Tom Clark and the Collected Prose


Part 2



355 “Review of Eric A. Havelock’s Preface to Plato

Published in Niagara Frontier Review, no. 1, summer 1964; reprinted in AP [Additional Prose, 1974]. Tom Clark in Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life calls Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963) a “confirmation” of the method Olson discovered in writing “The Gate and the Center”; several unpublished essays further attest to the book’s importance for Olson, who brought Havelock to Buffalo from Yale in December 1964.


hus the note which is the second reference to Tom Clark in Collected Prose (p. 455). It refers us to the pages where Clark discusses the “Human Universe” essay at some length (not, by the way, “The Gate and the Center”). With a good amount of quotation we see Olson lambasting the Greeks, from Plato on, because of the stultifying discourse of logic, classification, and symbology. Olson feels that we must find an alternative discourse that can give us the kinetic of reality in its particulars (Clark p. 200):

There must be a way of expression . . . a way which is not divisive as all the tag ends and upendings of the Greek way are. There must be a way which bears in instead of away, which meets head on what goes on each split second, a way which does not — in order to define — prevent, deter, distract, and so cease the act of, discovering.

Then Clark gets a clever idea: the “Human Universe” essay itself is “curiously” an example of exactly the new discourse sought, in that its “intensive unfolding” (Clark’s phrase, not Olson’s) is as much as “anything Olson had yet attempted in open-field verse” (p. 200). He explains (p. 201):

Stripped of all mechanics save those hidden in the nature of his subject, Olson’s scattershot argument came out curiously true to its intent: “A thing . . . impinges on us by . . . its self-existence.” His serial, accumulative style in the essay served to accent that point, highlighting the individuating, anti-identifying quality of his thought. The rhetorical form employed was one of simple parataxis — or as he would later define it, the placement of “words or actions . . . side by side in the order of their occurrence in nature, instead of by an order of discourse or grammar.’” This appositional or “dream syntax” would dictate the internal ordering of much of his major work to come.

The phrases quoted here by Clark are from Olson’s review of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato. Clark is proposing that Olson in this review of 1963 had at last found the words to express what he had been doing in the “Human Universe” essay of 1951.

A plausible idea, but wrong. The “Human Universe” essay, or “The Gate and the Center,” if you will, or any published prose Olson wrote up to the “Proprioception” essay of October 1959, is good old-fashioned exposition. It could perhaps be mistaken for something new because of its singular lilt and raciness, but it is essentially hard-nosed argumentation. Clark will have it that the method is presentational (pp. 200-1): “Instead of being subjected to comparison and analysis, Western and Mayan cultures and styles of thought were juxtaposed for the reader’s inspection much as images in a work of art.” Not true. Olson argues his points like the old debater he was all through college and national politics, viz “Human Universe” from Selected Writings p. 63:

. . . I have found, for example, that the hieroglyphs of the Maya disclose a placement of themselves toward nature of enormous contradiction to ourselves, and yet I am not aware that any of the possible usages of this difference have been allowed to seep out into present society.

If this isn’t a formally stated comparison and a damn good topic sentence I’ll eat my Harbrace College Handbook. And when at the end of the essay Olson gives us a Mayan myth for two and a half pages, he carefully makes it part of a syllogism (Selected Writings p. 64):

. . . Man has made himself an ugliness and a bore.

It was better to be a bird, as these Maya seem to have been, they kept moving their heads so nervously to stay alive, to keep alerted to what they were surrounded by

Or to be a man and a woman as Sun was, the way he had to put up with Moon, from start to finish the way she was, the way she behaved, and he up against it.

It is only after the formal comparison of the present with the mythic past that the retelling of the Mayan story is allowed to proceed. No bare juxtaposition here. The myth is an exemplum designed to clinch the argument in the way any persuasive preacher might use a parable. Olson in his own voice comes out at the end of the myth to comment (Selected Writings p. 66):

O, they were hot for the world they lived in, these Maya, hot to get it down the way it was — the way it is, my fellow citizens.

The final words give it all away — the essay is a political speech from beginning to end!

Clark would have us believe an anachronism: that Olson’s parataxis of the sixties was not something he had earned by intelligent insight and effort but that he had already stumbled into it somehow in the fifties without really knowing what he was doing until he read Havelock (p. 201):

. . . His delighted discovery, in a book read a decade after the writing of “Human Universe” (Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato), that a paratactic method not unlike his own, uniquely suitable for containing “an experience of experience, vision dream seeming,” had actually reigned supreme in the poetic expression of pre-Socratic times, would strike him as the ultimate confirmation of the legitimacy of his entire approach in writing.

Olson’s achievement was much greater than herein implied. In the fifties he had some idea of where Western thought was letting us down, and equating the future postmodern with the archaic (for which Olson will be remembered in intellectual histories) was a stroke of genius; but it was only with the opening of the new decade of the sixties that Olson found himself able to step into the world he had foreseen, with “Maximus from Dogtown—I” and especially “Maximus from Dogtown—II” breaking open the old syntax and bewildering us with an entirely new regimen. This was new; it was not something he had been doing all the time.

And it was no reversion to the pre-Socratic parataxis of epic narrative. What Olson managed to do was to utilize the Homeric way of reifying knowledge, what Havelock neatly called “the Homeric encyclopedia,” the body of what was then known expressed as a series of events, paratactic in the sense that each event in turn is experienced for itself before the next event occurs — Olson carried this over into the reflective epic of daily explorations into history, psyche, or myth which we know as Maximus IV, V, VI and The Maximus Poems Volume Three. These journal poems, along with the ongoing prose gloss of the one-to-one public correspondence, are Olson’s bid to be “equal to the real itself,” a modern parataxis as the instants of the real are paratactic.

Note 1


lark (p. 201) stresses how much the “Human Universe” essay was revised without saying that such trimming confirms its paratactical methodology. On reflection it might tend to confirm the opposite:

On June 17, copies of the essay’s first draft were sent to Cid Corman, for submission to his magazine, and Robert Creeley, for editorial comment. Both recipients cautioned Olson about an occasional overaggressiveness; of tone, especially in a passage attacking the “collectivists,” “existentialists” and “homosexuals” who were his fellow contributors to the latest New Directions annual. Heeding their politic advice, he deleted the potentially embarrassing section, and also slightly moderated his assault on humanism and “Greekism.” For some months he continued to revise and trim the entire essay with an unusually assiduous attention to detail.

Olson wrote about the New Directions annual #12 because, as a contributor, it had been sent to him and he received it in Yucatan at the moment he wanted to say something about the laws of a new humanism, to find a new way. What had just fallen into his lap was symptomatic of how lost contemporary writing had become, and Olson used it to make that point. Within a month he was at Black Mountain College and the first thing he did straight off the bus was read in a public session the first draft of “Human Universe,” and on the basis of hearing it through his own voice he started revising it right away, throwing out the New Directions passage (Creeley Correspondence 6 p. 136). In saying that Olson heeded Gorman’s and Creeley’s “politic advice” on this, Tom Clark is far from the mark. It is true that in sending Corman the final typescript Olson wrote: “I found your letter, by the way, on it of considerable help. . . I do hope I have taken care of the things which balked you, in the original version” (Corman Correspondence 1 p. 199), but this gives no clue to what it was Corman balked at and since Corman’s letter on the subject is not extant Clark’s guesswork as to the various motivations involved is quite without foundation. We do have Creeley’s response to the New Directions section (Creeley Correspondence 6 p. 84):

The next damn thing: that biz of the annual — clear enough it hoists you into yr thesis, but what abt reader? Again, seems backwater, & that ‘failure’ of sd men is not, we know, limited to any one collection — in short : the danger : will it give reader chance to question ‘representativeness’ of sd collection, etc., etc., etc. I.e., getting you, again, into argument? Hence, thought : book biz cd be heaved? [Added in margin: a thought?]

P. 2/ (Kick me IF I’m wrong) MAIN STATEMENT — “These writers satisfy themselves that they can only make a form by selecting one plane of content. . .” I.e., there, just there, is the main statement against which yr own logic can make its way. Now damn well see, like they say, how yr examples, strung on to same, head you off into the argument again. Viz: 1) social reality. . . 2) collectivism. . . & so forth. I mean, these 3 planes will hit, as they must, IF they are not put as general terms, i.e., IF you here give sufficient room, & quiet to their statement, to CONVINCE the reader, & not, again, get him into argument. And it is damn important that the sentence cited above NOT get drowned in such, because it is TOO DAMNED IMPORTANT. Ok. Hence: thought — take time here to plot, coolly, the actual nature of these 3 planes in unargumentative language — to mean, cool, fresh, straight. And not, as I figure it is, the base anger of one’s distaste, which I damn well grant you, anyhow, as 1 side of it. Ok.

Creeley is supportive of what Olson is saying, but believes that the passage in question is on a level of argumentation beneath the rest of the essay. Only with grave distortion can Creeley be said to be cautioning Olson about “an occasional overaggressiveness of tone, especially in a passage attacking the ‘collectivists,’ ‘existentialists’ and ‘homosexuals’” (Clark, in the quotation above).

One should add — though here one enters the realm of the incredible — that the three words Clark puts into quotes (i.e. “collectivists,” “existentialists” and “homosexuals”) do not appear in Olson’s essay at all. (The pertinent paragraph is quoted below from Albert Glover’s transcription of the draft “Human Universe” essay in his Ph. D. dissertation, Charles Olson: Letters for Origin, SUNY Buffalo 1968, p. 159.)

What makes such writing unsatisfactory is, that each thing is allowed to present itself on one face only. These writers satisfy themselves that they can only make a form by selecting one place of content, the psychological, say, or the psychic, or that third which overtakes the other two more and more, the plane of social reality, whether it is collectivism straight on (ah! but tomorrow!) or that escape from same, from its fatherism into a kafka kafka land or from its motherism into existenz or American sonism — superman, or his backward brother, who is also such a performer these days, the homosexual writer.

The laws are larger and more durable than these sad modern and personal solutions.

We have “collectivism” and “existenz”: these misquotations we can disregard because of the minimal damage involved, but Clark was most careless to report that Olson was using a broad and loaded word “homosexuals” when he was actually speaking of “the homosexual writer,” a phrase with a much less harsh sound to it, and in this instance quite specifically referring to Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and perhaps others who would answer to the name of “homosexual writer” in that particular issue of New Directions. But, as the passage shows, Olson did not name anybody, and didn’t make a big thing of it.

This paragraph is part of what Creeley criticized, but not because it was potentially politically embarrassing. In any case, Olson had already cut it out before receiving Creeley’s letter. Corman may have warned Olson that his remarks would be unpopular, but we don’t know that, and to say that Olson heeded the “politic advice” of Creeley and Corman, as Clark does, is to libel all three. The idea is something Clark dredged up out of his own sense of how ambitious people would behave in the bog of literary politics.

Note 2


t is important to rectify the notion that Havelock was a sort of postmodern prophet for Olson. The editorial note in the Collected Prose (p. 456) exaggerated things in saying that Olson “brought Havelock to Buffalo from Yale in December 1964.” This makes it seem that Havelock left Yale to teach at Buffalo because Olson had both the desire that he should and the power to effect it. No, the invitation was only for a single lecture, and the chance to have a chat. Moreover, this was a lecture and meeting that I did not want to witness — for good reason.

I had not read Preface to Plato at the time, but I knew enough to make me worried. Havelock’s view was quite contrary to Olson’s. He was a Platonist and would not at all assent to Olson’s confident statement in “Human Universe” that Plato’s “world of Ideas, of forms as extricable from content, is as much and as dangerous an issue as are logic and classification, and they need to be seen as such if we are to get on to some alternative to the whole Greek system” (Selected Writings p. 55). Olson sought for that alternative by going back before Plato, to Homer and before, where he felt better human values lay. He appreciated Preface to Plato because it showed in exact detail what those values and techniques of education were that Plato would banish (and which Olson would want to reinstate in some way as the postmodern). To Havelock the Pre-Socratics signified no more than what was implied in his title; they were a preface to the real beginning of culture with Plato. Olson had got caught up in admiration of Havelock’s clarity and accuracy, and had not caught on — or refused to catch on — to the general drift of the book. I suspected something like that, and was fearful of an inevitable clash between them when they met.

I knew the man. I had taken Havelock’s course in Virgil in 1952 when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and he had not yet left for Yale. I felt a special relationship with him, as a matter of fact, partly due to the coincidence of his having come from a town in Yorkshire about ten miles from where I was as a schoolboy. He also had the reputation of left political leanings, was said to have been a candidate for the CCF in Ontario, Canada. There were not too many Harvard professors during that McCarthy period that one could, even in safe silence, sit in admiration of on those grounds. However — and it was part of the mystique — whatever high deeds Havelock may have done in Ontario, he was a grey enough full professor by the time I took a front row seat and listened to him read his lectures. For he was no more an Olson in this than anything else: he read his lectures.

There was one particular class I remember that bears out the distinction. Havelock was half way through a lecture when a window cleaner’s ladder appeared at the window ledge outside, then his head, and then his body, and he began to do his work. This was a few feet directly to the right of the lectern. Havelock gave no indication of being disturbed, but after a few moments began to sidle sideways towards the window, carrying his notes and continuing to read from them. He pulled down on the cord of the window blind intending to blot out this competing image of a man working. Unfortunately, when he had pulled the blind down it wouldn’t stay down. He gave those little tugs that normally get a blind to catch and stay, but it wouldn’t. There he was, holding the blind cord and continuing his lecture in the calm reading manner, which with every instant became more and more unendurable. It wasn’t only that it was a fellow Yorkshireman, it was existentialist dignity threatened by an unfair universe. I leapt up from the first row. I couldn’t restrain myself. From the professor’s hand I took the fateful blind-cord. Did I hear titters from somewhere in the class? It was unmistakably comic. But worse was to come. I saw that if I attached the cord to a spare chair, that would hold it down. Unhappily the cord wouldn’t reach the chair unless I stuck the chair legs down the side of the old fashioned radiator at the window. (Meanwhile, the window cleaner, an unnatural perfectionist, was continuing his arm strokes long past the time when a normal mortal would have desisted.) I got the cord fastened and the chair in place, but as I resumed my seat the chair slowly tipped forward into the room and stopped at an angle determined by its pull on the cord. Should I get up and readjust my contrivance? I saw with great clarity that if I tried to do anything the chair would simply subside again to that position of stability. I sat petrified that I might get up again. Havelock continued lecturing with the window cleaner in full view of the class. Arma virumque cano. Know ye now why I might, in all timidity, absent myself from any encounter between Olson and Havelock, two men I in different ways admired, in Buffalo on the 10th of December 1963?


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