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On "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele"


Tom Clark

The fusion of lyric vision with "primary images" in a burst of poetry Olson produced that spring owed a certain debt to Robert Duncan's visit, if only in his picking up effectively on certain of the visiting instructors key insistences. Along with the euphoric fecundity of new love and of the Southern mountain springtime, and with his concurrent intellectual passions for the cosmology and typology of Whitehead and Jung, the final decisive influence on his April-May 1956 verse advances was a "magic view" of the poem as spiritual alchemy, which he found--following up on Duncan's advocacy--in the work of Rimbaud.

Olson had been interested since 1945 in the French poet’s life and legend, for him an emblematic image of the post-humanist artist as iconoclastic antihero. But though he’d once borne a copy of the Pleiade edition of Rimbaud’s poems to Frances as a love token, he'd so far actually paid them little close attention. Under his Black Mountain visitor’s indirect influence. he now set out to remedy that oversight, rising to the perceived challenge by "making his way earnestly" (as Duncan later put it) through the poetry in both French and English that spring. In March he introduced Rimbaud into a lecture of his own on Stance, citing the poem " saisons, chateaux" and also bringing up "Soleil et chair/ Credo in Unam" in the translation he had solicited from Frances. He'd now recognized an affinity of confrontational stance that linked Rimbaud and himself, he reported in a letter to her. Both were poets of the "double-axe," engaged on the cutting edge of "mercy versus Justice." In the poetic justice of Rimbaud's Time of the Assassins Olson could make out a sense of urgent cultural-revolutionary necessity akin to his own. That the grimness of such justice should not go unrelieved was the lesson of " saisons, chateaux," a poem in which the progression of Rimbaud's season in hell reached a turning point, "restor[ing] Beauty and Charity." The "pivot," Olson told Frances, was the poet’s crucial hermetic term "le bonheur," connoting not only happiness or joy but an alchemical elixir, the marvelous "poison" whose traces never left the blood of the intoxicated initiate.

In Olson's springtime rush of poems, vivid celebrations of love, nature and "the powers that be," Rimbaud's image of a miraculous alchemical potion provided a key figurative harmonic relating love with cosmic process: it became, in "The chain of memory is resurrection," a "green poison" announcing at once the fullness and "the death of spring"; in "The Perfume," a "poison / of desire" saturating the poet's bedroom at night; and in "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele," an "elixir" demanded by the body as it "whips the soul" into a state of great desire. At the heart of the lyric "Variations," a poem animated by the pastoral immediacy of the flowering time of year (dogwood, plum and apple in blossom, the hum of bees and tractor diesels, a whippoorwill's song at full moon), lay an inspired reworking of Rimbaud's " saisons." In his American post-modern version, Olson updated the alchemical metaphor of the original, enlarging its allusive scope by means of a Jungian psychological perspective.

From Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Copyright 1991 by Tom Clark.


Thomas F. Merrill

Gerald Van de Wiele was a young art student at Black Mountain College and the "Variations" that Olson dedicates to him seem like responses to some kind of poetic challenge. It is as if Olson wished to demonstrate his virtuosity to skeptics by deliberately aping the poetic styles of others. Section I is clearly a prosodic retort to William Carlos Williams, which a cursory comparison to "Portrait of a Lady" will instantly reveal. Similarly, the pattern of the variations themselves echoes Wallace Stevens's "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." Hints of Yeats and Pound might also be detected, but predictably, even in conscious imitation, Olson's "blind obedience" to "personage" never quite permits him to sustain the integrity of each variation. Each section inevitably closes with an unmistakable Olson signature.

Olson takes his theme directly from Rimbaud's "O saisons, o Chateaux" from Une Saison en Enfer. The lines that he particularly favors with adaptive appreciation are these:

Ce charme a pris me et corps
Et disperse les efforts.
O saisons, o chateaux!

The charm of the seasons that seizes the mind and the body and disperses their efforts is treated in these three varied modes by Olson:

1)                             the seasons
        seize
        the soul and the body, and make mock
        of any dispersed effort. The hour of death
        is the only trespass . . .

2)                             do you know the charge,
        that you shall have no envy, that your life
        has its orders, that the seasons
        seize you too, that no body and soul are one
        if they are not wrought
        in this retort? that otherwise efforts
        are efforts? And that the hour of your flight
        will be the hour of your death?...

3)                                         Envy
        drags herself off. The fault of the body and
            soul
        --that they are not one—
        the matitudinal cock clangs
        and singleness: we salute you
        season of no bungling

Olson typically wrenches an apparent pastoral mood into an epistemological stance. The power of the season brings body and soul into healthy unity and thus effectuates that Sumerian "will to cohere," which "mocks" effete dispersion. Moreover, the second variation emphasizes Olson's commitment to an obedience ("your life has its orders"). Knowledge that we are properly obedient creatures bebolden to the dictates of the "life within us" removes our "envy" of Spring, that is, an envy that is a symptom of the "lyrical interference of the individual as ego." In short, these "Variations" diagnose the human malady once again as a split between mind and body—"that they are not one"--and prescribes the cure: "singleness"--the reintegration with "that with which we are most familiar."

From The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982. Copyright 1982 by Associated University Press.


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