Charles Olson over the years
ANASTAS: Thanks, Ed. I’m going to have a summation here so we can take some questions from you folks. I’d like the panelists to talk a little bit — it’s twenty-five years after Olson’s death: what is his importance to you twenty-five years after his death? And I’d like to start with Jean.
KAISER: I’d have trouble answering that at the moment.
ANASTAS: OK. Can we come back to you? OK? Hettie?
JONES: I teach in a lot of different places, and oftentimes I teach people who have little or no formal education. I teach in a prison, and I can take some of Charles’s poems to an audience who have no real acquaintance with poetry and simply visually presenting people with an idea of a poem that goes all over the page I can get responses from people. So I think he would be very pleased to know that in that really democratic way he has been able to reach people who don’t know anything about poetry at all. And then I teach people who have some acquaintance and for them it’s just a wonderful flowering also. So if you have someone like that who is able to reach people across such a wide spectrum they really are, well, we don’t have any national treasures because we haven’t thought about that yet, but we really ought to.
ANASTAS: What about, Hettie, what about the feeling that Olson is a quote “difficult” poet?
JONES: Well, he is. I just said it, he is difficult. That’s not to say that the difficulty is insurmountable. I think you can read into it, you can try. I think it encourages you to try. The very fact of its difficulty encourages you; even all these many years later everything hasn’t been explicated, and why should it be? “Who’s buried behind Lufkin’s diner?” — I never knew.
ANASTAS: Ingeborg, twenty-five years later, what’s Olson’s importance to you?
LAUTERSTEIN: A sort of troubador, an oracle, you know. Still a magician, a kind of a magic person. And also I think the other thing that is important: most of my writing, as I now see it, is against prejudice, and he broke all the barriers in the sense that he did not recognize age barrier, which is about the worst thing in this country. After I left Charles there was the whole rebellion against the Vietnam War, when the young people became completely separated from older people. They had their own dances, their own songs. It wasn’t that way when I came here. I think that Charles would have done what I did; he would have gone to the Grateful Dead.
ANASTAS: Vincent, Charles’s importance to you twenty-five years after his death?
FERRINI: Well, I don’t see twenty-five years. All I see is a current thing that is moving all the time. I mean, he lived to talk. He lived — his body was a poem. He was emanating that all the time. So whether it’s twenty-five years in the past or right now it’s the same thing. See. In other words, to the extent that you live at your own center that radiates out to others and it cuts the contagion, and that’s where the poem is. It’s not on the paper. Sure, it’s on the paper for the scholars and others who read books, but essentially, if you don’t emanate that, which he did with such intensity that he bowled people over, and there’s very few people — I’ve never met anyone like him. Now how many can live to that extent? Twenty-five years? Twenty-five years in the future! Stay with what you believe, as he did, and never change it, unless you have to. [Laughter, applause]
CREELEY: I think of Pound’s phrase, you know, “Literature is news that stays news;” and certainly Olson’s writings continues the absolute ground of potential, of provocation, and of recognition that it really always was in one obvious way. It just doesn’t diminish, you don’t come to the end of it in that respect at all. The ways in which he configured an apparent world are his imago mundi — to me was immensely fascinating the way he — I remember that lovely poem on Blackburn. It turns out Paul was being quoted: “He said you go all around the subject. And I said I didn’t know it was a subject. And he said, ‘You twist.’ And I said, ‘I do’,” etc etc. The ways that Olson thought things and proposed the world in that potential of possibility were to me endlessly fascinating, and that’s what — plus the mastery: he was a genius, a great great poet. Finally, that is the qualification that gives him this immense power. He has the power — he can speak in this extraordinary way, so that makes him forever valuable and forever the news that stays news.
KAISER: I’m still at a loss. I still can’t speak to the poet side. All I know is that I have one of the products of Charles Olson, which is his son.
ANASTAS: That’s wonderful. Ed, would you finish up for us. Twenty-five years later.
SANDERS: It’s difficult to — the point is it’s hard to finish up. It’s like when Blake died. You know, it was all these notebooks and “Songs of Innocence and Experience” that no one had bought. If you had a time machine and a dollar you could go back. You’d stop off first about 1880 and pick up the painting that the Japanese guy paid 60 million dollars for of Van Gogh; and you’d squirt back in your time machine to pick up — pausing to pick up a first edition of “The Raven” in Baltimore; and then you’d take your time machine down back to Blake and pick up some “Songs of Innocence” or to Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems up in her bedroom. Anyway, the point is he’s there, he’s big, he called himself “Maximus,” he was a genius, he was very imperfect, but the perfection’s in his glorious mind. I remember in Dogtown, we were in a house; Ken Weaver and I of “The Fugs” came to visit Charles for some rest and rehabilitation in the fall of 1966; and I was holding in my hand a cross that John Wieners had gotten from Dean Stockwell or somebody that he had given to Charles, and I said, “Charles, what does this mean?” And then my friend Weaver looked — we were — we had a mushroom omelette, let’s put it that way [Laughter], and Weaver, we — “Look at that forehead!” Weaver pointed at Charles Olson’s. He had a big forehead, it was very big. And he said, “Wow, look at the sparks!” And so that’s Charles. The sparks spark onward![Applause]
ANASTAS: We’d love to take some questions and you can direct them at an individual on the panel or you can just ask them in general and anybody on the panel who wants to respond can do so.
RUFUS GODWIN: . . . Charles Olson, who I met in 1965 at Spoleto, Italy. It was a very interesting conference. I was a journalist with United Press International in Rome and sent out to Spoleto to cover, actually, Ezra Pound, who came down from North Italy to the Conference, an old man; and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was there too, and when he saw Ezra Pound he went out of the auditorium and cried in the street. That was the difference between the old man and the new man. But Stephen Spender was there, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was there, Allen Tate was there, Salvatore Quasimodo was there, Stephen Spender and Charles Olson in this company with Ezra Pound. And it was sort of a great moment. I was not only a journalist but a poet. Stephen Spender was not interested in me as a poet; he was interested in me as a journalist. But I also went to Charles Olson and said, “Would you like to read a poem?” We were standing in the street opposite the portico of the Church of St. Francis, and he said, “Let’s step in here a moment, and do it.” We stepped into this portico and I gave him the poem, and to my amazement he read it carefully. The poem was a first person plural poem, a “we” poem. It was called “The Jungle Gym and the Jungle Jane.” And he looked at me and said, “The ‘we’ in this poem works.” [Laughter] And I had two impressions: one, that he was a very big man and he didn’t make me feel small; and the other was that he could size up and read a text. [Applause]
ANASTAS: Exactly. Thank you very much.
[FEMALE QUESTIONER]: I grew up in Big Sur, so I grew up around a lot of people, and I kind of came to Olson backwards, because when I went to Berkeley in 1964 I read Robert Creeley, and I didn’t know there was a connection at that time. And then I went to San Diego and studied with Herbert Marcuse, and that’s when I came into Olson, which I think is related to that political thing. When I opened up — and I can’t remember if it was “The Kingfishers” or “In Cold Hell, In Thicket” — but there’s a quote by Mao in it, and I thought, “Ah-ah! Something is happening here.” So following that back, and also was this interesting thing: Marcuse and Olson were kind of contemporary in age, and part of their function was, I think, in the beginning away from patriarchy, and also in linking up — like, really beginning to link the political, to link Freud, to link the before disparate things. That made a difference. And I wondered if anyone would comment on that.
CREELEY: A propos, I think it’s Susan Orlovsky, who’s an old friend come from Buffalo, right. Well, you remember. Therefore you guys persuaded Marcuse to reconsider his political reconfigurations to include the women’s movement, or to include feminism as a. . .
[FEMALE QUESTIONER]: I would actually give that to Ricky Sharover and Angela Davis more, although we started more the poetry readings that interfaced with the political. . .
CREELEY: I was thinking à propos your sense of the parallel that you say both persons were not didactically exclusive but were . . . Yeah, that’s terrific.
ANASTAS: Thanks very much. I’d like to have another question. I see a hand back there. Peter Bearse.
PETER BEARSE: I appreciated, Peter, your question about the political import of The Maximus Poems because it is a political statement, and I was surprised that I didn’t hear more on that. So I’m still looking to hear more and that is part of a question, I believe. In my own view, if you’ll permit me, it’s not only a political statement but it’s quite a radical political statement. And I welcome, indeed I urge all of you to reread The Maximus Poems from this standpoint, from a political point of view, because it represents an indictment of politics as we know it today. It’s an indictment of the game, of the way the game is played, and of the people who are playing the game. I can quote chapter and verse on that, as I have in an essay where I tried to spell this out. I’d be happy to share it with you. But there’s still an additional question to pick up on Peter Anastas’s lead question on this. It’s a genuine puzzle, one which I haven’t thought through, that is, if you look at Olson’s Maximus Poems and you look at this remarkable prose essay “Human Universe” that he wrote, and you look at both of these through the lens of a political vision (and by that I mean the vision of what a political community represents, an effective political community), then do you see any similarities, do you see any vision coming out of these poems as well as the essay? Thank you.
CREELEY: Ed, you qualified that very quickly just before we started, about Charles’s use of Gloucester, his imagination of a political condition, a community . . .
SANDERS: I don’t know. I guess it grows out of the line, “Polis is eyes.” Eyes are awareness. I just know his heart was broken by politics, and yet he was like a farmer. You know, farmers say, “Oi, Oi, Oi,” but they still plow every spring. It’s the ghastly experience of being a fairly highly placed person in a political system and then deciding that the dangerous world of the bard, the American bard in the tradition of those great American bards, was more worthy than being a politician. Having read his works for many many years it’s difficult to get an exact focus on what his politics were, other than I know he didn’t like bankers and stuff sucking money out of a fishing city. I know — he told me that. You know, held look across: “You know what founded this city?” I’d say, “No, what?” He’d say: “Cod!” [Laughter]
[FEMALE QUESTIONER]: . . . What I’d like to know is what did he think of Henry Thoreau and his transcendental ideas?
ANASTAS: This is in a humorous vein. Gerrit Lansing, a Gloucester poet who’s going to be reading tonight, once sent Charles a quotation from Henry David Thoreau, and Charles wrote him a note back: “Thoreau was not thorough.” [Laughter] But I also know that he loved him. As Robert pointed out, he loved the localism, the specificity. He loved Thoreau’s quotation and he quoted it to me many times, which sent me back to Henry David Thoreau, he loved the quotation: “Everywhere you go on the face of the earth, someone has been there before you.” Olson loved that. Thank you for your question. Another question?
GERSHOM WEISENBERG: . . . I came up to Buffalo as a Freshman instructor in the mid-60s from Cambridge, having just finished a dissertation on Wallace Stevens. I met Olson at a faculty cocktail party but we had few words, and I just knew of his formidable reputation. Buffalo of course was famous or infamous for its ferocious snowstorms, and the one time that I had my encounter with him took place during one of the storms when I was waiting in front of a classroom to get in, coming out of a blizzard, and I saw this Alpine shape emerge through the entrance and come towards me covered with snow, a pea-jacket covered with snow, huge. I very clearly recall thinking, “It’s the Abominable Snowman.” He came shambling towards me, took me by the arm, and asked me one question: “What was Wallace Stevens saying to his readers? Can you tell me in one sentence?” And I stood there in sheer terror. [Laughter] And all I could think to say, which was absolutely astonishing for me as a young button-down Ivy-leaguer in those days, was: (forgive me) “Stevens is saying Fuck You to his readers.” And Olson slammed me on the back, virtually dislocating my spinal cord, and said, “That’s it, my boy. Some day you’re going to be a great literary critic.” [Applause] Well, he was wrong about that, but he was right about something else.
A major reason I was there, and a lot of other people, was that UB in the 60s was a massive repository for modern and contemporary poetry materials. They used to buy up William Carlos Williams’ wastebaskets as a matter of fact, truly. And the librarian who held sway over all of that was a very starchy, very professional and properly disdainful of bad language New Brunswicker. (For Canadians, that means someone who is well positioned against the intrusion of obscenity in literary form.) She didn’t enquire about the contents of journals that were coming through, but there was one particular journal she would not subscribe to, and it was an important journal coming up from the East Village. You know it, of course; it was called Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and it managed to come through the U.S. post office in plain brown wrappers without identification; but Anna Russell, our librarian, would not have it. And during the time I was there in the mid-60s Charles Olson tried slyly to get it past her. He was not successful. She would not budge. That was one time he was intimidated by someone else, a woman. [Laughter]
JOE DUNN: I was introduced to Charles Olson through WGBH. It was a half hour reading, a show, on TV, and I wonder if that still exists? It’s probably 1967, 1968.
ANASTAS: Thank you very much. This gentleman.
ANDREW WOOLF: I’d like to know more from the panel about the conversational powers of Charles Olson. I’d like to hear about his monological ability and how might you characterize it, perhaps what caused it, and what did you think of it then and what do you think of it now? Was he like Coleridge?
CREELEY: Robert Duncan, in answer to that terrific question, said — because Duncan also is a monologic talker and recognized in his dear, terrific relation with Charles they were going to have to deal with it — ‘cause they both were incredible talkers — I mean, Robert had been clocked at over nine hours without interruption and in the league with Buckminster Fuller — rather say that Buckminster Fuller was in the league with Robert and Charles. I mean, literally teaching from seven in the evening to one the next day was not because everyone couldn’t stop talking, it was Charles’s ability to keep it in the air, to keep it moving. Robert said they resolved it by both talking at once [Laughs], and they somehow managed to understand what the other was saying. But they talked almost simultaneously. In actual fact, I think it’s Joe Dunn, John Wieners, other dear friends here, Ed, and obviously others, there was not — he didn’t grab your ear and not let go. I don’t recall that in his habits particularly at all. He was just a fantastic — he could think and talk on his feet in this extraordinarily moving, not just affective, but pulling in and recognizing, and moving with the conversation. Just what he had in mind to say he would talk it out. You found it in his writing, for example, where he would begin a letter and a paragraph or two in, it’d begin to transform into a mode of quote “poetry” — not because it looked like it but because the thing had shifted to be that.
JOE DUNN: It was a hunger.
CREELEY: It was a hunger, yeah. He really loved to talk, yeah, he loved to talk. Like Robert one time, in parallel, was going to meet Louis Zukofsky, who was very shy and talked, frankly, very little, and it was Duncan’s great fear that he would get there and simply talk at Zukofsky for all the terrific meeting, and so he said he set himself that evening to dreaming of talking to Zukofsky, and so he woke in the morning, he was utterly talked out. [Laughter]
FERRINI: There was always this sense that he might be shut up.
KAISER: I think Charles deposited at my door more bodies with this beautiful color green on their faces that took days to pull them out of those all-night sessions that probably lasted two days till that person didn’t have the strength to move and couldn’t hear another word [Laughs].
THORPE FEIDT: I’d just like to add something to your comment. It hasn’t been said — at least, I haven’t heard it — except in Gerrit Lansing’s introduction to Charles’s letters to the City of Gloucester, that Charles was also, in my experience, a wonderful listener. He was not the first person who ever listened to me, but boy did he listen! It was just absolutely remarkable, because I came as, not formally but effectively, as a student of Charles’s. I’d read his work for ten years and I loved it. I was deeply involved with it, and I had specific questions that I wanted to ask him. And boy, did he answer them! I mean, he answered them at enormous — with immense depth and at tremendous, and for me most exciting, length and variety. But when I said something he really did pay attention, and if I happened to say something that came out of my experience in a direct way he would say — and I think Gerrit mentions this too in his introduction — he would say, “I hear you.” And he said it in such a way — it’s now a popular thing to say, but it wasn’t in 1968 particularly — and he said it in such a way that it was a very very specific statement. And he really did listen. No fooling.
FERRINI: People don’t really listen. They’re coming from where they are. Imagine to open up to someone who really listens? That’s an experience!
[FEMALE QUESTIONER]: What specifically did Charles Olson want to save from the wrecker’s ball in the late 60s and why, other than the fact that it had been there for a while?
ANASTAS: There were many many historic properties. There was a beautiful Greek revival house across the street, one of the finest examples of Greek revival architecture in the country that the YMCA wanted to tear down to build a cement basketball court. He tried to save that. He wrote the famous “Scream to the Editor,” in which he railed against bankers and said about Gloucester, “Oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition.” He wanted to save a number of gorgeous eighteenth and nineteenth century red brick row houses in the west end of Main Street. He wanted to save a number of wetland properties that are all filled in now. Used car lots have been built on them and the city has a waste treatment plant on them. If you look at the volume of Charles Olson’s letters to the editor of the Gloucester Times, every single one of those letters deals with a specific place, a specific building that was about to be lost to the city, and he, in one of the letters which is a poem, says that we need to hold on to this part of our heritage, not just for ourselves but for people in the future who might not even understand what it was. It was part of his whole sense of the total ecology of a community. That’s just my own quick response.
RODERICK IVERSON: Just to come back for a second to the discussion of politics earlier, the woman here mentioned working with Marcuse, and I started thinking about, well, (a) I’m a little baffled about what politics means to Olson after leaving Washington D.C. And for a person like myself, a teenager in 1960s reading R.D. Laing Politics of Experience — and just inviting commentary from any of you — somebody like Olson who’s pre-World War II, post-World War II, and on the European side I don’t know if it’s different you have politics according to those people that Marcuse worked with, like Adorno most vividly in my own sense, Walter Benjamin in a different sense, and the rest of them who came to New York during the war. And just also the journal that Ralph Maud does recently published testimony by a Canadian writer that addressed very specifically his problem dealing with Olson because Olson was not, well, with the “revolution” or whatever that curious political thing was in the 60s where if you weren’t part of the solution you were kind of part of the problem in a black-white sense. If any of the fine collection of people here would like to address that. . .
SANDERS: [Complaints against] Chekhov that he wouldn’t take overt political stances, while at the same time he was building hospitals, building schools, building bridges, collecting money for defying the government, with Tolstoy and a few opened soup kitchens in the famine of 1890-91. Olson — I mean, a better world begins first in your brain, then in your household, then in your block, then in your neighborhood, then in your city, then in your county. Olson came back to Gloucester, decided to be the bard of love for this wonderful city, and went block to block. I mean, he walked around, he was of the people, he wasn’t in some theoretical zone, he was part of a people always in crisis over whether the ships are going to come back or whether the economy is going to collapse or whether urban renewal from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was going to black-top America in the name of giving jobs to bulldozer operators. I don’t know. There’s no easy answer. He wasn’t an Anarcho-Taoist Maoist; he wasn’t — you couldn’t call him — I always thought of him more like a European-style social democrat whose heart was broken by the actual exigencies of the political system in the United States with all its corruptions.[Applause]
CHARLES STEIN: To express an individual voice at its maximum, there had to be an appropriate scale, an appropriate context of address, and part of his decision to address his work to the City of Gloucester had to do with that sense that to write in the universal, in universal political terms, in international terms, in universal philosophical terms, one had to inflate one’s voice beyond any possibility of real humanity, and to sustain his own possibility he chose to address a finite city that was one you could get to know by walking its streets, by digging into the city records, knowing everything that it was possible to know about it.
The second point has to do with the question of what happens to a man’s politics after he has experienced the kind of despair that Olson seemed to have experienced with the transition to the Truman administration. And what seemed to happen, in my sense, to Olson is that it became a politics of possibility. That is, he saw the role of the poet as a possible carrier of possibility, not what necessarily can be done on a universal scale internationally or nationally, but what can be projected through the concrete exigencies of a local situation, an actual politics in which you are involved in it on a daily basis, through that to project a possible vision. Thank you.
ANASTAS: Thanks, Chuck. I think that’s a good send-off for us. [Applause] I’d like to thank the panel. [Prolonged applause] OK. Lets get some nice refreshments now at the Library.