Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Birthday: "I don't live for poetry. I live far more than anybody else does."

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Charles Olson (1910-1970)

"It's as though you were hearing for the first time—who knows what a poem ought to sound like? until it's thar? And how do you get it thar ezcept as you do— you, and nobody else (who's a poet?. . .)"

A great shambling bear of a man, Olson was six feet, eight inches tall. When I entered St Andrews Presbyterian College in 1974, he had been dead four and a half years, but around the Athens of Scotland County, as I called the college, he was alive, roaring, and revelling in his role as a tutelary god. St Andrews was seized of the idea that it was the heir of Black Mountain College- where Olson thrived in the mid-1950s. For a decade everyone who had had anything to do with BMC made his or her way through the college, which opened five years after Black Mountain closed.

Olson’s poetry lent itself to student writing. By so individualizing the experience, and expression, of poetry, to the unique situation of its author, he made it easy to write really bad poetry in the latest style. He also made it bulletproof when it came to criticism or incomprehension. If you didn’t see the point of a poem, or just didn’t get it, the fault was in your stars, no one else’s. There were days I remember thinking that, to be an English major at St Andrews, you needed to already hold an English degree from somewhere else, so much was there to know to impress others with what the others didn’t know.

“Projective Poetry,” Olson called his work. Robert Creeley interpreted:

What he is trying to say is that the heart is a basic instance not only of rhythm, but it is the base of the measure of rhythms for all men in the way heartbeat is like the metronome in their whole system. So that when he says the heart by way of the breath to the line, he is trying to say that it is in the line that the basic rhythmic scoring takes place. . . . Now, the head, the intelligence by way of the ear to the syllable—which he calls also 'the king and pin'—is the unit upon which all builds. The heart, then, stands, as the primary feeling term. The head, in contrast, is discriminating. It is discriminating by way of what it hears." Olson believes that "in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!" So, all the conventions that "logic has forced on syntax must be broken open as quietly as must the too set feet of the old line."

A Poetry Foundation review explains that

Olson did not consider himself "a poet" or "a writer" by profession, but rather that nebulous and rare "archaeologist of morning," reminiscent of Thoreau. He wrote on a typewriter. "It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pause, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work."


He didn’t take up poetry until he was thirty. Olson made a tour of Europe on an oratory scholarship in the early ‘30s, took his BA and MA from Wesleyan University, and did everything but his dissertation in Harvard. He was a promising young man, and won a Guggenheim Fellowship twice, in 1939 and 1948.

He moved to New York, married, and did a stint as executive director of the ALCU before moving to DC to work in the Foreign Languages Division of the federal Office of War Information.  In 1944 he moved to the Democratic National Committee and was an activist in the fourth Roosevelt campaign, but then Roosevelt died. Harry Truman was not at all to Olson’s taste, so he resigned his job, and turned his back on politics.

Olson was a regular caller on Ezra Pound once the treason-charged poet was installed at St Elizabeth’s, and reworked his MA dissertation into his highly-regarded study of Moby Dick, Call Me Ishmael (1947).  A 1950 essay, “Projective Poetry,” was a manifesto for the new age, taking the banner of Modernism to war against the print-focused, metered, rhyming, classicist poetry of the previous 300 years. The typewriter was Everyman’s printing press, allowing him to revert back to the oral traditions of poetry: how it sounded, rather than how it looked, translated from the preliterate ages to the modern one of the make-your-own, one-off, book of the late 20th century. It’s a provocative notion, and one whose full potential we are only beginning to see in the hyper-individualized world of social media and self-publishing, where everyone can say everything to everybody.


He landed a visiting professorship at the experimental Black Mountain College in 1951, and rose quickly to the post of rector. And, in the Black Mountain spirit, he had an affair with a student, fathered a child, and married the woman before getting to divorcing the first one.

Black Mountain folded in 1956, and Olson moved back to Gloucester, Massachusetts, his childhood home. Taking Pound’s cantos as a platform, Olson made the seaport his muse, and spent twenty years creating his Maximus Poems, a long work encompassing what Douglas Adams called “life, the universe, and everything.” He completed it shortly before his death, and it cemented his reputation as a major force in Modernist poetry.

It was also complicated and maddeningly obscure, a bridge between Pound and William Carlos Williams on the one hand, and the Beats, the San Francisco poets and- above all the poets of the Black Mountain years, on the other (He was a prodigious correspondent: his papers at the University of Connecticut contain over 10,000 letters, with poets from T.S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg to LeRoi Jones. His published correspondence with the poet Robert Creeley alone runs to nine volumes).

At Gloucester Olson was a semi-pro community activist, his interests ranging from historic preservation to frequent letters to the editor. He held a couple of academic appointments, and veered between reclusiveness (he was prone to leave notes on his door for people he’d agreed to see, asking them to come back) and drunkenness (more door notes). Before he died, of liver cancer, at 59, he gave one of the strange interviews in The Paris Review’s “The Art of Poetry” series (No. 12, 1970):

Do you find that one new word that comes to mind alters the whole picture, and you are obliged to rebuild the poem completely?


I do think that’s true absolutely—on the instant I begin a poem. But you know I am a little bit like Plutarch, or somebody. I write a poem simply to create a mode of a priesthood in a church forever, so that a poem for me is simply the first sound realized in the modality of being. If you want to talk about actuality, let’s talk about actuality. And it falleth like a doom upon us all. But it falleth from above, and if that’s not straight the whole thing is doodled and if straight then you can modality all you want. You can do anything, literally. Right? That I think is one of the exciting possibilities of the present. Modal throughout—that’s what I love about today’s kids. I like them because I think they’re modaled throughout. I don’t think their teachers are at all. I mean I’m almost like astringent here. I sit back in my lollipop Gloucester and don’t do anything. A dirty lousy cop-out. I remember way back when I was young, ten years ago. I was lobbing ’em in. Now it’s the Vietnam War. Dig? You follow me? It was marvelous. Playing catch, if I may say that—with a European audience as well. But I mean catch—we were playing catch. And he’s a goddamn nice fielder. All that Jewish Bronx shit. I don’t mean because it’s Jewish. It’s this late Jewish, late east Bronx literature which to a geologist like me is just uninteresting. A geochronologist geologist. The world machines—that’s what they got now. The world machines. When will government cease being a nuisance to everybody.

Me? I took degrees in philosophy, politics and economics, and have retained UN Observer status on the fringes of poetry. I have had the good sense never to let a single verse, projectile or otherwise, escape into the wild, either.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Charles Olson #Maximus

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