At the Boundary of the Mighty World: Charles Olson and Hesiod

By Carlson, Gary Grieve | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2014 | Go to article overview

At the Boundary of the Mighty World: Charles Olson and Hesiod


Carlson, Gary Grieve, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Despite his well-known dismissal of the classical Greek tradition, Charles Olson alludes to Hesiod surprisingly often in his poetry and prose. This essay asks why Olson found Hesiod useful and suggests that earlier critics have misread the nature of Olson's relationship to Hesiod.

I was very lucky once to have what poets call visions.

--Charles Olson, Muthologos

A central poet in Don Allen's influential 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, Charles Olson (1910-70) is best known for his 1950 manifesto "Projective Verse" (Prose 239-49) and his three-volume epic, The Maximus Poems. His poetry can seem dauntingly obscure, at least at first reading, and his allusions rival Ezra Pound's in the demands they place on their reader. For example, near the end of the first volume of The Maximus Poems, which up to that point has focused almost entirely on Gloucester, Massachusetts, readers encounter the fines "step off the/ Orontes onto land no Typhon" (155). In his indispensable Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, George Butterick offers a helpful gloss: the Orontes is a river in Syria, site of the battle between Zeus and the monster Typhon (217-18). What must have seemed a mysterious yet minor tangent to readers of that first volume takes on greater significance in volume two, where Hesiod--who is our earliest source for the Zeus-Typhon battle--provides important source material for such major poems as "MAXIMUS, FROM DOGTOWN--I" and "MAXIMUS, FROM DOGTOWN--IV," as well as other poems in volumes two and three, including the poem from which this essay takes its title.

Olson's interest in Hesiod may seem surprising in light of his critique of classical Greek metaphysics in his essay "Human Universe," his insistence at the end of "The Kingfishers" that "I am no Greek," or his criticism of Ezra Pound in the Mayan Letters for "staying] inside the Western Box" (Writings 129). Olson's interest in ancient history is focused almost entirely outside the "Western Box," on such peoples as the Hittites or the Phoenicians, but not on the Greeks. Charles Boer tells us that Olson tried to persuade him to drop his doctoral work on Euripides's The Bacchae and focus instead on the second millennium BCE (57-58). "No Greek will be able/to discriminate my body," writes Olson in The Maximus Poems (184-85), and it comes as no surprise that in two of the book-length studies of Olson--Paul Christensen's and Eniko Bollobds's--we find no entry for Hesiod in the index. Yet in a 1966 documentary Olson says, "that goddamn beautiful poet, who I think is the greatest poet now for us is Hesiod" (Muthologos 215), which is quite high praise. In a 1968 letter to Donald Sutherland (the translator of The Bacchae, not the actor), Olson writes that Hesiod "bears home where it seems to me the Huge Division of today itself does (not) reach. [...] Hesiod gives that other side" (Letters 392, emph. Olson's), and in his 1968 "Poetry and Truth" lectures, Olson refers to Herodotus as "the other Greek of myself beside Hesiod" (Muthologos 250). We also find references to Hesiod in Olson's cryptic deathbed essay, "The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum." So quite clearly, Hesiod matters to Olson, but how and why? What does Hesiod mean for him? How does he find Hesiod useful?

Olson purchased an edition of Hesiod as early as 1948, though Ralph Maud speculates that Olson does not turn seriously to his "much annotated" Loeb edition of Hesiod until the composition of the first "MAXIMUS, FROM DOGTOWN" poems in 1959 (80, 306). I suspect that Maud is correct because Olson misremembers the title of Hesiod's Works and Days in a 1950 letter to Jay Leyda--"the WORK of the DAYS, in Hesiod's beautiful title, which, by the way, he acquired from the Hebrews!" (Letters 116) /1/--and in his 1952 essay "The Present is Prologue," in which he confuses the Works and Days with the Theogony: "Didn't Hesiod call his genealogy of the gods and men 'the work of the days? …

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