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Charles Olson at the Harbor

Review by Peter Grant

Charles Olson at the Harbor, Ralph Maud. talonbooks

As Ralph Maud recounts in Charles Olson at the Harbor, Olson asked him to "be his scholar" — basically, an invited observer — at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference.

It was Maud's destiny to become Olson's scholar in truth. As distinct from a critic — "one skilled in judging the merits of literary or artistic works" — a scholar is "a learned or erudite person, esp. one who has profound knowledge of a particular subject" (Random House Unabridged Dictionary). Where the critical essay is "an evaluative reconnaissance into some nearby territory," scholarship "implies a longer-term settlement in that territory—as well as an obsessive interest in it." (Stephen Collis, "Archival Tactics and the Poet-Scholar," Poets' Prose II, nd.) Obsessive interest would define Ralph Maud's scholarship, and it would define Charles Olson, too. The poet was himself a scholar, having spent 14 years studying Herman Melville's actual library, books full of marginal scribbling, and everything else about Melville, and whaling, and America, before writing his first book, Call Me Ishmael (1947). Olson's advice to Ed Dorn in 1955:

[D]ig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn't matter whether it's Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it./And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you're in, forever...

Maud's Charles Olson "saturation job" has occupied him longer by a stretch. It started with transcriptions of Olson taped speaking and has progressed through seven books on Olson: the definitive Charles Olson's Reading (reconstructing the writer by minute inspection of his library, as Olson did for Melville), three books of Olson's letters, the anthology A Charles Olson Reader (reviewed in PRRB), a critical essay on The Kingfishers and this latest volume. Maud also puts out the journal Minutes of the Charles Olson Society, which has published chunks of Olson. (Disclosure: I put together an internet anthology of the journal,

Olson had a devoted and capable scholar in George F. Butterick, his student at SUNY Buffalo who after the poet's death in 1970 became the curator of his papers at the University of Connecticut. Butterick shepherded into print the complete Maximus Poems, the Collected Poems and a supplementary collection, a collection of plays, eight of 10 published volumes of the Olson-Creeley correspondence, a collection of lectures and interviews and 10 issues of Olson, a journal of secondary works at the UConn archive, including Butterick's catalog of Olson's large library of much-marked books. Butterick published his own Ph.D. thesis as the annotative 800-page Guide to the Maximus Poems (U California Press 1978). At the time of Butterick's death at 45 in 1988, huge troves of Olson's writing remained unpublished at Storrs, Connecticut, the University of Texas, Austin and in other libraries. They remain largely so today — enough, Maud thinks, to satisfy many a Ph.D. candidate. But Olson scholarship has become a rearguard operation to correct misinformation and get straight the oft-twisted facts about Olson's life and work.

Consider the lectures and interviews that Butterick published in 1977 with the strange title Muthologos. (It's the proper root of "myth," Greek for "words in the mouth," Olson explained in a 1968 lecture published as Poetry and Truth, and, with reference to Herodotus, "he who can tell the story right" — bearing on Olson's own calling as "mythologist.") Maud contributed three transcriptions to Muthologos: "On History" (a panel discussion at the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference), "Reading at Berkeley" (1965) and the 1968 Paris Review Interview. Anyone who's transcribed recorded interviews knows how tedious and repetitive the work can be. The motive for the Berkeley and Paris Review transcriptions was to correct the published record. In both cases seriously garbled transcriptions had found their way into print. They made Olson sound incoherent. To Ralph Maud, everything Olson wrote and said makes eminent sense. In Harbor Maud relates how he missed the Berkeley reading, notwithstanding his appointment as Olson's "scholar." (His absence was "for family reasons.") He heard the tape a year later. When Zoe Brown's problematic transcription appeared, published by Oyez Press in 1966, Maud relates, "I saw my duty clearly." He bought a copy of the tape and began annotating the published version, enlisting his English students at Simon Fraser University to "help decipher some of the cruxes." Olson read Maud's transcript and objected only to the plethora of "er's" included in the name of accuracy. Maud printed an annotated, thoroughly indexed version of his transcription for use in his English 414 class. Olson loved the index. By the time "Reading at Berkeley" appeared in Muthologos, the "er's" were gone. (Butterick concurred with Olson.) Against the opinions of Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and others that the reading was a rambling, incoherent disaster for Olson, Maud depicts him "functioning remarkably as a public poet, a poet thinking on his feet, and being absolutely delightful." Maud discharged his duty with true scholarly enthusiasm: "I have never had as much sustained pleasure from any other occupation to compare with the many hours, hundreds of hours, I have spent listening to the Berkeley Reading tapes, alone and with students, and preparing the transcription."

During this period, publication of critical Olsonia registered a dramatic upswing. In Charles Olson: The Critical Reception 1941-1983 A Bibliogaphic Guide by William McPheron (Garland Publishing 1986), 46 citations appear for 1969, the last year of Olson's life. For 1970, there were 89, and an average 80+ for the succeeding 13 years. Substantial critical works appeared by Sherman Paul, Robert von Halbert, Paul Christiansen, Don Byrd and Thomas Merrill. There was the Olson issue of boundary 2, "a journal of postmodern literature," co-edited by Robert Kroetsch. While Olson's devoted followers spread the word, Marjorie Perloff and other mainstream academic critics tried to whittle him down.

Enter Tom Clark, an established poet and writerly biographer of Damon Runyan, Jack Kerouac, Ted Berrigan and others. He wrote Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life, the only full-length biography yet published. The seven-year project and its 400-page product, published in 1991, with a 2nd edition in 2000, was no "reconnaissance in nearby territory" — more like "longer-term settlement in that territory." Clark was inundated with support during the research and writing. Jack Clarke, colleague at SUNY Buffalo of Olson and Maud, wrote more than 80 letters during the time (1985-91) Clark was writing the book (this is related in Minutes #49). Ralph Maud offered Clark access to his chronological collection of Olson documents but was ignored.

When Allegory appeared, the Olsonites' enthusiasm gave way to puzzlement, then loud disagreement. "[B]etter to have been ignored," Maud writes, "than to have been used in the way some of Clark's interviewees were… using parts of their recollections that they would not expect to find featured except within a context of admiration for Olson." Jack Clarke wrote a lengthy rebuttal of the book's misinterpretations and mistakes (intent 2:4 and 3:1, 1991). Maud started Minutes in 1993 and immediately began correcting the record by publishing terse annotations of Allegory. He sent them to Clark and got not a word back. "I can only conclude that my criticisms are unanswerable" (this is in Minutes #43). Those writings form the spine of Charles Olson at the Harbor. Maud calls it "a castle of perseverance against the spread of Clark's misinformation." Anyone who reads Allegory must — must — read Harbor. On the other hand, Harbor is not a stand-alone biography, notwithstanding the cover identifies it as such. Inside, Maud calls it a "reactive biography." Anyone hoping to find a coherent account of Olson's life will be disappointed. It's like coming into a room in the middle of an argument. It assumes familiarity with Olson's life and work.

Clark took note of the criticism in the preface to the 2nd edition of Allegory — and dismissed it: "[N]one has convinced me that this attempt to relate [Olson's] life story is at significant variance with truth." As if to verify his version of Olson, the 2nd edition includes a preface by Robert Creeley that Clark was at pains to point out Ed Dorn would have written, but he died. There: the stamp of authenticity from those closest to Olson, at least in the Black Mountain interval. Creeley makes only passing mention of Clark's work in taking the measure of Olson.

Back of Clark's portrayal of Olson as a tormented neurotic there was a certain quantum of noise generated by Olson's critical and popular notoriety. In a 1991 Los Angeles Times review of the Clark biography, for example, the late Thomas M. Disch, author of The Brave Little Toaster, wrote that Olson was "a pioneer in the dismantling of the college core curriculum and its replacement by a kind of autodidacticism that differed little from autointoxication. He was, in short, the high priest of high times." And on a 2006 website "review" of Allegory we learn that Olson "wrought ... very real personal destruction ... on everyone around him." He was "a petty, misogynistic, brute of a man that sacrificed many people to the great altar of ideas."

What does an actual scholar make of all this wild surmise?

Sometimes it's a minor matter of supplying a fact missing from Clark's purview because not yet published or come to light — a letter, say. Very often it is just details Clark got wrong —  there are many, and Maud corrects them. His distinctive skill is in choosing the pertinent and persuasive fact from a vast array.

More serious is the charge that Clark consciously falsified the record. Clark, for example, asserts that Olson thought of time "not as a straight line … but as a looping rubber band that never lost its elasticity." Maud comments: "This loopy image, I believe, is Clark's; it's not in quotes. I don't think Olson ever talked about a 'rubber band.'" What Charles Olson did and did not say or write or think — does anyone know this terrain as thoroughly as Ralph Maud?

The veracity of much of the detail in Allegory cannot actually be determined, due to a scholarly flaw: "[Clark's] endnotes only reference quoted words. When he narrates entirely in his own voice without quoting or merely paraphrasing, no endnotes are there to identify his authority or which text is being summarized. This means there are whole sections not capable of being scrutinized which might well have been challengeable if they had been footnoted."

Clark's biography also falsifies by ignoring contrary evidence from the documents he cites. To make the point that Olson dreaded the loss of his powers and the approach of death, Clark quotes a line beginning "… in loneliness & in such pain…" from the Maximus poem "I'm going to hate to leave this Earthly Paradise." Maud presents the poem — "the greatest poem (I think)" of Olson's late period — in its true context, showing us "Charles Olson at the harbor, focused and attentive, looking out and listening, the ecstasy arising naturally from the accuracy of the particulars of the sights and sounds." He concludes that "Clark libels Olson by quoting only those lines that make him seem a sad, weakened Titan."

At the level of generalization, of summing up the man and the poet, Maud calls Clark's account of Olson "necrologic." He insists that Clark got Olson dead wrong. The picture Allegory paints is a neurotic with serious oedipal conflicts, morbid self-doubts, obsessed with sex, obsessed with death, a weak and manipulative individual. Not that Clark anywhere sums up Olson thusly. But Maud demonstrates conclusively, I think, that this is Clark's intention. Partly, he suggests, it's the result of Clark's overdependence on Olson's private journals, in which he stewed and fretted, it's true, about sex and father and death.

Where Clark does try to sum up Olson is in the one place he permits himself the humanity of a personal feeling, in relating (in the preface to the 2nd edition) how he met Olson in England in 1966 when he was "blessed with on opportunity to spend an evening 'babysitting' the imposing, vulnerable, endlessly charming, delightfully curious traveling poet" at Ed Dorn's home, and how Olson talked until morning. He refers to Olson's "magisterial amplitude," his "grandeur of intent and multiplicity of interest" — and that's as close to a summing up as he gets. The rest is — I have to agree — chip, chip, chip.

Among many qualities Maud's scholarship brings to light in this volume, one I found most interesting was Olson's capacity for rethinking his poems. In the epilogue to Harbor, Maud summons the Paris Review tapes to show how Olson, asked by Gerard Malanga to read "Maximus, to himself" — probably his most anthologised poem — "instead of performing the poem as a well-behaved poet would do, Olson took it almost line by line and shook it to see what value was left when the falsities fell out." All of which Malanga  excised. Maud returns to the original version to pick up Olson reading and commenting:

I have made dialogues

(That's true.)

                                    I have discussed ancient texts

(To my pride.)

                                    have thrown what light I could.


Olson interrupts himself again to say, "I think that's a little bit special pleading. It's begging your sympathy …. 'Please …'."

Then, as the most amazing of this amazing thing that he does, Olson starts to re-write these lines to cut out the pleading.

As mentioned, the complete Paris Review interview was published in Muthologos. Maud excerpted this same section as an appendix in A Charles Olson Reader.

There's more. Always with Olson there's more. That's what this great man has to offer, not only more than we can handle, but more than he can get out at any one time. There is never the sense that 'this wraps it up.'

Here is how Olson puts it in the same interview:

I knew this poem was no good from the moment I wrote it. . . . It's absolutely true. Hear me. If you don't hear this, I haven't got anything at all.

There is a disorder about Charles Olson at the Harbor. The master would approve. What's that fragment of verse doing on the cover? — ". . . Come into this world. . ." — from the poem "Maximus, at the Harbor," with that difficult Greek word, apophainesthai, repeated every few lines — and hardly explained in the book? In Butterick's Guide to the Maximus Poems the word is glossed as meaning "that which shows forth." It was used by Henry Corbin in a 1957 essay "Cyclical Time in  Mazdaism and Ismailism." In the Paris Review interview, Olson criticizes this poem in the same vein as "Maximus, to himself" — calls it "a sucker poem." Maud approves the state of disorder Olson is inviting us into. Maud calls it "the state of being buffeted by the wave that presents itself (apophainesthai) at the harbor mouth."

Peter Grant is an historian and poet who lives in Victoria, BC.