Charles Olson’s Reading: a Biography

reviewed by Gerald Burns

Published in Boxkite: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics, No. 1 (1997). Reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #25 (February 1998).


Charles Olson’s Reading: a Biography

by Ralph Maud

Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, 372 pp, $44.95 US

This is an unspeakably valuable book. I’ve read Charles Olson for years, and nothing (including his own writing) has put me inside his mind. This book does. It is a month by month, sometimes a day by day, record of what Olson was reading when he wrote such and such, the books he bought, borrowed or stole, and how they fed into the poems. Even magazines and the books of his childhood are here, and you simply can’t believe how useful it all is until, as I did, you read the book straight through, then read the notes straight through. As scholarship it’s a haystack made out of needles.

I have no trouble at all with Olson’s notation, his wonderful phrasing. And I certainly have no trouble with his mentioning books I haven’t read, which in most cases I’d rather shoot myself than read. (Of the flood of titles listed here, I can perhaps see myself reading five.) That has been a trouble to me, that the kinds of book Olson found stimulating, thought and obsessed about, all the origin stuff, Gilgamesh and back, town and shipping lists, and the Jungian interests, Golden Chrysanthemum and so on, which to my temperament seem a deliberate blurring of primordiality, information and wisdom, are a sure formula for bad poems. And yet look what he does with polytopes, or “The Praises”, “For Sappho, Back”, “Concerning Exaggeration”, “The Death of Europe”, the lyric period from “Adamo, Me . . .” on in which it seemed anything could be a poem.

I think he is the best of the Postmodernists, unless Hans Hofmann is, from the clarity of his notion that writing is a thing human beings do, that to be engaged with writing is not the same as (for instance) being engaged with your own reputation. Maud argues in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #16 that in the 1965 Berkeley reading Olson was remaking himself on the public platform, makes a really good case for it.

Olson so often, like Nietzsche, demands apology. How could he do that, how could he push that on us (or himself)? This book, and the revisioning of Clark’s biography in a series of Olson Society Newsletters, settles if not solves all my problems. I am placid, I graze. For me the biggest insight was how committed Olson got to Professor Merk’s technique — read all the material then tramp the ground till you know every arroyo. Olson can look stupid when he looks obsessed. Charles Olson’s Reading shows you, as much as can be shown (which is a lot), what was going on in Olson’s mind, even how he had the fortitude to impose what seem to be his whims, even crotchets — a view of the world too personal you’d think to be transferable — on his students. He had a set of techniques that he knew worked, though they worked as well as they did for him because he was a very good poet.

It is arguable that a good poet living now must look ridiculous, especially to him- or herself. As a profession, the writing of good verse now is grotesque. The apex of the M editors, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folks when Marx was still Marx, trace it to a commodification of literature. I think it’s more basic than that. The work it takes to be a first-rate writer is unimaginable, is buffoonery. Olson, like Nietzsche, can seem a silly, domineering, sexist clown, writing the inscription for his own cross (when nobody cares enough to condemn him). It takes Heidegger and Derrida to redeem Nietzsche — intentional bumbling profundity and Latin grace. George Butterick gave Maud the skimpiest kind of credit for his transcriptions in the Muthologos volumes. Their relation suffered. So there was George, sitting on top of Olson’s library in Storrs, Connecticut, discoursing to me learnedly on the difficulty of separating acidic fire-damaged bales of manuscript (who was the sonofabitch who gave Olson a ton of bilious yellow copy paper, an archivalist’s nightmare?)

So Ralph set about recreating Olson’s private library in Vancouver, scouting bookshops with a diminishing list in hand. I got to see him work a time or two with that library, while it was building, and it was like watching Scarlatti practise. He also had and has first appearances in magazines of the separate poems, usually with photocopies of the typed MSS. It was extraordinarily impressive, and to a book-spine gazer like myself frustrating, so many books I didn’t care to read, how could I like Olson, who’d lap up One Hundred Years of the Salem Savings Bank or “Stratigraphic Confirmation of the Low Mesopotamia Chronology” and give Darwin a miss? Of this gravel and straw he made poems. By in a way ignoring the polite literature in which Edward Dahlberg basked and revelled. Giving himself these kinds of things to read, swallowing stones, Olson seems to have found a way out of Polite Letters, and almost in passing nearly out of literature altogether, and that at best is what we mean by Postmodernism, being so thoroughly involved with the writing that you forget it’s literature. It’s wonderful when, having done this, it is.



I did not know that Gerald had written this review until Boxkite, another wonderful gift, arrived in my mailbox. Gerald Burns died in July 1997, at his parents’ home in Michigan, of a heart attack. He was a humble scholar, poor as a church mouse, rich as Spinoza. As a sometime professional clown, he filled the ring. In his poetry he set out to mention everything, to give it value. I think he did practically do it.

— Ralph Maud

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