American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Philip Freneau or Raymond Queneau?

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By circumstance, not design, I’ve been on vacation from this blog for a few months, with much of my attention focused on Charles Olson, a poet who flourished long after the age of Whitman and Dickinson … though he certainly had his roots in that age. Olson began his career as a Melville scholar, tracking down Melville’s library and writing a superb book on Moby-Dick. Unlike many other Melville scholars, moreover, he was also pretty engaged with the poetry. He owned the Constable edition of Melville’s works and heavily annotated the volume of Poems, as well as the two volumes of Clarel, a book Olson wanted Grove Press to reprint with his own introduction. I hope to post a few notes on all that in the coming months.

But right now I want to mark an anniversary. Forty-five years ago today, on July 23rd, 1965, Olson closed the Berkeley Poetry Conference with a notorious reading: there was very little recitation involved; Olson spoke instead in a stream of consciousness, tripping on the edge of coherence. Libbie Rifkin has written a fine analysis of this reading, which she takes to be a defining moment … not so much for what Olson said, as for the social vectors he tried to direct. As she writes in Career Moves:

It was a difficult speech act to bring off. Olson’s performance — considered by some to be a tour de force, while others walked out — embodied the contradictory dynamics at work in the conference and the tensions within the community at large. Billed as a “reading,” identified by the poet himself as a “talk,” and later derided as a “filibuster,” it has been viewed both as a brilliant enactment of the open-form poetics that Olson is credited with founding, and as a drunken ramble.

Rifkin’s book is on the avant-garde as “counter-institution,” a word whose equivocal meaning reproduces the equivocal status of Olson’s reading.

In 1966, the text of Olson’s reading was published as a pamphlet by Coyote Press (in a transcript by Zoe Brown; a later transcript by Ralph Maud formed the basis for the version in Muthologos). Here’s the ending of Maud’s version; Olson is riffing here off  a name from his adolescence:

It’s like Frenaud, that poet, the French poet, whom we — you know, the French poet that was at Spoleto was a man I never heard of, named Frenaud. And I said, “You don’t mean Philip Freneau?” (LAUGHTER.) You know, like, I’m so fucking American I didn’t even know that there was some guy like Quasimodo, a French poet named Frenaud. (LAUGHTER.) Sounded like Qu-Quineau or some — I mean, a water — I mean, I don’t know. But if there’s only — if I ever heard a name Frenaud, it was Philip Freneay; you know, that contemporary of the American Revolution and that very good, by the way, writer of Castle Otranto literature, better than it. You know, the commonness of John Smith, who replaced, I believe directly, William Shakespeare, has only been caught up with, in fact, I think, I really think, and it’s not plop and shit, in Berkeley since the — the day this fucking Conference started. And that’s why we were all fucked up two years ago; literally, like the eighteenth century. I mean, what a — what a breakthrough! (TAPE ENDED HERE.)

The poet at Spoleto was, in fact, named Frenaud, but better than the echo of Freneau is the leap Olson makes to Queneau. Talk about your long eighteenth century. It swallows the nineteenth century whole. Another white whale.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm

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