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Nate Pritts: my memory is the history of time:

Towards a Theory of Time in Olson

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Charles Olson says “we are a gross and chronological people” (Bibliography, 78). As such, we’ve got time on our minds. There are as many ways to look at the human and its relation to the passage of time as there are people looking. It’s a subjective process dealing with an objective field. Is the past separate from the present or is any conception of the past inextricable from its present-day conception? Does history only exist in the present?


As walking, talking American-built machines we have a tendency towards the forward moving, linear narrative burned into our language programming. In this, Darwin heavily influences us; his attempts to explain the present through a study of the past represents what’s become the dominant view of how past and present relate. Darwin forces us to see time as linear and, as Peter Childs suggest in his study entitled Modernism, this influenced our thinking and our art; our conception of time was chronological and narrative was subsequently bound by those limits (8, 67). Everything we say communicates an underlying acceptance of time’s basic structure. But we still have questions.


Modernist art called a lot of our ideas about narrative (and time) into question; a sense of chronological and teleological time was replaced by a conception of time as repetitive and cyclic. Charles Olson lets us make no mistake about his project. He questions everything, interrogates it all and makes us feel it in the very form and structure of his poems. Olson rejects separate conceptions of past and present and forces a joint perception. They include, but are also made up of, each other. Olson threads the two together, shifting planes when necessary to accomplish his ends.


Since memory is all we really have of the past, and the vast processes of memory occur in the present, it follows that history can occur only in the present. It may be a recollection of events that occurred in some past time, but the happening-ness of history is going on right now (and now and now and now). Henri Bergson was one of the first psychologists to posit a difference between what he called “social” and “individual” time, saying that individual time was equal to temporal duration in the mind and that social time was chronological common time in the world (Childs, 171). In the poetry of Charles Olson, we see this shift fully exploited; certain poems seem to expand from instants where others implode from a course of events. Always with Olson is the need to situate the individual in society, or its vice versa: society in the individual. Bergson’s talk of “social” and “individual” time is at the heart of what Olson seeks to accomplish in The Maximus Poems. There can be no past without a relationship to it in the present; it is not a free-floating plane that can be visited. History, as John Smith says and as Olson quotes, is the memory of time.


The ideas of Olson and his contemporaries reflect a post-modern conception of time and history and his long work, The Maximus Poems, gives evidence of how Olson sees the relationship between chronological time and history and the important part the individual plays in determining this social field.


Gee, what I call the upper road was the way
leading by Joshua Elwell’s to the wood-lots

and Cherry or the lower road was, 1725, the way that
leads from the town to Smallmans now Dwelling house

[The Maximus Poems, II.46]


Olson is tricky when talking about time. We have here a plain talking poem, looking back but not really remembering. There’s maybe 4 time positions present in this poem.


It’s the opening “Gee” that sets the progression. “Gee” is a street in a town. But the logic of the sentence, the plain diction, clues us in to a speaker that is patiently ordering things, a speaker that is trying to maintain composure when faced with the fact that something he knows (the upper road) had a previous identity (the way leading by Joshua Elwell’s) but also an alternate distinction (Gee). The diction here is telling. Not “this used to be the way leading...” but “Gee, what I call the upper road was....” In one fragment, two times brought together. It makes a reader realize he’s dealing with the same stretch of road, with a few years and name changes in between. Also it brings up the inadequacy of any name to hammer down a particular object to a particular time.


My name for this upper road doesn’t fully encompass all of what it is.


The second stanza brings us further into this melding of timelines. The first stanza gives us some present time and the earlier 1727. Here we step back further, from our present to 1725 when the lower road was “the way that/leads from the town to Smallmans....” Saying “Cherry or the lower road” gives us a further field of time and parallels the construction of the first stanza; the lower road was previously “the way that leads...” and is now “Cherry.” But it’s been so long that our present day speaker can’t remember when it was called the lower road. And the stretch of time continues; Smallmans is now Dwelling house. If we take Dwelling house as some present construction on the grounds, then the poem ends where it started — in the present of the speaker. But this stanza alone has taken us through many time shifts.


Olson gives us in this brief poem, a conception of the present. We start and end in a present consciousness. The poem moves back and forth through time effortlessly but adhere to a unity of scene and time. We’re never existing in the past. We are only able to view it through the lens of the present. That one free-ranging conception of the present, a conception that encompasses a remembrance of the past, speaks volumes about Olson’s fluid conception of time. Really, it is not so much fluid as it is inclusive; a true understanding of our present circumstances can be reached only through an acceptance of its existence as something not bound by time, something that exists as long as there is someone to behold its existence.


Olson’s relation to time/history in The Maximus Poems seems to change or, at least, be a slippery one. In II.86 Olson/Maximus says “my memory is/the history of time[.]” Butterick reminds us that this is an echo of John Smith’s line “history is the memory of time” but makes an important variation. Whereas Smith seems to favor/foreground history as object (history as memory) Olson complicates things by putting the emphasis on “memory.” In fact, the first line reads “my memory is” which on its own is a kind of statement of existence, of totality. And this memory contains within it “the history of time.” So the important difference is where history is located — contained by and dependent on the human (as in Olson) or as separate though parallel record (as in Smith).


The Maximus Poems, in many important ways, depend on a conception of history and a relationship to the past that is blurred, that is very much of the present. Olson called the above short poem (of which there are many in Maximus) not “snippets” but the “hooks & eyes” of the longer work. These were the hinges on which the other poems turned; this was the clarifying statement that explains how other poems and sections operate. Though small, this bit is important structurally for what it can tell us about the methods of other sections.


II. 57 is such a section. Olson’s title explains: “In the interleaved Almanacks for 1646 and 1647 of Danforth.” What follows is not so much poem as record. But still it can double for poetic material when manipulated (only slightly) by Olson, placed as it is, in a work such as Maximus. If a timeline were drawn, it’d be easy to see that Olson is presenting a circular chunk of time. We have information from August of 1646 and then we pick up again in July of 1647, venturing just into September of 1647 and then picking up again in May of 1648 and going through the end of July that year. That the information relayed is repetitive (or is not) is secondary to the main point Olson is driving us towards. There is overlapping but not exact repetition; we never have the same day listed in different years. So while there is repetition so to is there a kind of progression but a progression not chronological. It is a progression built more on accumulation; the whole picture becomes clear on repeated viewing. This poem may not be a lyrical highlight of Maximus but it seems obvious that Olson is working within Bergson’s framework. While Bergson suggests the two different conceptions of time, “social” and “individual,” and while Olson seems to proceed from that base, his poetry is constantly blending the two, showing how they rest in and upon each other.


Time is a fluid thing, dependent on our perception of it for any power at all. In that way, then, time is strictly a present day entity. The past and future exist in the here and now. When Olson says his memory is the history of time, he’s saying that he is history, in so far as we all are history. We all, as present day presences, embody the past. We are walking histories.

Notes and Sources

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. New York: Harper, 1960.

Buelens, Gert. “The American Poet and His City: Crane, Williams and Olson:
Perceptions of Reality in American Poetry (1930–1960).” English Studies 73 (1992): 248–63.

Butterick, George F. A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978.

Childs, Peter. Modernism. London: Routledge, 2000.

Olson, Charles. Additional Prose: A Bibliography on America, Proprioception and Other Notes and Essays. Ed. George Butterick. Bolinas: Four Seasons, 1974.

———. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George Butterick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

———. “On History.” Muthologos. Ed. George Butterick. Bolinas: Four Seasons, 1978.

Nate Pritts

Nate Pritts

Nate Pritts is the author of two full length collections: Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX) and Honorary Astronaut (forthcoming, Ghost Road Press)  — as well as several chapbooks, most recently Shrug (MSR Press) and Spring Psalter (Cannibal #3). The editor of H_NGM_N and a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi, Nate lives in Louisiana where he works in advertising as a writer and interactive developer. Find him online at

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