The Distances

Charles Olson

‘The Distances’ by Charles Olsen present a complex, haunting meditation on the darker sides of love.


Charles Olson

Nationality: American

Charles Olson was an innovative poet, influential in postmodern American poetry.

His work bridged modernism and postmodernism in American poetry.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Love conquers all

Themes: Death, Desire, Love

Speaker: Likely the poet

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Olson’s powerful is poem capable of provoking both thought and emotion despite feeling cryptic at times.

This is a difficult poem about desire, death, and the unwholesome effects these realities can have on humans. The cure to the afflictions they bring, Olson suggests, is love. Indeed, while the poem’s mood could be justly described as fairly dark, it ends on an optimistic note by invoking the miraculous power of love.  


‘The Distances’ first appeared in 1960 in the journal Yugen, edited by the Afro-American writer Amiri Barka (back then, still known by his birth name, Leroi Jones). It reappeared that same year in a collection Olson brought out with Grove. The poem brings the collection to a close and gives it its name.

The poem is composed in the form of a cyclical meditation on emotions. It is a series of general and somewhat enigmatic thoughts on love at the start and is followed by what one might call a story of love gone (way) too far.

Subsequently, a semi-allegorical sequence is described. The poet depicts young men visiting what appears to be a kind of underground shrine. Further proclamations of a more general nature accompany this episode. Finally, the Goddess Aphrodite is invoked and asked to heal the “impossible distance,” which is the poem’s actual subject. She appears to grant the wish.

Structure and Form

The poem is written in free verse, common for its time (and still largely used today). Staples of older poetry, like meter and rhyme, are set to the side in favor of this form.

Olson is famous for his influential essay “Projective Verse” (1950), the insights of which “flowered,” as the critic James Rother prettily puts it, “into a mantra that was to clutter the hind end of verse anthologies for decades.”

In that essay, when speaking about his opinion on poetic forms, Olson noted that “the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes” rather than from the set patterns handed down by tradition. This effort to build a poetic form out of the poet’s (and the reciter’s or reader’s) “breath” is perhaps this poem’s most distinctive formal feature.

Literary Devices

Along with the older rhythms, conventional poetic figures and effects are also missing in this poem. Metaphor is glaringly absent, and one would be hard-pressed even to find an image or two whose quality or function corresponds to the more usual expectations one might have of a poem.

In a lecture he gave a couple of years after the publication of ‘The Distances,’ Olson would present all these as tired tropes meditating, and therefore inhibiting, one’s direct experience of the world – as factors, indeed, of “distance.”

The poem systematically avoids what is traditionally held to confer poetic quality on a text. Nevertheless, one might identify traces of this shunned poeticness, though for that, one would have to go beyond the poem’s immediate deployment. In a broader sense, for instance, one may note that the alignment of sculpture and its material, stone, to an idea of distance is metaphorical.

Detailed Analysis

Since Olson also spurns the use of stanzas, this analysis will divide the poem into thematic sections to be discussed in some detail.

Section 1: Lines 1-13

So the distances are Galatea
– Pygmalions  

The critic Gary Grieve-Carlson has written that “Charles Olson’s poems are notorious for their obscure or esoteric references, and for their clotted, sometimes bizarre syntax and punctuation.” The opening line of ‘The Distances‘ would arguably serve by itself to vindicate this appraisal, being sufficiently obscure, esoteric, and syntactically bizarre at the same time.

Galatea is a mythic figure: a statue coming to life following a prayer to Aphrodite by Pygmalion. The latter was a sculptor who created the said statue in accordance with his ideal of female perfection. Without going into detail about this Greek myth and its variations, one may note, first, the idea of adoring the inanimate (or indeed the dead) and, secondly, the idea of the latter coming to life.

The fact that “the distances are Galatea” but at the same time “Love knows no distance” might already indicate that one’s supposed love may actually not be that but rather an adoration of lifeless matter, idolatry, and a drive to “mastery” on the part not only of Pygmalion but of men young and old, fathers and sons, “Old Zeus” and “young Augustus.”

Men, entranced by a projected ideal of beauty and thereby diverting themselves from “the horror” of death (which is in this sense “a loving matter”), are thrown into a “greedy life” in which “all living things” (a fine figuration of the objects of a greedy individual’s desire) are “precious.” Given the context of greed, “precious” probably retains here something of its literal meaning of “costly.” Indeed, one is tempted to think of the way the term is used by Tolkien’s (cinematic) Gollum!     

Section 2: Lines 14-18

a German inventor in Key West
he stole the body again from the vault

Thanks to scholarship on Olson’s work, we know that this is, in its substance, a true story from 1940s Florida. It seems, indeed, that, as if to heighten the anecdote’s relevance to Pygmalion’s myth, the “inventor” in question (actually an X-ray technician called Karl Tanzler), at some point, started replacing the decomposing parts of his dead paramour with plaster casts!  

Another literary “intertext” here is, of course, Faulkner’s famous short story “A Rose for Emily”. In both cases (but also, if to a lesser extent, in Pygmalion’s myth), love as “control” and “mastery” reaches a gruesome extreme.

Section 3: Lines 19-45

Torso on torso in either direction
o Caesar?

It seems that for “young Augustus,” there are two possible paths – “out” and “in” – which one could call, respectively, action in the world and soul-searching. The second path takes one “down La Cluny’s steps.”

Again owing to scholars who have tilled the field, we know that Hotel de Cluny is a medieval Parisian building and that this is a reference to Moby Dick (Olson was an expert on Melville, who was the subject of his first major book publication). Melville, and Olson after him, envisages an underground descent (a classic figure for descent into the self). There, one encounters “a god throned on torsoes” (Olson’s retention of the archaic, Melvillian spelling was presumably a hint as to this sequence’s origin) who is, of course, “old Zeus”.

This subterranean journey to the patriarchic origins of manhood, however, fails “to undo distance.” In the end, “[y]ou can teach the young nothing,” while the old fare no better either. The latter achieve an understanding of love when it is too late, when it no longer has an “object,” when distance can no longer be undone.

The former, victims of “the distances” in another sense, “have all pressed” to their “nose / which is too close.” This is surely a fine figure for what one conventionally thinks of as the myopia of young age. Both, then, are doomed to the necrophiliac pleasure of keeping “the corpse live by all” their “arts.”

Section 4: Lines 46-55

O love who places all where each is, as they are, for every moment,
stone. Love this man.

Faced with actual failure and bleak prospects of success, the speaker resorts to a reprise of Pygmalion’s prayer to the Goddess that stone become flesh, “that the impossible distance / be healed.” Magically, it works!


What is the tone of this poem?

The tone of ‘The Distances‘ is subtly ironic and ambivalent.

Is this poem typical of Olson’s output?

Yes. ‘The Distances,’ and the collection by the same name, appeared contemporaneously with the first part of Olson’s most famous work, The Maximus Poems (1960). The two can be said to have emerged from the same conceptual matrix.

What type of poem is ‘The Distances?’

The Distances‘ could be called a poetic meditation.

What happens at the end of this poem?

At the end of ‘The Distances‘ the speaker’s wish is granted by Aphrodite. Stone awakes. However, the precise nature of this miracle is left for the reader to determine.

Similar Poetry

A few examples of poems one could read alongside ‘The Distances‘ are:

Poetry+ Review Corner

The Distances

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Charles Olson (poems)

Charles Olson

Charles Olson was a poet, an essayist, and an academic. He is noted for his experimental verse, his association with the Black Mountain school, and his critical and theoretical output. Olson first made a name for himself with Call Me Ismahel (1947), a study of Moby Dick, but the work he is best known for is The Maximus Poems, a postmodern epic that appeared in several installments. This poem is a fantastic example of his work, its complexity, and its beauty. It's a great starting point for someone interested in exploring his writing.
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20th Century

This poem appeared towards the end of the 1950s, a decade usually considered to have been conformist and, so to speak, a little sleepy. While it is certainly not the most memorable poem of that period, it does register something of that atmosphere of quietude. Prophetic outbursts like Ginsberg’s notwithstanding, one might say that the 50s were not the time for declamation but restraint, and the poem’s obliqueness and, as it were, unobtrusiveness reflects that.
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Olson’s collection and the eponymous poem appeared at a turning point in American letters – during a time of transition from late modernist to postmodern poetry. As an exemplification of the influential poetical theory that undergirded the poem’s experimental gestures, “The Distances” may be said to have played a significant role in promoting that passage.
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Olson seems to suggest that it is, at the end of the day, the fear of death that pushes one into the vain quests after mastery and control that may result in the (touching) perversity of the sort exemplified by the story of “the inventor.” Death is the ultimate “distance” from oneself and from others. This is the source of its “horror,” which we cannot “bide” and which the poem explores in an effective, if not too straightforward, manner.
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If death is the cause, desire is the motor of the self’s endless peregrinations away from itself. The implication is that these searches are not only misguided but, in a sense, perverse – caresses of stone cheeks and faces, necrophilist rites, and botched resuscitations of corpses. The idea that “Death is a loving matter, then,” is an ironic hint as to this connection. Desire and death are flipsides of one coin. Desire, the poem seems to indicate, is death wandering from and then returning to itself.
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Love is the solution to the afflictions visited upon young and old. It miraculously heals “the impossible distance.” “Old Zeus” or “young Augustus” is now “enclosed,” no longer prey to the compulsive urge to span it. Still, whether this means that the ideal (“stone”) has come to life or, on the contrary, that life has come, so to speak, to the ideal is something that readers must decide for themselves.
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Loving Someone You Can't Have

The poem would appear to suggest that what one often mistakes for love is actually a concealed will to master or control and a release of greed. Short, then, of the type of miracle that allows stone as much as oneself to awake, and since greed is by its nature unquenchable, “love” is often unrequited love of someone one can’t have.
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Missing Someone

As with unrequited love, in this instance, one may say that all love is missing and a lack that one strives in vain to assuage by various deviant practices (“your arts”) which are, in their essence, idolatrous and cultic. Again, only what the poem seems to understand as a miracle, while unfortunately refusing to explain it further, is capable of replenishing the void created by this everlasting nostalgia for whoever, or whatever, this “someone” may be.
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This poem contains a good deal of intensity. Death and its horror are openly evoked, depravities are committed in the name of love, and journeys are undertaken to the center of the earth… There is no doubt, then, that after all these vicissitudes, the beautifully phrased lysis provided by the Goddess’s ex machina intercession on behalf of the afflicted lover(s) produces in the reader a welcome feeling of relief!
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Although finding an interest in art as such in 'The Distances' might not be too easy, the possibility certainly exists of reading the poem along such lines. After all, Pygmalion and Galatea, who are without a doubt the protagonists here, were an artist and an artefact respectively. Moreover, an understanding of artifice and technique as imprisoning forces might provide a connection to the larger theme of love that the poem explores.
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Beautiful Women

In Galatea, one remembers, Pygmalion created something like the fairest of all women. However, irrespective of what the myth might mean to audiences closer to the time of its appearance, in Olson’s hands, this act of creation is much more Frankensteinian than it is dreamlike or utopian. While not necessarily condemning beauty or holding it to lie in the eye of the beholder, then, one can probably say that, in the poem’s terms, it is unreal till the stone has turned to flesh.
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In the poem, the young men’s hopeful pilgrimage to the underground seat of the “god throned on torsoes” is not rewarded with success, for finally, we are told, “You can teach the young nothing.” However, if divine instruction is thus shown to lead nowhere, what solution the poem does offer to the predicament it depicts still only comes in the form of Aphrodite’s divine intervention.
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Growing Up

As an alternative to the “spiritual,” godly reading, one can argue that tranquil stasis or, in the poem’s own terms, the “enclosure” of desire is, in fact, an effect of growing up – broadly understood. Indeed, while the poem presents both young and old as equally victimized by the flights of fancy that create the illusion of distance, perhaps the miraculous transformation of stone to something real is, after all, simply a function of maturity.
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Free Verse

This poem present a fine illustration of Olson’s theory that a poem can be constructed around the principle of following one’s own rhyme and reason, so to speak, rather than forms already provided. Considering the influence that his ideas of “the breath” as creator of the line would have on other poets, the success of experiments like this one, however marred by a certain mistiness (deliberate or not is hard to say), were a significant achievement.
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It should be clear from what has been said so far that 'The Distances' is an experimental work espousing a kind of lyricism that, for want of a better term, one might call "different." Nevertheless, if one puts aside the manner of its formal deployment, one sees that its other characteristics – such as its brevity, its contemplative mood, and even what one might call its tenderness – all pertain to the lyrical. There seems, in fact, to be little possibility of describing it by another epithet.
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Alexandros Mantzaris Poetry Expert
Alexandros Mantzaris is a freelance writer and a lover of poetry. He has published scholarly articles on literary subjects as well as various book reviews. He holds a PhD in English (American Literarure).

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