American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

“…the condition of a frog…”

with one comment

Ralph Maud at the recent Charles Olson Centenary Conference in Vancouver

Twentieth-century detour…

I mentioned yesterday that Charles Olson’s Reading at Berkeley appeared as a pamphlet in 1966, and that Ralph Maud later produced a more accurate transcript with notes. Maud published his version as The Berkeley Reading: A Triptite Edition … For Use in English 414, Spring 1970, Simon Fraser University. What a class that must have been!

George Butterick relied on Maud’s transcript for his own annotated version, which appeared in the first volume of Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews (1979). That essential two-volume collection has been out of print for several years … but now, thanks to Maud, a new, single-volume edition is on the way. A decade ago, Maud published his “Specifications for a New Edition” (in the Minutes of the Charles Olson Society), so I have an idea of the improvements involved. They will be welcome.

Talonbooks, the publisher, has a beautiful page for the new edition here, and Amazon is offering a 34% discount for pre-orders (link). Unless I’m mistaken, the cover highlights Olson at Berkeley, a different view of the podium from the cover of the old Coyote pamphlet.

Here’s another excerpt from the reading; it too touches on nineteenth-century American culture — incoherently, but also suggestively:

… the thing I propose to do tonight is to read you the longest poem I have ever been unable to sustain, but the one I believe in the most … simply because … it has such a weak backbone that there’s a nerve in it, only, like that principle of the condition of a frog, elementary — Not the synapse. The synapse is easy; it’s the neural condition that’s difficult. To simplify the neural is what I honestly believe is what’s up, another way of saying the whole biological picture of the organism is wrong, I mean, that captured frog of Calaveras County is that kind of bullshit, that this society makes its heroes of its poets Mark Twain and Robert Frost, and elects presidents of Kennedys and Johnsons. I mean, until we realize that each one of us is as hard as we’re made or can make ourselves — and that’s the stone, not this live frog hidden. Even that beautiful Melville can’t get over that fact, which is the source of Pierre

Olson refers once more to Twain at the end of the reading, in a difficult and also troubling passage that refers to sentimental culture as “those fucking — not those cemetery things, but those lithographs of ladies loves”; also as “those gooky fucking Valentine lousy cemetery poets.” By “gooky” Olson surely meant “goopy,” but the racial slur — this is 1965 — must have entered quickly into consciousness, since he segues right away to China (or back to China, since it was mentioned briefly earlier in the reading). He says, “that lousy middle culture and middle class and middleness … is the neo-capitalism of China.” The passage is all about revulsion: sentimental culture, cheap wristwatches for export, goopiness … and a certain kind of cleanliness. All of these things disgust. What’s needed then is the right kind of cleanliness:

When he entered Peking, [Mao] gave soap out to scrub those fucking streets, or, like Baltimore, those goddamn stoops of Peking. I mean, you know, there is disease, outside the United States: water disease, rat disease, yellow disease, all sorts of bunonic shit. Christ, we’ve taught cleanliness to the world. Well, then. let us be clean.

I’ve had these passages marked for some time, thinking to write an essay on “manifest domesticity,” Pierre, and Olson. Well, one of these days …

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 24, 2010 at 12:24 pm

One Response

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  1. There’s got to be a difference between Charles Olson and Ira Einhorn, but from here it’s hard to see.

    http://www.ira-einhorn.com/archives/189

    Same vatic gaseousness, right?

    But well, Charles wasn’t a murderer. There’s that.

    Jonathan Morse

    July 25, 2010 at 1:18 am


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