Craig Stormont

Charles Olson:
The Political Ego Condemned

    Critics generally agree that Charles Olson's intention in The Maximus Poems is for Gloucester, Massachusetts to be interpreted as a microcosm of the world, but specific information concerning why he found it important to present it as such is lacking. In order to comprehend what Olson's objectives are in his epic, the important influence Alfred North Whitehead's interpretation of reality had on the poet must be taken into account. In Process and Reality, which Olson initially read in 1955, according to his editor George F. Butterick (Guide 358), Whitehead had argued that corporeal reality is shaped by an incalculable number of singular acts which define the aggregate in a constant process of "becoming." The central theme of Process and Reality is that our world, or nature itself, is a living organism characterized by interconnectedness. Olson's indictment of Gloucester's political leaders, whom he unequivocally accuses of marring the process, as defined by Whitehead, has been largely misinterpreted or ignored by critics in their analysis' of Olson's work. Olson focuses on Gloucester because it is both rich in history and where he was located while composing many of The Maximus Poems, but the political activities that were occurring there signify the ego-related flaws that remain systemic in the current American political scheme, and they are treated in his epic. The attack on "the lyrical interference of the ego" presented in "Projective Verse" extends well beyond the arena of poetry.

    Olson's promising, albeit brief career in Washington politics has received attention in the critical treatments of his work, and Tom Clark, in his biography of the poet, notes how Olson would tell stories of money being passed around in the capitol. In one instance, he details how a political lobbyist handed Olson an envelope with $5000 in it. Yet, conspicuously, mention of Olson's political involvement and activism upon his return to Gloucester after the closing of Black Mountain College is found nowhere in academic critiques of his work. The only source of information regarding Olson's political criticism during his later years is Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester, which clarifies his local political concerns after he returned to Gloucester, including many of his letters to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times. That book, which is edited by Peter Anastas, a native of Gloucester who knew Olson well, is currently out of print, yet it details Olson's legal battle to prevent a then newly legislated Urban Renewal policy from demolishing historic buildings in Gloucester. Much of Olson's energy was directed toward saving an area of scenic marshland from being filled in order to accommodate the expansion of a used car lot. Ironically, a sewage treatment plant now stands on that piece of land. Anastas, in his lengthy introduction, explains how Olson often resorted to litigation over these matters, once putting his own funds up as down payment toward the relocation of the Parsons-Morse house, one of Gloucester's oldest dwellings, to prevent its demolition. It is my contention that any critical work that fails to consider Olson's actions in this regard is inconclusive, to say the least. Olson was courageous for battling the local politicians who, arguably, were benefiting financially from instituting the Urban Renewal program, and the fact that he would often publish his home address in his published attacks on them underscores that view.

    Nowhere is Olson's poetic critique of Gloucester politicians, who serve as a microcosm of the postmodern partisan political system in its entirety, more evident than in "John Burke," which may be the most important single poem found in the first section of the Maximus sequence. That view is supported by the fact that George Butterick, Olson's student, close friend, and editor, prioritizes the poem in his Guide to The Maximus Poems . Included among photographs relevant to Olson's life and work are a newspaper article and a picture of two retiring Gloucester city councilors receiving "complimentary scrolls." The photograph seems out of place, and its inclusion can be interpreted as a suggestion on Butterick's part to the importance of the related poem. Butterick was certainly privy to information concerning Olson's objectives - perhaps more so than any other individual - and he includes the photo for a reason. Olson titles the poem after a politician who refused to celebrate the occasion:

John Burke did not rise

when Councilman Smith, nor had he signed

the complimentary scroll....

Staring into the torsion

Of his own face Burke

sat solid in

refusal (as,

in matters of the soul a private man

lives torn

by inspectio

and judicium, the judge

or mischievous woman

who make hob

of us) sweat, Burke

sweat, indubitoubly,

in his aloneness-or he'd not have said,

"I am no hypocrite"

Against the greased ways

of the city now (of the nation) this politician

himself a twisted animal

swelling of mouth, followed

by squirrels as pilot fish

himself a shark will not


the suave / the insolence

of agreement (The Maximus Poems 147)

The poem suggests that dirty politics are as prevalent in Gloucester as Olson had found them to be in Washington, but he does not provide his reader with a forthright explanation of exactly what has transpired. The "inspectio" and "judicium" that he mentions are Cartesian terms that Whitehead uses in Process and Reality (99-100) to denote intuition and inference, respectively, and Olson appears to be suggesting that his reader must use those tools in drawing their own conclusion. Olson wrote the poem in 1958, and his inclusion of the terms can be cited as evidence of the important role Whitehead was beginning to play in the development of his epic.

    Further analysis of the poem suggests that Benjamin Smith, one of the retirees who received a scroll, was aware of a wrongful act on Burke's part, and that he used the occasion of his own retirement to needle Burke in regard to it:

While he had to listen, Smith,

sticking it at him by that ease of charm

gets everyone to put up sodas

in Sterling Drug, have lunch

of halibut au gratin at

the tavern, and they all run

with their hands (give up their eyes)

to be pleased by the

please Mr. Smith tells fable, Soap

Esop of the present, of beast

a man turned into (Burke)

"Obsessed by fear," said Piety

with face of fat,

"worried his life away" (I can see Burke,

worrying - who knows a thing or two,

has written on his mouth of a weasel much

munching, a few places Smith

will never get into, who likes

long legs) Burke sat there and heard this parabolist

(the businessman is now the minister) go on

(The Maximus Poems 147-148)

The lines suggest that Smith was receptive to graft. It's worth noting that Smith was John F. Kennedy's roomate at Harvard while Olson was employed as a Teaching Assistant there. Olson gave the future president a "gentleman's C" on a term paper, according to Clark. Two days after Kennedy won the presidential election, Olson wrote a poem entitled "The Hustings" in which he tells Leroi Jones, now Amiri Baraka: "The future sucks." Smith filled Kennedy's spot in the Senate upon the latter's election to the White House. In the article that accompanied the photo of the retirees, included by Butterick in his Guide, it's revealed that Smith stared at Burke as he spoke of a man who was "crippled by his own fears" (200). Olson includes direct quotations from the article in the poem:

something frightful was going to happen

to him" (when surely,

by all the vetos

of his voting record Burke's


on what was happening

to the city, that it was being ribboned,

dolled up like Smith himself) "the fear,"

sd the ponderous Harvard fullback,

"the object of his fear" (Burke's fear)

"never came. The fear itself" (o city's

whore) "like a beast in the jungle,

devoured him" (what a morsel,

Burkey) "and he was unable"

(here we have it - city hall)

"to make any constructive


that you shall sit

and dwell until the judge

or goddess of all mischief

(she holds a city in her hair)

directs you to your life

(The Maximus Poems 148)

While the bulk of the poem is an exposition of what transpired at the retirement function, Olson castigates both Burke and Smith in the last five lines quoted. Butterick suggests that the goddess Olson mentions may serve as "any of the goddesses or great mothers, such as Cybele, who are protectoresses of cities and are represented with a city, its walls and turrets, for a crown" (201). Olson is clearly suggesting that Burke and Smith, as elected officials, have betrayed the trust of the community, and the entire poem serves as an inference to the flaws inherent in the partisan political scheme in the postmodern context. Burke and Smith are so involved in their feud and other private matters that their constituency in Gloucester is forgotten.

    Robert von Hallberg, in The Scholar's Art, lists John Burke as one of the heroes of The Maximus Poems , and he clearly errs in doing so. Olson, by including the terms "inspectio" and "judicium," obviously intends for his audience to read between the lines, but von Hallberg does not. He classifies Burke as a heroic figure because he "withdraws by silence from the greasy Gloucester City Council" (15), as Olson describes at the close of "John Burke":

Steele then asked for a rising vote

to pass the resolutions inscribed

upon the councillor's scroll

Every council member rose

except Burke, who remained in his chair,

staring at the table (The Maximus Poems 149)

Burke's refusal to sign Smith's scroll and stand at the end of the ceremony is indicative of what Olson disdains in regard to the post-modern democratic scenario. Politicians become adversarial, as a result of their own ego-driven agendas, and those who live and work side by side with a supposed shared sense of community, or the "polis," as Olson terms it, suffer as a result. Olson's own words dispel any attempt to interpret Burke as a hero. In "Human Universe," an essay that is integral to any comprehension of Olson's work, he states: "If there is any absolute, it is never more than this one: you, this instant, in action" (Selected 55). Burke's inaction at the City Council meeting renders it impossible to classify his actions, or the lack thereof, as heroic. If the reader follows Olson's directive and uses intuition in deciphering his poetic inferences, it can be deduced that each politician is aware of illicit acts on the other's part. When Olson's mention of a "mischievous woman," "long legs" and "city's whore" are considered, one can safely argue that he's suggesting that Burke was involved in some sort of indiscretion with a female. Smith may have become aware of it - "the object of his fear" - and used that knowledge as leverage in conducting his own misdeeds. Olson must be alluding to bribes when he states, "they all run with their hands (give up their eyes) to be pleased by the please Mr. Smith" (148). Burke's announcement that he's "no hypocrite" is laughable as far as Olson is concerned. His transgressions rendered him incapable of taking a stand against Smith's corrupt practices, and he is not redeemed. Burke's refusals at the ceremony are too little, too late.

    Field research I've conducted in Gloucester, including extensive discussions with Peter Anastas and poet Vincent Ferrini, to whom The Maximus Poems began as a series of letters, reveals that my assertions regarding the poem "John Burke" are correct. Mr. Anastas graciously provided me with a tour of Gloucester's City Hall, and I was quite surprised to see a large portrait of Olson - albeit a rather bad portrait - hanging outside the council's chamber. Inside, near where a photo of Smith hangs, he explained how Olson, who rose from a working class background, abhorred Kennedy-era democrats such as Smith. According to Anastas, Smith was born into wealth and privilege, much like Kennedy, and Olson disdained his political acts, which he interpreted as being motivated solely by his business interests. A clear parallel can be drawn between Smith and a current politician associated with the Halliburton Corporation, but I'll leave it to the reader to decipher that connection.

    In my discussions with Mr. Ferrini, he noted an incident in which he approached Smith about using a vacant building the latter owned as a theater. Smith declined, and Ferrini stated, "He just didn't care." The irrational degree of self-concern characterized by Smith epitomizes what Olson regards to be the greatest flaw in our partisan political system. When asked what Olson's opinion of Smith and Burke had been, Ferrini shouted, "He hated them." Burke is not quite the political "whore" that Smith may have been - selling his office at the expense of the polis - but the polis suffers equally by his inaction. By no means can he be classified as a hero.

    In a poem entitled "Political Ode 4," which is not included in The Maximus sequence, Olson refers to Smith and Burke again, and he mentions a "Federal rap" in regard to Burke. While researching Burke's activities in Gloucester, I uncovered the following information in the archives of the Gloucester Daily Times. It's from his obituary, January 5th, 1970: "In 1960 Burke was found guilty in Federal Court in Boston of income tax evasion and sentenced to a four month jail term and a fine of $2,500." Anastas notes that Burke rigorously stumped for George Wallace during the 1968 presidential campaign.

    Toward the end of his life, Olson noted changes in Gloucester, but they were not the type that he had hoped for. Much of his energy was directed toward saving two houses that remained from the Colonial period, but unfortunately, his efforts proved fruitless. In "December 18th," written in 1968, two years before his death, Olson laments the town's decision to demolish the Mansfield house in order to build a gas station:

And the rosy red is gone, the

2nd-3rd-story of

the Mansfield house, the darker

flower of the

street - oh Gloucester

has no longer a West

end. It is a

part of the

country now a mangled

mess of all parts swollen

& fallen


degradation, each bundle un-

bound and scattered

as so many

units of poor

sorts and strangulation all hung up each one

like hanged bodies

And suddenly even the sky itself, and the sea

is rummy too (nature is

effected by

men is no more

than man's

acquisition or improvement

of her - or at least his entrance

into her

picture. If he

becomes bad

husbandman she

goes away into

her unreflected

existence. (The Maximus Poems 597-98)

In one of the more pessimistic poems found in the Maximus sequence, Olson expresses genuine concern for man's reckless treatment of the environment, and where Gloucester is concerned, the politicians who implemented the Urban Renewal Plan are clearly guilty in that regard. Contrary to von Hallberg's assertion that Olson exhibits no "conservationist concerns" (122), the poet's own words suggest otherwise. Olson's infuriation concerning the deterioration of the quality of life that was occurring in Gloucester becomes clear when a portion of his letter published in the Gloucester Times on January 11, 1968 is considered:
Is there no sense in the City that her beauty, by nature, and the support of man, is not to be slashed and gone forever simply to accommodate business men, who are no matter how progressive and that virtue, also profit-makers and so immediately or eventually greedy. And devouring. I BEG AGAIN for action. (Guide 729)
The attack on commercialism expressed in "I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You," appears prophetic, as well as justified, in light of the problem he confronts in "December 18th." Sadly, Olson recognizes that his efforts to help Gloucester maintain its unique character have been dismissed by those in power:
down too, like the bricks


what was Main

street are now

fake gasoline station

and A&P supermarket


the fake

which covers the emptiness

in the loss

in the 2nd instance of the distraction. Gloucester too
is out of her mind and

is now indistinguishable from

the USA.

"We are not a narrow tribe of men ... we are not a nation, so much as a world."

H. Melville, Redburn (1849)

(The Maximus Poems 598-99)

In closing "December 18th" with the above Melville quotation, Olson's intent is to direct attention to the larger scheme of events. He is referring to the interconnectedness that Whitehead suggests, while acknowledging that Gloucester's new, "cheap" character has been influenced by that of the nation. Olson appears to be alluding to America's world influence through the Melville quote, and it serves to warn against the cheapening of the entire world. When the reaction to America's current political and cultural influence in other areas of the globe is considered, the value of Olson's warnings becomes clear.

    When one visits Gloucester today, it's obvious that a huge parking lot serving a Walgreen's in the center of town stands as an anomaly. The A+P mentioned by Olson in "December 18" previously occupied that site. Surprisingly, other than that, much of the character of Gloucester that Olson valued and fought for remains intact. According to Anastas, who recently retired as Director of Advocacy & Housing at Action, Inc., a local antipoverty agency which helps the underprivileged find affordable housing, Olson's battle with City Hall is a prime reason why most of Gloucester remains unchanged:

When Olson spoke of Gloucester as a "deleterious imitative

city," that was turning its back on its uniqueness in order to grab

onto whatever came down the pike of Route 128 in the form of

supermarket plazas, industrial "parks" and urban renewal - all

the suburban fads of the 1950's and 60's - he was really laying

the basis for an educated activism that so far today has prevented

the construction of a shopping mall in the heart of the working

waterfront and banned any new housing (read: luxury condo-

miniums) from this area, which has historically been devoted to

marine industrial uses. It is an activism that has seen the rise of

neighborhood protective associations over the past decade and the

demand for a completely revised and updated Master Plan for the

city's rational growth, the preservation of her heritage and the

assurance of a continued quality of life for her inhabitants. (68-69)

Olson's effect on Gloucester proves that Whitehead's definition of how reality is constructed is correct. In the same manner that harmful acts set off a chain reaction of more of the same, so can the good. To any who doubt the relevance of poetry, Olson serves as a contradiction. Current politicians could learn much from his example.