Charles Olson over the years
ANASTAS: There always seems to be that immediate response to Olson’s size that people talk about. What I’d like to ask the panelists about is Olson as a teacher. Ingeborg was his student, but I’m also interested in people talking about Olson as a teacher in less formal ways, or possibly hearing from Robert about teaching with Olson, as they were together at Black Mountain. Would you start a little bit, Ingeborg? What was he like as a teacher for you?
LAUTERSTEIN: I think that the reason why I did well as his student was I was like him in the sense that I was really an intuitive person. And he, I felt, was as suspicious of just factual learning and memorizing and all these things as I was. And so he was very flexible and intuitive and bombastic. He would talk about very highbrow things that we knew nothing about, and then we became interested. Everything was grand and fantastic, as I wanted it to be and as I thought America would be, and to me he was America. I just felt he was my Wizard of Oz, as I said in my article. He was just magic, because he was just larger than life person, you know.
ANASTAS: And you had never been to America before? . . . This was the first American school you ever saw?
LAUTERSTEIN: Yeah. I just thought: this is it. [Laughter] My parents let me go because they thought it was very safe. [Laughter] And it was. I’m not kidding. It was safe for someone who wants to be an artist to be in an environment where they are allowed to do what they want to do — because in Austria I was always told what I wasn’t supposed to do. I wasn’t supposed to be a dancer because at twenty-five I’d be finished; and I wasn’t supposed to be a painter because women were all mediocre, and writing you just ruin your eyes and never get married [Laughter]. Charles was interested in my dancing as much as my writing, and I remember the last time I saw him — I went to visit him later on, but the last time I saw him as a student, it was during a dance recital when he had to leave but he especially stayed because he wanted to see what I’d done as a dancer. He was interested in us completely. He spent his time with us, and he didn’t go off after his class. He was always with us and he was involved with us, in a really nice way, you know. I found him very decent and very kind in every way.
ANASTAS: Robert, what was it like teaching with Charles?
CREELEY: He was extraordinary. The simplest way to put it was that he had the sense that teachers’ responsibility is quote “suggestion” and students’ responsibility is “recognition.” That’s the function; and/or Mark Hopkins: student on one end of the log, teacher on other. In other words, he didn’t believe in a division or limiting of social determination. He also used to decry persistently that kind of teaching which reduces the information simply either to a reference or to some fact of description, and/or, as he puts it, doesn’t bring the energy of the initial material, doesn’t get that to the student, in other words, somehow sticks in the middle with the possessive and reductive disposition. He hated that in that it trashes what it attempts to convey — like Williams’s phrase: “Minds like beds always made up.” [Laughter] His absolute distaste for description or generality. I remember one extraordinary class he had at Black Mountain when I was there at the very end that began — I think the class met at seven in the evening and I remember it concluded finally at one the next afternoon. That was Charles, you know. [Laughter]
ANASTAS: I wanted to ask Ed, did you experience Olson in any way as a kind of a teacher in your friendship with him?
SANDERS: As soon as I read books like the great Projective Verse edition that came out around 1960 and Maximus, from Dogtown in 1960, and The Maximus Poems, I started writing him thereafter. I never studied with him, but you can tell when a person is a great teacher for you when you embed their works in your mind, along with Sappho, fragments of Homer, fragments of Byron, fragments of Emily Dickinson, and other fragments. So he was quickly fragmented in my mind with these mnemonic phrases. I felt for my generation he was what Heraclitus was to earlier generations of poets, a source of multi-century maxim, and in that way he was my teacher, although we reacted on a very personal way. I mean, I fixed him up with Janice Joplin once [Laughter], and we had some remarkable experiences in Dogtown in the fall of 1966. So we reacted on a kind of a caper level [Laughter]. But I always viewed him as my teacher and he lives in my mind to this day. I have hundreds of fragments of his work that live like living glyphs in my mind. So I was not into being a student, but what I enjoyed as a twenty-two-year-old man who had Hesiod’s Theogeny memorized — he related to me one on one as a friend, although he must have been fifty by then, and was able to assume that I was ready to receive all these letters he would write with his formulae and his economic theories. So I would say he was on the most elegant and grand scale the greatest teacher I personally have had.
ANASTAS: That’s wonderful. Jean, did you feel that you learnt something from Charles?
KAISER. Oh yes. I both sat in Charles’s classes at Buffalo and I used to sit at nights with him, and we start at the upper corner of that table, you know, and start history from the beginning. I mean, I loved history. But he never directly taught, which was always terrific, and he would say, since I was new to New England, “You should read . . . “ — his preference was Parkman. So I went out and looked for Parkman and bought the whole series, sat down and read them because they were like adventure stories. So one day we were talking about it and I said, “Oh yes — .” And then I went one book ahead of him [Laughter] and that was kind of fun, So he was — he was wicked difficult in the classroom, certainly to women, you know, I mean, 6’8” can be intimidating and threatening, and I’ve seen it happen where some of the class had to get up and leave in Buffalo because he was a little much, you know. But he was a wonderful teacher because he could trigger your mind into places you didn’t expect to be going. Held open doorways, and that was wonderful.
ANASTAS: That’s great. Hettie, what was your experience? Did you feel that you learned in some ways from Charles?
JONES: Well, absolutely. Ed just picked up this little Projective Verse which I just happen to have with me and asked if I had set the type for it. I didn’t actually set the type. I don’t know how we managed to afford to have the type set ‘cause we had about three cents at the time, but I remember preparing the manuscript and being utterly just turned on by the idea of Projective Verse. I was only two years out of a very traditional Southern woman’s college where I had learnt — my ex-husband used to call it my teacup college [Laughter] — and just happening upon this and the very idea that there was such a thing as Projective Verse, the universe opened. The idea — I use it again — reversing your question — I think of that when I teach students poetry now and I say:
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
and you can see their faces just ah!, like that. So it was just the same with me too: the idea of the opening of the field, the idea that there was such a thing and I could be part of — I really worked on that manuscript too. I don’t think there’s a mistake at all.
ANASTAS: I had come back to Gloucester in the summer of 1962. I had been studying in Europe, and I was thinking very seriously of going to Berkeley to do some graduate work in Italian, and I had received a fellowship. And I was telling Charles about it — we were in his kitchen, and he said, “Why do you want to go to Berkeley? There’s graduate school right here at this table!” So I never went to Berkeley [Laughter]. And there was graduate school at his kitchen table.
I want to ask folks to talk a little bit about the importance that Olson’s work had for them, either before that initial encounter that you had with Charles or after you got to know him. What importance does it have for you now? I’d like to start with Robert on that one.
CREELEY: To me it stays grounding bedrock in the same sense that Ed Sanders speaks of the fact of what he wrote, various pieces of it, staying in one’s mind forever. That never remarkably changed. I think the most particular transformation for me was when I realized he was fifteen years older than I was. I had imagined him as an absolute peer and contemporary, and I suddenly realized he was this other person who had written this extraordinary book Call Me Ishmael, and that he had, you know, both a range and a professionalism that I had not even yet begun to enter. And that was intimidating. But for whatever reason or circumstance our friendship had a remarkable opening capability for both of us. By which I mean simply he gave me the world and in a peculiar way I was able to help him in some similar way. He absolutely made the world for me, that’s it.
ANASTAS: That dialogue is so wonderfully dramatized in the volumes of your correspondence with Charles in the Black Sparrow series. I’ve been looking at those again recently, and it’s just so wonderful to see that, and to be able for all of us to have that to refer to and live with. I want to ask Ed: What’s the importance of Charles’s work for you?
SANDERS: Right now? His work as a city planner. He was the first guy that I ever knew that actually talked about protecting tidal wetlands. When I would visit him up here — and I used to come up now and then to hang out — he was the first guy I met that you went to the second restaurant after the first one [Laughter], first Chinese, then Italian, you’d have an arpeggio of restaurants. Well, anyway, we would take walks and he would point out things he wanted protected. And now I find myself thirty years later studying and thinking about what he did in my own bio-region in terms of conservation and protection. He was the first environmentalist I guess I really met and talked with.
And I read his poetry now, especially the shamanic-like later poems where he would rev himself up — it’s a technique I try to use myself sometimes. I like those later poems. I read his essays. I still read “Projective Verse” quite regularly and use it in lectures. I don’t know, I mooch off him, OK? [Laughter] He is the most elegant mooch you can find because he wasn’t a perfect guy, he had many foibles, but you dig in, in this data-retentive era, you dig into the private life of any man or woman, it gets pretty ghastly sometimes; but his pluses and his elegances and his great pithy, gnomic, maxim-based writing is worthwhile to study. It’s very difficult, and I’m just now learning to read some of these early poems and learning what they mean about that I sort of know but they’re like the Bible: you study the outside and wiggle your way into the inside, and it’s worth doing. He is a great writer, and a great American, and a great Roosevelt Democrat.
ANASTAS: Amen. [Applause] In this day and age of hating government, right? Vincent, what about the impact of Charles’s work on you, Charles as a poet?
FERRINI: For me to answer that question I have to read from this paper so that you’ll get a good sense of how this man affected me:
The air is a page you write on, as Charlie-o did, and I do. He called me his twin and said that we were co-kings. His astronomical signature is “Climb the Highest Mountain Barefoot”; mine is “Mermaid.” He’s of the head and I’m of the heart, exchanging them. He’s Capricorn; I’m a Cancer. This is the Tale of the Big Kid and the Little Kid. I’m with the women who say, “Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you feel.” He scolded me in three poems of the Maximus. If the roles were reversed I would have done what he did, only differently. [Laughter] We have a schizoid situation where everything is split, heart from head, mind from body, private from public, art from life. One of the Four Winds had a diagram where Gloucester is N42º37’ W70º40’. He has a poem in the Maximus in the shape of the diagram, which is like an upside down cross:
In Know Fish I have a poem in the same shape, only opposite, which says:
It is on top of his, and it is called “The Engine,” which together they are. The North Shore magazine of Gloucester Daily Times had two articles about Olson which singled out the summation of Charles Boer’s experiences as host to Charles’s stay at his house in his book Charles Olson in Connecticut, where he said: “There was no let up in your demand for attention. I began to be consumed by you. Drained, devoured.”
Now let’s go back a bit. In 1964 — I forget the date — I drove Charles, Betty and Charles Peter to the South Station, and Betty had not make up her mind to go with him to Buffalo. He chatted all the way, and at the last five minutes she decided to go. It changed their lives, all three of them. When I heard about the accident I went there immediately. After that, Charles was never the same. Deep in his guts he knew that he was facing an unsurmountable obstacle, knocked off that highest mountain. The last six years of his life were the loneliest I had ever seen anyone in. We met a number of times, and he was bowed because that mountain was on his back. He was a driven one. The daemon had its grip and his fate was inexorable. So don’t judge him if you have not lived in his flesh and bones and in his head.
Now if you want to understand the Maximus Poems you have to read George Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems. It’s all there, because he too gave his life to Olson. Without George, who died at forty-five, if I remember correctly, the works of Olson would be in the hands of other less gifted scholars. Then, who knows?
Charles Olson was the cross between black and light magic, and he drew his believers with his pleroma. Not long after he met me he read my books at the Lynn Public Library, and No Smoke, a graphic tale of Lynn during the great depression tolled a bell inside his eyes, and I am in Gloucester. I came back from the New York living wake with a copy of his Human Universe inscribed to Mary Shore and myself in a death’s hand. I was drenched to the marrow and, figuring the weight of eternity was going to get me, I gave that copy to Peter Anastas. I was caught up in him and he in me. I wrote a section of The Navigators, Book III of Know Fish, forty-six pages of “The Dreams/ or out of the body travelling with Maximus & some others.” Olson was a son of Hermes, one of the greatest of thieves. He could lift anything from anyone, and that person could never know except for another son of Hermes. The universities at large are afraid of Charles Olson because he is a teacher of teachers, and his method is dangerous to the status quo, a rebel education will catch up to when he’s buried long enough to be safe, and those authorities will choke on his words. There’s more going on than meets the eye or the ear. Olson was in a state of love, but he was intoxicated, very one-pointed. And so am I, star-studded, as those who are awake. [Applause]