Charles Olson, Martin Heidegger, and Ontic Immediacy: a Phenomenological Interpretation of poem-in-the-world
Remain faithful to the earth, my brothers, with the power of your virtue. Let
Emotion—now that the body has been re-assessed by phenomenology and re-interpreted by postmodern poetry—adds to the value of life and understanding the process by which emotion is added to experience increases the value and practice of it. Charles Olson’s postmodern poetic bases the poem in the immediacy of the present—in both time and place—to enact a process by which an individual can gain access to an authentic emotional existence. What I term an Olson poem-in-the-world creates a space where the body, the actual place of emotion, may be re-admitted and better understood. Key to this essay is the examination of the concept of ontic immediacy as it pertains to Martin Heidegger’s terminology and the practice of Olson’s poetry. Ontic immediacy plays a significant role in phenomenology because it influences the individual’s experience of the world. In the context of this essay, the study of ontic immediacy exposes and stresses the role of the body’s senses—always already measuring the degree and duration of each stimulus—as the foundation of the being’s intellectual and emotional present.
your gift-giving love and your knowledge serve the meaning of the earth.
Thus I beg and beseech you. Do not let them fly away from earthly things
and beat with their wings against eternal walls. Alas, there has always been so
much virtue that has flown away. Lead back to the earth the virtue that flew
away, as I do—back to the body, back to life, that it may give the earth a
meaning, a human meaning.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Positing that the majority of people do not live in reality is bound to confound a great number of people who think that reality is exactly where they spend their life. But this is what Martin Heidegger posits in Being and Time. Heidegger’s phenomenological stance regarding his idea of reality is based on the premise that the mind and the object (or situation) the mind perceives are not separated and should be understood in terms of each other as “a unified phenomenon” (his italics, 49). For Heidegger’s concept of being (he uses the compound Da-sein, translated by Joan Stambaugh as “being-there” or “there being”), reality is apprehensible if each being decides to be aware of its immediate relationship with the world as perceived by the senses (431). Heidegger expresses his notion of Da-sein that has apprehended a reality that unifies man and object as “Being-in-the-world,” using the compound with hyphens to emphasize and illustrate the immediate connection (49). Thus, only if Da-sein decides to believe it is alienated from the world, is it. The problem, as Heidegger sees it, is that modern Da-sein’s condition is one of estrangement due to its lack of awareness of the theoretical systems that Da-sein works within on a daily basis (118-22). And yet, most of us today feel more comfortable with abstract concepts and ideas such as God, soul, spirit, faith, and statistical realities such as advertisements because we have not been exposed to the higher complexity, i.e., phenomenal simplicity, of Heidegger’s unitary phenomenology. It is because modern Da-sein has allowed itself to live within a world of abstraction that it has not chosen to discover how the phenomenal world of the concrete (ontic) creates the experience Heidegger calls “the authentic self, the self which has explicitly grasped itself” (his italics, 121).
In the section “Da-sein as Understanding” Heidegger explains how the unity of an authentic self confronting its immediate world is achieved:
But the “unity,” too, of manifold objective presence, nature, is discoverable only on the basis of the disclosedness of one of its possibilities. . . . Why does understanding always penetrate into possibilities according to all the essential dimensions of what can be disclosed to it? Because understanding in itself has the existential structure of what we call project. It projects the being of Da-sein upon its for-the-sake-of-which just as primordially as upon significance as the worldliness of its actual world. . . . And, as thrown, Da-sein is thrown into the mode of being projecting. Projecting has nothing to do with being related to a plan thought out, according to which Da-sein arranges its being, but, as Da-sein, it has always already projected itself and is, as long as it is, projecting. . . . And only because the being of the there gets its constitution through understanding and its character of project, only because it is what it becomes or does not become, can it say understandingly to itself: “become what you are!” (his italics, 136)
Attentiveness and inattentiveness become for Heidegger the two stances Da-sein can have toward the reality of ontic immediacy (248). Which direction, to what extent, and how to dis-cover and measure the variables of a phenomenal world are always already Da-sein’s decision, if Da-sein decides to make the effort or has the demand.
Charles Olson’s poetics parallel Heidegger’s theory of a unitary phenomenology. In fact, Olson’s prose reads as almost an explication of the issues Heidegger is grappling with, and Olson’s poetry enacts a phenomenal relationship with the world, thus showing how “being-in-the-world,” or Olson’s “tumescent I,” writes a “poem-in-the-world”: a documentation of a particular authentic existence (cf. Olson's "tumescent I" in his poem, "The K").
In the March 27th (a Wednesday night) 1968 lecture, Olson echoes Heidegger’s notion of the inauthentic “they-self” when he states, “think of yourself as an impediment of creation” (Poetry and Truth 43). What Olson means by the above statement is best expanded upon in his 1970 The Special View of History: “The subject, then, is actual willful man” (16). For Olson, man always has the option to choose between two philosophical stances: the stance of the actual willful man and the stance of the man found in Heraclitus’ dictum that also serves as his book’s epigraph ("Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar."). Actual willful man uses history and discovers the immediate phenomenal world while the estranged man chooses to take what is given and is thus used by history. Olson continues with his special view of history:
One need notice, however, that Herodotus may have been conscious of a difference he was making when he did add the word “history.” The first words of his book—oi logoi—are “those skilled in logoi” not “Historians.” ‘istorin in him appears to mean “finding out for oneself,” instead of depending on hearsay. The word had already been used by philosophers. “But while they were looking for truth, Herodotus is looking for the evidence.” (his italics, 20, quoted material from J. A. K. Thompson’s The Art of the Logos)
Discovering for oneself is a way to restore or re-admit the basic phenomenal relation that humans—as organic beings—have with their surroundings. Thus achieving an authentic existence would be characterized as an individual who engages the familiar world—that all humans share—and not choose (by inadvertently not choosing) to follow a stance that estranges the individual from an ontic reality. As Olson says, “it has been the immense task of the last century and a half to get man back to what he knows. I repeat that phrase: to what he knows. For it turns out to coincide exactly with that other phrase: to what he does” (29).
In his 1951 essay, “Human Universe,” Olson explicates just how an individual is estranged from the body’s most precious reality of the present moment. In an oft-quoted section Olson faults language with the creation of habitual estrangement from the immediate world:
We have long lived in a generalizing time, at least since 450 B.C. And it has had its effects on the best of men, on the best of things. Logos, or discourse, for example, in that time, so worked its abstractions into our concept and use of language that language’s other function, speech, seems so in need of restoration that several of us go back to hieroglyphs or to ideograms to right the balance. (The distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant.) (155-56)
In his poetry, one way Olson finds to guard against the habit of descriptive discourse is to mimic the body’s biological process of rapid apperception. In his 1950 poetic manifesto, “Projective Verse,” Olson states this process as such:
Olson makes modern man aware of how a simple linguistic proclivity excludes him from participation in the discovery process the body constantly finds itself in, with or without the awareness of the individual. The insidiousness is the very fact that it is so easy for the individual to fall into the linguistic trap of describing the object it encounters rather than recognizing the simple fact of the object’s self-existence (uniqueness in time and space). Heidegger and Olson see it as modern man’s responsibility—once he has been made aware of the pitfalls—to stay in the actual phenomenal world and shun the inauthenticity of abstract, statistical systems such as the one Olson calls “the ‘UNIVERSE of discourse’” (156).
ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER! (240)
Thus his poetic discourages interference from the ego-subject of the poem, and stresses reliance on the object’s (or situation’s) existence. A “being-in-the-world” interacting with an object may enact the experience with a “poem-in-the-world.” Thus changing the poetics of an individual also changes the individual’s philosophical stance toward reality as well. Olson places importance on the actual object and not the individual’s description of it:
Shallows and miseries shadows from the cross,
Once the reader understands the value Olson places on his notion of objectivism, one can find examples everywhere in The Maximus Poems and his Collected Poems. For example, in section 3 of “The Praises”:
ecco men and dull copernican sun.
Our attention is simpler
The salts and minerals of the earth return
(“The K,” Collected Poems 14)
The “materials” are the “salts and minerals of the earth,” these are what Olson and every individual can share phenomenally in the experiences of the familiar world. But even “salt” and “minerals” may be abstract for some readers, so to be exhaustive Olson is precise for those who still question the value of the particular in his poem “(Literary Result).” Olson shows how to enact “profound respect” for the different seabirds found along the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts by anchoring his attentions in the real, phenomenal world:
What has been lost
is the secret of secrecy, is
the value, viz., that the work get done, and quickly,
without the loss of due and profound respect for
which is not so easy as it sounds, nor
can it permit the dispersion which follows from
too many having too little
(Collected Poems 96)
That a cormorant fishes
Olson respects the materials by respecting the particulars of the instant in time (October 18), the particulars of men (Jeremy Prynne and Larry Eigner), and most importantly the particulars of each bird. While an observer may not know or care about the specifics of a cormorant or gull, it certainly matters to the birds (and the fish that will die or live) and the laws of the universe. Olson’s poetry does “help” people because it instills respect for the uniqueness of each individual’s existence, each animal’s existence, each object’s existence, and each situation’s existence. Olson’s poetic dis-covers what the “they” dulls and covers with the habit of inattention and a lack of demand for what one can actually know.
now out my window—that Jeremy Prynne wishes
my own poetry—or us, two, as men, should—
as Larry Eigner the one day yet, so many years ago I
read in Gloucester—to half a dozen people still—
why, meaning my poetry doesn’t
help anybody. The black cormorant,
not the gull
/_Oct 18 VII/
Olson’s Maximus is a man who gets back to what one can actually know, and Maximus is part of the measure. Because his poetry stresses a first movement toward the body, most western readers are left behind because they have been raised in the metaphysical world Heidegger exposes. A metaphysically oriented society favors the abstractions of mind over the phenomenal body (not realizing that the mind is just a process of the body and thus gets all its information from ontic experiences). Thus metaphysical systems have the potential to create the dualisms that may mislead the individual into thinking that being can in fact be or become estranged from the world. Olson is important because he is the first poet to move beyond metaphysics into a postmetaphysical philosophy that values the body-mind open system Heidegger seems to be moving toward. Projective verse is an open system because Olson understands the in and out motion of man interacting with his environment. “Maximus, to himself” is an example of what an individual’s projective verse may contain thematically:
The “simplest things” are the phenomenal things the body can experience through the senses engaged with the immediate world. Maximus has had a “difficult” time learning the knowable world because he has spent so much time dealing within the closed, abstract systems of the mind (what he now feels as his “distance” from the world of others who are “sharp” because their bodies deal with what is ontically immediate). When Maximus writes that the sea was not his trade he is implying that the individual must make the phenomenal world their trade, i.e., be-in-the-world, or the individual will end up estranged from it just as Maximus is coming to understand. Luckily Maximus has had help to regain the joy found in a unified relationship with the world.
I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get a 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
that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily
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
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
But the known?
This, I have had to be given,
a life, love, and from one man
George Butterick believes the reference to “one man” in the final lines is to Robert Creeley, to whom the book is dedicated also with the phrase, “—the Figure of Outward” (A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson 83). In this poem and from his friend, Olson is learning how to be a (projective) figure of outward, that is, someone who believes in Heidegger’s unitary phenomenology, who believes that the only way to experience reality is in the immediacy of an ontic existence, i.e., the immediacy of the senses in the act of encountering the outward world, not the spatialized and distant world that occurs in the isolated, inward mind. The figure of outward believes in the unity of man and his world, negating the typical metaphysical dualism, and thus division, between individual and object.
Another reason Olson focuses on the “simplest things” is to relate to the reader the joy afforded to the individual who re-admits the knowable world. Olson’s poetry involves a process of emotional inducing that he enacts time and time again but that has been largely overlooked by scholars. Toward the end of Maximus a strong emotional undercurrent appears:
The above poem-in-the-world enacts the process, the full emotional process, of being-in-the-world experiencing a common event. In the first half of the poem Maximus is ecstatic to be a part of the projective process of being (actively and consciously) interacting with a sunset. The actual process of man interacting with the sun is the first “message” the two share: the experience of participating in the sunset is itself “hot” because it is heated by man’s attention and focus. The joy, however, changes to pensiveness as the second “message” is shared in the last half of the poem: experiences “cool” or end due to the actual ending of the specific event or the lack of focus by the individual. The third “message” comes as quickly as the first two. The third message in the final lines of the poem tempers the sadness of the second message with knowledge that both the sun and man still exist and are “still / hot and red.” The emotional aspect is intensified by Olson’s acknowledgement of the temporal relation of being-in-the-fleeting-moment-of-a-sunset. But the sun will set again tomorrow and Olson may use his body to enjoy it. Maximus, then, not only charts the discovery of an individual’s authentic existence, but also the emotions that are an imperative part of the process of living.
Sunright in my eye
4 PM December 2nd arrived
at my kitchen
at me full in the
the hill it sets
in its burst of late
heat right on me
and as orange and hot
as sun at noonday practically
can be. Only this one
is straight at me like a
beam shot to hit me
It feels like
on me giving me its
message that it is sliding
under the hill and
that I better
hear it say
be hot man
be hot and orange
like I am
this message as
I slip exactly to
West I am burning you man
as I leave I’m even stronger
now just as I
go I am already
cooled that much but still
I turn on you
as I start to
go. But still
hot and red now blaring
on the slope of my disappearance
Now I begin to
go hear me I
have sent you
the message I am
Butterick, George F. A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1995.
Olson, Charles. Causal Mythology. Ed. Donald Allen. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1969.
---. The Collected Poems of Charles Olson. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.
---. Collected Prose / Charles Olson. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.
---. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
---. Poetry and Truth. Ed. George F. Butterick. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1971.
---. The Special View of History. Ed. Ann Charters. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.