Charles Olson: recollections by Albert Glover

[Part 2]



here were some marvelous scenes in Buffalo during the spring of 1965. The city was full of poets. Robert Graves came to read at the Albright Knox gallery, for instance, and there was a large turnout. After the reading Charles approached him, embraced him, and said: “You’re just like a loaf of fresh-baked bread; I’m going to eat you all up!” Graves looked shaken. Poets were conspicuous and public, like movie stars. When we gathered at public tables, people came over to get autographs. One night in a restaurant on Elmwood Street, Charles and John Wieners and Harvey and whoever else was at our table began smoking joints. Nobody did anything about it. The revolution was underway, and poets were the political leaders. Charles was to be the president of that Republic. Later, during the summer when he tried to make the Berkeley Poetry Conference into a political convention, some, including a few of his best friends and supporters, did not return after intermission. That, really, was the end of that. When he returned to Buffalo, he raged about it at Onetto’s; I’d never seen him in such agony. He had been wrong, he thought. But then his conviction would return and he’d curse his false friends for deserting him. There remains a marvelous “conspiracy theory” to be created about this conference and the “politics” surrounding it. As a result of Intelligence Agency action or not, by the end of 1969 all living revolutionary leadership was dead or in hiding. Rock music had met its limit at Altamont and Ed Sanders would soon investigate the “Manson Family” murders.

But in the spring of 1965 something else was happening. One Sunday morning David Posner, the custodian of the poetry collection, invited us to a brunch to honor the presence of Stephen Spender (not yet Sir Stephen) who was passing through town. It was a stiff affair for the most part. Spender had Charles confused with Elder Olson, for one thing, and the conversation was polite. But David had to go somewhere, and he surrendered his apartment to Olson, Clarke, Brown, and some others who had not much else to do. It was a glorious day when the green is more gold than green, an observation Charles made about one of Frost’s lines: “nature’s first green is gold.” We decided to have a picnic. Jack and Harvey went in one direction to get whatever, and Charles and I headed across Main Street to a liquor store for wine. We only had to travel about 500 yards, but the trip was dizzying. I realized that I couldn’t stay next to Charles; try as I might I couldn’t just stay beside him. He’d go and stop and turn and move again — an intricate, unpredictable dance. I became determined to stay at his side, and I put all my attention on that. As soon as I managed to stay with him, he took me by the shoulders and turned me 45 degrees to my left. In front of us was a rural roadway full of songbirds and wildflowers. We walked about ten yards into it as if we were walking into a movie, and then Charles bent over and plucked a flower from the ground. He put it in a buttonhole of my shirt and said: “this is wild myrtle, sacred to Aphrodite.” Then he turned me again and we were back on Main Street with pavement and cars and all the rest of it. I went back the next day but couldn’t find the place.

The picnic was a great adventure. Charles led the way in his Chevvy wagon. (Earlier that year I’d had my first ride in it as Charles drove me and others down Main. The back of the wagon was full of manuscripts, and when we opened the door pages of the Maximus went swirling into the street. I was horrified, but Charles, smoking and talking and laughing, couldn’t have cared less. I thought of those legendary Chinese poets who scattered poems on streams.) He took us to a convent run by the Sisters of St. Francis. There was a large field with a tree in the middle of it, and we headed for that. Once there we began to shuffle around in the grass making a place to camp, Charles keeping up a brilliant monologue about St. Francis and whatever. We were no sooner a bit settled than we saw a State Trooper walking across the field toward us. Apparently the sisters didn’t want us picnicking in their field. It was the first time I’d seen Charles in confrontation with “authority.” He simply stayed himself, expressed some disappointment that the sisters of St. Francis didn’t want us, and declared he knew of an even better place. We followed him and the trooper followed us. We were going to “Melissa’s place,” wherever that was. And after a short trip we came to a large estate outside Buffalo; Charles turned into the drive. The trooper pulled over and watched. At the end of a long driveway Charles parked the car, got out, rang the bell, and talked to a woman who came to the door. He returned to the car with a big smile and led us to a lovely lawn on the grounds which had a brook running through it. Here we spread out our stuff and continued as if there had been no interruption. Charles never expressed any animosity toward the sisters or the trooper. There was no paranoia, no complaint. Everything was paradise.

Another extraordinary event took place at Melissa and Charles Banta’s pastoral estate, one which made an enormous impression on me. Charles was telling us a Civil War story. Union troops were waiting along the edge of a brook very much like the one by which we were sitting. Upstream, another contingent of soldiers had encountered Confederate forces, and the men downstream could hear the sounds of the battle. “Suddenly,” Charles said swinging his arm dramatically over our view of the brook, “the water turned red with blood.” I swear at that moment the water did turn red! I thought I was the only one who saw it, but later when I asked Jack, he’d seen it too. The power of Olson’s imagination was so enormous that he could create that sort of hallucination. In his wonderful book Charles Olson in Connecticut, Charles Boer tells similar stories. At that point in his life, at least, Olson seemed to enjoy “entertaining Indians.” He certainly entertained at Leary’s a few years earlier! The account of his session with Arthur Koestler in Leary’s High Priest which begins on p. 143 with the words: “To put on a good mushroom ritual, I had wired up to Charles Olson, our father who art in Gloucester” is another record of his special qualities.

The school year went on for me as school years always have. There were many chores and some excitement. The Niagara Frontier Review appeared and Frontier Press began publishing books. I typed the sheets for Ed Dorn’s Rites of Passage (later reissued as By the Sound) on a used Varitype machine that Harvey had purchased somewhere. Charles was caught up in Ed Sanders and Fuck You. A Magazine of the Arts. Butterick and Wah and I had moved our young families into the housing project near Bailey Ave. and were collaborating in modest ways. As a Teaching Assistant ($2,400 a year and tuition waived) and Ph.D. degree candidate, I could not devote myself entirely to the scene. My research paper for Olson’s class, “Myth,” was on the cave at Dicte and argued that the broken tablet excavated from the cave reads “Melissa” rather than “Wanassa.” Charles disagreed, though I had some satisfaction later that summer when he read for Pound at “Melissa’s Theater” in Spoleto). While the poets gathered in Berkeley for the great conference, I sat on the steps of the project and listened to the gunfire going off not many blocks away; the sky was red with fire. The riots were on.

In the fall of ‘65 I enrolled again in Olson’s courses. He did the opening number, familiar by now. But, after a week or two, he left. He just went back to Gloucester. I’d never considered that possibility; I didn’t know a “professor” could simply leave. That really was the greatest lesson of all. Now what were we going to do? Jack Clarke, who was an Assistant Professor (the only member of the faculty who actually studied with Olson), agreed to take over the course in myth. He wrote to Charles for instructions, and the answers to his letters we later published as Pleistocene Man (1968). I decided to start something called “The Institute of Further Studies” (IFS, playing with Leary’s IFIF, Institute for Internal Freedom — only later would I learn about “Furthur” painted on the front of Kesey’s bus) and asked George, Fred, and Jack to help. We made Jack “the Director” since he was the oldest and a member of the faculty. I wanted to have a magazine (we did a homemade affair that went to seven issues and which proved an enormous embarrassment to Harvey Brown who was trying to do something serious with Frontier Press and The Niagara Frontier Review) and other events such as a series of lectures by Robert Duncan. The “idea” was to “further” the study we had begun with Charles. I also started a series of “mailers” (three of the Maximus poems and a prose piece titled “Clear Shining Water” were produced in this format) which could go out in a few days to our select mailing list. At about the same time Charles had asked me to act as his “secretary.” He would send me new poems which I would put in files “for publication” or “not for publication.” Then he would direct editors looking for work from him to me. That arrangement didn’t last too long. At another point he wanted me to come to Gloucester with a truck and take all his boxes of stuff to start an archive somewhere. “I honestly believe you are my archivist” (or something like that), he wrote. I knew it was not true; George Butterick should get that job. He could do it. And he did.




 went to Olson’s Fort Square rooms once during the summer of 1966 it must have been. I was with my wife, and we didn’t get past the kitchen. Still, he stayed up all night with us, talking as he always had. He displayed a jar of mushrooms “laced with strychnine” that someone had sent to him from California. Perhaps I’d like to try one? I declined. At one point he read to me about Buddhism from his favorite dictionary, Webster’s Second Edition. The Four Noble Truths. He would shake me when I started falling asleep. And he seemed to have a good time with Pat, my wife, who would challenge him with her spiritual ferocity: “Say it in three words or less!” He’d slap the table, laugh, and set off on another 20 minute solo. Then he’d look at her for approval — she’d do it again. There was a Jackson Pollock drawing on the fridge, put up there like a child’s homework by an admiring parent.

When I moved to northern New York in 1968, I brought The Institute of Further Studies with me. The final issue of The Magazine of Further Studies, which contained “A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul,” was edited at the Holberg house across the street from the pine plantation where I’d found my first amanita muscaria. In the months preceding the publication of Wasson’s expensive Soma, Charles and I had been working on this mushroom which appears in The Maximus Poems briefly as an Algonquian intoxicant. I wanted to try it. We’d both also been reading The Teachings of Don Juan and were excited about that. As my research deepened and I grew closer to actually taking these mushrooms, Charles wrote to me on one of his fabulous postcards that he didn’t know from experience if “whortleberry juice” in fact “cut” fly agaric. Just to let me know that the risk I was taking was mine to take. That gesture remains for me a presiding honesty in our relation. I’ve written about some of this foolishness in The Mushroom, my contribution to A Curriculum of the Soul. And it is true that the vision of that project which has kept me for the past twenty-eight years came from the mushroom shortly after Olson’s death and the arrival of Wasson’s beautiful tome, purchased for me by students at St. Lawrence. I was to publish an epic tribute, a work with many voices, all of them “one voice.” Jack Clarke took the “Plan” and wrote the assignments. The books would go out in various colors and together would make a rainbow bridge. The Ford Foundation bought me Gestetner mimeograph equipment. When the first “proof copies” (400 of each) had been made, I would edit the whole into one volume as lavish in production as Soma.

The last words I received from Olson came by messenger, a phone call from Linda Parker. Letters for Origin had just come out from Jonathan Cape, and Charles wanted me to know that he liked the book. “But the words at the back” (an awkward “editor’s note” I had made in lieu of a scholarly preface) “top it.” He was ever generous with me. And the last time I saw Charles was at the “Olson Conference” in Iowa City, 1976. George, who was on his way to becoming “the Dean of Olson Studies” (as a distinguished “panelist” would announce a few years later at MLA), had cooked up the event with Sherman Paul who was promoting his new book: Olson’s Push. Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American Poetry. Though I hadn’t been officially invited (George had become embarrassed by what he called the “loose Visigothic horde” of Olsonites and was bent upon making Charles a respectable literary figure — the University of California would get the work) my efforts on Olson’s behalf made it hard for George to keep me out when I pressed him. Finally it was arranged I would introduce George and thus have something to do, i.e., I could have a room at The Rebel Motel in Iowa City and apply for travel money from my home institution. Still, as a reader of “Letter for Melville, 1951,” I was in a repressed rage about the Conference and the agenda attached to it. Olson had made it quite clear to me that he detested such “literary” stuff along with the people who made careers out of it. I was also angry because both Jack Clarke and Harvey Brown, men who had worked closely with Charles for several years, were given no opportunity to speak. Regardless, George and I went out to lunch together after one of the morning sessions and whom should we see in the cafeteria but Charles. We both recognized him immediately, though the occurrence did stretch our minds. I thought George was going to drop his tray, but he only turned white and held on. We made our way to a table, and I said: “It’s him. He’s here!” George nodded. Charles came over toward us, but we made no sign of recognition; on the contrary, we both pretended we didn’t see him. So he sat down at the table directly behind me, his back toward mine. And then, more wildly, he pushed himself back so his shoulders were actually touching mine. I continued to pretend nothing was happening as my body filled with an incredible golden light which seemed to flow out of him where we touched. Then he got up and left. George and I never talked about it. And Charles has never bothered me, even in dreams, since that day.

Recently I had a brief exchange of e-mail with a young academic who is interested in how Charles and Robert Creeley shaped their careers. She writes:

I appreciate your reaction to my notion of “career.” I gave a paper on Olson and professional anthropology at Orono and Ed Dorn objected vociferously to any intimation that Olson was an “oppositional professional,” saying, “In those days, we thought professionals were dentists.” I clearly have to think carefully about my terms. How, though, would you describe the tremendous ambition and strategic planning readable in the Olson/Creeley correspondence? The two were collaborating as much on making it in the literary field (they networked in the “mainstream” as well as the “margin”), I think, as on projective verse. I’ve also done some research on Creeley’s dealings with his editor at Scribner’s. He kind of got in the back door, through one of the Short Story anthologies, but when it came to “plan” the publication of For Love, he was remarkably adept at packaging his work.

Her interest strikes me as genuine. But I have been unable to communicate to her the dimension of spirit in which Charles lived and worked. There seems to be no explaining it to the next generation.



Albert Glover was born in Boston in 1942; a member of the English Department at St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY since 1968, and the Frank and Anne P. Piskor Professor of English since 1983; author of six books of poetry — A Trio in G (1971), The Mushroom (1973), Paradise Valley (1975), NEXT (1981), Songs & Sonnets (1986), The Dinner Guest and Other Poems (1990) — and editor of Charles Olson’s Archeologist of Morning (1970) and Letters for Origin (1969, 1989).


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