Charles Olson: recollections
Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #19 (April 1997), with 19 pieces of correspondence from Olson to Glover not reproduced here.
Part 1 (of 2)
He was like an angel on earth. It struck me that deeply: ‘this is not just an ordinary person.’ And I’m enough of a believer to think very seriously about that. I’ve been touched in some way by something greater than life.
— Elvin Jones recalling John Coltrane
first saw Olson when I enrolled in his course on myth at SUNY, Buffalo, in the fall semester, 1964. Irving Massey, who had been my freshman English teacher at McGill in 1960, had encouraged me to apply for a graduate fellowship at Buffalo; he had joined the department and knew that fellowships were available for young poets. The State of New York was going to build a graduate school to rival the State of California, or so the rumor ran. He also suggested I sign up for a class with Olson since there was so much talk about him. Even though I had always spent summers in Provincetown and was dimly aware of Black Mountain College from conversations there, I had not heard of Olson before and had no expectations whatsoever as I entered that first class in the basement of one of the gray stone buildings on the old campus on Main Street. During high school in Needham, Mass., my poet models had changed from Whittier, Longfellow, Emerson, Dickinson, and Frost to Kerouac and “the Beats” made available in Ferlinghetti’s marvelous little books which we used to smuggle around in our pockets. One could be suspended for carrying Howl, a punishment that increased our admiration for the work enormously. During my 16th summer I’d put on dark glasses, tried to grow a beard, and hung around a number of poets from New York City and Washington, DC, perhaps most notably Bin Ward, Dick Dabney, and Bill Walker. These men and others were my first vision of the truly Dionysian ecstasy of poetry, pot and wine, fires on the beach, naked women dancing to flutes and drums, the poet Bill Walker out of his mind and staggering around the blaze reciting inspired, spontaneous verse. I was too young to enter The Old Colony Tap, but I’d sit by the side door or attend the Sunday afternoon sessions in the back room there.
I didn’t know any of the other students on that first day of class, but I sat beside another new kid, George Butterick, who seemed almost as disoriented as I was. Later I would discover that George had written an undergraduate thesis on Olson and had some idea what he was getting into. The class was scheduled from 3 to 5, and on that first day Charles entered the room a bit late. He was rumpled looking, as if he had just gotten out of bed and had slept in his clothes, a pair of khaki chinos and a heavy, white sweater that he wore over his shoulders, the sleeves tied around his neck. He brought with him a square, glass bottle of orange juice from which he would take large drinks. He didn’t say anything for a bit but shuffled around in front of us, rubbing his balding head, rummaging in his bag, finally lighting a Camel which he consumed in enormous breaths as if he were smoking a joint. I’d never seen a “professor” like him, of course, and was immediately drawn into the act. In the second semester and then the third, I would easily recognize and appreciate this “first day routine” which had been designed to drive away as many students as possible. The room, which had no ventilation, quickly filled with smoke, but he would not let anyone open the windows. And when he began to talk he made himself enormously offensive, aggressive, obscure, even belligerent. “That fucking Albright! You hear me? Huh?” Rubbing his unshaved chin, shuffling around at the board, making the chalk screech or breaking it in half under the pressure of his writing. “Jesus! I still don’t know. . . that, begrunden, we need to get that, you know *sta which is really, like, stlocus or some shit.” Some of the students who had been with him during the previous year knew what was going on, but the rest of us were left to fend for ourselves. My education had trained me to “understand” whatever the “teacher” said, but I could not begin to understand Charles. He started talking about subjects I’d never heard of — Sumerian poetry, Phoenician studies, Hesiod’s Theogony — though even then I might have grasped something if his intent had been to make these subjects clear. On the contrary, he seemed to assume a knowledge that I didn’t have. What was Charles to do with people who hadn’t read Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts or Jane Harrison’s Themis or Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion? Having been one of the “smartest kids” in English since I could remember, the situation was interesting. Later I’d hear about the great musicians of the time who would initiate precocious youngsters by playing a familiar number at lightning tempo or in an unusual key; no way to “think your way” through it. Charles played unfamiliar tunes like that!
After an hour or so, I was in pain. The atmosphere, in all senses, was too much. But Charles went on as if oblivious to whatever discomfort he might be creating. After 90 minutes he was just getting started. The pace quickened; the shifts from subject to subject with no apparent logical connection increased. We might go from Sanchuniathon to John Wieners (relatively unknown at that time) to “the space cadets” to Shakespeare to Mnemosyne and “the nous of Zeus” to Cyrus Gordon in just a few minutes. The speed was fabulous. And while it was incomprehensible to me, it was the most brilliant talk I had ever heard. The sheer energy of the discourse as Charles moved into his power was unbelievable. I was one who decided to return; but many were not so taken. In fact, I was surprised to learn how many students and faculty thought Olson was a “charlatan” or a “guru” or some other disreputable thing. That hostility would later be shifted along to his students, the “Olsonites” (Olsonite, I learned later, is a material used in the manufacture of toilet seats), as if we had somehow improperly encouraged him. Not that I considered any of that or what the implications of this meeting would be for me as I left the first class. I knew something had happened, but I had no idea what. I’d never really thought about angels. And what was an Ismaeli anyway? The Gilgamesh Epic? Of course all his then esoteric subjects are common knowledge now.
Because I had been trained as a scholar, my response to Olson’s dizzying array of reference was research. I found The Maximus Poems, then in a Jargon/Corinth paperback edition, thinking they would help explain the talk. But, to my surprise, I couldn’t understand the poems any more than I could understand the “lectures.” The Maximus Poems were the first poems I had ever encountered which I could not read with at least some degree of understanding. But then, my education had left out a great deal of poetry. I recognized the words, I tracked down the references, I felt the obvious energy of the work; nevertheless, I couldn’t begin to translate the poems into a familiar meaning. It was as if the “letters” were written in another language. Nor could I find anyone who was able to help me. I asked Fred Wah what it all meant (he seemed to be “in the know”) but all he could offer by way of explanation was that this had started in 1963 in Vancouver. No help. I decided I needed further study. And since I was also in a course with Ralph Maud working on a bibliography of critical response to Dylan Thomas, I decided to look for Olson materials while going through periodicals with Ralph on the Thomas case. This work began to bear fruit. I started finding early poems in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar! I also began collecting publications from booksellers, a collection which I later sold to Simon Fraser as the basis of their Olson collection. This work would result in the Olson bibliography (1967), with George Butterick, for Robert Wilson’s Phoenix Bibliographies in New York. But during that fall semester it was my way of trying to get a grip on class, to make Charles understandable.
But “understanding,” truly, was not the point. If any “thought” began to solidify, Charles would demolish it. Knowledge was “what you did with it,” he’d said. The real work was, in fact, simply to be there. It wasn’t easy. Exhaustion was almost immediate if I tried to “keep up with” or “understand” anything he said; yet my previous training had been just that. The unlearning had to be extensive. Not the unlearning of whatever information I’d managed to gather along the way; Charles valued facts and I found I had surprisingly few of them. Rather, I had to unlearn habits of student behavior and facile “understanding” which school had so rigorously taught me. None of those habits served this situation. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing familiar, no place to rest other than in the immediate presence of oneself and others. After an hour my head would ache. And then Charles might prowl the room like a Jesuit demanding that I “wake up.” There was no escape from him. Yet it was not mean or cruel; after his initial terrorist tactics had purged the group of the non-serious, Charles was an extraordinarily generous man. In fact, I quickly thought of him as a real teacher like those I had read about studying zen or Gurdjieff’s “remarkable men.” In fact, after one of the early classes I nervously approached Charles. “Are you Gurdjieff?” I inquired timidly. He bent over, drew me in with his arm, put his face in my face and said: “What are you, on some kind of self-improvement program?” I wrote this story to Tom Clark when he was working on the Olson biography, and he took my question as yet another instance of how ridiculous Olson’s students were. He didn’t even quote Olson’s rejoinder, a great answer in the context in which it was given.
lson’s presence may be indescribable; I’ve never met anyone who could generate the sort of high energy that came from him. Allen Ginsberg, shortly after he’d been crowned King of the May, one night at a party at Leslie Fiedler’s house had the same quality. “Charisma” the popular media used to call it. To be with Charles was to be at the center of a vortex, a magic nebel from which everything originated. Charles was happening. No doubt that sounds, well, I can’t even imagine how it sounds to someone who has not had the experience. Michael Castro’s recent poem, “The Man Who Looked Into Coltrane’s Horn,” tries to capture a bit of the sort of excitement I mean. And I certainly live now in a world where such men are everywhere denied. Is it they are dangerous in some way to themselves and others? I really don’t know. What I do know is that Olson was “out there” existing in a scale and a dimension that was absolutely inspiring. Some of that condition comes through in his writing, but his presence was, to me, of more importance than all the poems no matter how much I read and love them. The poems, I think, are what was left over after Charles had done what he was doing. Like recordings. Not that these things have no value, but they are the residue of the “time” in which the event actually took place. Charles used Whitehead’s Process and Reality to justify what he knew from his own experience, that novelty occurs when there is an intersection of the self and the universe. What he was making was a world, a cosmos; the poem issued from this world, not the other way ‘round. Thus, I came to understand, the making happened in the writing and one brought all of the creation to that moment, “The Twist.”
Because he was the unacknowledged legislator, many other poets made the trip to Buffalo to see Olson. That was another benefit of his class. One afternoon Gregory Corso came to visit. He was “out” in the way Bill Walker had been out: intense, drunken, “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo.” He confronted us, wanted us to “match him” in lines by Shelley. He’d say one and wait for a response. We were speechless. I wanted to hide for shame, of course. So, unable to play with us, he turned to Charles. “We’re all on death row,” he began to chant. “We’re all dying.” The lament grew in intensity. He was weeping, screaming. “Aren’t I captain poetry, Charles? Aren’t I captain poetry?” “Yes,” says Olson. “Then what should I do?” And calmly the answer: “Report for duty. “
I kept on with my Maud-guided research finding all sorts of things. Nobody that I know of had done any serious research on Olson as of 1964, so the field was pristine. I could buy the rare items cheap. And early essays like “This is Yeats Speaking” in Partisan Review (Winter 1946) began to surface. Olson’s relation to Pound began to take shape, and before long I found the wonderful line in Pound’s letter: “Olson saved my life.” (Later, when I pointed it out to Hugh Kenner, he didn’t believe me. Pound scholars thought “Olson” was a doctor!) When I sent a copy of the letter to Charles, who had never seen it, he was gratified. I decided to gather a “Collected Poems” and made copies of everything I discovered, all that early stuff from the late ‘40s. “A Lion upon the Floor.” The Black Sun Press edition of Y & X. I also began to meet my classmates: George Butterick, Harvey Brown, Jack Clarke, Fred Wah, Charles Boer, Andrew Crozier, John Temple, Charles Brover and others. I never thought about the absence of women in the group, though later some women would become angry about Charles’ work as a poet and teacher. Denise Levertov, for example. I had lunch with her on the occasion of her honorary degree from St. Lawrence University in 1984, and I told her about a conversation I’d had with Charles at 28 Fort Square. He’d asked me what I wanted to be (when I grew up, I suppose) and I told him I wanted to be a poet. “Don’t ever want to be a poet!” he’d responded with ferocity. Denise, who made it clear she did not approve of Olson as a teacher, found in this story an instance of negative dominance; he should have encouraged me, she thought. I, on the other hand, still believe it was necessary advice. You either are or you aren’t, and “wanting to be” puts one in a bad situation, to say the least. It also gave me fair warning about how this country treats poets. As graduate students, in any case, we were a fraternity — the brothers of Phi Nu Theta (phusis, nous, and theos). Charles liked trinities; topos, typos, and tropos was another one at that time. Marjorie Perloff would later call us “the Olson cult,” the “last all-male group gathered around a particular poet.” But in 1964 the “women’s movement” as it would evolve in the ‘70s hadn’t been dreamed.
In the spring semester, 1965, I enrolled in both of Olson’s courses: “Myth” and “Poetry.” The first met on Tuesday afternoons at 3 and would go on until 5. After some post-class milling around, which might go on for another half hour, some of us would go with Charles to Onetto’s, a roadhouse across from campus where we would drink and have dinner, often at Olson’s expense. It was the banquet. While anyone was free to speak, Charles usually held the table in thrall. He would go over the issues which he had raised in class, remark upon somebody’s response to something said, laugh, drink, slam the table, order more, and generally carry on in high spirits. One evening John Temple (Charles saw in this John an echo of Keats) had listened long enough. Standing, he cut through Olson’s monologue with an aggressive: “Be quiet, Charles. It’s my turn to talk.” Everyone froze, like a scene from The Gunslinger. But John had nothing to say; the sudden silence overwhelmed him. He sat down. Charles beamed, laughed, and went right on as if nothing had happened. The feasts at Onetto’s usually lasted until closing, though I could rarely make it that far. Then the few would proceed to Olson’s motel room or some other place where the conversation would run on, sometimes until the next class, which met at 3 on Wednesday. Then the same thing would happen until Onetto’s closed, about a 32 hour “run.” Jack Clarke, who had some training as a jazz player, had the best endurance of anyone in the group. In addition he had a knowledge of William Blake which he could offer. John Wieners and Harvey Brown also had some endurance. The general rule was that one was supposed to bring something to the table.
On one of these nights at Onetto’s, Jack convinced me to show Charles the “Collected Poems” which I had been gathering. He was surprised and delighted. I had finally showed up with something perhaps useful. He began asking me about other early work, testing me. A few nights later he called at 3 a.m. and asked me to edit his letters to Cid Corman as my doctoral dissertation. It was an enormous gift. The only stipulation was that I couldn’t include Corman’s letters to him, a stipulation which angered the former editor to the point he deliberately withheld material in order to invalidate the project. From that moment forward my relationship to Charles changed considerably.