Hunting among Stones

How a trip to dig in Mexico’s Mayan ruins transformed Charles Olson's writing.

“I find it awkward to call myself a poet or a writer,” Charles Olson wrote in his 1952 essay “The Present Is Prologue.” It was a potentially surprising admission for the 41-year-old Olson at the time. He had already published his first collection of poems, Y&X, and an extended critical essay on Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael. Most important, two years earlier he had published “Projective Verse” a manifesto that helped define postmodern poetics and sealed his reputation as a theoretical heavyweight. In “Projective Verse,” Olson declared the poem as “energy transferred from where the poet got it…by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.” William Carlos Williams referred to “Projective Verse” as a “keystone” of contemporary poetics and reprinted part of it in his Autobiography. Olson, who taught at the experimental Black Mountain College, became one of the leaders of the school’s eponymous poets, which included Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, and Jonathan Williams.

If “poet” didn’t quite fit Olson’s idea of who he was and the nature of his work, what did? In typical Olsonian fashion, the answer would prove to be as inventive as it would be challenging. Olson, a larger-than-life figure whose intellect matched his outsized 6-foot-7 frame, was not satisfied with simply writing. For him, it was also crucial to define the poet’s philosophical point of view. In “The Present Is Prologue,” he continued discussing his struggle over nomenclature: “If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.” Olson came to “archaeologist of morning” after going on a unusual adventure that enabled him to cast off the mantles of “poet” and “writer” and to arrive at this surprising and lyrical description of his vocation and its larger reason for being.

“I am leaving tonight for my first vacation in 7 yrs.,” Olson wrote on Jan 15, 1951, to Rainer Gerhardt, his German translator for Call Me Ishmael. “(On top of that it will be the 1st time I have been out of the States in 22 years!)!” Olson’s excitement is infectious. He and his wife Connie were heading to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for a trip that had been delayed due to his mother’s death the previous month. As Olson and Connie made their journey via train and freighter to the Yucatán, there could be no doubt that his mother—his direct, personal conduit to the past—was on his mind. (Olson’s father had died when he was in his 20s.) But an older, more distant past also preoccupied Olson and he hoped to get down to its roots quite literally. He was setting out to dig.

Olson settled in coastal Lerma with one ambition: to work as an archaeologist in the area’s Mayan ruins. The self-taught archaeologist Olson labored not only as the amateur does—for love—but also as a poet. How would a poet practice archaeology then, you might ask? Olson’s 1956 essay on prosody, titled “A Foot Is to Kick With,” provides some clues. In it, he describes trying to find the end of a poem:

You wave the first word. And the whole thing follows. But—
You follow it. With a dog at your heels, a crocodile about to eat you at
the end, and you with your pack on your back trying to catch a butterfly.

Olson sounds as swashbuckling about writing as Indiana Jones (and a touch Nabokovian to boot).

The 1980s were not the first decade in which Americans became fascinated with archaeology. While interest in the field had existed since the late 19th century, in 1945, in Olson’s home state of Massachusetts, self-taught archaeologist Roland Wells Robbins unearthed the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, inspiring a wave of backyard imitators. Three years later, Hiram Bingham’s account of his discovery of Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas, became a bestselling book. Radiocarbon dating, which was introduced to the world in 1949, revolutionized the profession and further boosted its popularity. In 1954, Charlton Heston played the fedora-sporting Harry Steele, a character loosely based on Bingham (who some say also inspired George Lucas’s creation of Jones), in The Secret of the Incas. The film launched a wave of tourism to Peru. Closer to home, the number of American tourists visiting Mexico more than tripled from 1939 to 1951. As early as 1940, the Pemex Travel Club, Mexico’s equivalent of the American Automobile Association, began publishing guides to the country, including Archaeology in Mexico Today—a copy of which Olson owned, along with a variety of technical books on archaeology and Mayan language, history, and culture.

Even before his trip to the Yucatán, archaeological references were slipping into Olson’s work. His poem “The Moebius Strip,” which was included in Y&X, features a “stone-henge plain.” In his 1949 poem  “The Kingfishers” he wrote, “si j’ai du goût, ce n’est guères/que pour la terre et les pierres,” translated by Olson’s friend Robert Creeley as “If I have any taste, it is only for earth and stones.” The poem’s last line is the evocative and elegiac “I hunt among stones.” Among the Mayans’ stones, Olson hunted language.

Olson and Connie, now pregnant, settled into a house with a white terrazza overlooking the sea. Their funds were scarce, but the rum was cheap. The Yucatán in 1951 was nothing like the high-rise-lined mass-tourism destination it is today. “[J]ee-zus—it’s handsome,” Olson wrote to Creeley. He marveled at the birds and brightness of the stars and planets, especially Venus (“she gives you the jimmies…”). At night there was “not a sound but dogs.” After making an arduous trek alone to see some ruins 200 kilometers away from Lerma, Olson wrote, “And the craziest of it, being, put up, the night before last in a jail!” (One hopes he did not actually spend this night behind bars.)

For six months, Olson spent his days practicing his DIY archaeology “in the field, away from people, working around stones in the sun, putting my hands in to the dust and fragments and pieces.” He unearthed potsherds, a carved thighbone, and the head of an owl idol. According to Olson biographer Tom Clark, Olson kept the owl head at his writing desk, and eventually used the artifact to stash his drugs. Clark provides no specifics here, but Olson was one of many artists of his era who experimented with mind-altering substances as a means of enhancing their work. (Along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Olson was one of Timothy Leary’s early 1960s psychedelic research volunteers.)

Archaeological fieldwork involves gathering and analyzing physical evidence to learn about the past. It’s slow, monotonous work that is significantly less dramatic and exciting than the activities the field’s fictional counterparts engage in on the big screen. But this approach to history had great appeal for the theoretically driven Olson, who held strong beliefs about history—or “’istorin,’” a term he borrowed from Herodotus. In his epic The Maximus Poems, which he began just before arriving in the Yucatán, he wrote in“Letter 23,”

I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said…

As “kinetics” drove Olson’s poems, his idea of history and its role in poetry was grounded in activity and exploration or “a finding out for him or her self.” One cannot help but note the similarity between the terms “fieldwork” and “composition by field,” the expression for writing Olson developed in “Projective Verse.” He was thereby well suited for archaeology, which demands heavy scholarship, a certain level of intimacy (or tedium) with landscape, and a willingness to dirty one’s hands with the muck of history, physically and theoretically.

Olson took to the profession’s demands with alacrity. He pored over dictionaries and scholarly texts concerning the details of Mayan culture, which he quoted from extensively in his letters to Creeley. The letters, later published as The Mayan Letters, are full of Olson’s extensive theorizing on the Mayans’ reasons for moving to the Yucatán, the domestication of maize, and his thoughts on their language, lore, and relationship to the sea. As for the Yucatán itself, Olson relished experiencing “the geography in which the old maya lived” and wrote detailed observations of the area’s landscape. On Jaina Island, he made approximate measurements of the island’s diameter and noted how it had been “furruled by breakings in of, water.” Offshore from this island burial ground, he spotted “the tell-tale scattering of pieces of pots (literally, as the lady sd, like, rose-petals, literally, color and all—as tho the Maya brought boatloads and threw handfuls as some sort of a gesture of farewell or protection to those, they buried there.)” The archaeologist’s close study and attention to the land would seep into Olson’s later poems, most notably his Maximus Poems.

“[C]hristamiexcited,” Olson exclaimed after risking “tick disease” and the Yucatán’s many snakes (or his fear of them; it’s hard to tell which was greater) and finding his first hieroglyphic stone. When it came to actual artifacts, though, the Mayan hieroglyphs were Olson’s personal Holy Grail, his poetic-archaeological Rosetta Stone. He wrote to Creeley, “Here is the most abstract and formal deal of all the things this people dealt out—and yet, to my taste, it is precisely as intimate as verse is. Is, in fact, verse.” This “verse” captured the energy that Olson sought with “composition by field.”

The Mayan glyphs also satisfied Olson’s long-standing quest for a linguistic model gleaned from ancient pre-Homeric sources. “Morning” of “archaeologist of morning” therefore refers to the glyphs as an exemplary from the dawn of civilization for Olson to frame his notions of language and verse and the fresh beginning their discovery represented for him creatively. 

After six months in Mexico, Olson returned to Black Mountain, where he taught for six years and served as the school’s rector. He never went back to Mexico, but applied the notion of the writer as archaeologist and his interest in civilization’s dawn to his Maximus Poems, which concern his adopted hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, one of America’s oldest settlements. Olson was deeply influenced by Ezra Pound’s Cantos; from 1946 to 1948, when Olson was living in Washington, D.C., he regularly visited Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he was confined, until Pound’s fascist politics drove him away. But he rejected Pound’s notion of the epic as “a poem including history.” For Olson, the epic is “’isotorin’” or “the act of history,” to use Olson expert George F. Butterick’s explanation. The Maximus Poems are as much about Olson’s making of this history—his archaeology-inspired fieldwork—as they are about the work’s historical content itself.

After Black Mountain closed in 1957, Olson moved to Gloucester. Founded in 1623 on Cape Ann, Gloucester is not only home to America’s oldest seaport, but also where Olson had spent his childhood summers, the morning of his life. With both of his parents now deceased, the archaeologist of morning had returned to a landscape of memory, his own.

An archaeologist’s level of scholarship and attention to the land saturate The Maximus Poems. Olson wrote to Creeley that the heart of the poems was “that ground there, in front of my own damned porch.” His poem “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld],” begins

I come back to the geography of it,
the land falling off to the left
where my father shot his scabby golf
and the rest of us played baseball
into the summer darkness until no flies
could be seen and we came home
to our various piazzas where the women

To the left the land fell to the city,
to the right, it fell to the sea

Geography greets the poet first, rendering Gloucester and its waters a character. The setting, cleaving along the city and the sea, becomes memory, which floats between the solidity of the earth and the ever-changing fluidity of the sea. Note, too, how Maximus, Olson’s literary alter-ego, named for the second-century C.E. Greek philosopher Maximus of Tyre, has one foot planted in the past and one in the present. “’Istorin’” is not separated from the past but coexists with it.

In much the same way he studied the Yucatán and the burial ground on the Jaina Island, Olson walked all over Gloucester and the ruins of its abandoned colonial settlement, Dogtown. The Maximus PoemCole’s Island” offers a snapshot of how his peregrinations and desire to know the land became part of the subject of his poems:

     That is,
Cole’s Island
is a queer isolated and gated place, and I was only there by will
to know more of the topography of it…

To read the poem in full is to relive Olson’s mixture of fear, curiosity, and wonder, as he encounters a stranger in a setting “more private than almost any place one might imagine,” but one where Olson was simply

only doing what I had set myself to do here
& in other places on Cape Ann.

Elsewhere in The Maximus Poems, Olson’s research and intimacy with the land inspired a literal version of composition by field described in “Projective Verse.” In late November 1959, Olson took editor Don Allen and writers LeRoi Jones (who would later change his name to Amiri Baraka) and Michael McClure to a pasture in Dogtown where a sailor who aspired to be a bullfighter had been gored to death by a bull in the 1890s. Olson told his friends the story, or, shall one say, transferred its energy—by all accounts Olson was a lively raconteur—in situ, in the same setting where the story’s action took place. Afterward, he showed them two rocks that had been carved to mark where the sailor, James Merry, had been initially attacked by the bull and then died. That night, Olson began typing “Maximus, from Dogtown—I,” a vivid poem about Merry’s death.

Olson did not dig in the dirt in Gloucester—Roland Wells Robbins of Walden Pond fame had excavated Dogtown’s ruins a few years before Olson settled on Cape Ann—as much as he excavated the town’s archives. Readers confronting The Maximus Poems especially for the first time can be enamored with or baffled by Olson’s tumbling cascade of early Gloucester scholarship—culled from colonial artifacts such as ship’s logs, shop ledgers, probate records, court cases, and title deeds, then coupled with Olson’s memories, personal observations, quotes by Gloucester residents, theoretical abstraction, and more. Consider “Maximus, in Gloucester Sunday LXV,” which trades in Gloucester history and Olson’s role as chronicler of history. The poem begins:

Osmund Dutch, and John Gallop, mariners, their wages
asked that they be paid to the Dorchester
Co., July, 1632. Thus Reverend John White writing
to John Winthrop at Boston locates
Dutch and Gallop as on this coast or ferrying
others across the Atlantic at a probable date earlier
than 1630….

Who are Dutch, Gallop, White, and Winthrop, one may ask, and why are 1632 and 1630 significant? On its own, the poem doesn’t answer these questions; its thrust and pleasures do not depend upon a catalogue of facts. In “Human Universe,” Olson wrote, “Art does not seek to describe but to enact.” Thankfully, readers don’t need to go digging through Dogtown’s ruins or Gloucester’s archives to bring this experience of discovery alive. Butterick’s A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, which explains The Maximus Poems’ myriad references and quotes extensively from Olson’s primary sources, is all one needs to start excavating these and other lines.

In “The Present Is Prologue,” Olson didn’t question how to express oneself but “how to use oneself, and on what.” At the time of Olson’s writing, change was rapidly approaching Gloucester, as it was affecting all of postwar America. Like an archaeologist, Olson sought to preserve this small maritime community, but in his case he did so through writing. It was an impossible task, but Olson’s sense of urgency lives in The Maximus Poems’ pages.

“The trouble is,” Olson admitted at the end of Mayan Letters, “it is very difficult, to be both a poet and, an historian.” But the expression “archaeologist of morning” freed Olson not just from the constraints of the terms “poet” and “writer” but also those of “historian,” while the profession of archaeology helped him find both a technique and a model for bringing his poetic fieldwork to the page.

 “Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you/yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man,” Olson wrote in “A Bibliography on America.” (Olson certainly dug Gloucester; The Maximus Poems extends to more than 600 pages.) It’s good advice. Writing, whether it’s inspired by other texts, memories, or the most fleeting moments, is a form of excavation, an attempt to capture the immediacy of past experience and transfer its energy to the reader’s present, which is part of what makes Olson’s chosen name for his profession so evocative and enduring.

Originally Published: August 14th, 2013

Elyssa East’s first book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, won the 2010 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award in Nonfiction. Dogtown was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards and an Editors’ Choice Selection of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Her reviews, reportage, and...

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  1. August 18, 2013
     Matti Paasio

    The archaeological lines - in French, no less - about
    having an exclusive hunger for earth and stones are from a
    juvenile delinquent from the 19th century called Arthur