restricted access Sea and Scholarship: Confessional Narrative in Charles Olson’s “Maximus, to himself”
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30 Sea and Scholarship Confessional Narrative in Charles Olson’s “Maximus, to himself” I return to this poem from a long distance and span of time, having first read it in college one spring in California when the oaks on campus were blooming with chandeliers of pollen, their mustard-­ brown sprays of stamen-­ and-­ pistil a potent testament to the renewal and resurrection in the natural world. My girlfriend was gleeful, happily absorbed in Gustav Mahler, rehearsing for a spring symphony concert, and I was full of joy myself, reading in Mahayana scripture and D. T. Suzuki’s commentary, everything somehow suddenly solvable and potentially righteous though the war dwindled on and Watergate was taking over the news. Olson’s poem seemed then a summation to a large, worldly experience , a testimony of an entire life lived, finally, coherently, after a long struggle with warring impulses and youthful blundering . Maximus, as a character, appeared to possess and impart a hard-­ won earthly wisdom, yet to point toward a further project beyond his previous experience, a project partaking of the heroic , the spiritual, some great “other” beyond normal ken. It was a poem grander than its complex and diverse experience, a life both of manual labor and of scholarship. As I’ve been trying to say, it was for me a very together piece of writing. The poem stayed with me through senior exams and a summer working for L.A.’s Water and Power, reading electric meters in San Pedro and walking almost every square foot of city land there. It stayed with me through a year in Japan, my first real winter, and a spring trying to follow Bashō’s narrow road through the north country backroads of Honshu. The Maximus Poems—­ that Jargon/Corinth paperback with the seachart cover 31 and blue titling—­ was always somewhere in my tote, a literary map and compass, even abroad. What I first liked about it was how brave it was in revealing its speaker’s character, his own assessment of the flaws and accomplishments of his life, the evenhandedness of his judgments. The poem seemed a patient and serious gathering together of the self, an orderly act of assemblage and of judgment. It was a confession, a condensed narrative about the evolution of an identity, a contemporary heir to the literary tradition established by Augustine, continued through William Wordsworth, Jean-­ Jacques Rousseau, and Maksim Gorky, up to Victorian and Modern lyric cousins of the form I see in Alfred Tennyson and Pound.1 I didn’t know this then, but the poem has stuck in my mind through the circuitous wanderings of my own literary education , and resurfaces here, twelve years after Commencement, as an example of a lyric mode that I’m going to identify as the confessional narrative. In confession, the writer returns through the power of memory to lost moments of his past, meditates upon them, and confronts both the good and bad (or the beautiful and ugly) elements of his own character, and works out a complex, momentary psychic resolution to the dissonant and fragmentary impulses churned up by his acts of recollecting and telling. Something cathartic occurs, the expulsion of some psychic poison that has absorbed whatever had been previously retarding the growth of the soul towards its rightful splendor, and the writer’s consciousness then gains its momentary amplitude. It was thus with Augustine, his writing cutting through his guilt and confusion about past deeds, establishing a continuity and progress of spiritual education when looked at in retrospect, adding up to a journey toward his acceptance of faith and his reconciliation, not so much with his past self (although this becomes the emphasis of secular confession), but with his God.2 In Augustine’s Confessions, there is an almost Aristotelian progress (the narrative obeying the laws of necessity as Augustine moves toward accepting Christianity, strengthening his faith) whereby Augustine, as narrator and character, sorts through the swarm of his past experience and picks out the elements of cohesion and continuity, bringing about the recognition of faith and his own 32 moral consciousness.3 Yet it is not the “coming-­ of-­ age” story, a bildungsroman or progress toward maturity. It is rather an intense and orderly recollection, a spiritual memoir, the informed, mature narrator looking back in retrospect over his own life and constructing a coherent autobiography with the dire earnestness of philosophic inquiry and spiritual practice. Likewise in Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude , the...


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