Thursday, December 15, 2005



the new issue of H_NGM_N is up at & it features a long essay on Charles Olson & the concept of ontic immediacy focused through Heidegger. Check it out & please consider alerting your readers.

All best--

Nate Pritts, EIC.
H_NGM_N, Intergalactic.

Friday, December 09, 2005


The Olson event last Saturday was very successful, considering how many people, including myself, were chomping at the bit to add comments, ask questions, etc.

It seems to me the points of views around comments in subtle ways were divided into two or three kinds: those by scholars or academicians interested in research projects generated by Olson. A smaller number of us had thoughts about him as poets, how as a poet Olson had affected us. Susan Howe started that line of discussion by pointing to Call Me Ishmael's importance to her. Since Call Me Ishmael had a crucial impact on me as a poet, critic and translator also, I joined in the argument, saying that Ishmael led me also to Melville's Journals of Istanbul (Constantinople) and also presented a new way of writing about another writer who was important to one's work.

Susan and I continued our conversation outside during the break, arguing how the "ungrammatical" awakwardness of Olson's prose represented a juncture in American writing where prose jumped into poetry -in our views (if I am not misrepresenting Susan's views) Olson's prose -as writing- was at least as important as his poetry.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Indeed, to look at Olson's writing practice in relation to his practice as a walker, as well as to look at the support of his writings (on, say, scraps of paper, but also blank checks, paper menus, etc.), which is to look at the environment of Olson's writings, certainly constitutes inquiry into methodology, and may constitute inquiry into what Chuck Stein calls Olson's praxis (although I'm not sure of how he's using that term).

For a gull's view of Dogtown Commons:

Type in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and click the Satellite button. Then zoom (click the plus end of the navigator) and go. You can pan the view by clicking and dragging the image. Zooms up pretty close, to where you can even see foot trails.

But is not Maximus Poems constructed *against* what Olson call's the "gull's eye" view? And more in line with the low-flying "cormorant's eye" view? Or at least sets up an argument between these two. The difference between the colonizers of space and the poet whom SPACE has colonized. Which gets richer when we remember that Hawthorne referred to himself (thanks once again to Susan Howe for telling us) as a "library cormorant."

Finally, the project of Olson's fragments came to my mind just a day or two ago, as well. A great model for this, in every sense (hermeneutically, methodologically, technically), has to be Marta Werner's work with Emily Dickinson, both in her book Dickinson's Open Folios and in her web archive, Radical Scatter.

I'd say a web archive of Olson fragment facsimiles would be more useful (and less expensive to produce) than a book--perhaps without the restrictions on access that the Institutions seem lamentably to have exerted over Werner's magnificent project.

I got the idea--and this is something that unites Chuck's geographical interests with his interests in the "logographic entities"--watching the rest of the Olson outtakes video and getting mesmerized by the "map" of Dogtown pinned to the wall behind Olson, made entirely of scraps of paper with notes scribbled on them, a logogeographic entity, if there ever was one. (Olson discusses this map during the interview and the film-maker even zooms in and pans so we can read some of the fragments.) I wonder how long this stayed on Olson's wall, and if some record of it was retained, beyond the film.

I would happily be a part of the project of getting Olson's fragments scanned into facsimile form.

The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum, by the way, is a great book!


So. I think to go through the Maximus Poems, Collected Poems, Colleted Prose, plus Special View. With an eye to methodology.

What principles of praxis are articulable? How sharp are the instances? Example: Polis is Eyes--what does "limits are what any of us are inside of" mean up against "pushing the limits?" And the chocolate bar and the fisherman not looking in the sunblaze?

I' ll begin, I think with a list I made in my Olson/Jung book, The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum some twenty-five years ago, of the ways in which Olson's compositional practice was "concretistic"--but one could replace this term with the word "actual" if one wished, shifting from the Jungian to the Whiteheadian vocabulary. But the point anyway would be not to emphasize the Aesthetic, in the sense of opinions about how to make poems, but rather praxis in general, how to make a culture of the concrete, of the actual, in the face of what we might want to insist IS the praxis now in place--the practice of the statistical, the universal, the application of predetermined standards, the mechanistic technology of knowing beforehand in detail the result--short-circuiting the process of desire…

Suggestion for someone with a lowflying plane or better helicopter :

Do we have a photograph of Dogtown from the air, on which one could pinpoint, say the site of Merry's demise and Gravelly Hill, to mention the two that Olson mentioned in the old film )not H. Ferrini's) we saw on Dec. 3? But really all the points in the poem? And then one from higher up, locating Dogtown precisely on Cape Ann?

Other projects. I will be driving to Storrs with Ammiel probably in January to do a final check on the new text of The Special View of History. And I want to grab or begin at least to find among the nicely catalogued folders, the literally hundreds of intensely scribbled over sheets of paper in Olson's hand, and somehow produce a facsimile book of say 100 of them. Before the papers were put in folders, summer of 1971 and 1972, Butterick and I went through boxes and boxes of the papers before they were catalogued, looking for letters from noteworthy folks. But I lingered for many hours over these intensely scribbled objects and I swear it was a deep initiation into Olson's neurology, say, and that today, after the archive has been mined for more orderly and acceptable typographic objects, it is time for us all to have a look at these crazy looking and magically charged logographic entities.


The lively, town-hall style conversation that Michael eloquently recounts from memory began with a question from a Melville scholar, a more specific version of the general inquiry posed by the event: Where is Olson now in the Academy? Because I did not say this on Saturday, I would like to suggest, echoing Jonathan Skinner’s remarks, that Olson is alive in the Academy, at least for me. My name is David Alworth and I am an undergraduate at New York University, writing my senior honors thesis on Olson or, more particularly, the massive Olson-Creeley correspondence.

I came to Olson by way of Creeley, who provided me with an instigation, a roadmap, a “way in,” as Olson would say, to the massive undertakings of this writer, this scholar (historian), this Archeologist of Morning. If space is a first fact, then the structures of circumscription, the frames in which we operate, are of central importance to Olson; “limits,” says Maximus, “are what any of us / are inside of.”

My Charles Olson is a revolutionary, but not the kind who obliterates boundaries. He is instead one who considers the limits in which any of us exist—as if/because they pre-exist us—to reconfigure the spaces they create, an internal revolutionary, churning the gears of reform and re-conceiving the cartography of human experience as framed, but not limited; the Olson map may have boundaries and limits, but it also has richly embroidered textures, topographical force-fields. If the poem is limited by the physical features of the sheet of paper, then let us work with that, so the page becomes a score, a force field, a flux, an isomorphic instantiation of the universe as routed through the poet’s body. The Creeley Correspondence becomes/is a space; though limited by the vagaries of the posts and circumscribed by the duties of daily life, it remains a place of free-play, of wildly excited and raw articulations, of need and urgency, of companionship, of anger and joy and sadness, of vision and revision, of “FIRST FACTS,” as if, and perhaps because, limits are counterintuitively freeing. The message of Olson is that if limits—and by extension, space—is what we are inside of, then our task is to conceive of space differently: as a force field, a field of action, to make that space “of use,” whatever and wherever it is.

On December 3, 2005 at the Poetry Project—a space that has been, for me, just such a force field of intellectual and creative exchange that offers an alternative to the institutionalization and bureaucratization of NYU—I attended OlsonNow and could not help but feel like this was an instantiation of what Olson had in mind, growing from Williams, with his particular conception of the local, of using one’s space in a radical, energizing way. Michael points to one of the most touching moments of the day when he writes of the waitress’s recitation of Dickinson; although it was dark and the notes I was taking during the film are illegibly sprawled across my notebook pages, I recall an error in the Dickinson poem. She said, “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—Too? / Then there’s a pair of us! / Don’t tell! they’d banish us—you know!” Banish us. Not Dickinson’s line, but perhaps more compelling for our discussion of Charles Olson, who never fit in the normative moulds offered him, whose intellectual, creative and physiological space was perhaps too richly embroidered for traditional institutionalization. And whose project—the very kernel of it—was reflected Saturday in a radical, freeing, energized and jam-packed space.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


If Methodology is the work of Morning
and it is Still Morning,
and Olson's archaeological spade work
opens the earth to find in archaic traces
the source of apposite methods--

can we tease out of Olson's texts
a rich enough package of such methods
to enable the declaration
THAT IT IS (in spite of everything) STILL MORNING?

The Beginning of the Rest of Time

Can a methodology be discriminated from Olson's remarks + extrapolations, say, that would resituate ourselves at the beginning of the rest of time rather than--in the
senescence of what is already vanished or vanishing or in the maturity of the Vast Machine--taking these
question as the research for resistance?

Can we point to where the Work of Morning has been sufficiently articulated, in Olson or his expositors, or the community of texts that gather about him--his references, but also those, say of Jack Clarke--or any one--without it becoming too prolix a bibliography-?

But not only texts


Can we articulate principles that Hold Ground?

Disciplines called such in his name?

And that this resistance would not be limited to the happy instances of nomadic impermanence, say, but primarily to the sustenance of Possibility--and therefore images AS actions, not image VERSUS actions

Monday, December 05, 2005


OlsonNow at the Poetry Project was one of the most gratifying and exciting events I’ve helped put together in quite some time. Kudos to my compadres, Ammiel Alcalay and Fred Dewey. We would love to post any highlights or memories people have of the event, as well as suggestions for future events. (The place was abuzz yesterday with talk of potential happenings in Philly, Gloucester, Asheville, NC, and Buffalo). Please email them to us at olsonnow (at sign here) gmail address (dot com).

Here are the facts as I recall them:

We got going at about 1:30 and finished at 6 p.m.. Throughout the day about 150 people came. According to headcounter Douglas Rothschild – who announced this to the entire room about midway through the conversation – 33.33 percent were women, 66.666 percent men.

After I introduced Olson and the OlsonNow project, Ammiel called for those working on projects, papers, etc. on Olson to announce them to the crowd. Jonathan Skinner, Fred Dewey, Kristin Prevallet, Lee Ann Brown, Michael Hoerman, Peter Anastas and Schuyler Hoffman of the Charles Olson Society in Gloucester, Henry Ferrini and others (please forgive any omissions as I didn’t take any notes and am writing this all down from memory after the fact) all spoke up about projects they were working on. This was interspersed with messages and greetings that Ammiel read from people who could not attend, including Albert Glover, Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Robert Kelly, Basil and Martha King, and John Sinclair.

We watched a clip from the Charles Olson “Outtakes” video from March 12, 1966 of Olson sitting in his Gloucester kitchen giving a growling shamanistic reading of “Maximus from Dogtown 1.” Ed Sanders followed with a musical rendition of the same poem played on a two-string dulcimer.

At that point we opened up the forum to the question: Where is Olson Now?

Apparently, that was all we needed to do, because the conversation lasted until about 3:45 and could have gone on for hours. We heard spontaneous comments from Jonathan Skinner, Susan Howe, Pierre Joris, Don Byrd, Laura Elrick, Charles Stein, a Melville Scholar whose name I can’t recall, and others. Jack Hirschman read an “Arcane” about Olson as well as a reminiscence of the man. Anne Waldman gave a fiery reading of “Feminafesto,” addressing the feminine in Olson, as well as of a cento written of lines from Olson. Conversation ranged widely: Olson in the classroom, Olson and the feminine, Olson and Melville, Olson and walking, Olson and Place, et al.

Following a quick break, we were treated to the premier of Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, a nearly completed film by Henry Ferrini. Henry received a standing ovation afterward and answered a few questions. David Amram closed the show with a stunning jazz recorder improvisation of “Amazing Grace.”


Many highlights -- Ed Sanders’ beautiful voice, Anne Waldman’s dynamic thought-presence, Susan Howe’s precise and heartfelt articulations, Jack Hirschman’s moving recollections – but for me the most poignant moment of the day came during a scene in Henry’s film.

A waitress at a Gloucester diner recalls that Olson often had to sign for his lunch and then pay later when he had some money. He always apologized for not tipping, she says, always paid up when he had the money, and always over-tipped in the process. She describes Olson as a man that never put on any airs or made her feel inferior. Then she goes on to say their interactions reminded her of the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who Are you?” After a brief pause, in which she seems to be trying to recall the next line, she slowly, haltingly, but with growing confidence, recites the entire poem from memory:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog.

It just gave me chills. It is so rare in American life to witness poetry (actual poetry, not poetic analogues, but the actual words of an actual poem) affecting an everyday life in an atmosphere that has not been produced for the occasion. In other words, outside the academy, outside the classroom, outside the literary organizations, outside the poetry scene – just a person receiving the poem, its energy intact, and passing it on to the next person listening.


(on Olson, for 3 December 2005)

When you walked through the door into his house, he wanted to know who and what you were. Who means where you came from.

Our first fight was when I refused to discuss my family background – huge, urban, undistinguished – preferring only to offer the me I supposed myself to have made up by myself. I was a spiritual Darwinian at him, I grew from what I supposed.

He wanted to know who: the family, the grace of such society as made you.

He wanted, more, to know what you are. And what, for him, it seems to me now, meant: what do you know. And what can you say of what you know. And where did you get it.

Telling an idea or a fact (God help me) to Olson was like selling some heirloom to an honest jeweler – you had to prove where it came from, where you got it.

Provenience is all, said that King Lear.

And it is just this calling us back to personal history, our own investigations, historein, into our own lives’ circumstance, that speaks so urgently now. To pull us from the theory of theory into the theory of seeing with our own eyes, as our beloved Herodotus both saw and heard men do, see and remember, see and recount – as we must do in the day of personal narrative triumphant, the endless television feigned presences of desire and despair which are talked, that tell-tale word, talked at us before the cameras. Because this is just the wrong way human testimony should work, I’m sensing Olson would have judged, it, the self-disclosure of nothing but the self, which he already detested in the confessional poets of his day, and now would have to endure every day on tv, stripped even of the merciful veil of verse.

That was the Olson Paradox: he was interested only in such knowledge of the world as a man could or did learn through his own efforts of search, research, sustained awareness – yet he was not interested in that man himself. The lyric ego he contemned vividly, the ego with which and for which most poets of modern times have worked. That left him contemptuous of most poetry – and to hear him pronounce some poem ‘literature’ was a chilling thing. So man’s self was to make its way through the world as an objective, a lens. Judgment, not description seemed the rule. This is Jeremiah stuff, not Keats, this is changing the world one shout at a time. He was fond of calling his young poets (Ed Sanders, Ed Dorn, LeRoi Jones, and he was kind enough to put me in that company) his ‘politicians’ -- who were to go out and bring about the Last Judgment of society through the clean adversities of languages. And to this day I do believe the asperities.

Olson was such a forecaster to our times, and a guide in it. He proposed a project for writing that was beyond the amenity of the pleased reader. Like any good experimentalist, he hated the reader – keeping his true love for ‘you, whoever you are’ secret, as Whitman did, naming it only the Republic. For the good of the commonwealth, the reader was to be exposed to the registration of a cognitive experiment – and by that alone would be guided through an ever-widening dance of the mute, alert, perceiving, self-perceiving self (proprioception) with the graspable world (the koinonia, history) – in a way Charles had laid it all out long ago at Black Mountain, in the lucid arrogance of the great undanceable dance play Apollonius of Tyana. To whose own arcane researches Olson made his way in the last throes of Maximus.

I wish I could be at St Marx today to say this.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I like milk and when I was a child I drank it frequently, let’s say five to seven times a day, not one of those little cartons that they gave you at school, a so-called half-pint, but large glasses, twelve, fifteen ounces, I downed it in one shot, I remember I thought I had speed, real milk-drinking speed, but then this kid came to school, Mike from Alaska, and he was the fastest milk-drinker anyone had ever seen, he could take down a so-called half-pint in less than two seconds, somebody had a stopwatch and we timed him.

Well, I’d like to know something about this recollection, let’s say I’m intrigued by milk itself, milk history, or that name, Mike, how he got to my school from Alaska. I think his father worked the pipeline and then those jobs dried up and they came down seeking some last logging job until that dried up too, all the forests cut except the one or two somebody decided might make for decent hunting and fishing now and again, probably the same logging execs grown fat off all the other forests they carved up.

I’m trying to localize myself here, not because I think you ought to know anything about Sams Valley, Oregon, it’s not on most maps, there’s no post office, no center of town, I wouldn’t even recommend visiting, there’s no water, the crops go dry, you see people buying five hundred gallon tanks and filling them up in some other town from spring to fall, trucking water to manufactured homes set down in the middle of half-dead alfalfa and dirt and star thistle, a nasty imported Australian weed that thrives in Sams Valley, so don’t bother remembering Sams Valley but watch out for star thistle, you can’t pull it up without gloves on and if you want to get rid of it you must burn the plant, roots, seeds and all, every one of them.

And that’s what people in Sams Valley do if they still want to grow something other than star thistle. What I understand of this town that’s not a town, though if you go there and ask a local where they live they’ll say Sams Valley, at any rate, what I want to make of this non-town I think I get from Olson.

The non-town called Sams Valley’s what history is, history as Olson does it, it’s where somebody starts mapping, and what Olson says is go map it, whatever you can do to lay hold of that earth, not like a landowner or colonialist or motherfucking real estate agent (in fact, you’re lucky if one of these types isn’t already pointing a shotgun or shaking a document at you telling you to buzz the fuck off), go dig your star thistle and burn your seeds, try to dig up those transcontinental weeds until you’ve figured out how the hell your field became star thistle and your manufactured home got plunked down amidst alfalfa and dirt fields.

Good luck.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Don't forget to visit the documents page (see link to the right). There are essays, papers, poems and talks by:

Ammiel Alcalay, Don Byrd, Clayton Eshleman, Alan Gilbert, Pierre Joris, Jonathan Skinner, Douglas Spangle and Andre Spears.



Saturday, December 3, 1:00 p.m.


Discussion and performances 1-3:30.
Screening at 4, followed by a reception.


The Poetry Project
St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St., NYC

Who, where, and what is Charles Olson now? Come as you are for an
open forum on Olson organized by Ammiel Alcalay and Mike Kelleher,
and co-sponsored by Beyond Baroque. See the New York premiere of
Henry Ferrini's _Poet and the City: Charles Olson and the Persistence
of Place_; listen to David Amram, Jack Hirschman, Ed Sanders, and
Anne Waldman perform Olson.

Saturday, November 26, 2005



A few suggestions: if you are working on any Olson related projects, please let us know so that you can say something about it at the event.

Also, if you would like to open a discussion with a quotation from Olson, please bring it.


I am posting two essays on the documents page from my forthcoming book A little history, due out from Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles in Spring 06. Most of the book is centered on Olson or somehow related to concerns emerging from his work or my relationship to it. The first essay, “Republics of Poetry,” serves as the introduction to the book; the second “What to whom” is an exercise in investigation, looking at a selection of commentary by women poets on Olson. Please note that all the references are not included in these versions.

Ammiel Alcalay

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


For me, initially, it was Call Me Ishmael. The uniqueness of that text, a poet's book, a reverie on a writer I hadn't read since I was a kid. That started me off on Meltzer's Melville mania, read everything of Herman's in record time plus Leyda's great Melville Log in early '60s. Wd talk a lot about Melville w/ McClure in those days. Olson was also very present in both our creative intellective households -- those Jargon Maximus fasicles, Projective Verse (which reminded me of WCW's ongoing attempt to nail down 'variable foot' -- similar to Ornette trying to explain Harmolodics [sp?]) -- Mayan Hieroglyphs, another unique text of a poet-scholar -- always felt like a suckerfish swimming under Moby's belly -- in my world then there were two immense poet-thinkers: Olson & Robert Duncan. Both men were peers from Black Mountain days & I can only imagine the kinds of conversations they had.

Ironically, I'm still teaching in the graduate Poetics Program of New College of California, whose first five years were blessed by Robert Duncan & Diane di Prima & Duncan McNaughton who, with Louis Patler, had the vision & chutzpah to create the possibility -- another story altogether, but one deeply influence by the Big O & Robert. A quarter century of the program & neither Olson or Robert are taught in the curriculum.

During the first few years, a renewing floating opera of poets like Michael Palmer, Lynn Hejinian, Michael McClure, Creeley, Whalen, Waldman, Lorenzo Thomas, Robert Grenier, Jerome Rothenberg, Judy Grahn, Joanne Kyger, Susan Howe, Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge -- can't find the Rolodex -- almost all formed or informed by Robert &/or Olson or both -- were participants in the New College project to, in many ways, embody 'The Curriculum of the Soul'.

What happened? Was it the inability to become the fathers that the death of fathers left us to become? (Baraka nails that down in his obit for Miles: 'now we have to become the fathers.')

So many poets of my generation inspired into a pre-Internet exploration of Field. We became the invisible & invariable historians; hunters & gatherers of the constantly shattering world.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This question threw me off, as I have so habitually resorted to Olson as a location, his work a where rather than a where is. Nonetheless, it’s an appropriate question to ask, given Olson’s insistent focus on location.

Olson is in the syllabus for a course I’m teaching, called Imagining Open Spaces. It’s an interdisciplinary seminar exploring the multiple dimensions of urban open space (aesthetic, political, sociological, ecological). A seminar of three, intensely dedicated students—interdisciplinarity is not “popular,” these days. Nor is Olson (though Digital Dissertations does turn up eight dissertations addressing Olson in the past five years).

In this course, largely dedicated to study of Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings on landscape, their genetic and historical resonance, with injections from Robert Smithson (amongst others), we begin with a reading of Call Me Ishmael, and Olson’s declaring SPACE first fact.

It’s a particularly American fact, at that. I’m not sure about the claims for cross-cultural interest, on Olson’s part—or for the relevance of his work to postcolonial reflection or anti-imperialist discourses—though he certainly pushes the limits of what can be done within a Western framework. The Mayan Letters, for instance, one of his most potent texts, still, like his Melville, chases after firstness and immediacy, engaging the Mayans as creatures of supple stone and skin rather than of language. Olson’s informant, like Pound’s Brzeska, is a genius of direct sight rather than of dialogue.

Olson, nevertheless, is in translation. A very partial list of translated titles that I could locate online:

Appelez-moi Ismael, Call Me Ishmael translated into French by M.Beerblock, Gallimard (1962)
Maximus amant du monde, selections from the Maximus Poems, translated into French by Jean-Paul Auxeméry, Ulysse fin de siècle (1990)
Commencements, selected poetry and prose translated into French by V. Dussol, H. Dye, E. Giraud, P. Poyet, B. Rival et B. Vilgrain, 106 pp., Theatre Typographique (2000)
Vers projectifs et Martins Pêcheurs, French translations of Projective Verse and of the Kingfishers (translator unkown), Virgile-Ulysse-Fin de siècle (17 novembre 2005)
“‘The maximus poems’ de Charles Olson et la tradition épique américaine,” dissertation by Violaine Perreau, for the University of Nantes (2005)
Una antología de la poesía norteamericana desde 1950, ed. Eliot Weinberger (contains Olson selections that introduced Latin American readers to his work), Ediciones del Equilibrista (1992)
Charles Olson: Poemas, translated by Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Tres Haches (1997)

And where is the Italian Olson, the Chinese Olson, the Portuguese Olson, the German Olson, the Swedish Olson, the Russian Olson, the Arabic Olson, the Yoruba Olson? Someone needs to do a comprehensive bibliography of Olson in translation.

Olson is in the arts. Olson helps keep space open as location for thought, in ways that would be explored largely by plastic artists in the second half of the twentieth century. Whether or not it be a particularly American gesture, what Olson called the push of geography colors American postmodernism more than the over-theorized time of machinery. Be it with the smooth “no space” of the American “desert” produced by postmodern geographies, or the geological and biological recasting of cultural history, in the “compost library,” American makers habitually disrupt post-Darwinian expectations with spatial experiment. Still, even since 1968 space has had to struggle for an overt place in the discourse. Olson was unabashed in his declarations for SPACE, and this has kept him at the margins of the critical map—in spite of the fact that his spatial poetics make powerful contributions to the study of history.

My own work on space, after Olson, thanks to promptings from Susan Howe, keeps leading me back to land art, earthworks, and a range of practices in landscape, from the ephemeral to the monumental—instances we currently are studying in my course. It’s significant that the post-1968 literary avant-garde (Howe’s work being a notable exception) did not take up the large questions of space. While a certain materialism of the word, and a penchant for long projects, perhaps inspired by West Coast expansiveness, did lend itself to what might be called “spatial” works, the “language” writers turned to time-based models of Marxist analysis, in a structuralism whose only spatial dimension does not significantly probe what the twentieth-century’s greatest analyst of space, Henri Lefebvre, calls the “production of space.” As always, with a bold and accelerated development of sculpture in the “expanded field,” the plastic arts appeared to be out in front. The return to Smithson, with the recent MOCA retrospective, and a profusion of new critical studies (from Gilles Tiberghien to Jennifer Roberts to Ron Graziani to Richard Sieburth to Lytle Shaw), might herald an opportunity for the literary arts to do some catching up—a convergence that also warrants returning to Olson’s still-unmined work in space, work that surely influenced Smithson. (Though there is no record of books by Olson in the list of holdings in Smithson’s library, printed at the back of the catalog for the recent retrospective, the compiler does note a copy of Donald Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology. We can be reasonably sure, then, that Smithson had read at least “The Kingfishers” and “Projective Verse.”)

After our readings in Smithson (“A Brief Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”), we returned to Olson to read his “Projective Verse” essay and selected pages from The Maximus Poems. To spiral back on Olson this way has us reading him in a light less darkened by questions of legacy or by the often ponderous interests in the archaic that have tended to grip Olson studies. What Olson does with space offers a method—more than a history or a body of knowledge, per se—for breaking the literary-professional shackles (the author, the book, the reading, the reviews, the disciples, the legacy) that continue to constrain our most “avant-garde” poets. Olson’s projective trajectory is mirrored in Smithson’s non-site, a construction that aimed to bust artworks from the four walls of the gallery, or from the four sides of the photograph, while retaining a dialectical relation to the use of those productions.

Olson is in my dissertation. I have devoted part of a chapter to Olson and Smithson, “Sites of Writing: From Frederick Law Olmsted to Robert Smithson,” where I look at the question of the where of writing, in particular at possible relations between writing, as practice, and the practices of walking, landscape architecture and sculpture, in the context of urban open spaces. The chapter is framed by a discussion of Olmsted’s Buffalo parks and their role in my own writing, with an account of the walks during which I meditated the dissertation. I discuss William Carlos Williams’s pastoral excursion in the “Sunday in the Park” section of Paterson. I go on to look at Olson’s on-foot writings, in particular at a poem from The Maximus Poems, OCEANIA, written on check stubs during the night of 5-6 June, 1966. (I am fascinated by the fact that Olson didn’t seem to use a desk, in his last years, and did a lot of writing on the move, including the use of a “writing stand” nailed to a tree-trunk in Dogtown.)

Considerations of Olson’s stance as a walking writer (“I come from the last walking period of man,” he writes, late in Volume III of The Maximus Poems) lead me to look at another break from typewriter-based “projectivism,” in the instance of Olson’s handwriting. In particular, I consider the “difficult texts” from Butterick’s Editing the Maximus Poems, the poem beginning “I have been an ability—a machine . . .” that ends with the nautilus tail of “What is the heart, turning . . . ,” and the spiraling “My beloved Father . . . ,” as well as the curling rose of “Migration in fact . . .” (The latter is printed in facsimile in The Maximus Poems, the former are diplomatically transcribed, except for three pages that apparently resisted transcription—leaving their trace in the ellipses at the end of “My beloved Father . . .”) Olson’s spirals lead me, of course, to Smithson’s spirals and, finally, to a consideration of other makers who have taken writing off the page and into the landscape. A pdf of this section of the dissertation (about 14 pages) is posted with the documents for Olson Now.

Olson is in Dogtown. Flying over the coast a few weeks ago, at night, I was struck by the darkness of the land just north of Gloucester—Dogtown. Apparently undeveloped to this day. Many of the strongest sections of The Maximus Poems come from Olson’s Dogtown wanderings—where, one might argue Olson retreated and where one might also argue he most significantly advanced his “mappemude.” I understand Olson’s attraction to neglected (“wild” or “protogonic”) open space, as a place of creative and compositional fertility. In this sense—and not just because he pioneered “composition by field” and “open form”—Olson may rank among our greatest poets of open spaces, in a lineage that passes through Whitman. (Patrick Barron has done useful work here, in a chapter on “Spaces of Representation in The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson,” in his 2004 dissertation, The construction of place-based spatial knowledge in destructive poetics: An analysis of the work of Charles Olson, Andrea Zanzotto, Edward Dorn, and Gianni Celati based on the thought of Henri Lefebvre.) As I continue to discover in discussions with my students, Olson is everywhere that our increasingly contested (and threatened) open spaces come under scrutiny. If you have a Dogtown, where you reach the “watered rock” of your own person and process, wherever and whatever it be, you walk with Olson under that open air.

Philadelphia, 11 November, 2005

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


A photograph of Cancun under hurricane deep in “standing water” in the NY Times a week or so ago brought to mind Olson’s Mayan Letters and my own trips to the Yucatan in the 90’s following La Ruta Maya. Also a young friend called who had been in Chiapas recently, met Subcommandante Marcos and attended a conference that went on for several weekends with many groups (from outside, as well) presenting economic and cultural agendas. There was also discussion/analysis of the current Mexican leadership with elections coming up, and Jason my friend said the Zapatista consensus was not going to endorse anyone, at this point. I thought of the question of Olson and Now, and wondered what his take would be on the empowered Zapatista Maya, and on the breakthroughs with the Glyphs…

Maya – one of the few civilizations where artists attached names to their works…

Where books were “screen folded” of fig bark and bound with deer hide…

Olson thought that a culture, in order to survive must have a mythological dimension, and through this dimension the individual would participate in a greater inter-connected universe. He wanted to extend his own reach backward “ to fill mythological space”.

The ancient gods were “not all inventions, but disclosures of human possibilities, in other words, human necessities.” This was the backbone of “Human Universe”.

Studying the glyphs would right the balance that the bad habits of discourse & Logos kept us locked in. Too many abstractions!

“Logos, or discourse, for example, has in that time (since 450 B.C.) so worked abstractions into our concept and use of language that language and language’s other function, speech, seems so in need of restoration that several of us got back to hieroglyphs or to ideograms…”

He advocated for the “Post-logical, as is the order of any created thing…”

How uncomplicated his time in Lerma sounds although a challenge with few amenities…like running water, toilet etc.

He jostles with the Maya on the buses -

“When I am rocked by the roads against any of them—kids, women, men—their flesh is the most gentle, is granted, touch is in no sense anything but the natural law of flesh, there is none of that pull-away which, in the States, causes a man for all the years of his life the deepest sort of questioning of the rights of himself to the wild reachings of his own organism. The admission these people give me and one another is direct, and the individual who peers out from that flesh is precisely himself, is a curious wandering animal like me—it is so very beautiful how animal human eyes are when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out of the human eye when the house of it is not exaggerated”

I love that sense of the human eye. Do you see it in Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rove, Scooter Libby?

One can’t but think of the torture the world continually comes to, acceptingly. when people turn a “deaf” eye. The brutal murders of Maya campesinos, the unmitigated horrors in El Salvador, the current situation in another war against darker skin and strange heathen praxes…

Sacking the museums & libraries of Baghdad… Bishop Landa burned how many Mayan “codices”? 37?

Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Where is the human universe now? We are certainly in a post-logical universe. My stepdaughter Althea is convinced that the world is truly going to end by the Maya calculation of 2012.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Visit the OlsonNow Documents page

to download and read Andre Spears', Warlords of Atlantis: Chasing the Demon of Analogy in the America(s) of Lawrence, Artaud and Olson.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Olson now is turning in his grave at the crossroads of the (American) path not taken.

André Spears, Paris, Oct 21st.

resonating from a field south of the broken whale’s jaw
a berry patch of cattle dreams
he saved

Craig Stormont, Long Island, NY

Olson is everywhere now! I am in Amsterdam....

John Sinclair

as of this moment, i have no idea, last time i saw him, he was riding across the Atlantic on the pillion seat of Rainer Maria Gerhardt's motorcycle, singing: Here I am, with Our Lady of Good Voyage, again.

Stefan Hyner; Rohrhof, Rhine Valley, Kurpfalz, Germany.

Olson is still waiting to be understood.

Amiri Baraka , Newark, NJ , Oct 05

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Now That His Heart Is A Rock In The Sea

The basis of art is change in the universe. That which is still has changeless form. Moving things have change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop something would be to half a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and both flit along the ground. We cannot arrest with seeing or hearing what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over things, we would find that the life of each thing itself had vanished without a trace.

~Matsuo Basho

The writing of Charles Olson embodies aesthetic and ethical insights ignored and disparaged in our contemporary world’s corporatism and rush to war as the solution to problems. The social pressures that push people out of their jobs, the competition to articulate and rearticulate relations between valued and devalued concepts and languages in circulation in a pluralistic culture, speaks to what only appears opposite, the endless complexity of personal destinies and aims. For Olson, it is the life-and-death matter of awareness. The body of the poem as subject and the subject body—both the individual elements of a poem that have lineated/poetical and political connotations, and the way those elements are organized together in compassionate meditations on place. Olson, for example, did not just complain he tried to convince his opponents with the best means at his disposal. These means frequently differed from standard professional procedures. The working poor live in the wealthiest cities in the world. There’s no metaphor of escape.

At the center of Charles Olson’s work and teaching is the question of ‘identity,’ an awareness of that tissue perceived as inextricably linked to ‘politics’. In these imaginary zones, there is not first a permanent subject, then an experience it is adding to the storehouse of its past, nor a permanent substantial thing being experienced by an equally enduring self. Consequently, the possibility of anyone living out a private existence is an egocentric illusion. As a writer involved in how writing is written, and how ideas are produced, disseminated, shared, dispersed, mutilated, or controlled and suppressed, Olson’s interest is in the generation of feelings and ideas between writer and reader in as open an exchange as possible, sensitive to the distances that separate (sometimes insensitive as well). He gives us a dialogue rather than the ‘teaching’ of ‘facts,’ or the repetition of established interpretations, the “applied” knowledge of professionals. Having no idea what we are, everything is a set of relationships reaching out to other things.

Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce useable practical wisdom. Who will call the meaning in a song? Of each word, which is analytic, who can see the structure of a verse unfold? No one has been able to isolate the link between the act of composition and the artifact that it produces. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Writing does not endow us directly with the power to act. Charles Olson understood something many never have – the local is the only possible place of peace. Its mosaic of multileveled interrelationships presents a potential incomprehensibility; its ferment is not comparable to an invasion.

Olson’s verse mirrors the difference that exists between ‘normative’ modes of representing the world, and the actual way people live and experience it. In 1926 Kandinsky noted that it’s “Not the attitude of looking out at the street through the hard, unyielding—if nevertheless fragile—barrier of the window, but rather the capacity to go-out-into-the-street. An open eye and an attentive ear transform the smallest sensations into profound experiences. Voices flood in from all sides and the world echoes with song.” An argument then, for a generative intuitive and social process as against what many have decried as the masculinization of the world—handling things badly and turning them into “objects” of commercial exchange.

Knowledge exists in the cohabitation of different systems of thought, with any number of unique discourses. Not your eligibility for shelter certified by the Personnel Director at the corporate headquarters, nearby Savings & Loan, or the Credit Profile Report generated god-knows-where, or by whom. A cleric’s consensus (the euphemistic “intelligence report” in the media’s “war on terrorism”) isn’t wanted. To create is not to know, and poetry, an art of writing, depends only indirectly on knowledge. A philosophical stance or a constellation of ideas can guide and accompany the writer; such knowledge is not for Olson simply ideas, but ideas that are immediately attached to forms, and these forms follow one another according to relationships that are, above all, quantitative and formal. Rather than seeing ideas as giving rise to forms, he recognizes that they color them, that they surround them without ever creating them.


Americans have a reputation for superficialness–the individual against the world. Olson wanted to hold on, weighted by materials wrote and counted yet to speak of a living space. An amiable person changes his bed. Criticism, the most fetishistic of all arts, readily employs something stronger in its shaping of an information that leads (dis)continually to new and intimate territory, or “knowledge” of moving particles, traditions, distinctions and assured reactions; which many critics bottle and sell to a public manipulated by instability and an appreciable loss of intelligence and reason, its critical mass, over brief periods of time. Meritocracies or elaborate rituals? The Best Poetry of Blah-Blah Blah. In these “debates of production” everything is washed out – the old stable stuff of the universe is no more. Olson wrote something that will never secure our leisure and it will find all the employment it wants.

Hard work, persistence of the human mind, isolates seasonable environments alongside that increasingly bastardized “eligibility” represented by matrixes of gummy reference knitted into environs inadequately equipped for our lives as partisans. Extremity passes by the office window in a raccoon coat. Is there nothing really and completely in charge? Olson is sometimes ineloquent but never complacent, he bothers to feel and think. Something the majority never sees.

“Where have you seen yourself mirrored completely?” Olson drew homologies between the social process of exclusion and the process of selection by which some are designated important, others not, and that of a more backward telegraphic availability of what was once an area of privacy protected inside the external traditional relation (a persistence of catastrophe) but now traced into the interior of the human body. Communities of all kinds possess an inherent drive toward closure, completion. Meant literally, you subscribe and submit to be disseminated (CD-ROM) as commercial speech. Apparently, with massive investment in wars and petroleum confidence in political apathy seems the right way to go. We could look only for what we really do value. There are birds singing deterrence walking down the drain and laughing. George Oppen thought value a knowledge which is hard to hold, “a meaning grasped again on re-reading.” Charles Olson’s logos and tongue is incapable of explaining the mess we’re in. Ironically, it works.

Andrew Levy, NYC

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Call for Papers: “Charles Olson’s Prose”

For a proposed panel on Charles Olson’s prose at the May 2006 American Literature Association conference in San Francisco, please submit a title and 250-word abstract no later than December 1, 2005. Papers may deal with any aspect of any of Olson’s prose works, e.g., The Special View of History, Human Universe, the Beloit Lectures, Projective Verse, etc. Final presentations strictly limited to 20 minutes.

Gary Grieve-Carlson
Dept of English
Lebanon Valley College
Annville, PA 17003

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Submissions, Documents, Etc.

We are receiving a great response so far about the event in December and great interest in the blog. We hope people will contribute and we encourage you to email submissions or to leave public comments. If you would like to submit, please email us at olsonnow followed by the at symbol at gmail dot com. Our first submission is from Clayton Eshleman: Notes on Charles Olson and the Archaic, a talk he gave in Buffalo in 2003. Because of the length of this piece and the formatting issues involved in reproducing Olson's poems on the page, we have set up a Documents page at the Electronic Poetry Center, where you can download the paper as a pdf. Thanks to Charles Bernstein for providing the space! The link to the documents page is at the top of the links list to your right.

More to come soon!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Thirty five years have passed since the death of Charles Olson in 1970. While all the signs were there when he died, the country he lived in is almost unrecognizable: decades of covert wars, domestic and international imprisonment on a massive scale, and the flexing of imperial muscle that now finds the U.S. military in Iraq reveal that the “pejorocracy” Olson warned of is well entrenched. As almost all forms of knowledge and culture have become administered and poetry has become a profession, the questions Olson raised about the world and the role of poetry and knowledge in it are more pointed than ever.

The first major public event emerging from this project will take place on:

December 3, 2005, from 12 to 6:30 at the
Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City
131 East 10th st.

There will be two components to the event; an open symposium held during the day followed by the New York premiere of Henry Ferrini’s film-in-progress:

Poet and the City: Charles Olson and the Persistance of Place, with Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, John Malkovich, and many others. The screening will be accompanied with performances by David Amram, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, and others to be announced, followed by a reception.

Our idea is to keep the structure of the symposium as open as possible: we would like to see discussion form according to interests and affinities in the format of a town meeting.

The structural configuration of the day is still evolving and we welcome any ideas.

We have opened a blog ( to create a forum prior to the symposium and use material posted there as an entryway into the topics of the day, including:

First Fact: SPACE
Polis is eyes
The special view of history
The initiation of another kind of nation

This is not a call for papers, keynote speakers and panels, but a space for ideas in action in order to articulate our own histories and places within it. Please send material, and/or inquiries addressed to either Michael Kelleher or Ammiel Alcalay at:

There is no need to register but please let us know if you plan to attend.

The event is open to the public: admission is $8; students and seniors $7; members $5 or free.

We invite neophytes, initiates, the immersed and the curious, students and teachers, come one and all, no one will be turned away.