Essay on Poetic Theory

Projective Verse (1950)

by Charles Olson


Charles Olson’s influential manifesto, “Projective Verse,” was first published as a pamphlet, and then was quoted extensively in William Carlos Williams’ Autobiography (1951). The essay introduces his ideas of “composition by field” through projective or open verse, which is a continuation of the ideas of poets Ezra Pound, who asked poets to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome,” and William Carlos Williams, who proposed in 1948 that a poem be approached as a “field of action.” Olson’s projective verse focuses on “certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings.”

Composition by field opposes the traditional method of poetic composition based on received form and measure. Olson sees the challenge of the transference of poetic energy from source to poem to reader, and the way in which that energy shifts at each juncture, as particularly of concern to poets who engage in composition by field, because the poet is no longer relying on a received structure as a propulsive force.

Harnessing poet Robert Creeley’s assertion that “form is never more than an extension of content” and Edward Dahlberg’s belief that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception,” Olson argues that the breath should be a poet’s central concern, rather than rhyme, meter, and sense. To listen closely to the breath, Olson states, “is to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.” The syllable and the line are the two units led by, respectively, the ear and the breath:

“the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”

Olson argues against a lazy reliance on simile and description, which can drain a poem of energy, and proposes that syntax be shaped by sound rather than sense, with nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means.

In conclusion, Olson suggests a movement he calls “objectism,” which he defines as “the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul [. . .] For man is himself an object.” At the close of the essay Olson expresses the hope that projective verse has the increased capacity needed to carry epic works, and indeed Olson began work on his epic project, The Maximus Poems, that year.

PROJECTIVE                                                                           VERSE[1]



                                       (projectile          (percussive          (prospective


                                      The NON-Projective


(or what a French critic[2] calls “closed” verse, that verse which print bred and which is pretty much what we have had, in English & American, and have still got, despite the work of Pound & Williams:

it led Keats, already a hundred years ago, to see it (Wordsworth’s, Milton’s) in the light of “the Egotistical Sublime”;[3] and it persists, at this latter day, as what you might call the private-soul-at-any-public-wall)

Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings. (The revolution of the ear, 1910,[4] the trochee’s heave,[5] asks it of the younger poets.)

I want to do two things: first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished; and II, suggest a few ideas about what stance toward reality brings such verse into being, what the stance does, both to the poet and to his reader. (The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to a new poetics and to new concepts from which some sort of drama, say, or of epic, perhaps, may emerge.)


First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the “old” base of the non-projective.

(1) the kinetics of the thing.[6] A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is the third term, will take away?

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. (It is much more, for example, this push, than simply such a one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: “the musical phrase,”[7] go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome.)

(2) is the principle, the law which presides conspicuously over such composition, and, when obeyed, is the reason why a projective poem can come into being. It is this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley,[8] and it makes absolute sense to me, with this possible corollary, that right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand.) There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE.  

Now (3) the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg[9]): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!

So there we are, fast, there’s the dogma. And its excuse, its usableness, in practice. Which gets us, it ought to get us, inside the machinery, now, 1950, of how projective verse is made.



Charles Olson, “Projective Verse” from Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, published by the University of California Press. Copyright © the Estate of Charles Olson. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Charles Olson.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

Poetry is looking for thought-provoking responses to work published in the magazine, as well as letters that raise new questions about the state of contemporary poetry. To send us your letter, please fill out all the fields below.

If we choose to use your letter, we will notify you by phone. If you have not heard from us within two weeks of sending your letter, you may assume we will not be using it. All letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may appear online, in print, or both.

Please do NOT send poetry submissions to this account. See Submission Guidelines for further information and policies regarding poetry submissions.


* All fields are required


Audio Article Events


Charles Olson was an innovative poet and essayist whose work influenced numerous other writers during the 1950s and 1960s. In his influential essay on projective (or open) verse, Olson asserts that "a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.