On Charles Olson--by Robert Creeley
Preface to Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life, by Tom Clark
To tell the story of a person's life is an
art requiring both facts and determining intuition, a canniness as to how things fit or
don't fit, and a wonder about it all that wants to realize an actual presence in a place
and time, which are just as fragile, finally, as the images and words that may recall
them. Olson's and my time was one still resonant with 19th century hopes, that we might
have "better living through chemistry," for example, or that
"self-improvement" was something quite possible, given hard work and a viable
dream. I can still hear, no matter I would be rid of it, "Lives of great men all
remind us/ we can make our lives sublime/ and departing leave behind us/ footprints in the
sands of time..." Though it may be inaccurately quoted, I will not look it up.
It's now a sobering fact to realize that I am markedly older than Charles Olson ever got to be - and that life, his or mine, is fact, as he said, of those "limits [which] are what any of us are inside of." He was the oldest of my defining company, born in 1910 whereas I was born in 1926, and he preceded me into the post-First World War years with their flurry of seemingly good times and then the persistent flattening of the Depression years of the 1930s. This was the world I would follow him into, and the fact his people are an immigrant, working class family in the small, old-fashioned manufacturing city of Worcester, Massachusetts makes him a remarkable example of the common situation of that time. It's here in Worcester that the first public park was instituted, and Olson went to a school still echoing respect for the wonders of a "good education," Classical High School, which now houses the administration offices for the Worcester public school system. Years later, after his death, I was trying to locate which of the several old wooden three-story tenements had been the one on whose top floor the Olsons had lived. There was a small real estate office on the corner, so I asked a pleasant woman just coming out if she might help me. "No," she said, "but he should know," and pointed to a dapper, elderly man just leaving his house adjacent to get into a car with, I thought, a very handsome younger woman. It turned out he had known Olson as an elder classmate, was himself a now retired teacher of Latin in the local schools. "Did you know your friend was a great student of the classics?" he asked me, adding that Olson's mastery of Latin had been a benchmark for younger students as himself. So it is the story always begins - that time as the attractive old Irishman rehearsed for me my friend's seemingly legendary youthful abilities, no matter the modest circumstances of his family - as one would say in New England.
Like so much in that initiating
edge of the American place, Olson was self-invented, made his world both with and of his
mind insistently. One recalls W.C. Williams writing, "A new world/ is only a new
mind./ And the mind and the poem/ are all apiece." Olson valued immensely what he
spoke of as "mindedness." I would take his sense of one's "second
birth," that coming into the world as fact of oneself, to be the possibility
inherent, "that we are only/ as we find out we are." Just so the emphasis
upon "the use," that which one makes of oneself and by oneself, the complement
to the social body, the "polis," he equally kept primary.
Possibly the most public and defining relation Olson had is with Ezra Pound, surely his own signifying elder. It was Pound's "world" which Olson had necessarily to enter and contest. Clearly their battle was all male, so to speak, all the gesture and response of two men defining their authority. Olson's need was to so think the given world that it might again be initial, a fact of its physical event, of lives thus admitted and recognized. The "universe of discourse" was his term for the abstracting, generalizing system of reference, which put the immediate always at a theoretic "distance," so that reflection and representation might then be the primary human acts rather than the very 'actions' themselves. "I have this sense," he writes, "that I am one with my skin..."
So he is able to read his own life as text rather than reference. One time at Black Mountain he said to me, "I need a college to think with," meaning, I understood, that he wanted the multiplicity of instance, all particular and active, not the discrete or isolating possibilities of a chosen few. "Come into the world," he said, "Take a big bite." It was poetry that could move with the necessary syntax and speed, to 'be here' coincident with recognition, a locating act. Just as Pound's Cantos proved a first time record of human thought so sustained for almost half a century, Olson then moved the art to an exceptional capacity for thinking itself. Given Olson's 'methodology,' a favorite term, poetry had no longer a simply literary or cultural practice. It became, rather, a primary activity and resource for what can be called "historical geography," as Duncan McNaughton notes, adding then with significant emphasis taken from Olson's characteristic friend, the geographer, Carl Sauer, that "nothing whatever is outside the consideration of historical geography."
How needs one say it? A tracking of the earth in time? A place? Olson loved John Smith's curious phrase, "History is the memory of time." Equally he prized the sense of history which he got from Herodotus as against the abstracting Thucydides:
...'istorin, which makes anyone's acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere
at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucydides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot
- live television or what - is a lie
as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream, being
self-action with Whitehead's important corollary: that no event
is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal
We are such stuff/As dreams
are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep... In fact, for the
human, only the 'dream' is true, can realize the world in which one has existence. It is
the only passage either evident or possible. It's all a dream, one says, rightly.
I went to read at Cornell some years ago, not long after Olson had been there. The director of the writing program was still seemingly confounded by his visit. It had little if anything to do with the poems he had read, or with his conversation in the company of faculty and students. Rather the fellow was still bemused by the fact that Olson had rented a car from Avis to make the trip from Gloucester to Ithaca and back. "He must have spent all the fee on the car," he kept saying, somehow intrigued by that untoward (for him) determination. I remember once visiting Charles, Betty and their son Charles Peter in Gloucester, and finding that they were broke. Charles showed me the single dollar bill he had left. I had a little money from recent work and offered him an all too meager ten dollars. "Ten dollars," he said with some humor, "I need ten thousand!" And so he refused it.
I wondered at times and certainly worried about him, about myself as well, be it said. I used to think of myself as the proverbial smallest of the three Billy Goats Gruff, Robert Duncan being the next, and then Charles the one who could finally manage to defeat the malignant Troll under the bridge. Then we would be free to cross over to that initiating place Robert so beautifully invokes in his poem, "Often I am permitted to return to a meadow," in The Opening of the Field. When Robert went to New York to see Olson in hospital in the last days, it was Charles' wry comment that he had been waiting for Robert to give him the solution, so to speak, the transforming means, which would let him survive. But Robert answered that he'd come for Charles' advice and had none himself to offer. They had been a lifetime together upon a great adventure, he felt. That was the burden of the story, neither to be changed nor avoided.
At his death I felt such conflict and confusion. Often we were taken to be mentor and student, Maximus and Minimus -- as Richard Elman spoke of us. But our "life in print" had been remarkably shared and at his death I felt a distance occur, not between us but between myself and that projected world of our enterprise. It could no longer be the intimacy of a day's possibilities. No one was any longer so present.
Now, sadly, so much of that company is gone. Perhaps when young one thinks it will be the death of him or herself, which will be the agon, the breaking point. Paradoxically that would seem to be no problem at all. Rather it is witnessing one's friends going, Paul Blackburn, Charles, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert, Denise, Allen, Ed Dorn. Ed was to have written this note and would have given it a focus and clarity I cannot. Why? Because he is the defining poet of Olson's effect -- the one who did hear most particularly. Charles spoke of him as having an "Elizabethan ear" years ago and marveled at his grace. Ed's "What I See in the Maximus Poems" is still the gate through which one enters.
The story matters, all of it -- and what Tom Clark has gathered here, in a way he acknowledges and I respect, is as much of it as I or anyone else seems to know. "No one said it would be easy" -- like they say. But this story breaks the heart with its persisting sense of wonder, of what might, or could, or would happen if only... Ben Friedlander, at work in the library housing Olson's papers at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, wrote me then a postcard which ends, "You can play the record forever & never hear the tune recorded there." Here you do.
January 17, 2000
Return to Charles Olson