Tom Clark on the Olson-Boldereff riot

by Ralph Maud

Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #29 (April 1999).


In these notes, citations to correspondence are given the letter numbers in Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence edited by Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen (Wesleyan University Press 1999). The Tom Clark biography discussed here is Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Life (New York: W.W. Norton 1991). Chapter 13, Riot in my Soul, traces the course of the relationship from late 1949 to mid-1950.



e are very indebted to Tom Clark for details of the first meeting of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff in the New York Public Library and subsequent meetings, information which is not in letters and which Clark obtained in interviews with Frances Boldereff Phipps in January 1987. Having listened to Frances myself over a period of four days in August 1983 I can understand how Clark came up with some of his conclusions. In later years Boldereff has come to have rather a jaded view of Olson. And, for instance, Clark may be accurately recording her sarcasm when he reports, via her, Olsons parting words after a night in a hotel near the railroad station in Knoxville, Tennessee: In the morning, when they parted, he kissed her goodbye with a magnanimous You deserved this, baby’” (p. 165). This vignette is damaging as it stands. If we had Francess letters immediately following the meeting we would, I am convinced, hear something quite other than sarcasm. Unfortunately her letters for this period are all missing. Olsons letter written immediately after Knoxville does exist (letter #217, 15 May 1950). He said: the honoring of you lies deeper than where you pose it, in the absolute recognition of you and of your force in my life. Clark could have quoted this as some rectification of the sarcasm, but he didnt.

I can also hear Frances Boldereff Phipps behind the thesis governing Clarks general approach to the affair: that is, that Olson failed the challenge she represented. The implied accusation is chronic cowardice. Olson might express a wish to throw responsibility over and start completely anew, but never at moments when there was real opportunity to act (Clark p. 136). Frances Boldereff is Opportunity and Olson a Cripple.


Note 1


n keeping with his general thesis Clark describes Boldereff in her early letters as holding back little (p. 137); Olson, however, entered correspondence with her, at first in a tentative and exploratory fashion, answering her letters with rather guarded postcards and notes, his curiosity still hedged with caution (p. 137). I see no fault in this. As it is, to make Olson seem stodgy, Clark has to exaggerate Francess openness. On reading Olsons poem In Praise of the Fool, Clark says (p. 137), she had already seen his spirit coming through so naked and uncovered that any future attempts at concealment between them would be beside the point. The fact is that when she used the words naked and uncovered she had not yet looked up Olsons poem, and in the context of her letter (#3, probably 4 January 1948) those words were not directly about Olson but about artists in general. She ends the letter, only her second one to him, referring to Call Me Ishmael: you kept yourself out and yet are so in your book. I cannot pretend I do not know you. And I am so damned grateful youve no idea. Clark, with no little distortion, paraphrases this as her suggesting that she and Olson should henceforth dispense with social preliminaries (p. 137). Inhibited Olson is unnerved, Clark says (p. 137) and so begins to draw out the exchange with professional-sounding queries, soliciting her opinions, for example, on the type design of Y & X (p. 137). I do not believe Olson was unnerved, and I do not at this stage — we are talking only about his second letter (#5, 11 May 1948) — see any professional-sounding queries in the plural. As for the typeface of Y & X, why should he not be interested in her expert opinion? In any case, he didnt get a sample of Y & X to her until the following November; so, whatever Clark meant by bringing this up, Olson did not actually solicit her opinion at this time.

Then Clark says (implying further disparagement to Olson) that Boldereff put his discretion to the test by inviting him to visit her in Woodward, the Pennsylvania hill-country hamlet where she lived (p. 137). This is not exactly true. What she did was send a sample of her design work (not now extant) and, as she says in her letter of around 20 June 1948 (#6), proposed an inscription to go with it: For Olson — with whom I should love to get drunk. As Frances herself said in a later letter (#8, 26 June 1948), this was not an invitation — it was a recognition. Woodward was not mentioned, and she ends the letter: When will it be possible to see any of the other things you have been working on? She is not expecting Olson to turn up with manuscripts; she is wondering when anything new is to be published. It is to this query that Olson is replying in his 23 June 1948 postcard (#7) when he says: Fact is, the fishing is still good. I have finished one dance-play and am off into another. These words are not a rebuff to an invitation, they just slide past it. Frances takes off her hat to him in her next letter for just this finesse, and herself strikes a casual tone: When you get time write me a letter — no matter how many months it is and tell me about America (#8, 26 June 1948). Boldereff too exercises some caution.

Clarks yearning for melodrama is displayed again when he ends his discussion of the first exchange of letters between Olson and Boldereff by saying: He had not yet let on a word to her about Connie (p. 137). Why in heavens name should he have done so? This is only Olsons third tentative postcard we are talking about. I wonder what Emily Post has to say about this!


Note 2


 corollary to the thesis that Frances Boldereff was fast and straight while Olson was slow and crooked is the contention that he lifted many of her phrases and ideas for his own use. Safe to say that Olsons spurt of work on The Kingfishers owed its inception in some degree to the confidence-building exchange with Frances Boldereff (Clark p. 146). In some degree, of course. But how much? Clark seems to think the poem grew out of a discussion Frances had stimulated: Commenting on the spiritual poverty of the postwar society around them, he had written to her of his hopes for a new America, hailing the emergence of a green republic now renewed. She replied that in the current explosion of materialism she saw no evidence of such renewal, and challenged him to provide some (p. 146). No such discussion took place. Clark is relying entirely on three rather enigmatic lines of verse Olson appended as a postscript without context to his postcard of 23 June 1948 (#7):

A crowd in a forest of the city make

attention turned as heads which hear demand

the green republic now renewed.

And Boldereffs response (#8, 26 June 1948): I am wondering how can you say the green republic now renewed — oh! Olson please say if you mean that — I am sure the whole shell has to be sloughed off and of men alive I know maybe of four. End of discussion — for Olson says nothing at all about it in subsequent letters. The Kingfishers is written quite outside of the frame of his correspondence with Boldereff. My belief is that the springs of the poem are elsewhere and of long duration. If Olson said it was the answer to a question you asked me one year and five months ago, as he did in sending Boldereff The Kingfishers in a letter of 26 October 1949 (#49), it was because the poem had turned out to be, without being written as such. (See Ralph Maud: What Does Not Change: The Significance of Charles Olsons The Kingfishers [Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 1998], p. 100.)

There is no doubt that Frances Boldereff became the person Olson turned to to share the excitements of his studies of the past (Clark p. 147). She was the first to receive notice of his discovery of Maximus of Tyre, though, to be precise, the quotation he wrote out in Greek for her (letter #21, 29 March 1949) was not transcribed laboriously (Clark p. 148) from Maximus Dissertations at the Library of Congress but from a copy of the Loeb Classical Library Lyra Graeca ed. J. M. Edmonds (1922) that he had acquired.

There is no doubt that the short poem Dura (Collected Poems p. 85) came from Frances drawing Olsons attention (letter #28, 10 May 1949) to Franz Cumonts volume on the Dura-Europos frescoes, though there is no evidence that he could or did track down the book from her description (Clark p. 148). For the poem it is apparent that Olson extrapolated on Francess own description.

It is not my purpose to detract from Boldereffs undoubted contribution but to attempt to be more accurate about certain cases than Clarks methodology allows him to be. For instance, the Sumerian material Boldereff sent to Olson was not a file (Clark p. 148) but a single offprint of an article by S. N. Kramer, The Epic of Gilgames[h] and its Sumerian Sources, which she had obtained visiting Kramer himself. First of all, to claim his priority, Olson sent Frances a poem beginning I am Gilgamesh that he had written eight years before (letter #31, 23 May 1949). Then, within a couple of days (#32, 25 March 1949), he sent La Chute, directly derived from the article. The other two parts did not come so easily, so that Clarks word quickly (p. 148) does not apply to La Chute (II) of July 1949 and La Chute III of October 1949.

As to the poem The Advantage (Collected Poems p. 105), it likely was triggered by one of Francess letter images (Clark p. 159), but the controlling image of the poem, the springing up of violets, was something that Olson had been harboring a great while. In any case, Frances (despite Clarkes statement to the contrary, p. 159) did receive a copy of the poem (letter #94, 11 January 1950); Olson wasnt hiding his indebtedness.

Boldereff first mentioned Strzygowskis Origin of Christian Church Art in a letter of 26 January 1950 (#106). She recommended the book again in letter #138 (23 February 1950) and #151 (4 March 1950). When Olson dropped the name Strzygowski into his letter of 7 March 1950 (#152) he had not, I am sure, looked him up yet; he is just parroting her. Boldereff has another paragraph on the subject in letter #162 (14 March 1950). Only then does Olson get himself to the Library of Congress: And this time you are my lead: it is Strzygowski i go to, for fountain (#171, 23 March 1950). And finally in letter #191 (10 April 1950) we have evidence that Olson has really tried to read the book. A precise investigation of the events would not allow anyone to say (as Clark does, p. 159) that, upon Boldereffs telling him about Strzygowski, Olson obediently trekked to the Library of Congress. Obediently? What is Clark implying?


Note 3


lson, according to Clark, is doubly remiss, first in begging Frances for help, and then refusing her moral support when she needs it. The first has to do with Olsons rental accommodation in Washington D.C. and his need to secure himself by purchasing it or having it purchased for him by sponsors, the latter being the ideal solution, as Clark puts it (p. 149), which Olson meaningfully suggested to Boldereff. Looking at the letter (#31, 23 May 1949), I cannot see it as anything more than a neutral statement of fact, and Boldereff did not respond to it at all at that time. It was not until 17 October 1949 (letter #46) that Olson brought up the house question as a crisis and Frances responded with practical questions (letter #47) only to have Olson in his next letter (#49) dismiss it as not a crisis after all. It was not until much later — Clark has telescoped the time — that Frances approached wealthy friends about it and got a refusal (20 February 1950, #136). At that particular moment Olson, it seems, was so engrossed in preparing for two three-hour sessions on Melville that he did not even mention it — or perhaps there was a missing letter. In any case, there is no evidence for Clarks summation: His hopes briefly rose, and when the dream deal did not materialize, he was brought back to earth with a jolt (p. 149). This might be true of any one of us in that situation, Olson included, but there is no evidence for it in his case.

Olson caused Frances many disappointments, so many that if Clark wanted to fault him on that score he would have no need to exaggerate. Unfortunately he does not seem able to resist overstating: She abruptly quit her job, and declared she was about to arrive on his doorstep. She needed to come to an understanding with Connie, she said. Charles shot down the idea by return mail (p. 160). The pertinent passage from Boldereffs letter of 2 February 1950 (#111) leaves some doubt as to whether she quit her job at State College or was fired: The mundane details are that I no longer have a job. Thats all she says. It does not sound as though she quit, certainly not to leave for Washington. She has picked up some work at a local printer: I am working on several jobs at Nittany which I have just begun so I will be there same schedule perhaps for a month, two months, I dont know exactly. And then to stop any precipitous act of charity: As regards money darling for the immediate present I can take care of myself — so please do not mention it to me or try to help me. There is no declaring she will arrive on his doorstep to settle things with Connie. It is only when, a few days later (letter #120, 9 February 1950), Frances has decided that she will stay in Woodward as a freelance without going into work at all that the utter frustration begins. The next day, 10 February (#122), she lets out a cry: Everything is breaking up inside me — I pray you if you can not come to allow me to come for a few hours. This is a request, not, as Clark put it, a declaration, and Connie is not mentioned at all in all this. Moreover, by the end of the day she has calmed down and herself says: I trust you absolutely and I am able to wait as long as you need me to (#123, 10 February 1950). Olson does not get these Friday letters until Monday. Meanwhile he has just typed and mailed off to Frances the finished first draft of Projective Verse. It is a poet producing at full steam who receives Francess plea and writes on the Monday (13 February 1950, #129): o my lady [new line] look: i cannot permit you to come here. . . because i cannot dissemble and because i cannot, where the crisis is as intense here as there with you, add one straw more. He is doing the very maximum in all directions [perhaps it was right here that the concept of Maximus was forged] and continues: i equally know (and this makes me full of the terror of life) that what is being done is right, god help us all, . . . and shall seek to stay right right through every thing     And only because and only thus can any of us inherit what is in this ahead. Of course, while Olson is penning this, Frances in her Monday letter is saying: My agony has passed for the moment (letter #130, 13 February 1950). Clark compounds the mischief by further distortions (p. 160): She succumbed to his persuasions, backed off her demands, stayed put in her backwoods hamlet, kept on writing to him — there were sometimes two and three letters from her in a single post — and took on free-lance design work to support herself and her daughter. All of this because of Olsons rebuff? Nonsense. This is selling an always independently-minded Boldereff short. She stayed in Woodward as long as she wanted to and then left for work in New York City. Meanwhile, she had already, before the rebuff letter, embarked on a big freelance job (#125, 11 February 1950), one that resulted in a most beautifully designed book indeed, Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora eds Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown (State College, Pennsylvania: Bald Eagle Press 1950).


Note 4


lsons Catholicism is a big subject. Frances Phipps used it scornfully against him in later years, and Olsons letter to her of 27 February 1950 (#143) may have been the start of the trouble. The ingredients are too complex to go into, but Francess reaction, a combination of envy and dogma, was heavy — as she put it in retrospect: I got violently sick and wept for one whole day when I thought my baby was turning catholic on me (#148, 3 March 1950). It is Olsons reaction to her wrath that is of issue. Clark sees him as knuckling under with a turn-about avowal of aversion to the filthy faith of his childhood (p. 161), but filthy faith is a phrase Olson had used in June 1948 in a review of Graham Greenes Heart of the Matter he had drafted but not published and now sent to Boldereff to fill in his background. Thus, it is not the retraction Clark presents it as. Nor did Olson produce a pair of long breezy letter-poems to support his mea culpa or as conciliatory garlands for Frances (Clark p. 161). The first, A Po-sy, A Po-sy was done before Olson received Boldereffs challenge on the Catholic question (letter #145, 28 February 1950). The second, The Morning News, was a week later (#152, 7 March 1950) when the Catholic controversy had flashed itself out, leaving perhaps one irreverent phrase in the poem (truly hermetique / Nothing catholique lines 4-5) but nothing else detectable on the subject.


Note 5


e will not get anything like a complete picture of this sexual triangle until Olsons letters to Connie are published (hopefully in a forthcoming issue of the Minutes). The deeper sources of Olsons motivation may become more evident then. Meanwhile, my limited purpose here is to clear up a few misreadings of the situation in Tom Clarks biography. First, there is the famous poster. Frances sent it unsealed in mail that Connie saw. It is not apparently extant at Storrs, so we are not sure why it caused consternation. One thing we can be sure of is that it did not, as Clark claims (p. 165), contain a note from Frances urgently exhorting him to put off, to voyage along with her into the unknown. The phrase to put off, to voyage is in an Olson letter of 15 May 1950 (#217) and he is referring in his own words to something Frances said in a letter of 4 May 1950 (#214): I feel in my deepest self that you should now live alone. It is in this letter that she also says: I prayed on Saturday night — I have not prayed since I was eighteen years old — I prayed to Jesus — the only one I trust. Olson in his letter refers to this: in that letter you wrote telling me to put off, to voyage, you sd you prayed to the only one you knew to turn to, to Christ. So whatever Boldereff may have told Clark or whatever he deduced about the poster, these words were not on it, but in a later letter.

Clark also says the poster message ended with an image of their souls as twin rafts on the open sea (p. 165). The twin rafts image also comes out of an extant Boldereff letter (undated — I place it at 13 July 1950) where she says: I wrote in the morning that to me exciting and beautiful image of our rafts on the open sea and that very night was struck down as with a huge weapon in the very heart of my faith. Boldereff leaves it all very vague. This could be the poster, but it is very unlikely it was returned within a day.

What can we say of the love poems written at this time? In Cold Hell, in Thicket is the great poem of the triangle, and by its very nature belongs to both women. The others we are given the job of assigning to one or the other. The ones sent to Frances, such as The She-Bear, Lady Mimosa, and The Cause, the Cause, do not present a problem. I take it that the poems not sent to Frances were written for Connie, but in making that assumption I have to dispute Tom Clarks contrary conclusion.

As regards For Sappho, Back, Clark says that it is not surprising that Frances took the poem to be a very accurate portrait of herself (Clark p. 171). There is, however, no evidence that she saw it until it was published. And I wonder if she read to the end, where we find the lines: the hidden constance of which all the rest / is awkward variation — an open compliment to Connie, I should think. And there is a previous passage: in the delight of her eye she / creates constants. There is no serpent eye, so I do not think (as Clark adduces, p. 170) that the phrase cold eye of a serpent in a letter of Francess (#221, 19 May 1950) yielded anything to the poem. Likewise, I do not think the blood of For Sappho, Back derives from the pitchers of blood of Boldereffs abortion (#224, 22 May 1950).

Neither does Help Me, Venus, You Who Led Me On have anything of Frances in it. I am at a loss to see how the passage Clark quotes from Boldereff on p. 171 has any bearing at all on the poem. The title is from Hippomenes prayer for success in the footrace to win Atalantis hand, by which Olson signals that he is going back to the first poem he wrote to Connie, Atalanta (Collected Poems p. 5). Clark has to admit that Help Me, Venus has an oblique reference to his first Rockport encounter with Connie (p. 171). But its not oblique at all. The poem is all and entirely Connies. Frances does not appear as a beguiling Blakean silver girl (Clark p. 171) nor was it in any form a private message to Frances as Muse (Clark p. 171). It was never sent to her.

Of Mathilde (Collected Poems p. 194) is more of a problem, for it incorporates much of Olsons letter to Frances of 21 July 1950 (#258), is indeed a poetic rendering of his tribute to Frances there in the wake of his visit to her in New York. Clark believes it was addressed to Frances, while at the same time asserting that Connie was persuaded it had been written expressly to her (p. 174). Of Mathilde was never sent to Frances. Mathilde was Connies middle name. I believe the poem was written for Connie using the same imagery as Olson used in his letter to Frances. Into such a thicket did love of two women take him.


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