Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Interpretation and Discussion of Charles Olson's Poem "Maximus, to himself"

Maximus, to himself


I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.
The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man’s argument
that such postponement
is now the nature of
that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily

It could be, though the sharpness (the achiote)
I note in others,
makes more sense
than my own distances. The agilities

they show daily
who do the world’s
And who do nature’s
as I have no sense
I have done either

I have made dialogues,
have discussed ancient texts,
have thrown what light I could, offered
what pleasures
doceat allows

But the known?
This, I have had to be given,
a life, love, and from one man
the world.
But sitting here
I look out as a wind
and water man, testing
And missing
some proof

I know the quarters
of the weather, where it comes from,
where it goes. But the stem of me,
this I took from their welcome,
or their rejection, of me

And my arrogance
was neither diminished
nor increased,
by the communication


It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

Charles Olson, “Maximus, to himself” from The Maximus Poems. Copyright © 1987 by the Regents of the University of California.

What Maximus, to himself Means to Me.

Olson talks about learning the simplest things last. The older I get the more I feel like the simplest things are never learned, for instance, learning how to conduct relationships with others. Does one ever learn how to do this properly? I don’t think so. We all end up having disagreements with other people, sometimes arguments, and sometimes misunderstandings arising from poor communication or illogical inferences drawn from some expression, action or event. Often all these circumstances lead to estrangement for some period of time all the way to occasional termination of the relationship. In severe cases, they can lead to individuals isolating themselves from the world. The truth is, people don’t ever really fully learn how to relate to one another, and each of us only does so to varying degrees. Yet, relating to other people seems like it should be one of those “simplest” things to which Olson refers in the poem. Hence, it is, as he says in the opening of the poem, learned last.

The sea is a potent symbol in this poem. I believe it is a symbol for all of humanity. It is beautiful to see how he could use an event from his life to explain life and relationships. He tells us he had trouble getting a hand out or crossing a wet deck. These are specific tasks at sea. They are also symbols: getting one’s hand out a symbol of offering one’s hand to someone else in friendship or to help when they are in need, or to ask for help when one might be in need oneself. Crossing the wet deck could symbolize the ability to traverse difficulties in relationships when they arise.

Then, Olson redirects our attention. The sea wasn’t his actual trade he says. He suggests that, in reality, we do not deal with humanity as a whole. We deal with individuals, and especially those individuals who are in our immediate frame of reference. For Olson, that “immediate frame of reference” is larger than for most people because he was a writer, so his writing affected people far beyond the number of those he met and conversed with in person. Even at this, communicating with – and relating to and with – those people in his world, he says he was estranged as he was with regard to his understanding of how to really learn the art of interpersonal relationships. So, the art of relating to his audience of readers, was delayed – or to continue the metaphor, learned last (perhaps if learned at all).

Olson goes on to say that we are all late, suggesting that the problem of relating interpersonally is universal. He explains that not only are we late (to learn the lesson and art of relationships), but we (or he and his contemporaries in the early 50s when the Maximus poems were written) live in a slow time. He is suggesting an interesting juxtaposition here. The time was speeding up with the growth of post-WWII America, the rapid rise of a post war economic boom, the sprawl of cities into the suburbs, the proliferation of the automobile, and roadways and highways being built to link every corner of the US. Yet, Olson suggests that as everything was speeding up, we also experienced a slowing down of our interconnection - our ability to relate with and to one another. This is indicative of his ability to see estrangement and alienation in his world.

He also speaks briefly of a difference in self-perception. That is, Olson says we "grow up many and the single is not easily known." Here, again, he is referring to alienation in the world. He is also referring to the pressures of society which force conformity on the individual. A third interpretation offers itself as well, that is that we have many sides or aspects to our personalities, and for an individual to get to the root and see one's true or essential self - that single unifying part of us within the multifaceted personality, the many facades we present to the world as we try to fit into situations and groups - is a very difficult thing to do. In other words, we never really know ourselves.

He refers to a quality of achiote in others, in those who conduct business. The achiote is a plant which is indigenous to the tropical region of the American continent. One of its uses is as a spice/coloring agent to replace saffron in rice. It was a flavoring for a Yucatan drink. It was used as a paste to make body paint by Native Americans. It was used as a hair dye and also as a base for lipstick. This indicates he considered these others as people who colored their world, painted their world, flavored their world. They were, thus, an additive to his world like a spice, people whose influence nuanced everything in his world and were, consequently, beyond his ability to influence. He claimed they were agile in their ability to exert influence. He contrasted that with a view of himself which he says he could not say exhibited the same agility. There is a sense of his feeling of being late to understand how to relate to his world with the kind of agility that would have allowed him to be the same kind of spice, the same kind of flavoring and coloring which might have wielded a wider influence on his world.

Olson tells us he has had some small effect in presenting what he has learned. He has given lectures and written papers, etc., which he calls his doceat. Here, he refers to Pound’s Cantos and Pound’s use of the Latin word in the sense of to move, to teach or to delight. However, he is referring to these abilities only in terms of intellectual pursuits, to ideas, to affairs of the mind. Conversely, with regard to what he calls the known, a word he is using to symbolize the physical world and life with and among people in a tangible sense, meaning interpersonal relationships as opposed to intellectual pursuits, he reaffirms his lack of confidence and adds the observation that he came late to understand it. He lets us know that life and love came to him, more as a gift than as an active process in which he took part. He speaks of past experience as tokens, meaning symbols of the life lived, but not the direct expression of life.

Next, he calls himself wind and water. These are two pliable things which, however, are capable of causing very slow erosion upon the land. In the sense of their being pliable, meaning they can be resisted, dammed, walled out, guided into specific channels and withstood, he indicates that he is missing the proof of his ability to affect and influence his world and to impart some real sense of himself on others interpersonally. However, in the sense that they cause slow erosion, he may be inferring that his work might have a more lasting quality with the effect of influencing future generations more than his contemporary world. He knows the weathers and where they come from. In other words, he knows acceptance and rejection when he meets it. And as a consequence of rejection and acceptance of his work or himself in interpersonal relationships, he says, the world determined his worth by the acceptance and rejection it expressed toward him. This is what he means when he uses the symbol, “the stem of me.” It is his essential self but not his view of himself. He accepts society's view of him as society's view. But, his arrogance, meaning his self-worth, he says, was not affected by others’ opinions regarding him or society's perception of his worth to the world.

He concludes on a hopeful note. He says that the business of his relationship to humanity (the sea) is unfinished business. The sea stretches out before his feet. In other words, he is still alive, so still working on his relationship with the world. He is still offering his work to the world. He continues to strive to impart his unique impact on the world. Hence, the future is undefined, and whatever will be his ultimate effect on the world is yet to be determined. He still has time to learn the lesson of relationships, both interpersonal and with humanity as a whole. So, the lesson comes late in life, indeed. He infers it is not complete as long as one is still living.

This means a lot to me, as an older man still trying to learn how to conduct interpersonal relationships as well as feeling inadequate in my ability to either accept or offer the deepest levels of connection in interpersonal relationships. At the same time, as a man who is only now, at 57 years of age, trying to pursue a career as a writer and to conduct a dialogue with the world, with humanity as a whole, I can take heart in Olson’s final optimism. There is still time for me to begin and enter into this relationship with the world and with people individually through interpersonal relationships. I can still hope to offer my doceat from my learning and perspective. I can still be a pinch of achiote on the world. Nothing is defined. The fulfillment of interpersonal relationships and a dialogue with humanity still loom as possible.


NerdMama said...

I can't believe no one has commented this in all these years. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection- it really helped me feel a lot more connected to some pieces of the poem I was having trouble understanding.

Don Coorough said...

Thank you, NerdMama, for your kind words and your interest in my commentary as well as Charles Olson's poeetry.