Toward a Common Ground: Versions of Place in the Poetry of Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, and Theodore Enslin

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 195)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,849 words

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[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Hatlen examines the ways in which Enslin and Dorn have relied upon the work of Olson; however, Hatlen contends, they “have not only defined distinctive spaces of their own … but have also in significant ways moved beyond Olson in rethinking the meaning of place.” Quoted material in this essay has been removed due to copyright restrictions.]

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. …” So declares Charles Olson, in Call Me Ishmael (Collected Prose 17). And Olson passed on a challenge to his poetic heirs: how to stand within and/or move through this space we call “America.” Olson himself, taking his cue at least in part from William Carlos Williams’s recreation of himself as Old Doc Paterson, became Maximus, voice of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The members of the next generation of poets, the poets who emerged in the 1950s, had the option of repeating the Olsonian project—with a change of scene, of course, since Gloucester belonged to Olson. But in this essay I want to focus on two poets, Edward Dorn and Theodore Enslin, who, while building on Olson’s work, have not only defined distinctive spaces of their own (Dorn’s American West, and Enslin’s Maine), but have also in significant ways moved beyond Olson in rethinking the meaning of place. Dorn studied with Olson at Black Mountain College, and he has on many occasions paid tribute to his teacher. Enslin’s engagement with Olson was less direct, for he never met the older poet, but he has on several occasions acknowledged Olson’s influence on his work. Despite their debts to Olson, however, the work of both Dorn and Enslin also represents an implicit critique of certain Olsonian postures. In particular, Olson, despite his own critique of Pound’s willful reliance on “the beak of his ego” (SW 82), himself creates a bardic voice that places his own ego at the center. And even as he transforms himself into the mythic Maximus, so he seeks to possess the American landscape by mythicizing it. In contrast, Dorn subverts the bardic voice by displacing epic into mock-epic; and while Dorn is capable of mythicizing the American landscape, he generally resists this impulse. For his part, Enslin moves toward a poetics of common speech radically antithetical to Olson’s bardic eloquence; and his poetry becomes a record of his passage through a landscape, rather than an attempt to possess it, mythically or otherwise. Both poets also tacitly give up the political project that Olson inherited from Pound: the attempt to write a poetry that will be, in Milton’s phrase, “doctrinal to a nation.” Writing in the new America born out of World War II, both Dorn and Enslin recognize the futility of attempting to speak to a nation intoxicated by empire, and instead seek to define the poem as an alternative space within the empire. Language itself thereby takes precedence over all mythic constructions of “America.” For only within the language of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420123871