Charles Olson Reads From Maximus Poems IV, V, VI

Some notes on the recording

by [Barry] Miles

Published as liner notes to the 1975 Folkways Records album. Reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #21 (September 1997). This recording is available on CD or cassette from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; consult the Links page.


The first time I realized that I was larger than the ordinary was once when I was running down a hill in Boston to catch a bus, and as I passed, a little black boy said, My God, there goes Goliath! And Charles roared with laughter. Friends called him The Big O. In conversations the laughs used to come rumbling up from deep in his chest, round and full. The endless sentences twisted and groped and pulled in amazingly erudite facts to substantiate some theory which you hadnt a hope of contradicting anyway.

I had known him when he was staying in Regents Park, London, with Panne Grady, so the schedule we used to record came as no surprise to me: Charles got up at about 8.00 pm, ate breakfast and talked. At Regents Park the guests were all gone by two or three and Charles had the still of the night to work in. At Black Mountain College he classes sometimes started at midnight. This recording is no exception, it was all recorded well after midnight.

Charles lived in a railroad flat, in an old white-painted clapboard house in Gloucester Mass. Outdoor stairs led into the kitchen where, propped against the huge refrigerator, Charles used to hold forth. Everything was in the most almighty muddle, papers, books, dishes, jars and boxes, even a storage jar of dried peyote mushrooms, all mixed up together. The window-frames had pencil notes of lists of ships and cargoes, forgotten captains and first mates and the customs duties they paid, fading in the thin winter sun and a thin film of dust. The walls to had notes in Charles slanted illegible handwriting, details of Dogtown and who built which house where. The living room looked like a bookshop after an anarchists bomb! The bookcases all full to overflowing, bulging with coffee-ringed first-editions, original Ms from Ezra Pound used as bookmarks. Piles of journals and books reaching table-height and used as one. His typewriter balanced amid all this confusion, like a little nest among the papers over by the window.

The bedroom had a strange feeling of lack of use, stale air, sun warmed dust. The air outside in late January so cold we couldnt open a window. Strange in the warm rooms to feel the windowpanes ice-cold. In the total silence, broken only by the click of the fridge thermostat and our own voices, so clear and loud without traffic noise or transistor rock to hide and dull them. There was so much to say. On the first night we did nothing but talk. The Nagra remained in its travelling case. Charles must rank along with Wilde and Strachey as a great conversationalist.

We eventually set up shop in his bedroom where the fridge couldnt get itself on the tape. Charles sat in an upright chair which creaked alarmingly but was the only possible one for him to use so he said. In the dead of night we were sometimes disturbed by the muffled roar and crunch of snow as a truck slowly passed by. The room contained a trestle table stacked two deep in maritime books, spine out. Hundreds of books, making the table sag, and to which I added a directional microphone. I arranged it as close as I dared, avoiding Charles gesticulations as he read and the fading as he looked away or down at the page. I sat on the floor by the door with my headphones. Betsy sat in the living room reading.

The first thing Charles found was that his speaking voice was not at all as he had imagined it to be. He had never listened carefully to a recording of it before and found terribly lifeless, dry and boring. For a while I thought he was going to back out of the project altogether. Fortunately he decided to work with it and took care to read at the best possible speed, with inflexions and emphasis in the right places, and with careful pronunciation of unusual words just as he took infinite care to arrange the words of his poems on the page in just the right places. Sometimes, even in the later recordings, he would catch his voice becoming dry and deep and he would laugh out loud at himself. I have left one such false start at the beginning of the poem I Am The Gold Machine, a poem which gave us a lot of trouble and which we did over a dozen recordings of.

To help his reading we marked up the books with musical notation marks for speed-up and slow-down, underlined passages for greater emphasis and words which we found that he normally slurred when reading. I conducted him by waving my arms and pursing my lips. After a nights work his voice was gone but we had worked it out. He wanted all the tapes wiped out and so the next night we started afresh.

We recorded mostly the poems from Maximus IV, V, VI which until I arrived Charles had not seen as his copies were held up by the British postal strike. The passages from Mayan Letters were my request, though by the time he was through making asides and verbal annotations, he had certainly made them his own again. It took two nights to sail through everything on this album. Once he had the hang of it we were able to record most things in only 2 or 3 takes.

He was not in good health. I found a note, left in case he was out when we arrived, scribbled on the back of a threatening hospital bill. Living alone led to a certain loneliness. He said that his worked had been cut in half on the death of his wife 12 years before. The four or five days we were there he received only one phone call, that from his daughter.

Charles had been in the same house for so long that he had stopped seeing it. We talked about the various shipping channels, he talked at length about a map of Gloucester harbour which he had annotated extensively. He sat on the bed with the map pinned on the wall behind him and became a little irritable that we couldnt catch what he was saying. When he turned to look at the chart he realized it was blank. The sun had bleached it away forever, a sagging yellowing sheet, dust-marked and fly-spotted. How long was it since Charles had actually looked with interest and inquisitiveness around his own bedroom? He made a joke but I could see deep down then that he knew he was dying.

The recordings were a success. They sounded as though they were simply read straight off with no preparation, a spontaneous performance. This is the only recording for posterity that Charles ever made. Other tapes exist, fortunately, but they are often marred by drink or the vicissitudes of trying to record live readings. This is Charles reading his poems as he saw them read. I was very privileged to have produced them for him.


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