Charles Olson over the years
ANASTAS: Thank you, Vincent. I’m going to ask anyone on the panel who would like to say something about this next question: Would you agree with the characterization that some have made of Olson as patriarchal? Anyone want to talk a little bit about that?
CREELEY: just briefly, Peter. I remember that when Fee Dawson was to publish his Black Mountain Book in which Fee configures or places Charles primarily as Father, Charles said, “If he publishes that I’m going to kill him, I’m going to go get him.” I mean, he did not seemingly enjoy or — he didn’t like the sense of being the Father, and yet I think, partly because of size and even more to the point because of situation, there were many men indeed who were claiming him as that resource or presence. He was not primarily a father in person, paradoxically. That wasn’t his guise or nature to be Father in primary sense. I think that was sadly a vulnerability.
ANASTAS: What about you, Ingeborg?
LAUTERSTEIN: Yes, I thought he was, definitely. But, you see, I knew him when he had just become a father. Also, I think that he was a father in a very grand sense, more a Prospero, you know, in the Shakespearean sense that he would move, use magic to save you, you know. Like, Prospero, he moved heaven and earth just to marry that silly girl off safely.
CREELEY: She was his daughter, you know. [Laughter]
LAUTERSTEIN: But anyway, Olson wanted us to be saved within ourselves, and it is in that sense I felt he was a father. He didn’t want us to leave and betray what we had found at Black Mountain College.
CREELEY: Well, I hear what you’re saying. I’m just saying in particular relationships he had seemingly a harder time. I remember he said once to me, “I need a college to think with;” and in some paradoxical sense he needed a college to live with also.
LAUTERSTEIN: Well, he didn’t have any responsibility when I knew him because the Europeans were running the school, and they had come away from so much danger they had a need to make it a safe Place. It was very orderly. He didn’t have to worry. He just came. He had a salary of $120 a month, and he came and went, and sometimes unexpectedly, and he had, I think, probably a lot of fun that year because he didn’t have any responsibility.
CREELEY: Well, again, as they used to say, he had a wife and — another old phrase — “hostages to fortune.”
LAUTERSTEIN: Well, she was only there once, as I remember.
CREELEY: Yeah, but — I don’t mean to make this some simplistic reduction by any means, but I think the kind of enlargement of Charles to some vatic, you know — Not to say, as you put it very aptly, as a student in relation to Charles in a particular context, he was an immensely engendering and supportive person. He could also be, as others have made clear, very destructive in that same role. He was — you know, he could swing his weight around and if you were on the other side of it it was very very unhappy.
LAUTERSTEIN: I think that the interesting thing that I found about him was that, although I was so different and came from such a different milieu, he was able to consider me so much that he made me translate the Lao-tse from German into English because he said this is the best translation. But actually he just wanted me to learn that it was good to yield and to be flexible, because this is the philosophy of the Lao-tse is the strength is to yield, you know. So I think it was not a coincidence that he gave me that.
CREELEY: No, no, I don’t . . .
KAISER: Peter, can I answer that?
ANASTAS: Please. I want you to.
KAISER: I agree with Bob. I don’t think that Charles was patriarchal at all, I do know that he hated that role that was given him, and his line to me was, “You are the only person who ever treats me as a man, and not the poet.” So he’s been given roles he didn’t want, but he could do nothing about that. I wouldn’t call him patriarchal at all. He might have been a lot of other things, but not that.
ANASTAS: What about you, Hettie?
JONES: Well, I just want to add to that, when I first met him I was a very rebellious young woman and I did not take very kindly to any man bossing me around at all, and I don’t think I would have warmed to Charles so immediately if I had had that sense from him. But what I mostly felt was his openness to consider me without that level in between and without those social roles. I remember watching him also, and thinking that, and being so impressed because I had met very few people who were older than I was who were large enough to allow people of different ages to function within a general societal role. I had come directly out of a patriarchal tradition, and I didn’t feel that from him at all.
ANASTAS: Ed, what about you? People have been talking about their take on whether or not Olson was patriarchal. What’s your sense, in your experience?
SANDERS: I don’t know what you — if you mean by “patriarchal” a bunch of elders creating a power zone to issue implied or direct suggestions or instructions, I didn’t have that kind of relationship with him. I think the issue dances around the core question of women in various art forms in the 40s, 30s and 50s. If you talk to women as I have recently who were involved in the New York painting school in the 50s and 60s, you’ll find that they had felt very slighted by the great male artists of the era, and I think a little bit of that is in the poetry world, and certainly the novel world, and most other artistic worlds, There has been surfacing lately the new movement of having women as conductors in music. So it’s the age-old question of testosterone dominating the world, and we are slowly coming to terms with it, and it is getting better. Olson wasn’t perfect in that regard, but you’ll remember that in his correspondence with Frances Boldereff and others that he was — and with you, with Hettie and other women I know about — able to carry on quite meaningful relations, equal relations, even deferential relations with women.
ANASTAS: Thanks, Ed. One of the things that people who knew Olson remember is his gentleness. He could be an incredibly loving and gentle person. One time during the summer of 1966 1 was coming out of the Post Office next door and Olson was sitting in the doorway of the then Central Grammar School with his lap full of mail. He’d been out of town and come to get his mail at the Post Office, and he was sitting there looking through all his mail. I was kind of depressed. My father-in-law had just died; I had been out of Gloucester and really was out of sorts; I was in graduate school at that time at Tufts and not very happy about it; and so I complained to Charles that I couldn’t get any writing done. Charles put his arm around me and looked down into my face and into my eyes, and he said, “Just live. The writing will take care of itself.” That has stood me in good stead. And it was an example of Charles’s gentleness.
I want us to talk a little bit — What do you think people in Gloucester, those of us living here today now, should know and memorialize on about Charles Olson? What do you think, Jean? What should we remember? What should we care about?
KAISER: About him? In relation to Gloucester it was — I mean, it was the love of his life to come back here. That was, I think, the only time I’ve seen Charles speak directly to a city and wanted to control it and dictate how all that should be saved and taken care of. You know, he just loved it, and all his work so much was built around it. I think he was an asset to the world just by that intelligence. As I always say he just — he had a very good sense of people. Without their knowing he would open up ways for you to see, and I always thought that remarkable.
ANASTAS: Thanks so much. Vincent, I wanted to ask you — and I wanted to ask Robert, because Robert has lived here too — and I think I’ll start with Robert, because you’ve been here and have a feel for this place.
CREELEY: Well, growing up in West Acton, for example, Gloucester was the edge of the sea, this attractive specific place, whether one had come in through Captains Courageous or, you know, Norman’s Woe, or whatever, the point was it was a very extraordinary place only that small distance finally from Acton. It seemed to me, for example, growing up in Acton, West Acton specifically, that the fact that Captain Isaac Davies made it to that, you know, that “by the rude bridge that arched the flood,” etc etc, that he had made it literally to the bridge in Concord, thus to dignify our terrific town forever, eight miles to the north, that that kind of presence or fact for a place really matters. It doesn’t give it simply a dignity, but it gives it a measure and a particularity. It’s what people do, after all, that qualifies what kinds of life and what kinds of relationships they have in a place. Olson’s immense use to Gloucester is the way he particularizes and locates the fact of Gloucester as a human community, much as Ed emphasizes the first environmentalist held ever met. Olson gives locus and name, and not just information but he particularizes; he lives here in the most actuating sense. As I came in the back road today — I came over through Essex — it was Charles characteristically who once gave me this lovely copy of Frame-Up!, the story of the Story’s ship-building, and writer in a little note: “A Hershey bar.” Then, coming on in, for example, I came past your terrific frame shop and the — you know, I began to look. I thought of the drive into Rocky Neck, which he used to be, etc etc, but the whole particularization of the place was so specific, from not just having Olson to tell me but Olson to locate, give me place, or orientate me, as he would put it. He’s an immensely actuating person in that way, initiating, absolutely to be valued, like the greatest aspects of Thoreau or anybody else who ever did this.
ANASTAS: What would you add, Vincent? What should we remember about Charles in Gloucester?
FERRINI: . . . except in the sense that when I dealt with Lynn, a shoe city, where I grew up, and I came to Gloucester and I realized I was in a place that was very close to me, and when I met him, he suddenly was already into his own life and Gloucester was his property. He was very possessive, as most people who come to Gloucester they find a specific view of the water, and they feel as though they own Gloucester.[Laughter] So he really owned Gloucester and it was his property. So I could see that there was a conflict between me and him along that idea that who was going to write about Gloucester. So all I can say is that we were both pig-headed. [Laughter]
ANASTAS: I was going to ask Hettie, because you approached some of Olson’s poetry, what would you like us in Gloucester to remember about Olson as a poet?
JONES: Well, I didn’t get to Gloucester — just to trace my own feeling about this — I didn’t get to Gloucester until, oh, almost a decade after I first read poetry about Gloucester, which had assumed this physical place in my mind, and I know there are a lot of people out there like me who know Gloucester through these poems and for whom the landmarks then come alive, as they always do with any story book. I remember reading — if I can digress a moment — the book Make Way for Ducklings to my children; then years later when we got to Boston and I took them to the Public Garden, they were ecstatic, “Here it is, here it is!” That’s the way I felt when I got here. People in Gloucester have this ready-made advertisement, if you just want to put it as simply as that. But you’ve been mythologized in a certain way, and your environs are alive for all time. And I say, “Glory in it.” That’s my advice, “Glory in it.”
ANASTAS: Ed, had you read the Maximus Poems before you came to Gloucester?
SANDERS: Yes, yes. But I think it’s proper for Gloucester to set up a Center in honor of its great poet, things like statues and walks, try to own the building where he lived. You know, I think that’s proper. They do it all over the world wherever you go, where Catullus was, or Ovid, or Emily Dickinson in Amherst, and other places. I think that’s appropriate, without making it too sentimental or hokey. I remember at his funeral, when he was in this funeral home, it proved to me what a person of the people he was. This guy walked in — my friend George Kimball had gone down to the fishermen’s bars and they were talking about Charles down there — and this guy walked in and he looked at Charlie — and he was not a poet, he was not a professor — he said, “Charlie, you’re beautiful!” And then he walked out. That to me is an emblem of what Gloucester can use on one level in treating of Charles. That is, he was from his early years in politics what he was. And then he came to this town, this city, as an act of complete love, and reached his soul and spirit out to all the streets. I remember him showing me those tidal wetlands and the buildings he wanted to save. I remember being in a restaurant with him once and he pointed across a cove and he said he had been into the city vault and had discovered that the land over there actually belonged to Gloucester and he was going to try to make sure that it became part of the city, as I remember. No one has loved a city — with some anger added — as Charles Olson loved this wonderful town. I call it a town because compared to New York City and Baltimore it just about is a town, but it is a city. I don’t know, all over the world people follow this town. I used to have up in my study a map of Gloucester harbor that Charles gave me years before I came here. So — I don’t know. It’s a difficult thing to honor a thorny poet, but he’s no thornier than Ovid. [Laughter]
CREELEY: Just as a quick footnote to Ed’s point, I just came from Auckland, New Zealand, and there was a young graduate student there I was working with on Charles Olson who came to the first meeting and brought out all these charts of your harbor, knew all the points of your town. That’s as far in the human universe as you can go.
ANASTAS: Was Olson’s activism part and parcel of his whole life? Or was it something he took on necessarily in Gloucester? Anybody like to speak to that?
LAUTERSTEIN: Yes. I think he was never a spectator. Wherever he went he jumped right in. I think that the reason why he should have meaning now is because the country has become more passive, a country of spectators almost like the Roman arena where people sit around and see what’s going on. The lions are tearing up human beings and so many people just sit and watch this and wait for the next ghastly thing to happen. Olson would not have sat back; he would be heard; he would have done something about it. I think this is why he is very important now.
ANASTAS: Anybody else have anything to say about this particular experience of Olson? Yes, Robert?
CREELEY: Yes, I knew he had a great antipathy for what he called epicene poets, poets who did not enter or participate directly in the conduct of the society, who were effectually provided for by, you know, its authority, and/or who looked at it quote “objectively!” “They can take no risk that matters, the risk of beauty least of all” — that sense. “I am no Greek, no Roman” — that sense of being apart in some peculiar way, he loathed that. As I understand it from his factual life he has consistently both habit and practice of politics. Politics are a very decisive part of his imagination and conduct. “Polis is this,” as he says, etc etc. So it does not seem to me that Gloucester was a singular instance of this practice and appetite, but a continuity of it.
FERRINI: Well, let me say something about that. To perceive something that is very close to you as he saw Gloucester, and he saw the failings when they came through and the inability of citizens to really see. Now what I mean by “see” is that the family, the self, and the community all work together. Now when a person’s vision is united his actions in the community affect him, the family, and the community. So, in other words, his intensity was such that few people could measure up to it. And when I say that many people are asleep it’s because they are unaware of the fact that they could have a vital impact on what takes place in society. So his vision was so clear that he was ahead of people, sometimes too far ahead, that’s why he probably wanted to teach the teachers: so that when he was gone they would teach him. So he was smart that way, because he had to get his vision across. So I think it’s really the intensity with which you perceive self and society that counts, and he had it acutely.
ANASTAS: Could we call The Maximus Poems a political poem in some way? I was speaking before we started the proceedings today with a woman who — she said, “I’ve been reading The Maximus Poems,” she said. “It’s tremendously political. There’s an anger there. There’s a wonderful anger that we need today.” Ed, you’ve been an activist for a long, long time in many kinds of ways, I mean, what’s your feeling?
SANDERS: Well, you can read from some of the Maximus poems concern for the local economy that is self-sustaining, that keeps up its boats, that keeps the money here that is not sucked out by out-of-town or out-of-state banking interests. I know he was concerned about what’s called now in proper circles “a sustainable economy.” So I can read in some of the poems there. The problem, as Charles so clearly focuses on, is that it is difficult to be both a historian and a poet. You have to brush away some of the quotidian, the daily toil and grind of politics, which is quite hideous in its daily exactitude to grab those universals, so his concerns would dip in and out of more universal themes that he brought to it through his researches in mythology and ancient cultures, so that it was a divine matzoh-brie of past and present, with some fragments of anger over the bullshit happenstances of the politics of the day, the tearing down in the 60s of the beautiful buildings allegedly to have urban renewal, which angered him; or the filling in of wetlands to make malls, which is still going on across America. Olson would be screaming today at the ruination of wetlands.