Saturday, July 16, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.1 (Charles Olson)

Clark, Tom
Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life

No idea at all where I purchased this.

I got into Olson when I was in graduate school. I remember the first class I took with Charles Bernstein. It had a typical graduate school reading list that include 30 or so books of poetry, theory and criticism. It also included a supplemental reading list which basically contained the entire canon of Post-War American Avant-Garde Poetry. I knew a lot of the names around the beats, language writing, etc., but I was mostly unversed in Black Mountain poetics, outside of Creeley, and also the Objectivists.

I listened for the names of the poets that seemed to get mentioned most often ij class but whose work I did not know: Olson, Oppen, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Duncan, et al. That winter I set about trying to read them all. I bought a copy of The Maximus Poems and also of "A" and basically spent the winter break reading them. I read Zukofsky first, then Olson.

I don't think I liked him right away, but he was a great poet to read in graduate school because he opened up so many avenues of thought. I think I bought Butterick's concordance right away and went about looking up all the references and allusions and so forth. Pretty soon thereafter I bought the biography.

I have a few memories of reading it. My clearest, I think, are of Clark's descriptions of the last days of Black Mountain. The place was going broke and Olson was having a terrible time raising money. A kind of disillusioned, anarchic spirit seemed to reign over the place. Creeley was despairing of the break-up of his marriage. The students had lost all sense of time and place. People were drinking, fighting, breaking bones, getting in car accidents.

At least that's how I remember the description.

I also remember the descriptions of the young Olson, who wrote so much about the fisherman and the fishing industry in Gloucester, heading out on a boat to try his hand at seamanship and fishing and failing miserably at it. The classically unpractical scholar.

After I read it, I remember talking to Cass Clarke, widow of Jack, who told me Jack had kept up a long correspondence with the author, urging him not to write what he called a "psycho-biography," a battle he lost, according to Cass. She kept meaning to show me the letters, but we didn't get around to it before she sold Jack's archive to the Poetry Collection at UB.

As biographies go, I enjoyed this one. I generally dislike the form, but on occasion it can be useful, as this one was to me.


Anonymous said...

Olson loud, boisterous, boulder of a man, magnetic, so described to me by gerrit lansing. he asks a lot from his reader, but the form is interesting, the sound, and he spawned poets who messed around with his ideas morphed into their own.

nice hardback, whatever the content

Kitchen Benchtops said...

In this provocative biography of a poet both feared and revered, Tom Clark shows how these conflicts troubled Olson's life even as it fueled his art.