- Charles Olson, Gloucester Harbor, early 1960s
- photograph by Jonathan Williams
Im bugged mostly by the past. Christ. To get rid of it. To get on... Anyhow, Im bullisheven if at the moment if you waz in this room youd think... it looks like a bear... Who wants to do anything but publish what they have written? Selah? Adam? Huzzah?
Thats Olson writing me from Gloucester about eighteen years ago. And its very much the way I have been feeling for a whilestuck down here at the bottom of the Poetic Augean Stables, having to use a spade that is one tenth the size needed just to keep each day from turning into a cloaca.
Olson again: You mustnt mind so much if I dont write you. Aint I got no credit in yr dept.? Im still in the throes of shriving myself of the Good Mtand by god I need letters fr my friends. ... Besides, Im guilty. You ask me to do a thing and I havent yet been able to get my own things done. So there I am failing you. Thats too much. You have to give me a break. Or bust me for it.
The editor of Parnassus, Herb Leibowitz, the Ineluctable, busts me by telephone, so theres nothing to do but what little I can to give a sense of what Charles Olson was like as teacher, friend, and counselor, back in the time of Black Mountain. I have never said much about the Big 0. (What a language we have. Here in 1976 The Big 0 would resonate in most citizens minds as either (1) Oscar Robertson; (2) the myth of the female orgasm; or (3) a national chain of tire stores.) In print there are comments in taped interviews for Martin Dubermans Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. And there is the Funerary Ode for Charles Olson at the end of a sequence of poems in The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ (Poems 196870)a work that is too rancorous and diffuse and one I cannot read in public. Reasons for this reticence come to mind: the woods are already full of scholiasts busy making the canon; we came to grief after the publishing of the first three books of The Maximus Poems and started playing Lazy Southerner and Imperious Yankee; Olson and I hardly met the last ten years of his life. Looking, now, over some one hundred letters from CO in my archives makes me feel even worse about the rupture than I did at the time.
When I walked into the dining hall at BMC, one lunchtime early in July, 1951, I knew that the man talking to my friend from Princeton days, Ben Shahn, had to be Charles Olson. A month earlier I had never heard his name. But in Colorado Springs, Emerson Woelifer, the painter, had said: Youre gonna like Charlie. Hes a tremendous big guy. Used to be a postman in Gloucester. And he writes and talks in ways youve never heard. So, when he stood up to display his amplitude (six feet nine, 245 pounds) and his courtliness of manner, the first things to strike me were the literal charm of the man and the intensity with which he peered at the human subjects in front of those big, thick glasses of his. The high energy transfer he asked of poems was what was already built into his nervous system and physiognomy.
I came to Blk Mtn in my 1940 Lincoln Zephyr, The Golden Fury, fresh from a month in the Westmy first visits with Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco and Henry Miller in Big Sur. The poetry I brought into Olsons class was a remarkably turgid maceration of strands from Kenneth Patchen, e. e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Robinson Jeffers, science fiction, and the eldritch H. P. Lovecraft. One embarrassing, blessedly brief example was titled, I think, Auturrinal:
the fog, falling, came like a gold singing snake
to bite the heads off anguish...
scales dragging through the bloody fruit,
and silence a rain in the woods
Hmmmmmperhaps only Orpheus himself knows what adolescent phallic wonderment that is all about? Anyway, Olson gritted his scrimshaw dentures and, for a start, made out a list of people to read: Stevens, W C. Williams, Pound, Miss Moore, Lawrence, Hardy, Shakespeare, Melville, Dantes De Vulgari Eloquentia. And Fenollosa and Chinese verse. Of newer contemporaries in 1951 he selected just four (besides himself). Of experimental bent: Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. (I already knew two books of Duncans and had just tried to visit him in San Francisco with no success.) Of classical bent: W. S. Merwin (Merwin was very surprised to hear this when we met for the first time in Charlotte, North Carolina, last month) and a man named Laurence Richardson who had been publishing poems in the Yale Poetry Review/Poetry New York, presided over by such editors as Rolf Fjelde, Harvey Shapiro, and Roger Shattuck. It is my recollection that Richardson went into some such study as archeology. I have not seen poems of his since. (One scholar: front and center!)
The marginal comments made scrupulously and magnanimously by Olson on piles of fledgling JW poems give a very clear sense of his care. No blarney and no mush. They amount to a useful guide for any of us, now including me. Here are some of them, starting in the summer of 1951 and running through spring of 1955.
ugh oh yeah?
go on! you sure?
too much description, too RU-MAN-TICK
This is by far the most enjoyableand surely because it is closer to a single observation AND a feeling, eh?
have you added anything of equal force to Vanzetti? if not, why add?
aw, ga-wan.. . absolutely separated from what you arehave to offer, whatever
too easynot significant detail: NOT objects, merely materials.., here, is what poem there is.
you shall have to watch
(as all of us, these) that
the old rugs all
been slipped out from
why so many look
for the old
the study is,
to have it in
some new ways, why
ones own document,
at least: no he!
again (as in Weeks Hall poem) feeling of loss comfort consideration comes through: these are yr emotions! And so it worksmaybe Elegies are yr other form (beside the raising of the Low Pun to the High Coup?
3) write words
4) give a dam for others) 4a) we-we
5) be obscure
this is beating yourselfwhich is also a form of negative feeling! You must know all of us are beat. So it comes out the bluesto he risen against
but here, surely, much is NOTSAID: why not SAYIT!!
lovely, without MORE
you have yr blood, as another: leave the seasons to whats theirs: it definitely, physiologically, aint blood
a throw-back to yr earlier so poetic style... obvious, eh... a pumpedup verball such bursts with the pin of the readers attention (fake radicalism)
MacLeish, or somebody: the counters are too large, blown up
& lawd, he always cautions abt literary referencesunless egg-zack-tly
first to say, you do
is, fresh lines: the verbalism
of the trade
the rest is.
the continued use of the same PLUS
the getting in behind it what
who has words for it except
an amount of what another knows
is the experience of
FIND OUT YOUR OWN CONSERVATISM. Dont at all be uncomfortable in quietness. For it is now a most telling virtue (after all radicalism, and bohemianismand false conservatismhave shown themselves to offer nobody anything...
sure I steer you right to urge you back to yr own inherited, & possessed, quietness
(yr desire for fine paper, & for fine
type, is damned healthy
And you mustnt, beyond that point, lose the
same distinction (by craving too much change, & excitement dramain how paper, color, type is used
It should be
worn like any virtue, not on the sleeve of itself. The professional merely does his joband lets others find out how to dig it.
Well, Im sure sounding off, today. But we played a ball game against the town American Legion Juniors last night. And I, for one, missed yr style!The way you play baseball is the way...
It was wild
badly we played. The baubles! And these quiet kids made us look like
It was sad, it was sad when that great ship went...
to the bottom
Have I caught us up on all? I hope so. And please take all of this as over the fencenot at all as complaint, or in any way pressure on you, on the Max:
I think you know me well enuf to know I want the whole fucking job to be yrsthar you have the pleasure of, the jaunt. I only offer you what I know. Luf, 0
That final entry was most of a letter, which had branched from poems to beisbol to how to publish. (Someone could make a textbook on typography just from Olsons attentiveness to Maximus and his response to what I tried to offer him as an almost outrageous beginner. Between us, and the good offices of Dr. Cantzsche Druckerei of Bad Cannstatt, Germany, there would never again be any excuse to make a slipshod or meagre or ordinary book in Jargons series.)
As for the poems, there seemed to be Hope. I took another five years to achieve the Personal Voice, something somehow assembled into a bizarre olla podrida, containing hunks of Cabeza de Vaca, Bartram, Thoreau, Whitman, Courbet, de Kooning, Kline, Catullus, Delius, Fauni, Ives, Jelly Roll Morton, Lou Harrison, T. Jefferson. Thats Democracy In Action for you. And Olson had made it possible. The clues came not so much from those cryptic equations on the blackboard (typos/topos/tropos; or, Mechanics + Function vs. Discussion + History) as from seeing him operate in the skin.
The Saturday nights at BMC playing pokera skill he claimed to have polished on the campaign trains with Roosevelt, whistle-stopping the nation. Classy, no matter what lousy cards . . . Watching Charles serve as first baseman so vast that almost nobody could throw the softball past him into Lake Eden... Olson dining at the Old Heidelberg on Beaucatcher Mountain in Asheville, with those lovely public airs of his. Wearing his last $125 sportscoat from days in the Democratic party and a salary. Barely intact, but more so than his gray flannels with the gaping tears in them he would try to hide as best his bulk would allow. . . Olson at the Isis Theater one Sunday night in West Asheville. Wed just seen that great flick, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There were gasps when the lights went up and the great man rose with his traditional wool blanket over his shoulders... . Olson at Griffith Stadium the night Big Jim Lemon hit three off Whirey Ford (in the presence of Dwight David Eisenhower, as well) and the Senators still lost to the Yankees: 123.
There is a lot to be learned from how a man plays poker or softball or treats waitresses in a restaurant. (I keep thinking that, finally, poetry is a branch of manners.) There was a lot to be learned when he confided over a beer one evening: The only requirement for a poet is to write fresh lines. Olson was neither a barbarian nor Crazy Uncle Heavy. One seldom ever has so keen a friend. I go occasionally to the fishermens cemetery outside Gloucester, look at that curious neo-seventeenth-century slate stone of his, and remark it more each time. Ah, si, hombre And the eyes get as wide as his were.
Highlands, North Carolina 1976