Essay on Poetic Theory

Projective Verse (1950)

by Charles Olson
It is projective size that the play, The Trojan Women,[20] possesses, for it is able to stand, is it not, as its people do, beside the Aegean—and neither Andromache or the sea suffer diminution. In a less “heroic” but equally “natural” dimension Seami causes the Fisherman and the Angel to stand clear in Hagoromo.[21] And Homer, who is such an unexamined cliché that I do not think I need to press home in what scale Nausicaa’s girls wash their clothes.

Such works, I should argue—and I use them simply because their equivalents are yet to be done—could not issue from men who conceived verse without the full relevance of human voice, without reference to where lines come from, in the individual who writes. Nor do I think it accident at that, at this end point of the argument, I should use, for examples, two dramatists and an epic poet. For I would hazard the guess that, if projective verse is practiced long enough, is drive ahead hard enough along the course I think it dictates, verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans. But it can’t be jumped. We are only at hits beginnings, and if I think that the Cantos make more “dramatic” sense than do the plays of Mr. Eliot, it is not because I think they have solved the problem but because the methodology of the verse in them points a way by which, one day, the problem of larger content and of larger forms may be solved. Eliot is, in fact, a proof of a present danger, of “too easy” a going on the practice of verse as it has been, rather than as it must be, practiced. There is no question, for example, that Eliot’s line, from “Prufrock”[22] on down, has speech-force, is “dramatic,” is, in fact, one of the most notable lines since Dryden. I suppose it stemmed immediately to him from Browning, as did so many of Pound’s early things. In any case Eliot’s line has obvious relations backward to the Elizabethans, especially to the soliloquy. Yet O. M. Eliot is not projective. It could even be argued (and I say this carefully, as I have said all things about the non-projective, having considered how each of us must save himself after his own fashion and how much, for that matter, each of us owes to the non-projective, and will continue to owe, as both go alongside each other) but it could be argued that it is because Eliot has stayed inside the non-projective that he fails as a dramatist—that his root is the mind alone, and a scholastic mind at that (no high intelletto despite his apparent clarities)—and that, in his listenings he has stayed there where the ear and the mind are, has only gone from his fine ear outward rather than, as I say a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama, has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all acts spring.

 

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
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Biography

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 . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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