Tom Clark and the Collected Prose

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Tom Clark’s Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life is referred to twice in the end notes to Charles Olson’s Collected Prose edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (University of California Press 1997). In the first occurrence, the editors say that “Tom Clark provides a wider context for ‘Stocking Cap’ and Olson’s two other autobiographical stories (‘Mr. Meyer’ and ‘The Post Office’)” (p. 423). They do not say what this “wider context” consists of. It’s something to look into. In the second instance (p. 455) the editors use Tom Clark to summarize the significance of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato to Olson’s work. Since Allen and Friedlander have tackled with great aplomb much tougher problems in their exemplary notes, it is curious that they chose to rely on Clark here, especially when, in my opinion, he is wrong.

The “wider context” that Tom Clark provides for the stories of The Post Office (Grey Fox Press 1975, reprinted 1984) is the information contained in one of the notebooks at Storrs, called “Faust Buch” because Olson wrote those two words across the top of the first page indicating that he had been struggling for his soul against the Devil of dominant fathers — he names his old college roommate Finch along with Melville, Dahlberg, the artist Cagli, and Pound, as well as his own father. From this notebook Tom Clark spins the kind of fictional narrative that we have come to expect of him (p, 130):

The spring of 1948 was taken up with the psychic turmoil of renewed struggle with a specter of paternal authority which he felt he’d been shadowboxing for as long as he could remember. Blocking his full emergence into manhood, throwing him into torments of depression and self-doubt, this imaginal adversary would leave him no peace. His combat with it now became the main theme of a secret confessional journal aptly titled “Faust Buch.”

That this is unwarranted melodrama is clear from the sedate rumination of the “Faust Buch”* and the fact that it is the work of a single day, 8 March 1948. (It begins with dated dreams of the previous year, deliberately copied into the notebook, I believe, in order to provide a basis for discussion about his father, which itself is dated as indicated above.) Clark has Olson here building himself up to some decisive act; he quotes the “Faust Buch” where Olson is enjoining himself “to keep the experience of dominance,” and then writes: “An immediate opportunity to assert that dominance was provided him by Ezra Pound” (p. 132). But Olson had already broken with Pound before the “Faust Buch.” Returning from the West Coast at the beginning of February, Olson saw Pound on the 8th and 24th of February, and it was all over. The “Faust Buch” is retrospective; though he does not dwell much on Pound, it constitutes his first attempt to explain to himself the late power of his own Mephistopheles.

*  A full transcription of the “Faust Buch” is presented in the same issue of Minutes, #26.

“Stocking Cap,” the first of the stories about his father, was written immediately after the break with Pound, which had been centered on the racial issue of immigration. In the story it is as if Olson is quietly making a defiant retort: I had a father, and he was an immigrant with as much class as any descendant of the Mayflower tribe, a man whose nobility comes from being an honest, caring worker. In “Stocking Cap” we see the father’s care for detail making him into a hero in the eyes of his son as they work together on week-end ice fishing (Post Office pp. 10-11):

So I was the guard, the mother of the fire, while my father, ever active, kept restlessly touring the ice, hoping a flag would go up, changing the tilts, cutting new holes to find the fishes’ feeding ground. And sometimes he’d go off around some headland of the lake and be gone so long I’d get nervous and strike out after him. Or at least go far enough to get a better look-out for him without losing sight of the tilts. For it was always my hope, when he went off like that, that a flag would go up and all by myself I would land the biggest pickerel of the day.

It was the dying of the day on those lakes which gave me my first taste, I suppose, of wan-hope. No matter what I did the fire seemed to go down as the sun did, and when that light which comes as brightness goes off and that cold which settles as the wind dies would spread in from the lake, I first knew some secret of death.

It was an attractive hour. My father’s figure out on the ice grew and his stocking cap became the fur crown of some Siberian trader. His overcoat filled out and though I knew it was green with age, and tom, it was fur too, and he was grand.

This is the “mediocre humanitas” style that the “Faust Buch” refers to, which phrase Tom Clark, of course, quotes — but when he attempts to summarize the story it sounds like some kind of dementia (p. 131):

. . . The tale, titled “Stocking Cap,” portrayed Karl Olson as a driven, self-demanding man, fatally absorbed in obstacles and challenges; attractive, but ultimately tragic because of his “stubborn side,” which had “killed him in the end.”

With the word “fatally” Clark has hardened a perfectly amiable paragraph about the ice chisel (Post Office p. 8):

I was puzzled he took no more than one along. I suppose it was weight that dictated but I knew they could get lost, slip out of a cold hand and when you suddenly broke through that last plug of ice, and the water came up, and sloshed over your feet. He had lost one once, and I think I did, and once we were able to fish one out of shallow water, how I can’t now say. The curious thing was I don’t think he ever had a rope on the chisel’s end as other men had and as you’d think he might. Perhaps it was another of those queer obstacles he had a way of dealing with as a challenge and which made him such an attractive, tragic man. The stubborn side of it killed him in the end.

We learn from the story “The Post Office” what stubbornness it was that, in Olson’s view, led to his father’s early death, and it was not obsession with ice chisels. Karl was a union man, and fought the postal authorities to affirm the old values of the workplace and the letter-carrier’s round (Post Office p. 46):

He was the resistance of a man, my father, the cry of the individual that he be allowed the time and the conditions to do his work, as they used to say, right. And that’s why the bosses went after him. They attacked him because he wanted to do his work too well. He was unhealthy to have around. The speed-up might irk the other men but they would be unprepared, as most men are, from confusion and the hundred costs the family is heir to, to do anything. They would go along, even though it meant they’d wither and go dead. My father’s threat to the bosses was not so much his activity as himself. He was an image to the other men of what they had been, a trace to the younger men of what work was. He had to be harassed.

Today he’d be fired. Or not hired in the first place. Or, if a company had to show a payroll for a contract, be the first laid off. Ground has been lost. But a good worker still knows, and can tell you, what my father knew. He just happened to be one of the first, and it was clearer earlier in the postal service than in heavy industry. He was at the switch point when the turn came. He was no enemy. He was opposition. He was fighting for pride in work which is personality. It is that simple. We have forgotten what men crave. We think that all workers want is pay.

After reading this, and the rest of the story, we can all love this man for his virtu, as Olson obviously loved him, and in many ways tried to emulate him.

The point is that these stories are superb. In writing about his father he finds, as the “Faust Buch” put it, his “own proper base.” They signify the moment when Olson stops “awhoring after culture,” stops being a mere son, and takes on his own “perception and malehood.” The “crisis” he is talking to himself about in this notebook is the push to stop living up to what he thinks his “fathers” want from him. He can now say, “I would rather be less than I dream myself to be and be myself than any longer strive to be something each of these men could admire. . . . Put work behind you, and be straight. Don’t try to talk and behave bigger than you are. Hold back, rather than overextend. It may be a loss to yr ego, and yr jumping jack nerves, but they have only led you into big shottism.” In these stories he succeeds in not being a big shot. The values of a good life lie, without “style, manner, tricks,” in a deliberately conceived and successfully executed “mediocre humanitas” narrative.

Clark will not have it so. He calls the stories a “failure” on their own terms (p. 134) and a great disappointment to Olson when he couldn’t get them published right away (p. 131):

. . . Mastering the more accessible narrative form would, he hoped, bring him into range of a large mainstream audience so far closed off to him by his exclusively critical and intellectual concentrations.

The stories were written in February and March, and the project abandoned after the commercial magazines to which they’d been sent turned them down swiftly and without comment. For Olson, the most telling blow was the New Yorker’s return of “Stocking Cap” within three days of its submission. The test of his new “relaxed” style seemed to have brought unambiguously negative results. The author’s precarious self-esteem sagged even further.

It is a serious puzzle how Clark can read the calm analysis contained in the “Faust Buch” and its earnest wish for ego-reduction, and then twist it all into its opposite, talking of “precarious self-esteem” sagging and the project being abandoned because the New Yorker turned Olson down. Clark has no evidence; he is just pretending to know Olson’s feelings. My belief is that, by the end of “The Post Office,” Olson had managed to say everything that he wanted to in that way, and that the project was finished, and finished superbly. Clark continues his make-believe (p. 132):

. . . In his “Faust Buch” he blamed himself for never having grown up, for his inability to break out of tedious filial dramas of his own insistent creation. The tales about Karl, he had soon begun to suspect, were less works of art than unsuccessful attempts at discovering “the path of love transposed.” The effort to relieve the strains of his personal psychological burden through the mediation of fiction had been vain from the start.

These pessimistic ideas that Clark puts into Olson’s head were not there. There is no evidence that they were. It is all made up by a biographer who — I still can’t figure out why — wants to make his subject look pathetic. Clark distorts the high purpose of the “Faust Buch” to come to these dismal and erroneous conclusions. If this is the “wider context” that the editors of the Collected Prose wish to refer us to, we can do without it. George Butterick’s introduction to the published (and blessedly reprinted) volume The Post Office is first rate and provides better context. The remarkable achievement of these stories is not appreciated by Clark, who substitutes a pumped up psycho-drama of his own devising, which he feels makes his biography more interesting. He is wrong. The real Olson is more interesting.

Note

I am aware that I have not discussed “the sexual problem” aspect of the “Faust Buch” notebook. This must be because I don’t think there is much to it. Clark wants to make more melodrama out of a bit of normal soul searching (p. 130):

Aggravating his problems were difficulties in his sex life, always an area of particular sensitivity. The slightest signal of impatience with him on Connie’s part could precipitate a terrifying sense of “shame or intimidation.” In such low moments he grew fearful of everything, “of women, of flesh, of event.” He was having doubts about his effectiveness as a lover, and it didn’t help that Connie diagnosed worrisome homosexual implications in his continuing dreams about men.

There is nothing in the “Faust Buch” (and Clark has no other source) to indicate that Connie has signalled any impatience with Olson, even the slightest, On the contrary, we read, “I don’t, to this day, have any sense this is any diminution in her mind, of me sexually as male.” Connie has always made his “flesh firm.” His choice of her as companion, he says, is proof he “had good sexual sense.” It is true that the change from politician in the corridors of power to a stay-at-home writer has affected Connie, but anyone reading the “Faust Buch” objectively would see that she is not part of the crisis but part of the solution. That she reminds Olson of a “homosexual” dream he told her about in Key West is not presented as “worrisome.” That’s Clark’s word for what is only a further contribution to the ongoing discussion Olson and Connie always had about the deepest springs of their affections and ambitions. The “crisis” may be described as “homosexual” in the sense that, in order to be his own man, Olson feels he must stop looking to others (mainly powerful men) for approval all the time: “You have been frightened of everything and everybody that you respect.” This emulation which Olson is now determined to rise above was “homosexual” perhaps, but not “sexual,” certainly nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that the phrase “difficulties in his sex life” is an accurate description of. Clark wants us to see an Olson in flight from a posse of neuroses, whereas I find in the “Faust Buch” an honest openness leading to great resolve: “Be stubborn, when you are clear, or sure, in yr own courses, with man or woman.” Plus the breathtaking statement: “The job, given the obsession I am a writer, to be as decisive, careless, productive, and direct as I was as politician! How to do that! There it is, brother.” Has ever a poet been so knowledgeable of the magnitude of what he is undertaking? No vain hope this, Mr. Clark. We have the result, The Maximus Poems.