Quicks and Strings by Robin Blaser

[Part 2]



 want to get on to make a few notes on some of the other letters, but I cant pass by 1429 in this one. I do not find it in Toynbee, whose discussion of the Italian Renaissance strikes me as slipshod and parochial (Englishly so), a renaissance of a dead civilization, as he would have it. Alberti would not summarize it until 1435 (Latin) and 1436 (Italian). This Renaissance was well under way before 1429. Dante had noted a shift in experience, in Purgatorio, Canto XI, from the transcendent beauty of Cimabue to our own ground in Giotto. In the fifteenth century, my mind moved to Masaccio and Donatello. This is, in terms of the visual arts, also language — the flow over centuries of human consciousness of exactly Olsons concern, the relation of Language and reality. Toynbee was little concerned with this. I think Olson was after the closure of single-point perspective, the earth or humanity as simplifying centre. His irony in the matter of how long Ptolemy lasted, the Americans, and Bessamer Ill leave for another time. (Michelangelo and Blake after him eyeing the Last Judgment went after the antiperspectival.) I was at a loss, then, and so turned determinedly toward Olsons poems and Maximus.

I was grateful for the attention to Dante, and for the recognition of the assymetry of terza rima. I noted his generous remarks on my power over old forms and watched for the crack in my door — for it to widen and blow open. The poem he remembers as being four is Song in Four Parts for Christ the Son, which hed found by way of a copy of Occident (1948) in the Black Mountain Library, is now enfolded in lake of souls (reading notes, in Syntax (1981). And the Quaternity he recommends I translated in 1957 into Quandary — form-in-life — finding it now a lifetime quest. (Blakes Zoas are propositions of it, and Ive found elements of it in Mallarmé, with the help of Robert Greer Cohn, who calls that quality of mind Polypolarity.)

The poem I weep, fountain of Jazer is now in The Collected Poems (pp. 419-420). Jazer is a city of Gad (Joshua 21:39) and in this poem takes us to Isaiah (16:9), startlingly to the judgment on Moab. Perhaps, Melvilles biblical eye brought Olson to this passage. The letter says changes around 1875. The poem brings Dr. Moon, unresting image of change, Out of the dry sea. The letter suggests that the poem reflects Two big changes. The first must be change itself. The second is the I of the poem, Olson or any one of us, who is a pool and mysterious even to the self, playing pocket-pool with sources that cut my finger — is it a pointing finger or the finger that turns a page? — Look Jazer: / it weeps — the blood that is ourselves, close to what the soul is. Just to type out a version of my first take, back then.

Olsons first letter was, in the lingo of the 60s, mind-blower.



hen we arrive, Olson is waiting for Don Allen and me at small table in The Tavern bar. Wed barely settled when Olson turned to me and asked, Who is Matilda? It took me some time to find my bearings. We were, it turned out, in the midst of Dante — Purgatorio, Cantos XXVIII & XXVIX — gazing with him across a stream — one appears who warms herself in loves beams — she is the fourth of Dantes six guides in The Comedy. I do not remember in detail my answer. I do know that it was inadequate. I said she was a kind of innocence in human nature — not in nature itself — the Christian tradition knows little of that — that she was there at the border of the Earthly Paradise to prepare for the uninvented Beatrice for whom Dante searched heretically through all the realms (with a side-note on Charles Williamss The Figure of Beatrice) — that she was the first revelation in the poem of the feminine in the possibility of human redemption — that she was a guide toward an as yet unseen splendour. Well, thats where I was. Theres more, wonderfully told in William Andersons Dante The Maker (1980), where Matilda is among levels of meaning. I dont think I had the good sense then to go at the erotic imagery that surrounds her in the poem. Our wild conversation at The Tavern left many another matter dangling — ethos and pathos in character and suffering, for one — we repaired to the swimming pool on the beach, where Olson read for us Maximus 1-22 straight through and added There Was a Youth Whose Name Was Thomas Granger. I dont think that we asked for this last poem — it had appeared in the Divers Press In Cold Hell, in Thicket, 1953, and he told me it was written in 1947, before Id even heard of him. I felt that he just very generously tossed it to me that day — that it might touch something that runs through my mind like a shadowed stream. At least 3 hours had passed without a tick — of any clock. We headed for the restaurant where Betty joined us — her ink drawings which I was to see later, pinned to a kitchen door in the Ft. Square apartment, still appear before me when I happen to think of them — and we dined on lobster. As we rushed to catch the train back to Boston, I looked back — Olson was checking each plate for morsels of lobster one of us might have missed — Betty was laughing.

[Letter 2: undated] [Letter 3: Nov 9 / 57]

Letter, Nov 20 / 57 — I think I found the birch bark in Vermont at the foot of its tree, wrote something on it, now forgotten, and sent it to Olson — imaginary paper — nothing could have pleased me more than this thought of Webern, suggesting the dynamic I could only desire in writing. Jack Sweeney — whose Picassos and Jack Yeatses left an indelible impression — was the genial director of the Poetry Room at Harvard. Id been at him since I got there to invite Olson and Duncan for readings — the fee was $800 which meant a lot then. This invitation to Olson never came to anything, and it would be years before Olson was invited. Duncan was never invited. I wont stop to make a list of those who were invited, but not one of the New American poets. Spicer didnt exist in a book. When Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso came in 1958(?), they were invited not by the Poetry Room but by the Harvard Law Society — Olson and I attended that splendid reading with a raucous audience.

[Letter 5: date obscure] [Letter 6: Christmas 1957]

Letters, Feb. 25, 6 March, 13 March, 1958, on Melville — invaluable, memorable Caroline Jakeman was still at the Houghton Library — she and Houghton always generous with me and my curiosity about Dickinson, Carroll, and now Melville. I sent Olson everything I could gather in manuscripts and a copy of Timoleon (published in only 25 copies in 1891) — photocopies and thermofaxes. Olson never told me what book he was reviewing. His caution about the poems was entirely called for since the 1947 Hendrich House edition of The Collected Poems was a scandal — were still waiting for the Newberry edition. But Olsons interest in Melvilles poems went beyond any review he may have had in mind — he wanted to know exactly what went on in the manuscripts, the erasures and marginalia. The next move came by phone — could I look at the ms. of After the Pleasure Party — a stunning poem — and tell him how I would read the erasures. Caroline Jakeman set me up with a light-box by a telephone — I wish we had been able to tape that extraordinary conversation. Later, I sent Charles further thoughts on a postcard.

Letter, May 13, 1958 — this one seems to me so very important. It was set off by my sending a postcard on the occasion of the publication of Olsons beautiful poem The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs in Evergreen Review — a poem of shifting perspectives and images of folding realities. Olson had recently said to me, Id trust you anywhere with image, but youve got no syntax. I wrote on my postcard simply, Whos the image boy round here, followed by some remarks meaning WOW! I was in love with the imagery of that poem, by the structure of them. One day, I would like to stop over this letter — on Olsons dream of the birth of image from rhythm — rhythm anadyomeme — on finding syntax thereby, not in the inherited formalities, but in the rhythms of an indeterminate life — deep in the immediately structural — where one may be hanging on for Dear Life.

[Letter 11: June 4, 1958] [Letter 12: Dec 8 / 58]

Letter, early April, 1959 — Olsons TRAUMBUCH or Indo-European Lexicon — I searched — Harvard had all the materials of the past 75 to a 100 YEARS — but there was no single Lexicon that drew this together — such is now underway:

Suschiel K. Gupta, A Comparative Etymologic Lexicon Common Indo-Germanischer (Indo-European) Words (Sverge-Haus, Vols. 1 & 1A (1986), vol.2, B-Dh (1990), vol. 3, D-Dh (1991), vol. 4 (Etruscan, Illyrian, Thracian, 1992). Incomplete.

And it would be wise to read

R. Beards The Indo-European Lexicon: Synchronic Theory (North Holland, 1981).



hen Olson came more often to Boston / Cambridge during my last year there, 1959, there were fewer letters and a habit of phone-calls had begun.

Once, the two of us dined at the Würsthaus in Harvard Square — Olson talked marvelously of what he thought a new stance in the cosmos might feel like — over our boiled dinner — of our undiscovered imagery — it was something of a preface to what was coming up in The Maximus Poems — the dynamic talk of it, a neighbourly conversation. Many hours later we noticed the waiters staring.

[Letter 14: 15 April 1959]

Another day, we met for a sandwich — a drugstore counter where I usually met Jesse Whitehead — I was so tied up that day at Widener — he said, as we parted, What you need is a compass, and he pulled one out of his pocket, a buttonhole chain attached to it — Hang on to it! he said. It now rests where I need it on my writing desk.

When I left Boston for Europe on the freighter Nova Scotia, July 14, 1959 — three days each in Halifax and in St. Johns en route to Liverpool — following Melville to Princes Dock — Olson came to the ship to see me off, along with a bunch from Harvard carrying a gift of three moonstones I still have — Don Allen and Frank OHara sent messages to the ship with names and addresses of people to see — Jesse Whitehead and Steve Jonas joined us — and Id prepared for Cutty Sark all around until the ship sailed — Olson gave me a first edition of Redburn: His First Voyage, 1850, signed To Robin, his first voyage. Every sailor on the ship and I read it during the three weeks it took to get to Liverpool — theyd never heard of the book and were amazed so to see their city — I was astonished that so much was the same — the pink weeds around the dock — the basement windows — I splurged on the great hotel where Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James had stayed — my first edition is not as it was. The last thing Olson said to me before he left the ship was Dont get stuck in Europe. Head for Hittite country. Just what he wanted to do himself. This beloved companion.

[Letter 15: 16 July 1959, scanned][Letter 15: transcribed]

Robin Blaser

21 May, 1995



PS: Here in Vancouver, I cant help but think of the note Olson sent me not long after I arrived here, handwritten:

Note here for your Office ----


The West in fact still seems to me substantively the still undisclosedor insufficiently rubbed & occupied [as the cave lions shoulders still show on French ice-age caves]; and San Francisco as Emporiumfolds Discovery after Spaniardsstill lacks a Continental Shelf: it will in fact fall-in to the Pacific as you know within a determinable number of years—1' per Century or something the rate is, until she suddenly disappears as Atlantis did the day Santorini blew up          1400 BC almost on the nose

I wish each Westerner wld treat himselfand herselfas

astride the East African



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