The Maximus Poems
- here's a stack of them. How, how well, do they represent social/city life? How well do they evoke "utopia"? quick notes:
Cantos have a sort of tragic grandeur, as well as a hectic energeia which sometimes captures the quick rough quiddity of experience, the plunging violent unpredictability of urban reality. Also a practiced lyrical-cantando-enchantment, esp. describing nature, feminine allure. Still, as Olson pointed out long ago, the backward-looking antiquarian preciosity, as well as the authoritarian politics, push the Cantos toward a sort of ever-living obsolescence.
The Bridge, in my view anyway, succeeds pretty well in blending lyric proportion, emblematic history, and Gotham immediacy (the Joycean day's dream-journey of the narrator) - so that the reading experience itself reproduces its locale (how shall I put this: when you read The Bridge, you have the pleasant sensation of being-in-NYC-reading-The Bridge. Sort of Borgesian, that way). Its technique, however, is refined and ironic - so that much is left out which its competitors here try to include (there's a study on puns in The Bridge, though, which argues that a lot of that excluded mundaneity comes back in by the back door. Paul Giles, Hart Crane : the contexts of The Bridge). Crane's trans-chronological "Atlantis" is a sort of poetic summation of 1920s "Our America" idealism. Still beautiful & hopeful.
Paterson is best of these in evoking city as a collective-psychic organism, where drab dailiness overlays historical-geological fragments & dreams, an arena of contingencies & possibilities. WCW's sharp eye & humor help, but for me the language is too flat & derivative to be very moving, & his cautious analytical bent doesn't do much for me, though others will savor the stringent-sour critical awareness of this social & egalitarian poet. His empathy often strikes me as tepid & careful, the attitude of the professional medical man (many will disagree). He also tries too hard & too obviously to remodel his models (Eliot, Pound).
Maximus Poems. When Olson tries to improve on his masters - Pound, WCW - he often does so. He's a genius at turning the obscure historical footnote into both vivid fragment and portentous psychic extrusion-symbol. Better than the rest is the feel for working-class poverty, necessity, & odd moments of liberation. Olson really does succeed at turning a literary mask into an emblem of some vast cosmic order. Where he loses me, most of the time, is with his actual language use. The personality that comes across sometimes - overbearing, pompous, pretentious, eccentric, sneering, vulgar - seems like a weird oedipal reaction to Pound & Literature - an effect like a bad habit, rather than a genuine reflection of Olson the better man. But it's off-putting, and for me, gives sign of minor rather than major poetry. Olson was a kind of hero, in a heroic & lonely struggle for origination & powerful mantic speech - but I wonder if he was up to the battle he chose.
"A" - I haven't read this carefully enough to say much. Zukofsky has an incredible ear for rhythm & sound on the syllabic level. Using it, he takes the civic and the utopian experience and - taking direction from Pound & Joyce & going much further - internalizes, subjectifies those experiences. A sort of quasi-Orphic process, I think: reality is completely absorbed into A-Z's limping, limpid, familial-household mumbling. What bothers me about it is precisely what made Z. appeal to the postmoderns : the turn to pure sound, the recherche Mallarmean-Symbolist aestheticism. Its action is almost diametrically reverse to that of The Bridge : whereas the latter incorporates the reader into an imaginary NYC-America, the former absorbs all things - the world, the reader - into Zukofsky-sound.