The Boston area’s OLSON NOW event of 20 May 2006 seemed, to this observer/listener at least, a success on some accounts, a certain sweep of the hand toward what could/should be done now in regards to the work of Charles Olson. Held, interestingly enough, in a Socratic-style lecture hall on the MIT campus on a cool yet sunny mid-spring afternoon, the event was organized by William Corbett and Gerritt Lansing and included many participants. Not that numbers are what matters, but to give a sense of things: though I never counted—and given that some did come and go—I’d guess the number of attendees around seventy-five.
In what follows I’ll try and reconstruct (in a loosely narrative form) a few of my own impressions of the event from my few scant notes, as well as from memory: what has stuck with me if not been held and churned in mind since 20 May is all the loose ends of (or maybe arrows pointing toward?) what is to be done. At any rate—
Things got underway with opening remarks and various readings of some of Olson’s poems. Several read from both The Maximus Poems and from other sources. Fanny Howe summoned the specter of Edward Dahlberg, calling attention to the mountain that he was (is) lurking off in the distance. Joseph Torra offered an anecdote, illustrating the fact that he completely trusts Olson—one that all present must have in some way appreciated. Others, including Michael Franco, read poems and remarked generally on their first discovering of Olson. Franco, I believe, came to Olson through Duncan; he made reference at some point to the phrase “stance toward reality” from, of course, “Projective Verse.”
To open with readings was constructive, and as such reminded me of this moment from Olson’s essay “Homer and the Bible” (as it appears in the Collected Essays): “What we need is more of the text, always more of the, text, no end to the work that can be done. More light on every word, every device of syntax, each difference of morphology in structure and in form, until it’s all laid clear” (347). And while reference (often in passing) was made to the written works, much of the conversation—conversation that was lively indeed and at times had something of the manner of a town hall meeting—seemed to this listener to focus more on individual impressions, remembrances, and also the occasional posing of questions and concerns.
After these useful, prefatory moments, Benjamin Friedlander delivered some remarks in regards to Olson’s legacy, his use for poets now, scholarship on Olson, and what must be “set aside if we are going to accomplish anything of value.” In delivering his observations, Friedlander, poised and articulate, held the hall’s attention before “yielding the floor.”
Bill Corbett dutifully played the part of emcee/panel chair. At some point in all the talk, and I can’t remember exactly in reference to what, he told of a visit with Olson in Gloucester. He (Bill Corbett), young and I suppose in awe, was staring at stacks of books on the, I guess, living room floor. Olson saw him standing there, and said something to the effect of “O, you don’t got to read those. Just smell ‘em!”—and Corbett gestured with a sweep of the hand. This anecdote, as others, produced laughter and gave an informal feel to the afternoon.
The panel assembled consisted of: Fanny Howe, Joseph Torra, Gerritt Lansing, Peter Anastas, and Maureen McClane. Initially, the panel was asked to speak generally if not openly of their own encounters with and understandings of Olson. One talking point was how Olson’s work had shaped each of the participants’ own sense of the world and however he or she chose to live. Some spoke of how Olson influenced their teaching, while others spoke of their own writing practices.
While Friedlander’s remarks, which were (are) lucid and exceptionally useful, provided manifold possible talking points, two points were picked up and batted around for a while. The first was that—and I quote from the talk as posted below—“Olson was not literary in orientation; that is, he was not interested in making finished, free-standing works of art, objects to be appreciated or consumed as ends in themselves.” The second point picked up was that to “continue Olson’s work, as distinct from merely reproducing it, we must set aside the tendency, in reading Olson, to become ourselves ‘Olsonian.’”
The former point became a topic after Gerritt Lansing discussed it a bit; Ed Sanders, seated in the front and off to the side, also picked up this point. While I can’t remember the exact line of thinking in this conversation, there was some disagreement as to Olson’s relationship to the literary; the crux of the conversation seemed to revolve around the question of what one means by “literary.” I wish I made note of how this conversation intersected with Friedlander’s remark, but alas!
The latter of the two topics—to not become “Olsonian”—I don’t recall as sustaining much conversation in the larger group, but during the break, and also after, there was some expression of, say, surprise at this assertion. There was no irony—though at a glance it may have seemed so—to make such a statement; rather, it was indeed “the most important point of all” because with it Friedlander asserted that we must continue Olson’s work—no small assertion given the venue and its purpose.
(I am quickly now reminded in writing up this brief report, as I was at the time, of the closing lines of “Maximus, to himself” early in Book I:
It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
from my feet
Or from “December 22nd” much later in Book III:
. . . the rocks
into the sea, the forests,
from the light snow showing
lost rocks and hills
which one doesn’t, ordinarily,
know, all the sea
calm and waiting, having
come so far
—yet there was not much calm to the event per se. The general discussion, which constituted the first part of the afternoon event, consisted of several individual insights and statements. Concerns were aired. Reference was made, for instance more than once, to all the material in archive at University of Connecticut-Storrs and the need to study it, consider it—publish it. Along these lines, at one point Charles Bernstein, seated toward the very back, offered an invitation to anyone willing to edit sound files of Olson for PENN Sound.
After all the lively talking, a break was given.* Some of us ran off for coffee to return just in time for the second half of the afternoon that provided opportunity to view the nearly complete documentary Polis Is This by Henry Ferrini and [I can’t remember the other guy’s name . . . ]. It was wonderful to see the clips of Olson thumbing and walking his way through Gloucester; the film is well done, and certainly a labor of love, as was clear in the talk with the makers of it that followed the viewing.
Ed Sanders led the afternoon to some sense of closure with a performance. He did a piece based on fragments of, I believe, The Maximus Poems that he finds himself often returning to; it was an apt if not beautiful conclusion.
In the closing minutes of the afternoon, Gerritt Lansing announced the tour he would be giving of Gloucester the following day. We—Sarah and I—were sad to not be able to make it but were happy to have made it to the hall for the meeting that pointed out all that is indeed left to be done!
2 June 2006
*Note: Much of the conversation I sadly do not remember the specifics of! Many good points were made by: Ammiel Alcalay, Don Byrd, Ben Friedlander, Charles Bernstein, and others. I do not trust myself to relay much of it for fear of mis-reproducing it. But maybe others can fill in all the holes that this short account describes? A more collaborative-type report seems the thing to do, at any rate.