Quicks and Strings
Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society, #8 (June 1995), with 15 letters from Olson to Robin Blaser. The letters are reproduced here, several transcribed by Ralph Maud, the others facsimiles. The text is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
Part 1 (of 2)
harles Olson and I first met — head to head — in 1957, at The Tavern, which was, then, a white, weatherboarded, frame building with rooms, a bar-restaurant, and a swimming pool on the beach in Gloucester. The pool has since been filled, Tarmac'd and reformed into a parking lot. Don Allen, who had previously met Olson in New York, picked me up in Boston to take the train there — on a shining, early summer day. I'd come east of Chicago for the first time to Boston / Cambridge in July, 1955, hired from Berkeley as a librarian in the Widener Library. This move east was, it seemed to me, a reasonable response to an unanswered dream — out of my childhood reading of Hawthorne, I'd wanted to go to Bowdoin College. Since my desert west didn't know how to go about that and the expense of it, I dreamt of going to Black Mountain College, after I'd read in some magazine that it was a community, free if you worked in the fields. But in 1941 or 2, Time Magazine said it was Communist. That was that, as far as any family support was concerned. I knew nothing about the American communal tradition except by way of The Blithedale Romance. So the “far east” waited until Harvard turned up. Now, Olson was to my mind Old East, Atlantic, and I was Old West, having finally arrived at the Pacific. (It would be a delight to find myself in Olson’s “West 6” in 1964, after he’d read Cups.) But there was a background for my first meeting with Olson. I knew what he looked like, having watched him from the mailroom off the ground-level, basement hallway of the Berkeley Library, strolling with Robert Duncan, Tom Parkinson, and William Everson, his head close to brushing the ceiling. The occasion was the publication in 1947 of Call Me Ishmael, the first challenge and punch, just as Spicer and I were studying Hawthorne and Melville with Roy Harvey Pearce — childhood reading that was rapidly becoming something else. I was too shy to come out of the mailroom, where I worked sorting. Take on the chin:
The three great creations of Melville and Moby Dick are Ahab, The Pacific, and the White Whale.
The son of the father of Ocean was a prophet Proteus, of the changing shape, who, to evade philistine Aristaeus worried about bees, became first a fire, then a flood, and last a wild sea beast.
“Ahab is full stop.” 1947. Figure that out. I said to myself that I would.
In the fall of 1950, Robert Duncan brought into the commotion around Berkeley concerning what writing might be “Projective Verse.” There it was, in what seemed to me very difficult prose: the challenges of open verse vs. closed verse; of the use of writing beyond “the private-soul-at-any-public-wall;” of “FIELD COMPOSITION;” of FORM that “is NEVER MORE THAN EXTENSION OF CONTENT;” that form might be alive and experientially so; of the “process of the thing” and of one’s energy; of “speech” that is of the body, thus implying that language is of and in the body. So, I read Olson and here I pick up only those matters which struck me first — these jectives — to coin a word — that are thrown about as one enters language to work a structure therein — subject, object, abject, superject, as off to work we go. In 1950, “Projective Verse” was an attack, almost personal. Out west, the practice of poetry was already on the move with some achievements to hold onto, which, I think, can best be measured by Robert Duncan’s “Venice Poem” of 1948 and Jack Spicer’s early poems around the same time. Even on those, “Projective Verse” was somehow simultaneously attack and demand. We kept track of whatever-came-next by way of Duncan’s bringing the “stuff” to us: Origin and Black Mountain Review wherein Robert Creeley’s poems astonished with particularity and a sure-footed language that could step anywhere, even into the depths, without loss of energy or overlay — even before we would know him as “the Figure of Outward;” then, came the Divers Press In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953) and Jonathan Williams’ beautiful editions of The Maximus Poems / 1-10 (1953) and The Maximus Poems / 11-22 (1956). I recall the consternation and the dismissals at large around Berkeley and San Francisco. Something was loose. Amidst such, there were Duncan’s clear recognitions, Spicer’s I’ll-think-about-it-twice approach, and my confusion — in knowing that there was something to “this veracity,” “moving / among my particulars, among / my foes” —
So, trying to make a long story short, I wanted to meet Charles Olson. I was no longer hiding in the mail-room. But, when I arrived in his bailiwick — or was it his balistraria? — he was in Black Mountain — where I’ve never been, though here in Canada, I’m accused, now and again, of Blackmountainous crimes. Fortunately, I was joined in Boston by Jack Spicer in the fall of 1956, after he’d failed to find his place in New York City and found it, he said, the enemy of poetry, inhabited by Dylanthomasesques and lisping Yale Younger Poets. Battles ensued, so angry that we would sit across from one another in my living room not speaking, but writing 3 x 5 cards to one another on what would make poetry work — I loved New York, where Don Allen had gone from Berkeley and would soon head for The New American Poetry, and I’d found Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. My point is that Spicer in his own territory was always a finder. In Boston, before he landed a job in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library, only to be fired for breaking the spine of a Bay Psalm Book, he wandered around and brought his brilliant finds to me, one by one — John Wieners, Joe Dunn, and Steve Jonas. Wieners was attending Black Mountain and frequently talked with me about his studies there and his conversations with Olson. Meanwhile, Duncan and Jess had left San Francisco and headed for Mallorca to join Robert Creeley. Duncan would return from Mallorca to stay a while with me in Boston, before heading for Black Mountain to teach and write for production there his extraordinary play Medea in the fall of 1956. News of Allen Ginsberg and Howl reached all three of us while we were, so to speak, out of our town, thus changing what Kenneth Rexroth had dubbed “The Berkeley Renaissance” into “The San Francisco Renaissance.” Olson returned to Gloucester in 1957. This is coming together, you see.
lson’s first letter to me, May 3, 1957, from Black Mountain was in response to the first I had written him. He was quick to reply, so mine would be dated in late April, but I haven’t seen it since. I do remember what was behind my writing him. Wieners had told me that Olson just plain “dismissed” Dante — of no use to poets now. I also remember that I blazed up from my usual smouldering and proposed to write Olson a blast. John objected — please, not to. But, I had a real stake in this. I’d read Dante as a very small boy by way of Gustave Doré’s engravings and had never let go. Dante’s hold on me was not primarily religious, which has been a problem since my earliest erotic ties; rather it was the way imagery could conduct me through the arguments of realities. Later, it would be the way many voices could enter his poem — that a poem was as much a matter of thinking as it was of personal cares. It delighted me that Beatrice was not invented — that Dante wound up on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for several years after his death — that terza rima had a wonderful destiny in English, especially in Shelley, continuous sound and stanzaic instability, etc. Once I’d thought this over, I realized that I knew nothing about what Olson might be trying to tell Wieners. Thus my letter, as I try to recall it, folded my concern with Dante into my continuing attention to “Projective Verse” and The Maximus Poems. I think my equating texture with breath was my awkward way of saying that breath is the sound of language — something like that — one’s own and the language itself.
This letter still leaves me with problems that were never settled in conversation. These are involved in Olson’s fundamental concern with historical change, more clearly outlined in his Special View of History (many have noted the play on Einstein’s famous title), which was not published until 1970. This letter reflects the work of 1955/56 at Black Mountain behind Special View, of which I had had only rumours — the sense of a “New Learning” and of something “post-the-modern,” as Olson was to say. “1875” is merely a signpost — but of what particular instance? — never really explained. The implication is that we’re leaving a cultural network, having been netted for centuries. And we’re leaving by the back door. If the front door is dated 500 BCE, does he have Parmenides in mind before the other entrances, Socrates and Plato? When I was able in conversation to ask about 1875, Olson’s conversation hovered around Bolyai-Lobachevsky (1829-30?) and Riemann (1868?), the “duality of space and structure,” and then settled around 1905 (Einstein’s papers). In the last few days, fussed again by the dates in this first letter, Ralph Maud informed me that George Butterick had discovered this special use of the date “1875” in Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. My reading of Toynbee in the early 1950s, influenced by Duncan’s enthusiasm for his scope and erudition, was too haphazard to have held that detail in mind, though it is, I suppose, crucial to Toynbee’s real concern, the future of the “Christian Era.” Olson never talked with me about Toynbee, and there is no record of him in Olson’s library. Whether Olson was reading A Study of History in the complete edition, vols. 1-10 (1934/5-1954) or in D.C. Somervell’s one volume abridgement of vols. 1-6 only (1946) I do not know. Butterick’s discovery points us to what Toynbee called the historian’s “telescopic brush-handle”: “The formula ‘ancient + medieval + modern’ is wrong; it should run ‘Hellenic + Western (medieval + modern)’.” We are then brought round to “a new formula whose beginnings may be placed round about 1875”: “(‘Post-Modern’?), 1875-?” — to be found in vol. 1, p.171 and in the abridgement, p. 39. As striking here as the date 1875 is this early use of the term “Post-Modern,” which came as a surprise to many of us when Olson announced — was it in conversation? — “we are post-the-modern.” That is the form in which I think Olson first used the term. It was a challenge to those, like myself, who were first entering the twentieth century two or three decades after their birthdates brought them into it and to Poundlings. And Olson’s use of the term had a very different projective from that intended by Toynbee.
Toynbee was much discussed in the early ‘50’s when the 10 volumes took its stand there before us — the current word for the way it struck us is “awesome” — something like an earlier generation’s response to Spengler. But there was, for me, an unease with the blurred details of this masquerade of history headed for the “higher religions,” as in vol. 10: “If we have been right in seeing in History a vision of God’s creation on the move, from God its source towards God its goal. . . .” Both Toynbee and Spengler before him are great monuments of our condition in linear Time — here in our twentieth-century park, they look like twin Laokoöns, the one smiling as he wrestles, the other grimacing at the irreparables. One might read their glamours with more or less heartsease with a little help from Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957):
It almost looks as if historicists were trying to compensate themselves for the loss of an unchanging world by clinging to the faith that change can be foreseen because it is ruled by an unchanging law.
My guess is that George Butterick found “1875” in Toynbee when he was editing with his usual scholarly skill Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. Interestingly, Toynbee turns up twice, once in vol. 4 and again in vol. 9, which I had not seen until they were published in this edition. On 21 November 1950, Robert Creeley, who really is “the Figure of Outward” in these letters, as Olson would dream of him in this “Figure” in 1953 and write the epithet on his bedroom wall at Black Mountain, sends a quick letter about his many concerns with the main point that he wants to “turn Olson on to” Rainer M. Gerhardt, the German poet, editor, and translator of this new American poetry, just as he’s drawn Gerhardt’s attention to Olson. Thus, he encloses a letter from Gerhardt in which the poet is struggling with Olson: “but my 1st impression is: too much (grossartig: graaaaaaaand).” All the same, he proposes, as translator, to publish in the first issue of Fragmente Olson along with Perse, Pound, and Genet. Gerhardt turns to the problem of translation: “Well, the german [sic] translators have shifted to a new method — just leave out the hard lines. So it happens in Toynbee’s HISTORY, in Eliot’s poems. . . .” And Gerhardt indicates that Olson has written him about Call Me Ishmael. The outcome of Olson’s relationship by correspondence with Gerhardt gives us two splendid poems — which I’d read before I met Olson in 1957 — “To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe’s Things of Which He Has Written Us in His ‘Brief an Creeley und Olson’” in Origin (Winter, 1951-52) and “The Death of Europe,” written after Gerhardt’s suicide in 1954, in Origin (Summer, 1955). Toynbee turns up again on 14 February 1952, when Olson writes Creeley briefly and sends his essay “History.” In the essay, we come upon an “example,” said to be “prime,” “in the present context”:
HISTORY. Is not what the 19th Century conceived it as. Is not Ratzel’s universal monotony. Is likewise not teleological (arriving, 1855, en masse, “these States” — or 2055, Christianity, that Toynbee). Or — that other kick of the same Hegelianism: it is neither Marx nor Darwin, neither of these “evolutions.”
I labour these minimal references to Toynbee because his presence in the date 1875 surprised me even now. In the passage above, the date 2055 appears to me to be an annoyed and slapdash reference to Toynbee’s changing projections of a future for Christianity after the millennium before us. The important point that one catches here is Olson’s opposition — that it would best come from a poet — which he will extend in argument in The Special View of History. This opposition is groundwork for Maximus and especially for the visionary and mythological characteristics of 4-6 and “The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum.” Christianity, which forever forgives itself, and great nineteenth-century thinkers, like Hegel and Marx — whom I call necessary thinkers — enter their twentieth-century destiny as Vulgates of spirit or materiality, historicisms and fortunetelling. “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.” Heraclitus. 500 BCE of this letter, 3 May 1957, turns out to be round-about Heraclitus, as in “Comprehension,” which Olson sent me in 1967, for Pacific Nation #1: “Heraclitus who had already ‘ruined’ thought (by featuring the new post-Indo-European concept of soul as psyche; and doing this by the primary error of analogy as logic instead of image or actualness. . . .” Which Olson would correct by way of poetry and the promise of Keats:
I mean Negative Capability. When a man [or woman] is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason. . . .”
From my point of view, witnessing a passage I read in 1951, written in 1950, exactly mid-century, by Hannah Arendt — remember my sense that I’d barely stepped into the twentieth century by then — we’d come upon this:
The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. (The Origins of Totalitarianism, the 1950 Preface.)