An Essay on Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara

Olson is an objectivist. He does not want to focus on the inner subjective ego but reactions to the outside world. He also focuses more on the breath rather than meter or traditional form. In a way, he is a non-traditionalist for his use of field composition, but also a traditionalist in his objectivism. In Kingfisher, he begins “What does not change / is the will to change.” At the very beginning of the poem, we see his concept of projective verse, adding a breath for musical phrase. The line breaks are also used for the effect of breath and phrasing. Sometimes the line is an entire observation; sometimes it is a word or two to add musicality. The lines are not set stanzas, but are broken into specific dialogue or observations. He also uses indentation to his advantage, for example, at the beginning of part 2 of the poem. The use of the staircase effect, as shown when he says “Mao concluded: / nous devons / nous lever / et agir!” reminds me of Mary Oliver, who has written poems of just this. Also, when in part 4 of the poem, section II, he says “serpent   cane   razor   ray of the sun,” it reminds me of Marilyn Chin, in Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, when she uses spacing to her advantage. Already I have found two poets I can trace back to Olson.

In Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele, despite having a reputation for free verse, writes couplets in part II The Charge and part III Spring. The first section follows his rules defined in Projective Verse better. A great line from that section is “the morning / stands up straight, the night / is blue from the full of the April moon” because it separates the morning and night from their action of description.

But Olson at least gives some sort of philosophical reaction to the physical in his poems. Frank O’Hara, however, wants complete removal of personal reaction. He describes this movement in his essay, Personism: A Manifesto. His poems are not about any sort of form, but purely what is logical. A Step Away from Them, for example, resembles prose. It describes the physical actions he takes on his lunch break. While he alludes to “what Edwin Denby would write” in order to prevent personal views from seeping in, he writes that a book in his pocket is his heart, which is arguably a deep image.

O’Hara’s Ave Maria, however, experiments a little bit with form. Indentation is used, not for musicality, but to separate what is logical. The problem is that, while O’Hara tries to separate himself from personal reaction, he still writes. “Mothers of America / let your kids go to the movies!” This makes me wonder if removing your personal ideas or reactions are even possible. Is personism possible?

In The Day Lady Died, it once again uses specific locations and times to describe, and he comes closer to fulfilling personism. There are physical reactions (i.e., sweating, thinking of leaning), but it is very detailed with physical observation. This is the poem that comes closest to fulfilling the rules of personism.