Thomas F. Merrill: On "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele"

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 âme 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."

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Title Thomas F. Merrill: On "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas F. Merrill Criticism Target Charles Olson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer
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