process back into his own acts as poet of perception and intelligence. This means that in such use of Whitehead’s thought, Olson, the poet, steps back from the systematic, abstract nature of the metaphysical task.26

It is actually form that I am seeking to draw out of the thought -- to seize a tradition out of the live air, or something, the Bejeweled Man once said -- the thought which, I have suggested, and Whitehead has the system to demonstrate, man is now possessed of after the last three centuries once again. (I suppose because I am a mythologist and least of all a philosopher. The seasons of man also recur, even if it will be some time before we know them as deliberately as we do those of nature. . . .)

Whitehead’s rereading -- a corrective, in Olson’s mind -- of three centuries of philosophy in Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant and, by implication, Hegel, had been necessary to prepare for the three stages of feeling in process. Mythology in this context suggests a presystematic language, imaged, natural, and fundamental to the feeling mind, Whitehead’s ". . . the ‘process’ inherent in the fact of being a mind" (PR II, VI, IV).

Olson then moves to tie down his difference from Whitehead:

That is, I am not aware that many men’s acts of form yet tap the total change of stance or posture (postulate or premise) of which Whitehead’s "philosophy of organism" is one completed exemplification. Mind you, be careful here. Remember the violets. A philosophy, even of his order, or because of his order, a philosophy, just because it is a wind-up, it does seek, as he says, to be so water-tight that, "at the end, insofar as the enterprise has been successful, there should be no problem of spacetime, or of epistemology, or of causality, left over for discussion, ‘form, in the sense in which one means it as of creations, can have no life as such a system. It is like the moon, without air. Or a mother. It has had to be like Whitehead has to find God as wisdom to be, ,"a tender care that nothing be lost." The creation of form by man could hardly let this statement of his operative growth cover him just because he is not God, and his third stage of feeling -- "the satisfaction," Whitehead calls it -- can only assert itself, even as a "completed unity of operation," in a new actual entity. In other words has to go back to the vectors of which it is a proof. Taking off from the thought one can define an act of art as a vector which, having become private and thus acquired vision, ploughs the vision back by way of primordial things. Only thus can it have consequence. It cannot, by taking up consequence, into itself.27

Olson terms the condition a "return to object" and he returns art to the "contest." "I had already," he writes, "practiced the principle of the particular when [Robert] Creeley offered me the formulation form is never more than an extension of content (sign he too was one of Whitehead’s violets!)."28

The implication is clear: that the contest – "variance, dissension contention, dissonance" -- belongs to the poetic task and is the companion of that other task, the philosophical. The contest is suggestive of the theory of prehensions. I am reminded of an earlier passage in Whitehead, where Olson underlines "an instance of experience is dipolar" (PR 1,111, IV). The word dipolar, which will have continuous relevance for Olson, is encircled and a line drawn to the bottom of the page, where Whitehead is slightly reworded for emphasis: "Wh’s cosmological silence repudiates the assumption that the basic elements o experience are to be described, nota, in one, or all, of’ the three ingredients, viz:/ consciousness thougt./ sense-perception." Olson concludes with a definition of form as tensions, primordial fluency," and "a consequent one":

And each makes up the matter: the objective immortality of actual occasions requires the primordial permanence of form, whereby the creative advance ever re-establishes itself endowed with initial creation of the history of one’s self.29

The sudden appearance of "one’s self" in this context may seem abrupt. But Olson is here calling forward certain fundamental aspects of Whitehead’s thought, keyed by the use of the philosopher’s terminology. The issue of creativity is central. As Donald Sherburne has helped me to understand, "Creativity is one of the three notions involved in what Whitehead calls the Category of the Ultimate; this category expresses the general principle presupposed by all other aspects of’ the philosophy of organism The other two principles involved are many and one."30 The return to the objective, for which Olson argues, has equally in the process to account for the one. I recall an extraordinary passage from Whitehead:

But creativity is always found under conditions, and described as conditioned. The non-temporal act of all-inclusive unfettered valuation is at once a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity. It shares this double character with all creatures. By reason of its character as a creature, always in concrescence and never in the past, it receives a reaction from the world: this reaction is its consequent nature. It is here termed ‘God,’ because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feeling derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim. (PR I, III, I)

And so it is also with poetry in which a world view is at stake. Olson’s sense of ‘creative advance’ seems to reflect a passage in "The Theory of Feelings":

. . . the process of integration, which lies at the very heart of the concrescence, is the urge imposed on the concrescent unity of that universe by the three categories of subjective unity, of objective identity, and of objective diversity. The oneness of the universe and the oneness of each element in the universe, repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature, each creature including in itself the whole of history and exemplifying the self-identity of things and their mutual diversity. (PR III, I, VII)

To enter this creativity -- " ‘Creativity’ is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact"31-- was, indeed, to enter upon the process of world view itself.

I have endeavored, with many a quotation, to dramatize the two languages of these men in order to avoid the critical flattening of Whitehead into his broadest generalizations or of Olson into a simplified or incorrect relation to Whitehead. The spiritual edge in Olson reached for Whitehead. At the top of a page in the "Preface" to Process and Reality, Olson writes: aim: a complete cosmology -- (a cosmology of the 20th century, to succeed the two previous ones: Plato’s Timaeus, & the 17th century)."

In a series of lectures, which followed upon the lecture we have been considering (published as The Special View of History, Notes from Black Mountain, 1956), Olson brilliantly continues the translation of Whitehead into his own terms. Though closely related to the philosophy of organism throughout, these lectures are not on Whitehead in the introductory manner of the earlier lecture. The purpose of the lectures is to outline a "new humanism" that discovers "Actual Willful Man," obedient to the real and potentially heroic. The figuration of the heroic belongs to the depths of poetic imagination, its archaic nature, for heroes belong to "the becoming the perishing, and the objective immortalities of those things which iointly constitute stubborn fact (PR, Preface, Olson’s underlining, Whitehead’s italics). Olson describes the "attempt" of these lectures:

... to supply you with what I don’t think has had to be faced before, perhaps because the humanism of the Renaissance was sufficient until a few years ago, even if it had run down by Keats’ day. The anti-humanism which I have dubbed Hegelian has been made the most the poet’s enemy. It is only recently, we might say, In which a pro-humanistic possibility has emerged.32

Two epigraphs open the argument: Heraclitus’ "Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar" and a passage from Keats’ famous letter on "Negative Capability" -- "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason These passages become pointers in Olson’s effort to enter upon a measured humanity within the process of things. In practice, this state becomes a reversal of our current condition, both "backward and outside" our present cultural condition. Sherman Paul has best discussed this active part of Olson’s poetics:

This was Olson’s advice to students in the Greek tutorial when they confronted Homer and the other great writers who appeared later in the fifth century BC.: "take both backwards and outside em, not get caught in that culture trap of taking them forwards, as tho all that we are depends on em." He himself went back to the Sumerians and Hittites and outside to the Mayans, thereby escaping the "Western Box" in which he felt Pound was trapped.33

(Whereas in The Special View, with its play on Einstein’s title, he argues the change, in the poetry he effectively pursues it.)

We need to understand the dynamics of the thought and stance which his method of "backwards and outside" proposes. A key to this method is his "impression that man lost something just about 500 BC. and only got it back just about 1905 AD." Olson goes "backward" to a turning point, as he saw it: Heraclitus, who died in 481 BC., and the loss of the familiar. In "A Comprehension," written in 1966, there is further clarification: ". . . the ‘attack’ by Plato on poets & poetry already has asserted itself in fragments 57, 40 & 41 of Heraclitus, dating say 505 when he was in his 40’s or at around 480 when in his 60’s It is useful to read these fragments, which Olson was studying in G. D. Kirk’s Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments:

57: Teacher of most men is Hesiod: they are sure he knows very many things, who continually failed to recognize day and night: for they are one... [in The Theogony, 123ff., Night is mother of Day]

40: Learning of many things does not teach sense

41: for Wisdom is one thing: to be skilled in true judgment, how all things are steered through all . . .34

Olson is proposing to date the loss of the sense of reality as process at that point.

At the other end, the date 1905 AD., positing a time when we could begin to return to a sense of reality as process, undoubtedly refers to Einstein, for that is the date of Einstein’s, in his own eyes, very revolutionary" paper on light. Olson also suggests that Whitehead’s thought is a turning point as well. He writes:

And that the stance which yields the possibility of acts which are allowably historic, in other words produce, have to be negatively capable in Keats’ sense that they have to be, they have to be tin certain.

Or what we would call today relative. It will be seen within [these lectures] how thoroughly I take it Whitehead has written the metaphysic of the reality we have acquired, and because I don’t know that yet the best minds realize how thoroughly the absolute or ideal has been tucked back where it belongs -- where it got out of, in the 5th century BC. and thereafter -- I call attention to Whitehead’s analysis of the Consequent as the relative of relatives, and that the Primordial -- the absolute -- is prospective, that events are absolute only because they have a future, not from any past.35

This bow toward Whitehead excellently summarizes a living sense of the relational. (Olson was later to draw out the implications for a measured human will. The uncertainty in the process becomes the most difficult part to learn, for it is identified with love. Lest the word love seem soft or too human, I point out that the "backwards and outward" movement of information, made dynamic in relation to present cultural conditions, becomes in the vast world of The Maximus Poems a methodology for a return to that with which we are most familiar.)

The passage just quoted appears also to be drawing upon the extraordinary last chapter of Process and Reality. "God and the World," where Whitehead writes:

Thus the consequent nature of God is composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization. It is just as much a multiplicity as it is a unity; it is just as much one immediate fact as it is an unresting advance beyond itself. Thus the actuality of God must also L)e understood as a multiplicity of actual components in process of creation. This is God in his function of the kingdom of heaven. (PR V, II, VII, Olson’s underlining)

Olson draws a line from the underlined word ‘multiplicity’ to the bottom of the page and writes: "love etc. But he did not let go unnoticed Whitehead’s account of evil in this consequent world. Among other notations, he underlined this sentence: "The nature of evil is that the characters of things are mutually obstructive" (PR V, I, IV). (As a result of his companionship with the Blakean, John Clarke, Olson’s attention in his last years was drawn to the greatest poet ofthis vision of the creation as 1)0th "prolific and devouring," William Blake.) We should remember that Olson’s work and his use of Whitehead grow out of the meaning of the Second World War and be reminded of Pound’s words out of the First World War:

There died a myriad

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization.

History, for Olson, will not be the history of the great powers, but "history as primordial and prospective."36 History, taken out of the hands of power, becomes "the function of any one of us," embodied intellectually and emotionally. The self, invoked here as an element of the-beginning-again, is not the "one of power," but rather, "the self as center and circumference."37 Behind this notion is Olson’s definition of will: "Will is the innate voluntarism of to live. Will is the infinitive of being."38 This "WILL" includes an obedience within the process, the renewed sense of subject and object, and leads to art as the "order of man," a principle close to Whitehead’s sense of ‘selection,’ which is fundamental to the act of prehension. Olson:

If order is not the world -- and the world hasn’t been the most interesting image of order since 1904, when Einstein showed the beauty of the Cosmos and one then does pass on, looking for more -- the order is man. And one can define the present (it does need to be noticed that the present is post the modern) as the search for order as man himself is the image of same. Whitehead, then, makes sense in proposing a philosophy of organism. . . .39

This crucial sense of the possibility of a reversal is present to Olson’s work throughout (spectacularly so, in the reversals of backwards and outward) in order to renew place, one’s own earth and cosmos. The most extraordinary reversal is argued in The Special View: "History is the practice of space in time. Time is the vertical or tenser and it can be for a man, of a man, precisely defined."40 Or, as he said in conversation and elsewhere, "Time is the life of space."

When Olson translates this into poetry, the poem-structure is not simply a system of metaphors for the philosophical reversal, but a record of the dynamic as it is practiced. I turn to Don Byrd, one of Olson’s must sensitive readers, for a description of this:

The three stages of feeling which Olson derives from Whitehead . . . can be usefully recalled. The poem [Maximus; Volume III] is taking its turn into the third stage. He says: "The first is that in which the multiples of anything crowd in on the individual; the second is that most individual stage when he or she seeks to impose his or her own order on the multiples; and the third is the stage called satisfaction, in which the true order is seen to be the confrontation of two interchanging forces which can be called Cod and the World" [Special View, 50]. The first and second stages of feeling are obviously the dominant modes of experience in the first and second volumes respectively. The paradox of the third volume is that the end of the personal process is a denial of the personal. The form which begins to emerge excludes every perfection but its own. The Maximus Poems, Volume III is perhaps the first religious poem to have been written since the seventeenth century. Of course, an abundance of poetry has been cast in the dilemma of belief or has asserted a belief which the poet wished he had, but no one has so successfully established himself in his own being that he becomes an agent of "two interchanging forces which can be called God and the World." "I believe in religion," Maximus says, "not magic or science I believe in! society as religious both man and society as religious" (Maximus III, 55). The God which appears in the Maximus, however, is "fully physical" (Maximus III, 13). It is the God which Whitehead describes "as the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire [PR V, II, II]. He is not a final cause or creator but a principle of continuation which is no sooner manifest than it becomes the basis of a new beginning.41

Olson’s own words for this, preparing for the work of it in 1956, are:

We were able, I take it, to establish a cosmology without letting God in as creator in the old sense, in the old static sense of the universe. I believe we are equally enabled today to establish a mythology without letting God in as a primordial nature in the old static sense, but only an image of Primordial Nature in the prospective sense of the absolute which is included in the relative.42

Interpretation, with its lingering positivism and its confused urge towards materialism, too often ignores the fundamental religious temper of poetic thought. It is not the embarrassment of outworn ways, but simply the way things belong together in the largest sense of such intuitions. Olson takes careful note of Whitehead’s remarks on secularization, which are not to be understood in the contemporary sense of a wipeout, with underlining and doubled arrows in the margins:

The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world is at least as urgent as a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience. The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the converse is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the universe. (PR II, IX, VIII, Olson’s underlining)

This active thought not only moves Olson’s cosmology near to Whitehead’s, keeping in mind the latter’s moving remarks on the tragic consequences of the "unmoved mover" in Christianity and Mohammedanism (PR V, II, I), but also reopens the mythological language of poetic cosmology, as a language of the depth of things inside us.43

I have, by way of carefully ordered quotation, insisted upon the companionable -- with the bread of 44-- in this essay because there is another reading of the meeting of these two minds. Robert von Hallberg in his study, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art, chooses to measure Olson against what appears to be a more systematic aspect of Whitehead. He argues that Olson’s "humanistic notion of order is not quite faithful to Whitehead." And he cites a passage from Whitehead on higher organisms and their type of order:

"It is the mark of a high-grade organism to eliminate, by negative prehension, the irrelevant accidents in its environment, and to elicit massive attention to every variety of systematic order. . . . In this way the organism in question suppresses the mere multiplicity of things, and designs its own contrasts. The canons of art are merely the expression, in specialized forms, of the requisites for depth of experience." [PR IV, IV, III] When he read this passage Olson wrote in the margin: "The egotism of creation!" But the egotism was more Olson’s than Whitehead’s.45 (I have added Olson’s underlining.)

This is an important moment of preparation in von Hallberg’s argument, because, for all the memorable readings he gives us of individual poems, this alleged Olsonian egotism will lead to a dismissal of the dynamic structure of ‘feeling’ in the whole of The Maximus Poems. Maximus IV, V, VI and Volume III become a mere egocentrism. What Olson did, indeed, write above the section heading and running into the margin is: "The egotism of creation is:" and he draws two lines across the text to the word ‘order.’ Thus, we are to read: "The egotism of creation is: order." Surely, this is recognition of the prehensive activity of order with its ‘subjective aim.’ And as one reflects on the mass of Whitehead’s argument, the notation also calls forward the Cartesian separation of mind and matter that Whitehead has struggled to heal. Then, von Hallberg continues: "When Olson suggests that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is based on man as the image of order in the world, he is standing Whitehead on his head in order to define what Olson looked forward to as ‘another humanism.’ Order for Whitehead, is process, and the process begins with the atom, not with man." 46

This is astonishing, for surely Whitehead begins with the depths of his own perception and then moves to the deeps where the atom is found. I want first to say that Olson does not argue man as the image of order, but rather the new man who will have the measured image of order within by way of thought and art. The phrase "another humanism" is taken from Olson’s major text of the outward dynamic, outward of the "Western Box," The Mayan Letters.47 The Special View, which is also reflected upon in von Hallberg’s text, ends with a chapter called "Enantiodromia or ‘the laws’: A METHODOLOGY," the running course of standing up against or with things, and an "Outline" which includes the re-posed subject-object relations.48 This is where we find "Actual Willful Man" who acts. Dr. von Hallberg cites an important passage in Whitehead in order to argue that Olson "takes the diametrically opposite path. . .":

The philosophy of organism abolishes the dletached mind. Mental activity is one of the modes of feeling belonging to all actual entities in some degree, but only amounting to conscious intellectuality in some actual entities.49 (PR II, I, VI; I have added Olson’s underlining.)

Olson draws a line from this passage to the bottom of the page and writes, "Touché (like T S E! 1961)." A few lines further along in Process and Reality, Olson is attentive to the continuation of Whitehead’s argument:

This is the problem of the solidarity of the universe. [Olson writes in the margin, "Wow!"] The classical doctrines of universals and particulars, of subject and predicate, of individual substances not present in other individual substances, of the externality of relations, alike render this problem incapable of solution. The answer given by the organic philosophy is the doctrine of prehensions, involved in concrescent integrations, and terminating in a definite. complex unity of feeling. To be actual must mean that all actual things are alike objects. . . . (PR II, I, VI, Olson’s underlining)

From the underlined word ‘objects,’ Olson draws a line to the bottom of the page and writes: "The end of the subject-object thing -- Wow." What goes wrong in von Hallberg’s summary view of Whitehead is his underestimation of the importance of the activity of prehension for Whitehead and for Olson as demonstrated in Olson’s use and adaptation of the three stages of feeling. Further, von Hallberg ignores the radical importance of the ‘subjective principle.’

Such distortion by generalization, a result of what I would like to call singular assertion, is one good reason I have arranged my essay by way of careful quotation. This is a problem of methodology. It is important to understand that Whitehead’s "‘democracy’ of actual entities," to quote von Hallberg again, does not wipe out person but resituates such an entity.50 Thus, we return once more to the problem of "actual willful man." Where Whitehead writes, ". . . the actual entity, in virtue of being what it is, is also where it is" (PR II, I, VII, Whitehead’s italics), Olson draws a line from the underlined phrase "what it is" and writes in the margin, ‘because of who it is! (1961)." At the top of the page, he has written: ". . . taxonomy is false object because no ‘real’ in [the?] many eternal objects Tartaros." We remember that "Prehensions are not atomic; they can be divided into other prehensions and combined into other prehensions" (PR III, I, XII).

With and Tartaros we enter upon Olson’s translation of Whiteheadian cosmology into mythology, which is to say into a cosmogony. His spelling in Greek letters of the word chaos is interesting; it appears to combine the Greek form kháos with the Indo-European root gh, meaning hollow. Apart from anything else, this spelling and etymology effectively distance us from the sloppy English notion of chaos as confusion. Tartaros in the Iliad is as far below Hades as the Heavens are above the Earth. These two great archaic imaginings of the depths take us back into the depth where the orders of human imagination begin and end.

An extended example of the way Olson works such translation is found outlined across two pages in Process and Reality at the end of the chapter on "Propositions" (PR II, IX). He writes:

from the induction

(ground for a probability judgment)

the statistical -- is The Actual World

status locus throwndown scattered





(the world) /

1.) the tePAS

II (God) __________ __________

the non-statistical (for such a judgment):

the graduated ‘intensive relevances’

appetitions (starting

with G ()

constituting the primordial nature of God

thus some ‘novelty’

(otherwise none

without it . . .

[opposite page] the condition is

hunger -- stretching, straining (intensive relevances)


Here, the translation outlines an image of the world as it moves from those sections in which Whitehead analyzes the statistical and nonstatistical ground for probability judgments. Whitehead discusses the nonstatistical ground, which depends upon the theory of prehensions: "The principle of the graduated ‘intensive relevance’ of eternal objects to the primary physical data of experience expresses a real fact. . . "He emphasizes the importance of". . . the prehension by every creature of the graduated order of appetitions constituting the primordial nature of God and (the other side of the inductive and statistical) "an intuition of probability" for the origin of novelty, which, as non-statistical judgments" "lie at a far lower level of experience than do the religious emotions." Just there we come upon the passage already quoted on "the secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world." Olson was not superstitious. This is not a transcendentalism, nor is it an idealism. Olson was after the depth of the world to which, as I have said, we all respond, though the modern public culture refuses to think of it. It is a moving story of the real that Olson is preparing here. Whitehead argues, and Olson underlines, that "statistical theory entirely fails" to provide for the judgment of novelty (PR II, IX, VII). It is well to remember that "‘Creativity’ is the principle of novelty. An actual occasion is a novel entity diverse from any entity in the ‘many’ which it unifies" (PR I, II, II, Olson’s underlining). Without that individuation within the process, valuation would be lost, and, as Olson writes, "without it" dot, dot, dot. He moves in this outline to the imagination of permanence and change with the human actor within it. "The condition is hunger," "mouth," and I note that the hunger -- the appetition, to use Whitehead’s more abstract term -- is of both body and mind. Meaning in this sense is an aspect of desire.

The mythological, the story, begins at the ground, locus, region, where the world begins for any one of us. Olson begins with the wonderful Greek, epic word TePAS. He transliterates the word except for the Greek ‘rho.’ It has a double meaning which I take to be important here: a sign, a wonder, the Latin portentum or prodigium, as the dictionary tells us, used in Homer for the heavenly constellations as signs and in other sources in a concrete sense, a monster, descriptive of the Gorgon’s head, Typhoëus and Cerberis. Olson’s use of the word in this context is of considerable complexity which I can only briefly suggest. It appears twice over with its definition as "monster or giant" alongside Whitehead’s discussion of the suppressed premise of inductive reasoning, which provides limited knowledge (PR II, IX, VI). And then, some few pages later, in the outline form reproduced above. As we open here into the mythological, the sense of the world, of cosmos, becomes overwhelming and archaic. When Olson draws God into the process, as we come upon a renewed cosmogony. The outline reproduced above becomes a curious map of the epic structure of The Maximus Poems. It is striking that this notation, which the poems turn into a tale, enters upon a fundamental concern of ancient epic, out of Gilgamesh and Hesiod -- the ground of knowing, epistemology. The muses were once a vocabulary for this and for a cosmology that belongs to the depths of feeling.

Olson is a careful and poised modern mind, but with this interest in the archaic he follows through on an intuition that has colored the arts of our century. The archaic may be understood as a prerational language of being in love with the earth and the heavens, but in its telling in the twentieth century, it is also postrational.52 That is, a discipline of feeling outside what the rational is tied to. In "Letter to Elaine Feinstein," Olson writes: "I find the contemporary substitution of society for the cosmos captive and deathly."53 The archaic is not a primitivism, but a freshness which has been beautifully described by Guy Davenport:

We have recovered in anthropology and archeology the truth that primitive man lives in a world totally alive, a world in which one talks to bears and reindeer, like the Laplanders, or to Coyote, the sun and moon, like the plains Indians.

In the seventeenth century we discovered that a drop of water is alive, in the eighteenth century that all of nature is alive in its discrete particles, in the nineteeth century that these particles are all dancing a constant dance (the Brownian movement), and the twentieth century discovered that nothing at all is dead, that the material of existence is so many little solar systems of light mush, or as Einstein said, ". . . every clod of earth, every feather, every speck of dust is a prodigious reservoir of trapped energy."54

This energy in the depth of things may be subsumed abstractly; it can be learned, taught, imaged and so felt in poetry. It is not unrelated to religion, that means of controlling the unmeasured violence that is a part of ourselves. In Special View Olson writes:

For the loss of the city-state is now calculable, that man has had restored to him, since 1875, of a unit of place and time to make up for it. . . . He has this traction or friction innately: he either gets his time and place out of himself or via that trope of himself he calls God, and it is the virtue of history as it can now be understood that it restores God as well as locality, and in so doing rids us of two other phonies of discourse, the infinite and eternal which diluted Him in distracting man from that with which he is necessarily most familiar -- what he is.55

The moral of the story is that we must not take what we mean by the aesthetic too narrowly; it is, of course, beauty, but beauty unfinished in context with place and time. Surely, this struggle for the real in Whitehead and in Olson, this struggle to find a coherence, is a modern triumph. It is also an obedience to the real. My mind leaps to that characteristic in Sophocles’ thought when it is not read as tragedy; that word is too misjudged by us. I am thinking of Oedipus at Colonus disappearing into the earth and of Herakles’ recognition of the coherence of things in The Women of Trachis.

II. On Poetics

One of Olson’s most important statements on the nature of the poem is found written at the bottom of a page in Process and Reality (PR IV, II, IV). It is a passage from Whitehead on the definition of a ‘complete locus,’ which can only be read in terms of the physical sciences. Whitehead:

The inside of a region, its volume, has a complete boundedness denied to the extensive potentiality external to it. The bounded-ness applies both to the spatial and the temporal aspects of extension. Wherever there is ambiguity as to the contrast of bounded-ness between inside and outside, there is no proper region.56

And Olson:

The inside of a poem, its volume, has a complete boundedness denied to the extensive potentiality external to it. The boundedness applies both to the spatial and temporal aspects of extension.

Whenever there is ambiguity as to the contrast of boundedness between inside & outside, there is no proper poem.

This part of Process and Reality, which involves us in non-Euclidian geometry among other things, held considerable interest for Olson because it relates our extensive connection" to the "geometry of the world." For the unphilosophical and for the nonphysicist, one of the pleasures of Whitehead’s text is the shifting quality of his vocabulary. Though one may follow with care the vocabulary which describes "the physical and geometrical theory of nature," Whitehead returns again and again to our experience of the cosmos.

Whitehead begins the discussion of this part of his book by discussing "ways of ‘dividing’ the satisfaction of an actual entity into component feelings." And we suddenly remember the definition of satisfaction in an earlier chapter (PR II, I, III): "The actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe, the bond being either a positive or a negative prehension. This termination is the ‘satisfaction’ of the actual entity." Olson underlines "one complex feeling." Where Whitehead is discussing the genetic process, which presupposes the entire quantum, Olson underlines and in the margin refers us far back in Process and Reality to Whitehead’s citation of William James. The James passage should be recalled:

Either your experience is of no content, of no change, or it is of a perceptible amount of content or change. Your acquaintance with reality grows literally by buds or drops of perception. Intellectually and on reflection you can divide these into components, but as immediately given, they come totally or not at all. (Olson underlining, PR II, II, II)

Returning to the section under discussion, Olson stops over this: "The quantum is that standpoint in the extensive continuum which is consonant with the subjective aim in its original derivation from God. Here ‘God’ is that actuality in the world, in virtue of which there is physical ‘law’" (Olson underlining). It is important to emphasize that the subjective aim is the "inherence of the subject in the process" (PR III, I, V), which Donald Sherburne further clarifies: "Process doesn’t presuppose a subject; rather the subject emerges from the process."57 The inherence of the subject in the process is fundamental to Olson’s sense of himself in The Maximus Poems. We have Olson and the figuration (I)f Maximus In the poems. George Butterick, citing Olson’s own words in his essay, The Gate and the Center," writes: "Maximus is the ‘size man can be once more ca1)able of, once the turn of the flow of his energies that I speak of as the WILL TO COHERE is admitted, and its energies taken up.’"58

In Whitehead’s chapter on "Strains," Olson once again adapts Whitehead’s vocabulary to the concerns of poetry. Here he draws attention to his sense of poetry as contest:

The poem establishes by geometric contents the possibility of rests,’ a physical content, in order of space, or ‘quantitative’ verse. In the previous discourse it was all flow (song), bec’z there was no ‘strain locus.’ Thus the ‘flow’ was without the character of ‘flow’ (song without song). (Written in PR IV, IV, V)

III. Three Pieces From Charles Olson

A Later Note on

Letter #15

In English the poetics became meubles -- furniture --

thereafter (after 1630

& Descartes was the value

until Whitehead, who cleared out the gunk

by getting the universe in (as against man alone)

& that concept of history (not Herodotus’s,)

which was a verb, to find out for yourself:

‘istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere

at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucidides,) or the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot

-- live television or what -- is a lie

as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream being self-action with Whitehead’s important corollary; that no event

is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal event

The poetics of such a situation

are yet to be found out

January 15, 1962

This is the opening poem in Maximus V. Olson calls it a note, referring back to an earlier letter on American poetics in the first volume of Maximus. It has already been noted that Olson’s poem-structure allows for such openness in finding a new structure. I take the choice of the German word for dream to be Olson’s way of removing the poetic softness that has come to envelop that word in English and possibly of allowing us to hear the sense of "trauma" in order to remind us that poetry is not easy -- that it emerges from contest. The word also means vision in German, and it may hold within it a salute to Jung, whom Olson studied with care alongside his repeated readings of Process and Reality. There is evidence among his notations that Olson was trying to relate Jung’s interpretation of dreams to Whitehead. At the end of the chapter on "The Ideal Opposites" (PR V, I, IV), Whitehead is discussing the final Opposites of his cosmology, "joy and sorrow, good and evil, disjunction and conjunction . . . the many in the one," ending in "God and the World." Whitehead gives to the opposites "a certain ultimate directness of intuition," except for God and the World, which "introduces a note of interpretation." Olson underlines and down the page he writes: "Wow, of Jung/ says on the interpretation of dreams/ M, D, R, p.310." He adds the date June 23, 1969. The book is, of course, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, wherein we find Jung writing: "Mathematics goes to great pains to create expressions for relationships which pass empirical comprehension. In much the same way, it is all-important for a disciplined imagination to build up images of intangibles by logical principles and on the basis of empirical data, that is, on the evidence of dreams." Olson may also have in mind a passage from William Carlos Williams’ essay, "The poem as a Field of Action":

. . . let me remind you here to keep in your minds the term reality as contrasted with phantasy and to tell you that the subject matter of the poem is always phantasy -- what is wished for, realized in the "dream" of the poem -- but that the structure confronts something else.59

Olson would probably not have used the word phantasy. In this poem, the self-action is then attached to an eternal." Whitehead’s proper term would be "eternal object," God in the world. This brings me to think that Olson is reflecting on earlier works by Whitehead in which, Donald Sherburne points out, the notion of event was central.60 But then Olson has returned to his own situation in which the "intersection or collision" would be an event. He ends, movingly, reflecting on the work of his poem of which "the poetics [as practice] of such a situation/ are yet to be found out."


history as time

alchemy of

slain kings roots


"through time and exact definition"

(explicitness and

analogy like to like

the Lake Van Measure

I reject nothing. I accept it all (though

there on rejected. What man’s senses of

examples -- the demonstrative categories of

employment which have all descended into the

organization -- of Time for plutocratic

purposes and the result is the Americans are

simply examples of the 7 Deadly sins) One

means rather smelling entirely different --

both a fantastic sweetened possible difference

development, inner powers and

explanations. The spiritual is all in Whitehead’s

simplest of all statements: Measurement is

most possible throughout the system. That is

what I mean. That is what I feel all inside.

That is what is love.

Charles, Saturday morning

December 13th


This is a note drawn from a flyleaf of John Philip Cohane’s The Key, which Olson had been given as a gift. An unorthodox book on ancient migrations, which links ancient civilizations by way of etymology, the gift was well chosen. It meets Olson’s fascination with global migration, the history of place, but the text appears to have gone unread during those last few weeks. Instead, all over the inside cover, flyleaves, and title page are notes that approach poems. In this lovely testament and tribute the only difficulty is with "Lake Van Measure," which turns up several times in Olson’s work. George Butterick has straightened the matter out for us.62 Lake Van is in far Western Turkey and is the site of the Armenian cruciform church at Achthaman. The "Measure is an "Ideal Scale," also called "Armenian," as Butterick tells us, "in the general sense of ‘northern,’ or non-Greek, non-classical," which Olson drew from Josef Strzygowski’s Origin of Early Christian Church Art. There Olson found that Christianity in the first years included Semites and Iranians; as Butterick notes, "neither East nor West in the modern sense. . . ." This is another piece of Olson’s complex effort to escape the "Western Box." Butterick further notes that Olson took the "church of Achthaman, built 904-938 A.D. . . . [to] summarize the achievement of non-Western art," and he quotes Olson: "for an American the Northern condition at this point is more interesting than any Mediterranean. . . . In this testament, then, Lake Van Measure, which was prepared for in The Maximus Poems, becomes a code phrase for a new measure of man outside the present Western condition. Then, in what is a fine tribute, Olson attaches that measure to Whitehead’s sense of measurement. This takes us back to the chapter "Measurement" in Process and Reality (PR IV, V, V), where among many underlinings and notations, Olson circles "Measurement is now possible throughout the extensive continuum." This chapter, argued in terms of "mathematical relations disclosed in presentational immediacy," is once again translated by Olson into the spiritual human order. "There is a systematic framework," Whitehead writes, "permeating all relevant fact." The human being and poet, entering that process among enduring objects -- electrons, protons, molecules, material bodies -- at once sustain that order and arise out of it. The mathematical relations involved in presentational immediacy thus belong equally to the world perceived and to the nature of the percipient. They are, at the same time public fact and private experience" (PR IV, V, III). I am reminded here that "Experience realizes itself as an element in what is everlasting" (PR II, VII, III). At the end of the chapter on "Measurement," the argument is summarized:

That perception in the mode of presentational immediacy solely depends upon the ‘withness’ of the ‘body,’ and only exhibits the external contemporary world in respect to its systematic geometrical relationship to the ‘body.’ (Olson’s underlining)

Beneath this, Olson writes: "stá." With Olson’s propensity to turn to etymology in order to make a word in the language move again, this is easily understood. It is the Indo-European base ‘stá’ of the word stand. To stand in the process -- that is to say, in the vertical of ones acts. It is the root in Olson’s important word "stance," as a good dictionary tells us: also in such words as status, state, circumstance, constant, instant, destiny, exist.63 Lovely. So, Olson builds the measure of ourselves within the process to stand against the wreckage which the human order has become. A few pages later in Process and Reality, Whitehead brings up the "contrivance for stunting humanity" and remarks:

It belongs to the goodness of the world, that its settled order should deal tenderly with the faint discordant light of the dawn of another age. Also order, as it sinks into the background before new conditions, has its requirements. The old dominance should be transformed into the firm foundations upon which new feelings arise, drawing their intensities from delicacies of contrast between system and freshness. (PR V, I, III)

In the margin, Olson writes: "The mercy of."

This essay has endeavored to show the ‘work’ of translating a metaphysics back into poetry, there to retie us to the real. I began with violets; let me close with Olson’s poppies.

When do poppies bloom I ask myself, stopping again

to look in Mrs. Frontiero’s yard, beside her house on

this side from Birdseyes (or what was once Cunningham

& Thompson’s and is now O’Donnell-Usen’s) to see if

I have missed them, flaked out and dry-like like

Dennison’s Crepe. And what I found was dark buds

like cigars, and standing up and my question is

when, then, will those blossoms more lotuses to the

West than lotuses wave like paper and petal by petal

seem more powerful than any thing except the Universe

itself, they are so animate-inanimate and dry-beauty not

any shove, or sit there poppies blow as crepe

paper. And in Mrs. Frontiero’s yard annually I

expect them as the King of the Earth must have

Penelope, awaiting her return, love lies

so delicately on the pillow as this one flower,

petal and petal, carries nothing

into or out of the World so threatening

were those cigar-stub cups just now, & I know

how quickly, and paper-like, absorbent

and krinkled paper, the poppy itself will, when here,

go again and the stalks stay like onion plants oh

come, poppy, when will you bloom?

The Fort

June 15th [Wednesday]


(From The Maximus Poems: VolumeIII)64



1So George Butterick, Curator of the Olson Archives, University of Connecticut, remarked when we were considering one of Charles Olson’s mythological notations in the margins of Whitehead’s Process and Reality: i.e., "iotunns for iotunns" in the margin of the chapter on "Propositions" (PB II, IX, VII). Iotunn is the Norse word for giant. Permission to quote unpublished material from the Olson Archives has been granted me by the University of Connecticut, which holds the copyrights.

2 John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art (The Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. Harper & Row, 1981), p. 9. He is writing about painting and sculpture. I have expanded his meaning to include literature and poetry.

3 Recorded in Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut (Swallow, 1975), p.137.

4 Here I am reflecting on some of Hannah Arendt’s arguments in On Revolution, Rev. ed. (Viking, 1965).

5 Take note of Jean Clay, Modern Art, 1890 -- 1918 (Vendome, 1978), p. 23, on "art’s radical effacement."

6 Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (California, 1971), pp. 224-225.

7 Letter to Iris Barry, London, June, 1916. In Ezra Pound, Letters, 1907 -- 1941, ed. by D. D. Paige (Harcourt, 1950), p.82.

8 Charles Olson, The Special View of History, ed. by Ann Charters (Oyez, 1970), p. 24. Olson asks that we read Benjamin Lee Whorf, "An American Indian Model of the Universe," International Journal of American Linguistics, vol. 16, no.2, April, 1950.

9 David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 29.

10 Cited in Bernard Lovell, Emerging Cosmology (Columbia, 1981), p. 197. Ruth Nanda Anshen’s essay is the statement of purpose for the series "Convergence," of which Lovell’s book is one volume. The Whitehead quotation is from Science and the Modern World (London, 1926), pp. 23-24.

11 Rowland A. Sherrill, The Prophetic Melville (Georgia, 1979), p.238.

12 Kenner, p. 231,

13 Cited in Mike Weaver, William Carlos Williams; The American Background (Cambridge, 1971), p.47 and p. 48, n. 2. Cf. Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson; The Scholar’s Art (Harvard, 1978), p.235, a. 47.

14 George Butterick, "Olson’s Reading; A Preliminary Report, The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives, no.6, Fall, 1976, p. 88. Olson purchased the copy of Process and Reality now in the Olson Archives early in 1957 (Cambridge University Press, 1929). If one is trying to follow Olson in his interest in Whitehead, it is important to have that edition. The New York Macmillan edition of the same year is differently paged.

15 Boer, p. 108.

16 George F. Butterick, A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (California, 1975). Such details are taken from the "Chronology."

17Ann Charters, Olson/Melville; a Study in Affinity (Oyez, 1968), p.84. The text of the lecture quoted here is included in her ‘‘Postscript," pp. 84-90, copyright by The Charles Olson Estate,

18 Paul Christensen, Charles Olson; Call Him Ishmael (Texas., 1979), pp. 63-64.

19 Sherman Paul, Olson’s Push; Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American Poetry (Louisiana State, 1978), pp. 99-100. The Williams poem may be found in his The Collected Earlier Poems (New Directions, 1951), pp. 379-380.

20 William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays (Random House, 1954), p. 283.

21 Christensen, p139.

22 Butterick has searched these out and noted them in The Journal of the Olson Archives, no.6, Fall, 1976, entry under Whitehead.

23 Butterick, Guide. pp. 358-359.

24 Chapters. pp. 85-86.

25 These definitions and Olson’s earlier definitions are taken from the same source: The Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 5th ed., Abridgement of Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Merriam, 1945).

26 I am not unaware of William A. Christian’s sense of "presystematic," "systematic," and "postsystematic" types of discourse in Whitehead. This layering of argument is one of the pleasures of reading Whitehead, but they remain aspects of an explanatory discourse, whereas Olson wishes to remain closer to the flux itself. See Christian, "Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past" in George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead; Essays on his Philosophy (Prentice-Hall, 1963), pp. 93-101.

27 Charters, pp. 87 -- 88.

28 Ibid., p. 89.

29 Ibid., p. 90.

30 Donald W. Sherburne, A Key To Whitehead’s Process and Reality (Chicago, 1981), p. 218.

31 Ibid., cited by Sherburne.

32 Olson, Special View, p. 35.

33 Paul, p. 28.

34 Charles Olson, "A Comprehension (a/ measure, that," in The Pacific Nation, no. 1,1967, p. 43, citing G. S. Kirk, Heraclitus, The Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 155-161 and 385-391.

35 Olson, Special View, p. 16.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., P. 45.

38 Ibid., p. 44.

39 Ibid., p. 47.

40 Ibid., p. 27

41 Don Byrd, Charles Olson’s Maximus (Illinois, 1980), p. 169.

42 Olson, Special View, p. 55.

43 Ibid., p. 53, the definition of mythology.

44 My colleague, Rob Dunham, a Coleridge and Keats man, drew my attention to the etymology of the word companion -- with bread.

45 Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson; The Scholar’s Art (Harvard, 1978), p.115.

46 Ibid.

47 Charles Olson, Selected Writings, ed. by Robert Creeley (New Directions, 1966), p. 93.

48 Olson, Special View, pp.57-6l.

49 Von Hallberg, p. 115.

50 Ibid., p. 125.

51 I must thank George Butterick for helping to decipher this notation.

52 This point is implied in Sherman Paul, op. cit., and also in Don Byrd’s important reading of the poem-structure of Maximus, op. cit.; see especially Charles Altieri "From Symbolist Thought to Immanance: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics" in Boundary 2, Spring, 1973, pp.605-641.

53 Charles Olson, Human Universe and other Essays, ed. by Donald Allen (Grove, 1967), p. 97.

54 Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (North Point, 1981), pp. 26-27.

55 Olson, Special View, pp. 26-27.

56 The 1929 Macmillan edition of Process and Reality includes this explanatory note by Whitehead at the end of the book (p. 546) under the heading "CORRIGENDA" (for p.459); it appears at the bottom of p.301 in the 1978 Corrected Edition (The Free Press), edited by Griffin and Sherburne.

57 Sherburne, Key, p. 244.

58 Butterick, Guide, pp. xxviii-xxix.

59 Williams, Essays, p. 281.

60 Sherburne, Key, p. 222.

61Note made by Olson in John Philip Cohane, The Key (Crown, 1969). The passage is also quoted in Boer, p. 134, where I first saw it.

62 Butterick, Guide, entries under Lake Van and Armenian. Butterick’s scholarship is an invaluable aid to readers of Olson.

63 The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed. by C.T. Onions (Oxford, 1966), entry under ‘stand.’

64 Copyright for "A Later Note on Letter #15" is held by The Charles Olson Estate. Copyrights for the "note" and for "When do poppies bloom" by the University of Connecticut.