Format of Maximus

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Olson and the Format of Maximus

by Gerald Burns

Published in Exquisite Corpse #15 (1986) and reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #20 (April 1997).


I’ve designed and typeset over a dozen books for James Haining’s Salt Lick Press. The best of these, to my mind, were texts presenting postmodern difficulties — poems floated all over the page with bloc and individual indention, sudden drops (as if with the Index key on an electric typewriter) to the next line, eccentric spacing between words, and breaks between stanzas which can fall anywhere. The trick, for a modern typesetter or photocompositor, is to duplicate the effect of the typed manuscript in what is practically another medium. A first printing of an eccentric text can be horribly important, if only because it tends to become the copy-text for later editions. I ask for white or near-white paper to make crisper reproductions. If a space in the text (a specially good rule for verse) coincides with the foot of the page I install three asterisks in the footline, and say so in a note at the front.

Olson was fortunate twice with In Cold Hell, In Thicket. The Divers Press issue (Origin 8, overseen by Creeley in Mallorca) is as determinedly handsome a book as Creeley’s own A Form of Women, type dark enough for the solidity of the lines, in blocs disposed with great dignity on the squarish page. If you hold the Four Seasons edition in the other hand you can see the later printing take up the first as a challenge, find other ways (larger type, a bit more leading) to be equivalently lovely. In spite of Creeley’s taste for titles in extra-bold sans serif (kept up in Black Mountain Review — I’ve wondered did he take a hint from New Directions) I’d rather (just barely) be reading the Divers Press edition.

The Maximus Poems got wonderful settings out of Stuttgart, reissued reduced with the first reset to its original shape by Jargon/Corinth, indentions so elegant and expressive it’s a pleasure that issue stays available in stores. The placement of multiply indented blocs, seeing them over that jump from the manuscript when the line-lengths shrink (which alters the proportion of verse sections, in themselves and to each other) is delicate. Beginners measure the indention on the typed page and specify that. Even in a type size sort of “like” the typewriter face it isn’t going to work. The Divers, Jargon/Corinth and Four Seasons books are models of how it should be done.

Olson’s problem came with Maximus IV, V, VI, the Cape Goliard edition in the large size (which, I’m told, follows a smaller Jargon/Corinth attempt, typeset but never issued). The letters, written to Barry Hall from Gloucester in 1968, are in the Simon Fraser Library. They show Olson, ill and at long distance, choosing (from a limited selection) the font. He does not specify type size and leading, and seems to know very little, technically, about what leading (the vertical distance between lines) can be made to do.

His choice is between Bembo and Garamond, and he seems fairly good at imagining how a line will look in either. But apparently he is sent fairly short-line samples (in which the collapsing effect of set type will be less apparent), and the problem, as he finds out nearly at once, is in the leading.

Garamond sets small — 12-point Garamond on a leading of 12, which is to say squashed together vertically, still has space between the descenders of the line above (the tails of a lower-case y or g) and the next line’s ascenders (the top of a W or l). Olson’s MS included both long and short lines double-spaced on his typewriter. These any printer (unless told otherwise) will, as it were, double-space in set type, which is to say insert an invisible line of type’s worth of depth, so an 11 on 12 setting will drop 24 points to the next line. Sometimes, especially if these double-spaced lines are very short (think of double-spaced Zukofsky lyrics inAll), this is too spacy and you go to 1 1/2 spaces instead. I find, for verse giving this kind of problem, that an odd-number leading is best, say 11 on 13 rather than 11 on 12. It gives you a point more space, for one thing, but (at least as important) is not divisible neatly by two. Even multiples lose energy for typeset verse; given an odd number of points the 1 1/2 spacing especially must go a point over or one short, and this is more interesting (especially in photocomposed type, always a little boring because all the proportions are a bit too neatly divisible). The Stuttgart Maximuses, on a leading of 15, go to 30 when they double-space and look just fine. Barry Hall provides a leading of 12. Further, all the angled type and so on I assumed was cut in seems from the galleys to have started life as hotset type — real lead pushed around — which even at the time was not perhaps the best way to do it. And the verse blocs were seldom disposed to Olson’s liking — much of his energy went into indicating further indention and the repositioning of the floating short pieces on the index stock (numbered front and back) which functioned, visually, as the pages to him. The rest (and all this would have been better spent proofing) went into a series of . . . it’s hard to know what to call them . . . almost frighteningly desperate remarks on many many galley pages, on the horrible effect of the Bembo’s double-spacing. Note that just this correspondence, and then the book resulting from these galleys, becomes the design for the Goliard/Grossman Maximus and this dictates, decides, the format of The Maximus Poems as issued by the University of California. That edition incorporates (for instance) three em-dash conventions. The one that gives most trouble (as uncaught en-dashes for hyphens) is the en-dash with the space on each side, established here by Barry Hall. I’ve looked only sketchily at the IV, V, VItypescript MS at Simon Fraser, but carefully at both sides of every galley page, scribbled and scribbled on by Olson, and it’s obvious (especially if, as I say, you’ve set a lot of postmodern type) that Olson is fighting to get something that looks like his poems at all, and has no energy left for fine points. When he proposes a Havana seegar to Hall it’s for a tiny section that almost happens (to my eye by luck) to set something like what he wants. His hope that this might happen for the rest of it is, by the time he gets galley pages, impractical.

SELECTIONS, CHARLES OLSON CORRESPONDENCE with BARRY HALL of Cape Goliard, London (originals in Simon Fraser University Library. Square brackets are Olson’s.)


My Dear Barry:

Definitely either the Bembo or the Garamond, & curiously am I cock-eyed but the Bembo seems to keep an energy going which the Garamond seems to sit back from (it [the Bembo’s energy] shows, it seems to my eye, in less of a disunion in the spaces between the lines(?)

At the same time, on the face of it the Garamond is the more conservative & dependable possibly over a whole book?   —Cld you therefore give me one more sample [& take a chunk of lines from somethingdifficult . . .] & where the lines are long and give me the same passage set in the two types, to make further decision by?

I hope that will not hang you up — & will make altogether, in the end, a better book between us.


(February 7th)

Thursday  — February 22nd


Dear Barry — Having a hell of a time trying to make up my mind between those two — and I honestly want the conservatism of the Garamond [at the same time as every fresh time I look at the Bembo I amarrested by some activity there which, in truth, the Garamond then seems to lack]

But at that time I think the verse itself should do its own work anyway, & the lighter the cover the more the verse should show!

It would be only if I were in the shop, & lifted by the new act of setting that I cld tell.


I’m going to post this off to you, so that there is

no further delay [48 hrs]

[it caught me when I was

not in good condition,

and still am off]

— and yet it is no decision.


It is an agony and either only if I saw more — or we cld thrash it out by test-runs. . . .

I’ll simply dispatch this,

Yours      Charles

Friday July 21

Barry — Simply so you know where we are [by July 15th, as you requested] on the proofs:


actually the typos are very few, and the main job has turned out to be to re-paste most every page for the reason you also yourself have stated: that the Bembo type chosen so shortens my lines that that ‘flat’ literal effect those poems require, has had to be achieved (so far as it is possible, given the shortening of the line (plus reason 2, below)] by re-organizing [as against both my original & your fair attempt to duplicate it] the position of each poem, (1) on each page, & (2) compared, on the left & the right page, in each pair, facing each other, to each other.

                              The real agony — what I mean above by Reason 2, is the bloody Bembo double-space [actually also the leading of single-space] is too open for my harder taste either in this font — or in some necessity of modern type-setting I don’t understand.

That is, that same flatness (& strung-out quality I want, & require, to make my staves show any reader what is the exact condition of these letters, syllables words, & how they sound to the silent ear) is be-devilled throughout by too wide a space between single-space lines, in the first place —— & horror & hell itself where my double-space has been duplicated by your Bembo d.s.

                              I have adjusted, as best I could —crying, in some cases, as page after page (in notes to yourself) out to you if there isn’t some 1 1/2 space or some way to shrink or sweat the leading. [In most cases I have just had to abandon double-spaces.]

                                                                         . . . I average at best 33 pages a day — & as you know, I was somewhat held up by that hospital spell. . . .

The problem then is mainly this leading — & anything you can possibly do to improve it — to dry out the over-distance between lines, will give us both a better press and, for me, a longer life of my poems.

Yours, to be on to vou,



I’m now wondering about Olson’s constant changes in page proof to italic in IV, V, VI. His standard marginal note for this reads “not Italic — underlined [cf. Mss.]” You see it apposed to padma (proof page 17), again on p. 18, and even for titles, as “Maximus further on (December 28th 1959)”. It’s everywhere, and I wonder if it’s less an idiosyncrasy than a reaction to the space-eating (and light-bodied) nature of Bembo italic. What’s odd is the self-righteous tone of his “[cf. Mss.]”, as if printers wouldn’t automatically set underlined typescript in italic.

MS page 15 (page proof 21) shows Olson double-spacing a short-line poem, and indicating stanza breaks only by one additional notch (a half-space) on the typewriter. The printer catches the second but ignores the first. Olson’s note reads, “reset as single space between lines — & only double as parts of stanzas [marked” — his interstanza marks are large checks. But there is a fuller note: “[in other words re-set as single space — or if at all possible 1 1/2 [and then, if 1 1/2 possible, do the same to last two couplets page before]” (MS p. 14, proof p. 20).

On the tiny poem on page proof 24 Olson’s pleases are underlined four times: “Very important to see if spaces can be impeccably right here — please follow Mss, please . . . less space please!!! . . . reduce leadingto something like 1 1/2 space if at all possible!!! [It looks too — juicy!]”

Just as a sample, proof page 12 is an instance of multiple indention carried from typescript page to page (MS 5-6); the printer treated p. 6 as a new problem. Olson’s notes for the two floating sections are. “Move to Left [shd be in line with last passage on previous page” and “ditto”.

Lastly, and again to my eye, it seems Hall is giving Olson everywhere the minimal interword spacing, the opposite of what he wants. This is one reason the single-space Bembo is such a thicket, and it contributes everywhere to the shortening of Olson’s lines.


                                                                                                       Gerald Burns

Note: This was the paper I wrote up from my notes in 1984 in Vancouver. In 1986 it appeared in Exquisite Corpse #15, a bit cavalierly typeset, as often happens to pieces about typesetting. If there are mis-strikes in this I’m sorry: the furnace is off and my fingers are cold. —GB             5.19.96