Saturday, August 20, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.9 (Charles Olson)

Olson, Charles
Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives, Number 8

Click here for details on my acquisition of this set.

Thanks to the Literary Outlaw Richard Deming for pointing out that the photo on the cover of issue number six was taken by Jonathan Williams in Olson's cabin at Black Mountain. Read RD's comment for more details about the photo.

I believe the photo on the cover of this issue was also taken by Williams, also at Black Mountain. It's another photo that, upon close examination, has a kind of whacky staginess to it.

As in that other, the poet has something draped over his shoulder, though instead of a towel it is a plaid blanket. It looks more like a mantle. Beneath the poet's mantle he is wearing a plaid tie, a light-colored vest buttoned all the way up, an open sports coat and a white shirt whose collar looks freshly starched.

Now, if the mantle weren't stagy enough, he is posing against a white background that looks like a white sheet has hung behind him from some trees. Shadows of trees dance across its surface. Some appear to be projecting outward from the poet's head. Is he dreaming Plato's cave?

But then there is another object, which looks almost like a stalk of bamboo, that enters the frame at the left and disappears behind Olson's head. Almost looks like aheaddress.

The poet wears the same horn-rimmed glasses and looks very serious. Grave, even.

The other thing that strikes me about this photo is the angle from which it was taken. Olson stares down at the lens, which was obviously much lower than him. Even given the man's enormous size, the angle seems deliberately low, as if to emphasize that size. Or rather that authority. Yes, whereas that other photo emphasizes the concentration and focus of the genius at work, this one highlights his gravity and authority.

But then there's that stick coming out of his head. It could be a garland, but it also seems to cut against the seriousness of the scene, as if to remind us that the source of that authority might be something altogether wild. Even mad!

Postscript: I was just flipping through this issue and discovered that this photo was indeed shot by Williams, ca. 1953, at Black Mountain. There are several other photos, including one I don't recall seeing before of Olson laying on his back on some chairs, his head in the lap of his wife, Connie. He's looking up at her playfully. She's not smiling.

1 comment:

rdeming said...


you can see the whole image here:

The backdrop is the wall of Olson's cabin (if memory serves). And the serape over the shoulder was indeed added as a way of juxtaposing Olson in his official BMC rector outfit.