Brain Pickings

Charles Olson Reads “Maximus, to Himself”: A Rare 1963 Recording

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“I have had to learn the simplest things last.”

Beloved modernist poet Charles Olson was born 112 years ago today. He remains best-known for The Maximus Poems (UK; public library) — a loose exploration of American history and a meditation on the philosophy of place, which he began in 1950 and continued to work on until his death from liver cancer in 1970.

The opening of his poem “Maximus, to himself” is one of my favorite lines in both literary history and the history of thought — so I was beyond delighted to discover this rare 1963 recording of Olson reading the poem himself, courtesy of my alma mater’s PennSound archive — the same treasure trove that gave us Adrienne Rich on love, happiness, and creativity. Enjoy:

Maximus, to himself

I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.

The sea was not, finally, my trade.

But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man’s argument
that such postponement
is now the nature of
obedience,

that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily
known



It could be, though the sharpness (the achiote)
I note in others,
makes more sense
than my own distances. The agilities

they show daily
who do the world’s
businesses
And who do nature’s
as I have no sense
I have done either



I have made dialogues,
have discussed ancient texts,
have thrown what light I could, offered
what pleasures
doceat allows

But the known?

This, I have had to be given,
a life, love, and from one man
the world.

Tokens.
But sitting here
I look out as a wind
and water man, testing
And missing
some proof



I know the quarters
of the weather, where it comes from,
where it goes. But the stem of me,
this I took from their welcome,
or their rejection, of me

And my arrogance
was neither diminished
nor increased,
by the communication



2


It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

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