This is mid twentieth century American EPIC poetry. It is not a collection of pretty little lyrics. If you want that, you came to the wrong place. It does have some lyric poetry embedded within, however. But for those who think all poetry should be lyrical, turn back now.
What is an epic? Pound said it was a poem with history. Olson disagrees. Olson visited Pound, argued with him, and Pound said Olson saved his life. But Olson disagreed with Pound on many issues. Pound was a Fascist, Olson was a Democrat. Pound sought to establish a sort of neo-Confucianism, while Olson's philosophy comes straight from Alfred North Whitehead (as well as Jung's psychology and other "new sciences of man"). Pound wanted to establish a cultural elite, while Olson seeks to establish the workers (in this case the fishermen) as the indomitable spirit of forward directed hard-boiled Yankee go-get-it-ism, if there really is such a thing, is spite of any doings by the self-styled elite, or mistaken directives from ship owners. As such, his epic is barbaric, and certainly dirty. Olson's epic has a main character. Aristotle suggested that definition about 2500 years ago.
Olson accepts the techniques of Pound, and he accepts the techniques of Williams in Paterson. Another reviewer mentions Zukofsky, but there really seems to be no such influence at work here. If the techniques of Pound are interesting to you, but you find his opinions repugnant, try this book. It is, in my opinion, the final success of all that modernistic attempt at redefining the epic we get from the above men.
Some reviewers here have shied away, citing naughty words or even difficulty. Can you imagine anyone writing a review to whine that something is difficult? What is that about? Some sort of glorification of ignorance? And the naughty words are by no means prevalent. PG-13 at best.
OK. I said this was a new poetic. I must explain. It begins with Whitman, of course, just writing what he darn well pleased. And it grew with William Carlos Williams who was in France as a teen and was exposed to the French poetry of the late 19th century. So Williams, like most people his age, had to react to Whitman, in light of that exposure to the French. The result was "Spring and All" in which Williams seeks new forms in the American language and tries to find poetry in the common barnyard objects, for instance. Meanwhile in Europe several friends of Williams come up with some silly rules (Imagism) to make lyrics seem new, and Pound writes them down and gets them published. Well, that didn't work because the minute one person states a rule, someone is inclined to break it. But Williams in Spring and All is not making rules. He's thinking out loud. This is where many discussions that include the two most important words (form and content) begin: in "Spring and All" in 1921. Twenty years later, Olson and Robert Creeley are young writers and, of course, they are discussing form and content and how they relate. The result, after several letters back and forth, is that form is an extension of content (Creeley) with Olson caveat, that (this may not be the exact wording) the best form is the most natural extension of content. And Olson wrote about this in an essay called Projective Verse, itself a poem from my point of view. Projective Verse then touches off several responses, as Olson had the minds of many young writers in his care during the existence of Black Mountain College. Over the next 20 years or so, many poets are affected by these theories, which are by them being labeled "postmodernism". Until finally it all came to a head in Vancouver, BC in 1962 when many of these poets gathered at a poetry conference and read their works. As one can see from the works read there, projective verse was in full swing. Again, it was not a set of rules. It was a discussion of where things come from and how to get them where they are going. The different writers who embraced these new ideas all wrote in totally different ways. If nobody ever said that Creeley, Blackburn, Duncan, Olson, etc. were all operating from the same idea of form and content, one might never be able to tell. If that isn't proof that an idea about form is solid, I don't know what is!
Olson actually began working on an epic in the 40s, but for some reason was unsatisfied. The remnants can be found in his first book of poems, "In Cold Hell, In Thicket" which was published around the same time as the first ten Maximus poems.
If, like me, you are an American Humanist, a student of Whitman, you wonder what's the great American poetry of the 20th century, and you really have no stomach for fascists and other elitists, this book is the end of your searching.
Don't sweat the fragmentary sentences. They make sense if you read it aloud. There are plenty of free audio recordings of Olson reading these Maximus poems on the net, so you can easily get his voice going in your ear. It is all very sensible, unless you were looking for some excuse to be thought better than other people. There's plenty of that out there, but not to be found in here. Here is where you get your hands dirty digging around in old cellar holes or boning fish on the line with old men listening to their stories, or listening to an old postman who has it from the widows up the hill that such-and-such happened. They don't speak grammatically correct English. They use, as Dante put it, de vulgaris loquentia, the common speech.
p.s. I realize that speech was Aristotle's defining characteristic of drama, but Olson makes it work in the epic.