Charles Olson: a memoir

by Herbert Kenny

Published in New Boston Review, Summer 1976 and reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #58 (May 2006)


I

n the opening of Part I of Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson wrote, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” Charles Olson was large; he occupied a good deal of space himself, in his physical proportions, in the sweep of his vision of history, and in his place in American literature. He was also magnanimous, with a large capacity for friendship, and though he sometimes wore you down with talking, it was, nevertheless, a mark of his affection.

I knew Charles over a ten-year-period, admired and loved his warmth, and saw him frequently. Most of all I cherished the vivacity of his mind, his grasp of global history, the vast extent of his reading.

He stood six feet eight inches plus, but was not elongated. He had a leonine head and an astonishing grace of movement. Like most big men conscious of their size, he seemed fluid, nervous, and alert. 

In 1960 I went to interview him in Gloucester for an article in which I described him as the heir to the metrics of Ezra Pound, an accolade he accepted happily. I arrived early in the afternoon, and we struck it off, so that it was evening when I left. Our talk turned to the craft of editorial writing and to the Globe’s Lucien Price, one of the most civilized of Boston journalists.

Olson promptly denounced The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, with which Price had had a popular success. Charles admired Whitehead, and, of all books on philosophy, Whitehead’s Process and Reality was his favorite, The Dialogues, he declared, had served only to reduce the stature of Whitehead. We went from Whitehead to Owen Barfield, who had recently taught at Harvard, then to Maximus of Tyre and on to Olson’s unique thesis about the key relation of the city of Gloucester to the course of human history.

A few days later, after my story appeared, he telephoned to thank me. The import of his conversation was that he had become isolated in Gloucester, disturbingly so, ignored by the newspapers, including the local Gloucester Daily Times, one of the best of the small city dailies. I knew from our conversation that he admired the expertise of the Times, so I determined to get him together with the publisher, Philip S. Weld.

In January 1962 Philip Weld and his wife finally came to my home to meet Olson. Weld, at that time, knew little of Olson. He had read, but was not particularly impressed by, Call Me Ishmael, and of the Maximus poems, he knew one which, despite Olson’s general feelings of esteem, had ridiculed his newspaper. The Welds arrived first, Olson fifteen minutes later, apologizing that his wife had decided at the last moment that she was unable to come. The poet wore a topcoat and a small tan knitted cap with an absurdly tiny peak. Beneath the topcoat was a gray suit, white shirt, and plaid tie, almost formal dress for Charles. He went to the fireplace and stood with his back to it, beside Mrs. Weld, a tall woman, but a head below Olson. He took bourbon and water, and there was some banter about his size and a forthcoming reading at Harvard University which was to prove more dramatic than any of us then suspected. He told us he was pleased to be reading in Boylston Hall. ‘The room is quite shallow,” he said, “Large places are difficult to read in.” Olson had read quite recently at Brandeis University and had found the students there unresponsive. He was surprised and annoyed at their passivity. For a while he and Weld talked about their days at Harvard; he had been a graduate student with Harry Levin and others; Weld, an undergraduate. The conversation then drifted to poetry, to the Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini, and to John Wieners, who had been hospitalized but who was recovering. Olson praised a poem by Wieners, lines in which the speaker sees his mother on a street car.

After dinner Charles read from his own poems, including the work that abused Weld’s paper. There’s no question that Olson’s poems gathered force and clarity in the reading, and he read them well. Beginning, he often made several false starts, returning to the opening words again and again, as if trying to pick up the beat. I saw him do it many times and never could shake the feeling that it was an affectation, although that was foreign to his nature. The reading led to a long discussion of the history of Gloucester, and the evening ended most happily.

Soon after, the Welds invited Olson, my wife Teresa, and me to dinner. That too was memorable, in great part because of Charles’ spectacular arrival. It was winter and cold. On being greeted at the door by the Welds and admitted to a large downstairs vestibule, Charles said that his apartment was without heat, apologized, and before our eyes took off his trousers. Then a second pair. For host and hostess, there was a moment, not of alarm, but certainly of astonished interest. The second pair was stripped; the third pair was seen. He read again that evening, most effectively, and discoursed at length on his thesis of the epic of American history starting more truly in Gloucester than Plymouth.

He phoned me after that evening to thank me for “having opened doors,” because the Gloucester paper and others (as a result of the first Globe article) had begun to pay tardy attention to him. The articles in turn brought in requests for appearances, and he then, as always, needed money. First he became a somewhat regular visitor to my home, usually late at night. The conversation would go on until three or four in the morning. Charles drank a good deal but had an incredible capacity: the subject matter of the conversations intoxicated him far more than alcohol.

Day or night our doors were always unlocked, and he walked in usually unheralded. My younger daughter Susan, at the time in her teens, was alone in the house one afternoon when Charles entered. He stalked through the living room into the kitchen and announced himself by proclaiming, “I just took a piss in the bushes.” Susan acknowledged, although she had never seen Charles before, a complete absence of fear. She sensed only his aura of eccentric benignity. She laughed and introduced herself and Teresa, on her return from shopping, was surprised to find Charles in the kitchen reciting in the bardic mode, with gestures.

On still another memorable afternoon, I brought Brother Antoninus, O.P., a Dominican brother, formerly William Everson (and now once again William Everson) to Olson’s apartment on the Fort in Gloucester, the city’s Little Italy. Brother Antoninus, from California, was here to read in Cambridge and to record his poetry for the Lamont Library in Harvard. He and Charles had known each other in California out had not met for years. At that time, Antoninus-Everson had just been released from a Federal camp for conscientious objectors. Thomas McDonnell, book editor of the Boston Pilot and editor of a collection of the works of Thomas Merton, came with us.

Antoninus lauded the return of verbal rhetoric to poetry via Allen Ginsburg and himself, among others, and Olson in reply dismissed metaphor. He was in high spirits, dancing around his kitchen, telling us what a great age we were born into. Every so often he would moisten the top of an index finger and touch the top of the oil stove to illustrate how “hot” an age it was. Everson’s reminiscences of San Francisco, The City Lights group, and the Cold Day restaurant have quite gone out of my mind.

While Antoninus was on hand, we had a party at the house for the two of them, for Antoninus really, but many guests wanted to meet Charles. I invited the late John Holmes of Tufts University and his wife Doris, both poets, although I knew that John was no admirer of Olson. He became so that evening. Teresa has a vivid memory of the two of them sitting on the stairs to avoid the mob, chatting absorbedly. Holmes invited him to Tufts to read, first to a small group and then to 300 students and the faculty. It all went better than Brandeis.

B

y far Charles’ most memorable public reading for me, however, was the Morris Gray lecture at Harvard College which meant so much to him even though it came, as he thought, twenty years too late. He had been denied reappointment at Harvard, and the rejection, I fear, forever rankled, since his friend and fellow at the time, Harry Levin, had gone on to a distinguished professorship and international recognition as a critic.

The day of the reading was in winter, blitzed by a storm. Charles was to tell me later, “Don’t think I wasn’t conscious of all the past history when I stood up there: I came running up like a kid — ready to go.”

He reached the hall with a bottle of Cutty Sark in his pocket — his favorite whisky, whether because of Bobby Burns or taste, I do not know. I learned afterward that before the lecture he had gotten involved in a rumble, his word, with someone named Keyes and “had to throw him out.” Olson’s eyeglasses were chipped in the fracas, and if the damage had been worse, he would have been unable to read.

Boylston Hall — the shallow hall he preferred — was filled. His wife, Bet, as he called her, his son, Charles Peter, some friends — Vincent Ferrini and Peter Anastas, among others, the Gloucester painters, Albert Alcalay and Mary Shore — were in attendance, along with some of the Harvard faculty, and the many students. He was introduced by Monroe Engel, took the stage, and began to read one of the Maximus poems; but suddenly he broke off and left the stage, leaving Engel in lonely grandeur. He was back in a minute and began to read, “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs,” but again he broke off, and this time walked to the side of the platform and leaned in a bow toward a man sitting in an aisle seat in the front row left, Harry Levin.

“Harry,” he said, clearly enough to be heard through most of the hall, “I’m busting up with you sitting there. I can’t read. May I excuse you?”

The man looked up startled, and obviously heard but hadn’t grasped the import of the last phrase. Olson then repeated it, softly but with emphasis.

“Do you mind if I excuse you?”

Levin rose hastily, stepped into the aisle, dropped some books, picked them up, dropped his scarf doing so, and finally clutching all his impedimenta, whisked up the aisle and out.

Olson returned to the center of the platform, obviously moved with emotion, took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes under his glasses, stared for a long time at the podium, and made some barely audible remarks. John L. Sweeney, then head of the Lamont Library, heard him say, “I regret that.” More clearly, he said, “Quiet. . . I must have it quiet. . . very quiet.” He stood silent for an extended minute and then began to read in a soft voice. The tension was worsened by the action of the adjustable podium. As he leaned his great bulk on it as he read, it dropped in tiny bursts of declension, until he was forced to stand erect without it.

When the reading was done, Professor Levin appeared at the nearby Cambridge home of Monroe Engel where Olson was being received. There Levin said, “I have always been your well-wisher,” and Charles apologized, explaining bow Harry Levin’s presence had brought back such a passionate surge of memories of their days together and of the bleak years that had passed. Unquestionably, at the bottom of Olson’s fleeting trauma — he told me, “I wish I hadn’t had those moments” — was a helpless envy and a mounting sense of neglect. Levin had attained academic glory; Olson had been ignored for decades, despite his critical work, his poetry, and his scholarship, by the University which he adored and from which he would have welcomed an honorary degree. University administrators are not usually inspired.

V

ery early in Charles’s visits to our home, Teresa had observed his sweater and had sensed its significance. Always he had a sweater around his waist, the arms knotted in front. She had spoken to him about it, fearing a draught in our living room, but he had said something about his kidneys and had passed it off. The sweater was omnipresent. On reflection, I believe that it had to do with the cancer already at work, the cancer that would kill him (ten years too soon, he said). Late in the 1960s, on her way to Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Good Voyage that meant so much to Charles’ vision of history — and which he mentions in the Maximus poems — Teresa saw him slumped on the steps of the post office in Gloucester. He had an affection for the post office, having worked there as a student. For old times’ sake the employees would often push along his postcards with no stamps on them. She could sense the fatigue in his shoulders and observed the sweater around his waist although the weather was hot. Despite his initial protests, he accepted a ride home, hoped she would not be too late for Mass, but offered no word of complaint about his physical condition. To Teresa, it was obvious that managing such physical bulk bad suddenly become an effort.

Not long afterward. Vincent Ferrini called to tell me of Charles’ death in New York. I had been unable to visit him in the hospital, but the call sent my mind back over our friendship. I had last encountered Charles on a fall evening, when, knowing the summer crowd was gone, Teresa and I were strolling along Rocky Neck. Charles hailed us from an outdoor table at an ice cream parlor run by the father of Peter Anastas, a Gloucester author and friend. The weather was ideal; the sea, calm yet sufficiently assertive to mutter in our ears; the streets were quite deserted; the little shop was about to close; the three of us now were the only customers.

Charles was bubbling with excitement and high spirits. Having just returned from Spoleto, he was also filled with anecdotes. None better than his meeting with Ungaretti who had declaimed his poetry at the festival. Charles described the occasion in detail and delineated the Italian poet skillfully enough to make him visible. He climaxed this by leaping onto a bench which made him titanic in height to quote some lines of Ungaretti.

Il mare!” he cried out, “Il mare!” His stentorian voice rang through the night, opened doors, and drew curious spectators out of the shadows. Charles observed the newcomers, gesticulated at the ocean, and cried out again, “Il mare!” “Il mare!” I never saw him happier or more exuberant.


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