American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Olson

“…the condition of a frog…”

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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 …

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 24, 2010 at 12:24 pm

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.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Notes for a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (part one)

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From Collecting Everyman's Library

Image from Collecting Everyman's Library (click for link)

In almost all instances, we encounter the writing of a long-dead poet in a volume of collected or selected works, or in an anthology. The individual books making up a writer’s career tend to slip out of the frame of readerly attention, gathering dust in a public library or secondhand bookshop. With some poets, of course, the individual books, or a few of them, remain ubiquitous long after they go out of print. But even when we decide to read those poets, we tend to set aside the multiple “slim volumes” for a more comprehensive or more judiciously chosen selection.

Image courtesy the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department (click for more information)

Image from the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department (click for link to larger view)

The pattern is different with novelists. With them, individual titles predominate and omnibus collections are less appealing. If I am going to read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, I would rather pick out one novel and finish it, and then pick out another if I like the first; the entire series would be premature. And I would not want a book of excerpts either. An abridged novel does not appeal to me, and chapters are rarely self-sufficient almost never. Short stories are another matter. As with books of poetry, the volumes in which they originally appeared can be dismantled and rearranged to make bigger or littler collections, and that is just fine.  The difference is largely a matter of how novels are read, as distinct from stories and poems: the former from front to back, the latter two in hops, skips, and jumps. One commits to a novel. With stories and poems one flips randomly in search of something interesting. And when that is the case, you may as well maximize your chances by choosing the biggest book around, or at least by choosing a book where somebody else has done some sifting before you. One wants it all or one wants the best. The individual book seems, in comparison, merely random. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 14, 2009 at 3:42 am

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