A letter from William Corbett

Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #26 (June 1998)


3 June ‘98

Dear Ralph Maud:

The Olson newsletter came by slow boat and reached me only last week. I’ve dipped into it and am very glad to have it. Now I will order your book on Olson’s reading.

Yes, I did know Olson a little and have just written about that in reviewing his Collected Prose, but the review is in Boston and I’m in Vermont. So, I will remember what I can for you now. Please make use of it however you see fit.

Before I came to know Olson I had read the poems in Donald Allen’s anthology and “Projective Verse”, but most importantly to me I had read Call Me Ishmael. The book was unlike any literary criticism I had read. It opened my eyes to the possibilities that you could write about books from a personal, passionate point of view. Olson certainly interested me as a writer, but what drew me to him was that he did not have Cambridge/Harvard’s seal of approval. Robert Lowell ruled the town in the mid-60s and Olson represented everything that Lowell was not.

I first visited Olson at his Fort Square apartment in Gloucester in April or May, 1965. I drove up from Cambridge with the poets Paul Hannigan and Jim Harrison. We had heard from Gordon Cairnie, owner of the Grolier Bookshop, of Olson’s recent return to Gloucester from Buffalo. Gordon may have said, “Poor Charlie Olson. His wife just died. You fellows ought to go and cheer him up.” That sounds just like him, but I am not certain that we knew of the death of Olson’s wife. I know that in the dozen or so times I spent with Olson he never spoke of it.

On that first visit we brought a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch. (Gordon’s advice?) Why did we, three young poets of whom Olson had never heard, expect to waltz into his apartment unannounced? The brazenness of youth must be the answer. I was twenty-two at the time.

When we arrived in Olson’s kitchen the room held a half dozen young men, students, we learned, of Olson’s who had come down from Buffalo and at least one man, whose name I cannot remember, whom Olson had taught at Black Mountain. Olson sat at his kitchen table before a heap of books, most of them open. He greeted us. We opened the bottle of scotch. There were no glasses so we drank from the bottle. Everyone smoked, and Olson bummed Camels from me.

I had been told that Olson was a big man, but I was unprepared for his immensity. Even sitting down, he was the biggest man I had ever been close to. When he stood up he was a giant and the kitchen shrank around him. He size would not have that impact today. Americans in general are bigger and taller now, and we’re familiar with large men from pro football and NBA basketball on TV. But then Olson was big enough, massive enough to be freakish, and this was emphasized by his head. It seemed too small for his body.

I remember that the talk that night was about mathematics, which Hannigan knew something about, but was way over my head. Olson dominated the conversation. I had never heard anyone talk like that before, unroll seemingly endless sentences, leap from subject to subject, laugh suddenly, shout, whisper — listening to him was a wild, exhilarating ride. Olson is one of three virtuoso talkers I have known in my life and like Robert Creeley and Philip Guston, Olson improvised. You had to listen closely or miss the connections between subjects, but even listening closely there were stretches of Olson’s conversation I just could not follow. This would always be the case, but for some reason — the strong feeling that came through? — this never bothered me.

As he talked that night, he smoked, and he smoked his cigarettes down to butts so small he had to hold them between thumb and forefinger for the last drag. Finished, he threw his butt against his kitchen door where it fell to the floor as others had and burnt out. The floor was black and grooved from being used as an ashtray and so was the door. On one of the kitchen walls there was pinned a coastal survey map of Gloucester harbor covered by Olson’s pencil notes, a first working out, he explained when asked, of some “Maximus” poems. I remember that Olson’s students called him Charles, and that Hannigan, Harrison and I began to do so as well.

Driving away after that first visit, Hannigan said he thought Olson was full of it, a bullshitter who knew nothing about math. Neither Harrison nor I could disagree with this, but we agreed the man carried a helluva charge. I don’t think Hannigan visited Olson again but Harrison and I did.

I cannot date nor accurately separate my other visits to that apartment, but I have a number of vivid memories. I think Harrison and I were alone with him when Olson pulled from the books on his kitchen table proofs for a second Maximus Poems. These had been set in Germany for a book Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Press was to publish. Olson, in great irritation, tore into them pointing out how ineptly his poems had been treated. Spacing wrong. Leading wrong. Layout an abomination. He was damned if he’d let the book be published and it never appeared.

I remember him saying that he thought much more of William Carlos Williams’s prose, In the American Grain in particular, than he did of his poems. I remember my surprise that he cared so little for Williams’s poems and the vehemence with which he expressed his opinion.

Once, very late at night, and all of us half-drunk, Olson, wound up about the Mayans, had us come into his bedroom where, at a long, paper strewn table, he worked. Reaching up to a shelf above that table, he pulled down a shoe box and took from it something wrapped in white cloth. This turned out to be a human thigh bone carved all over with Mayan symbols. He passed it around for us to marvel at. That night he reached under his bed and took from his stash of Black Mountain Reviews copies of a few of the squat, square issues and gave them to me.

I cannot be certain that Gerrit Lansing was there that night, but I know I met him through Olson. Perhaps we met at the Italian restaurant in downtown Gloucester where Olson liked to eat. I remember going there with him on a summer night. As usual he was cold, and though the night was mild he wrapped himself in sweaters and an overcoat.

I remember talking with Olson about the poem “O’Ryan” just after it had been published in a pamphlet by Joe Dunn’s — who I also met through Olson — White Rabbit Press. I said something about the image of the boy “all lit up like a pinball machine.” Olson clapped me on the back and exclaimed that I had seen the poem’s center. It felt great to get his full attention and to be praised by him.

I remember another time when, in a downpour, Olson loaded Harrison and I into the front seat of his station wagon for the drive to the Tavern. We often went there late at night, close to last call, for steaks. An evening with Olson made all of us hungry. Harrison was crammed in the middle, and I rode shotgun. Olson’s wipers didn’t work and he never left first gear. It took us forever to get to the Tavern, but Olson seemed not to notice so deep was he into the theories of the anthropologist Carleton Coon. At one point he reached around Harrison to grab me by the shoulder in celebration of his being Swedish and my being Hungarian. This somehow made us brothers. He must not have known Harrison too was Swedish because he did not include him in the brotherhood.

Two other meetings with Olson stand out in my mind. I was in the painter Harry Martin’s apartment/studio in Gloucester’s downtown to see his drawings of the people who spend their days on the benches at either end of the dividers on upper Broadway in Manhattan. Olson came in greatly agitated. The night before LeRoi Jones (he may have been Amiri Baraka by this time but Olson called him Jones) had been arrested and beaten by police in Newark, New Jersey. Olson wanted to call “Ginzap” (Allen Ginsberg) and Ed Sanders in hopes of arranging some sort of defense fund and protest. Finding me there, he asked me to listen in on an extension while he spoke with Ginsberg. I did so, but nothing more than sharing their mutual outrage over Jones’s treatment came from the call.

My last “meeting” with Olson came at his funeral. I drove out from Boston with the poet James Tate, Joan Loewinsohn standing in for husband Ron who was out of town, the photographer and old friend of Olson’s Elsa Dorfman and, perhaps, Paul Hannigan. At the funeral home, I was shocked to see Olson in his casket. Cancer had so diminished him he looked nothing like the man I had known. I remember Elsa taking photographs of his emaciated head, and I remember that four or five poets standing around the room read poems. John Wieners read and so did Joel Oppenheimer. I cannot recall the other readers. Allen Ginsberg? He was there and may have been one of them. We forty or so mourners drove to the funeral. The officiating minister who strode up to conduct the burial seem spooked by the congregation of long hairs some of whom were bearded. He hurriedly waved his silver instruments over the coffin. In doing so, he stumbled and hit the pedal that was to lower the coffin. He quickly took his foot away, and the coffin lurched, tilted sideways and stuck. He withdrew and the mourners came forward. Ginsberg chanted something from the Kaddish, Ed Dorn said a few words out loud, others gave war whoops and the poet Raffael de Gruttola, standing next to me, told me he had slipped a copy of the current issue of his little magazine into Olson’s casket. From the graveside, drove to the Tavern. It was lunch time when we entered and the bartender, who knew Olson, shook his head that it would be just like Charlie to be buried at an hour when it would make more work for him. I remember that photographs were taken there by a Gloucester newspaperman who posed Dorn, Ginsberg, Olson’s student and patron Harvey Brown and a few others together. This came out in the Gloucester paper beside long obituary. I kept a copy of this for years, but it has now disappeared.

One final memory: I had come to see Olson alone. It was late afternoon, and he had been reading at his kitchen table. Did he want to go for something to eat? Yes, he was hungry. He went into his bedroom for a sweater. I went to the book he had put down and idly looked through it. Olson came to the kitchen door and said, “Corbett, you don’t have to read them to know if they’re for you. You just have to smell ‘em.” I could believe he operated in that way. His nervous system and instincts were that close to his skin.

There it is, that’s what I remember.

Best to you,

Bill Corbett


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