Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Olson's Prosody

My focus is Olson’s prosody. I will scant his poetics in all of the scope that obtains there. I will offer a close reading of the prosodic properties of two specific texts drawn from the first volume of The Maximus Poems. My intention is an analytical discussion of the prosody that shapes the work on these pages. The poems follow one another and are not composed as letters, the dominant form of the surrounding material. They are: “Maximus to himself” and “The Song and Dance of.” Perhaps “monolog” and “dance” are “modes” distinct from “letters” or “transcriptions” or other genres that may be identified with The Maximus Poems. In any case, dance and reflective monolog constitute lyrical gestures within the body of the epic. The texts that I have chosen for this talk are poems of self-discovery, teaching exercises, in which the poet shares crucial life lessons. I contend that the prosody used in these poems embodies the lyrical heart of Olson’s method. It is more conservative and more formal than the expressions of spontaneity often associated with composition by field. They are nonetheless “open” or obedient to their own processes with respect to content and duration.


Content is an aspect of composition that for Olson constitutes “quantity” and “quantity” is a prosodic term for Olson as much as it may have been for Samuel Daniel:


Her smiles are lightning though her pride despair,
And her disdains are gall, her favours honey;

                                                from Delia VI: Fair is my love, and cruel as she's fair


Quantity “hovers,” Olson writes. Works employing quantitative measures like Shakespeare’s last plays “have their power straight from the element they move in, that they displace” (“Quantity in Verse,” CP 271). Displacement, duration, and accentuation are the basis of Olson’s prosody. An energy associated with syllables and words passes through the line enunciating emergent or immanent meanings. Prosody maps this enunciative force at the level of the line, segment, strophe, or field, providing a means of both analyzing and articulating meaning.


Olson’s ear is physically attuned to the sense of balance, “proprioception.” He had some training in modern dance and, in “Tyrian Business,” he  promised to rehearse the lesson of “how to dance sitting down.” Dance, by means of both analogy and practice, is the classical source of our notion of the poetic foot or measure. The directions, as prescribed in “The Song and Dance of” are clear “go / nor right nor left” for otherwise “they’ll get you.” The emphasis is on balance, distinguishing the indicated step from waltzing around or the hokey pokey. Measures, he insists, are not for “social purposes,” although it is an anti-war poetics that is here choreographed, one that involves games of cowboys and Indians as well the solemnities of little girls strewing flowers over graves and caskets. “The Song and Dance of” insists on kinetic and physical pleasures of a tropical or Mediterranean order. The poem addresses the pleasure, of eating a sun ripened orange, “they taste sweet sweet sweet” as opposed to those “debouched” by refrigerator cars. The language is a response to William Carlos Williams’ “Plums.”

Olson proposes neither an imagism, for “pictures” can be subverted for consumerist purposes, nor a visual prosody like Williams’ where lines float step-wise toward resolution. The objective is to experience the body as a presence open to stimuli, so that “the nerve ends /stay open.” His prosody offers a cure for the paranoid body. “Maximus, to himself” begins with allusion to the off-balance unease felt when crossing “a wet deck” and concludes with a perspective of stance, a purposeful poetics, “with the sea / stretching out / from my feet.”

The paranoid body is both ours and his. Nothing in of all of Olson’s poetry masks with such lyrical sweetness, macabre realities, as the lines that invoke the corpse of Jean Harlow, her body eternalized by photography in the Sunday supplement and by the care given it by the  undertaker’s art.


Now all lie

as Miss Harlow

as Sunday supplement mammoths

in ice, as there used to be



as ugly as Jericho’s

First Citizens, kept there


as skulls, the pink semblance


painted back on, as though they were once,

and they were, Leaders

of the people


with shells for eyes

As she lies, all



I began these investigations when I first noticed the use of rhyme and assonance on these pages: trade /delayed and argument / postponement in the first lines of “Maximus, to himself” and eyes /lies, slant rhyme: shells / all, assonance: shells /she in the just cited example.

The texture of all twelves lines in the “Jean Harlow sample” is incredibly dense with prosodic effects of a lyrical order, suggesting one of Ariel’s songs in The Tempest. “full fathom five / thy father lies.” The measures lilt as in song, “Now all lie,” others “hover” before finding due stress, “painted back on, as though they were once.” Two stresses and then a floating passage before the line ends, if it does end. The motion favoring  enjambment is strong.


painted back on, as though they were once,

and they were, Leaders

of the people


There is no better primer for Olson’s use of both enjambment and differently configured line breaks than the lessons offered by the offset passage addressing the corpse of Jean Harlow. Enjambment is an effect of duration, torqued by the effects of accentuation that fall at the end of a line. Relations between duration and stress are crucial to any definition of the line, either in post-Black-Mountain or post-language-centered traditions.  

Eight of twelves lines in the Harlow sample end with a strong syllable. And two of the unstressed final syllables are near rhymes: “semblance” and “once.” The measures employed create a steadily rising rhythm.

Simple line breaks without marked enjambment occur when a line whose final syllable is stressed leads to a line that begins with an unstressed syllable—this is true of the first four lines.

Now all lie

as Miss Harlow


as Sunday supplement mammoths

in ice, as there used to be



More difficult to navigate or articulate is the case of a line ending with a strong syllable followed by a line beginning with a strong syllable. Olson hammers on this device, as a guitarist might, when line four bridges to line five: “be / waxworks.” “waxworks,” to my ear, offers an instance of a true spondee, very rare in English (according to Yvor Winters). And now we have three stresses in a row, though perhaps not of equal value. The pause after “be” enables this possibility of articulation. It’s fun. I respond to Olson’s artfulness with a smirk of glee.

There are at least two instances where a soft fall at the end of one line leads to a soft start for the next: There // as” and “leader / of.” Quantity, it can be said, as opposed to stress, is at play in these instances. The mechanics of accentuation enjambment, stress and slide, or simply duration offer three modalities for the line in the postmodern lyric.

Lines such as these from Lisa Samuels' Gender City evoke similar approaches to duration:

About this time the overlay of law on skin was

very pleased to greet you. About this time of truth

on guess. We hadn’t made the map yet on the dove

flesh of her very streets whose treats were gliding

honey over lips on tandem eyes in windows licked.


In “skin was / very pleased,” a lightly stressed off beat “was” leads to a lightly stressed “very.” The effect for me is to force “was” to carry more weight than it might otherwise, to occupy a space of “dynamic duration.” “dove / flesh” where two stressed syllables follow one another, bridging the end of a line, also has an effect that I measure in terms of duration. The use of slant rhyme and assonance also reminds me of Olson’s practice.

For an example of a prosody perhaps typifying Olson’s long-line, breath poetics, I turn to the fifth line of The Song and Dance of

the wild / clementine, the coarse hair in the middle, and the rest of the bundle / half a peyote bean

The syntax here is formulaic and paratactic. The beat hovers over the length of the line. The use of enjambment enacts what Pierre Joris, following Paul Celan, calls a breath turn. The reference of the “it” in the previous line is unclear.

in the middle, where they’ll get you, the “Germans” / will, if you use it for social purposes, the wild

Does “it” refer backwards to some game involving the “Germans” and childhood fantasy or does it refer forwards to the bundle and the peyote ceremony. Likely forwards as the ritual use of sacred substances may better serve spiritual than social purposes. A whole range of arguments about ceremony and ritual purposes could be evoked. I refrain. In any case, this line is an example of  squinting syntax, not uncommon throughout Maximus. The “projective” method is best suited to state a perception instead of a solution. It often squints. Many levels of meaning are elided in the just cited passage as opposed to the emotional force (enunciative force) of largely stunned, but melancholic distaste that I derive from the highly constructed “Jean Harlow” segment.

I turn now to other indications of Olson’s constructivist purposes on these pages. I look again at “Maximus to himself.” I hear choral elements of an antiphonal order when I scan these pages. Consider how the left-hand margins of each column register two strands, interwoven by sound and with meanings both shifting and eliding over line breaks independent of the columnar appearance of the words on the page. These staggered columns represent a compositional device of an antiphonal order. Such compositional devices have a weight as great or greater than projective verse understood as a breath poetics and evidenced by the scaled scatter of lines across the page. Consider the enjambments and stress in short line of “fivers,” a formulaic or constructivist device used often by Olson in The Maximus Poems and acknowledged in Causal Mythology as the back bone of “Some Good News.” The scattered phrases of Pounds, Pisan Cantos, more nearly mime scored speech than do Olson’s “fivers” and other uses of short strophes arranged in columns. 4, 5, or 6 short lines, such strophes are common on the pages of Maximus, to himself” and “The Song and Dance of .” The topic here is the “agilities”

they show daily

who do the world’s


And who do nature’s

as I have no sense

I have done either


Are these the new hexameters or pentameters in the case of a “fiver”? The rhythm is rising with two exceptions “businesses” and “I have done either.” Each line has a unique array of stresses. The accents that I hear falling on “sense” and “done” are very strong, almost twinned. The chanting of “I” in the last two lines of the quoted strophe, sliding into “I” in the first line of the next strophe, “I have made dialogues” is to my ear calculated for prosodic effect, intermixing the bodies of each strophe as in a form of enjambment.

Olson may have had reason not to copy the Pound in the use of spacing derived from the typewriter at least here in these passages although he does advocate such spacing in “Projective Verse.” Instead he mastered the prosodic subtleties of enjambment, duration and accentuation that I have been discussing. Of course, visually composed pages occurring further on in the text, have effects and value as concrete or visual poetry, a tradition descending from Mallarme and Apollinaire as much as from Pound. But, again, in visually coherent pages like “Maximus, to himself,” layout is purposeful and not in any sense particularly projective. In any case, the use of white space and typographic innovation only begins in Book V of Maximus III, IV, V.

Another device often in play on the pages under examination is the use of the “clincher,” a rhetorical device used for polemical purposes, emphasizing a lesson or precept. So too the two lines at the terminus of a Shakespearean sonnets offer other examples or what was once called a “moral.” It is even possible to argue that each section within each poem, page, or letter ends with some form of climax that resolves the dynamics in play, a purposefully constructed chord or musical resolution, supported by a poetically dense use of verbal attributes at the foot of each section. And yet the pressure to find the right note often propels the poem forward.


For instance, the strophes employed in the first part of “Maximus to himself” are the indexes or parameters of a scaled process. Taken one by one: “Maximus to himself” consists of 10 strophes, separated from one another visually in one of two ways: indentation as is the case with the first three strophes or a combination of carriage return and indentation as is the case of the remaining strophes. The carriage returns may indicate a degree of silence although the grammar runs through the line ends and strophic demarcations whether of not there is a carriage return, so we have “obedience, / that” and “The agilities / / they show.”


If we discount the value of carriage returns for the moment, the poem will be seen as having two fairly precisely mirrored elements: the pattern of the first 17 lines, repeats in the lines running from “I have made” through “some proof.” Even the caesura like function that follows “a wet deck” in the first strophe is mirrored by the pause that follows “doceat allows” no period, marking the pause here, but perhaps that function, a need for measured pause, is served by the carriage return. A mirroring contrived with some precision is an undeniable aspect of the composition. The strophes beginning with “I have had to learn the simplest things” are reflected point for point by the strophes beginning “I have made dialogs.” The brief section, numbered 2, functions as a climax or grand chord to the antiphony of the columnar first part (and it is a “fiver”).


A further analysis of the relation between strophes in the first part: notice that the second strophe indicates that “estrangement” and “delay” are countervailing aspects of “obedience.” The poet seeks a knowledge associated with the single and purposeful not the suasion of the “many.” In turn, the indented strophe answers the first two strophes, generalizes employing a “we” instead of “I.” In relation to the first three strophes, strophes four and five create a conjunctive synthesis to use Deleuze’s terms rather than a disjunctive synthesis. The relation of three to one and two was, I think, disjunctive, marking a separation. Strophes six and seven. beginning “I have made dialogues,” return to the theme of what the poet has done in his estrangement from the many. Strophe eight is disjunctive, a conclusion that does not follow. Nine and ten are both antiphonal and conjunctive, laying out the poet’s arrogance.


I am arguing is that composition in some sense precedes breathing or singing rather than serving as only a record of how a spontaneously delivered text was once performed. I am distinguishing between composition and performance, a difference that Olson masks purposefully in “Projective Verse.”


Is the movement of enjambment and associated effects of duration, a movement of knowledge or a movement of doubt? What is resolved by  embracing uncertainty and sketching its outline? “Doubt is the ornamentation of melancholy,” writes Lisa Robertson.  Is the movement through these choric strophes melancholic?  Notice the strophes of my second selection, “Maximus, to himself,” also create a measured and antiphonal dance across the page. When enjambment and duration occur, as opposed to emphatic line breaks, do we grasp the contours of knowledge or doubt? I think doubt.  

“Without edge or frame,” Robertson writes in Niling, “the unstable space that is melancholy intuits propositions about change, propositions that begin the scattering and smashing and remixing of the knowledge of the body or the polis”(54).

Marks of unstable space:

It is undone business

I speak of, this morning,

with the sea

stretching out

from my feet.


He also writes “I have made dialogues,” implying his work is speaking rather than acting in the world as a fisherman does. He frames his words in terms of pleasure and love and loss. Even “ironic loss” in the case of Jean Harlow. Olson’s thought maps duration and stress, shaping the receding and inward space of melancholia. Is it only wistfulness on my part that ornamentation has become inseparable from meaning?

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