Monday, December 11, 2006

Call For Work

FlashPoint Magazine

an online journal is seeking papers on Charles Olson for its February issue. If anyone has a paper or other critical material they would like to contribute contact Carlo Parcelli at or Jack Foley at

Iconoclasts welcome. CP

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Call For Papers

The End of the Maximus and the Late Prose

American Literature Association, Boston, May 24-27, 2007

The Charles Olson Society invites proposals that focus on any aspect of the end of "The Maximus Poems" or Olson's late prose (published or unpublished).

250-word proposals should be sent to Don Byrd at by December 15, 2006. Please include your name, institutional affiliation (if any), e-mail address, and AV needs (if any).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


"Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place" by Henry Ferrini. 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. For more information: (415) 978-2787 or


Monday, June 05, 2006


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
stretching out
from my feet

Or from “December 22nd” much later in Book III:

. . . the rocks
into the sea, the forests,
behind, transparent
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!

John Hyland
2 June 2006
Newburyport, MA

*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.


Ron Silliman continues his discussion of Olson:

Friday, June 02, 2006


Ron Silliman has devoted several blog entries this week to discussion of Olson's manifesto:

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Dear Ammiel Alcalay and Michael Kelleher,

Happily, I was able to attend the Olson Now event at MIT a couple weeks back. It certainly proposed what is possible. To briefly introduce myself: I studied in the English Dept. at the University of Maine for a few years. I now live and teach in the so-called Boston-area and will begin graduate work in Cultural Production at Brandeis in the fall.

As others have already noted, I found Ben Friedlander’s opening remarks very useful, quite insightful, and I’ve been mulling over my scant notes since 20 May. Thank you (and Ben) for posting them!

What I didn’t ask then, but wish to now, is: What is the relationship of the body—the physical, sensed presence of the self—to both language and knowledge in Olson? And, furthermore, how did Olson’s understanding of—his “stance toward”?—language and knowledge shape and influence his methodology?

In his opening remarks, Ben observed that for Olson “[k]knowledge . . . is located (in language, in history, on the earth) . . .” So, at the risk of repeating myself: What I am wondering is how to talk about/examine/understand the relationship between, on the one hand, the body, knowledge, and language in Olson, and on the other, his practice, a practice that, as Ben pointed out, “abandoned the book as ultimate horizon and worked instead to produce an archive.”

I’m not sure this makes sense, but that’s as clear as I can put my concerns right now. I suppose it might be possible to speak of this situation in terms of form and content; however, such a binary seems limiting and somehow, perhaps, in opposition to the notion of the archive and also collaboration.

I hope to be at more events like the one on 20 May!

Kindest of Regards,
John Hyland

Newburyport, MA

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I would first of all like to thank the OlsonNow organizers for extending the event into the web, as the coast is not easily accessible to everyone. Since the floor is open, I would like to follow up on Benjamin Friedlander's welcoming and witty remarks with a few questions (not rhetorical) and observations.

I think it was Don Byrd who wrote that for those who embark on a study of Maximus it is easy to feel that one is falling under the influence of a "cult leader." I gather that this is more or less identical to the concern about charismatic authoritanianism expressed above (also: has Olson's "whiteness" been examined carefully? in a later interview he speaks of "my palearctic people"..., etc.), and I wonder if it doesn't point to a dilemma implicit in the outlined categories. Can one follow Olson's example (collaborative archiving, etc.) while also navigating one's way through Olson's own archive? Does one need to re-read Olson's library in order to read Olson in order to follow his example? Doesn't each of these projects demand more time in its own right than any one of "us" has? But why split the work of "poets" from the work of "scholars" given Olson's own example?

My own tentative answer would be that for the (w)holistically or transdisciplinary minded (I count myself among them), specialization seems anathema, and I think that Olson's "curriculum for the soul" has much to recommend it. But Olson recommended studying cybernetics, which allows us to see the necessity (for a modern society, at any rate) of what a systems-theoretical sociology calls "functional differentiation." Perhaps one only sees the big picture by focusing on the smallest detail--the human cell, for instance, which furnishes the model (or figure, if you prefer) of autopoiesis which Luhmann adapts from Varela (Olson, according to the Last Lectures, also looked closely at the processes of "evagination" and "mytosis" [sic]).

Let me put this another way: what does it mean to specialize--as either poet or scholar--in a syncretic, holistic cosmology?

For what it's worth, my own sense of Olson for some time has been that he was the Derrida that America never produced--an astute critic of logocentrism (so much "trash of discourse") who didn't extend that critique to phallogocentrism. I'm less certain of that now (as witness the above reference to "evagination" --something more and other than postwar male avantgarde annexing); in any case, I remain open to other arguments and it doesn't mean that I value Olson any less. His distinction in "Projective Verse" between the "pressures of the breath" and the "acquisitions of the ear" bears for me an uncanny resemblance to Bakhtin's theory of the clash of inner and outer speech, for instance, and there seems to me an at least proto-ecological ethos legible in Maximus Volume III (the most interesting part of that project, to my mind).

Thanks again to all who make this project possible. I look forward to future events.

Kevin Marzahl
Bloomington, IN
30 May 2006

Saturday, May 27, 2006


In 1965, at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, Charles Olson told the crowd assembled for his reading that he felt as though he were addressing a convention. He hugged the lectern and spoke without notes beyond the endurance of most members of his audience like a nineteenth-century politician. This was not an unprovoked stance. On the first day of the conference Jack Spicer had lumped Olson together with Lyndon Johnson and JFK. Pressed later to clarify what he meant, Spicer—with an understandable mixture of hostility and respect—called Olson a “power figure,” someone occupying “the same position in poetry as Johnson…in politics.” Then again, perhaps Spicer’s comment was also provoked. Who knows what stories he heard from Olson’s students, many of whom made the trip to Berkeley by car. Fred Wah, for example, recalls Olson pounding on a table in Buffalo during a heated argument about Vietnam, shouting, “What we have to do now, is nuke the chinks!” Since Olson left the U.S. government in part over the issue of Asia—he was shocked by Hiroshima and foresaw the eastern designs of postwar foreign policy—it seems quite likely that he was acting out a role. He was amongst other things an incredible mimic of political rhetoric, witness his hilarious send-up of presidential press conferences in “Rufus Woodpecker,” written during the Eisenhower administration.

Be all that as it may, if Olson puts us—by bullying gesture or imagination—in the offices of power, I am more than happy to play my own role as a minor functionary. Here, then, in the spirit of the modern presidency, are a series of talking points arranged into four categories: Olson’s legacy, his present use for poets, what the scholars should be doing, and what needs to be set aside if we are going to accomplish anything at all:

If we look beyond his specific interests and stylistic habits, if we overlook his missteps and limitations, to see what is unique and still unappreciated about Olson’s practice, we find:

A. That 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. He was, instead, engaged in writing as an activity subservient to the production of knowledge;

B. That Olson’s ultimate subject was experience, which led him to attend as closely as possible to his own experience as a writer. Language, for Olson, was not a tool for acquiring knowledge, but one of the sites where knowledge is acquired. Knowledge, then, is located (in language, in history, on the earth), and methodological rigor requires that one attend to this location;

C. That Olson’s ideas were not static, but always in flux, as befits a practice grounded in writing as activity; and

D. That Olson produced texts as a way of sharing his findings and participating in a community of writers and researchers, but that the larger shape of his practice is only discernible in his total output, which is not a matter of books alone. In his final years, Olson abandoned the book as ultimate horizon and worked instead to produce an archive. Poems and essays, yes, but also notes, notebooks, correspondence, marginalia in books, the books themselves, files of articles, maps, and recordings of readings, lectures, and interviews.
In addressing Olson’s present use as a model for writers, I want to focus on the last point just made, that Olson abandoned the book as ultimate horizon and worked instead to produce an archive. This has long been described as a matter of dissipation or letting go, but in the age of the internet—of the automatically archived blog, with its comment streams and embedded links to listserv discussions, sound and video files, and online texts and websites—we are, perhaps, better situated to appreciate this turn in Olson’s practice as an achievement. One of the characteristics of an archive is that it exists beyond the control of any one person. An author can control the production of a book, as Olson himself did early on in his career, but archives are essentially collaborative. Letters are sent out into the world and the disposition of papers is entrusted to posterity. What might happen to our sense of poetry, then, if we came to think of books as but one term in a larger field of production and of writing as an activity that is essentially collaborative?
A. The scholars should be reading the archive! There is an enormous amount of unpublished writing, of uncollected correspondence, and of unexamined source texts that Olson himself accumulated. This all needs to be assimilated, not only because of its inherent interest, but because it is only by taking the measure of this material that we can recover a description of Olson’s practice, which is only partially discernible from his discrete works.

B. The scholars must revise their understanding of key concepts and find new ways to articulate key aspects of Olson’s production so as to avoid misrepresenting these concepts and aspects as static terms of analysis. “Projective Verse,” for example, may be an essential essay in the history of poetry, but the concept of Projective Verse undergoes sustained rethinking and should not be equated with the essay alone. The distinction between Maximus and non-Maximus poems, or between poems and essays, likewise undergoes rethinking. Working through this rethinking in detail, one might well conclude that “Maximus” loses all force as an organizing principle, and that the frame of the Maximus poems should be set aside altogether.

C. The scholars should take Olson, as he took himself, as an object lesson, and examine his ideas, assumptions, and experience with a critical eye. He is not, God help us, a hero to be defended against all combatants.
This brings me to the last category:

This is, perhaps, the most important point of all. To continue Olson’s work, as distinct from merely reproducing it, we must set aside the tendency, in reading Olson, to become ourselves “Olsonian.” Mimicking his stylistic habits or taking up his particular interests or attitudes or concepts is not the best of even a proper sign of homage. Whatever we take from him must be examined carefully and reconsidered, made fit to serve our own location, historically, on earth, and in language. Meeting as we are now, democratically, to discuss our reading and share our ideas without a predetermined agenda and without submitting to a single dominating voice, is already a hopeful sign that Olson after Olson need not be merely Olson. “This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what.”
I yield the floor.

Benjamin Friedlander
Cambridge, MA
20 May 2006

Friday, May 26, 2006



I loved the discussions on Sat. I just want to say that my slant on Maximus takes off from Olson's calling Americans, "The last first people." And my effort to get a handle on the motive behind the poem was forwarded considerably by coming across one of the first Greek poet's work (I forget who now), whose hexameters worked toward writing a foundation myth for his polis, using geography, sociology, theo-mytholoy, employments, politics to establish his place intellectually within the world. It was my AH HA moment with Maximus. I think Olson wanted really to set down an American footprint on the continent using what he knew best, Gloucester, and the men he thought most capable (most of use), the fishermen of that town and using Poundian disjunctive image-making as the stylistic entry and point of departure for his archival expostulation.

Do it again, sometime, at MIT. It was informative and fun.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

OlsonNow at MIT

Poetry at M.I.T. Presents: OlsonNow

Saturday, May 20, 1-6 p.m.

50 Vassar St., Building 34-101, Cambridge, MA

Featuring a screening of Polis is This, by Henry Ferrini and presentations by Peter Anastas, James Cook, Bill Corbett, Henry Ferrini, Michael Franco, Ben Friedlander, Fanny Howe, Gerrit Lansing, Chris Mattison, Maureen McLane, Joseph Torra. Others planning to participate include Ed Sanders, Ammiel Alcalay, Charles Bernstein, Robert Kelly, and more.

Sunday, May 21, 10 a.m.

Maximus Tour of Gloucester with the Charles Olson Society

More info to come as it arrives.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

New on the Documents Page

There's an essay by Stephen Farrell -- "Call Me Ipsissimus: Charles Olson in Jonathan Bayliss's Gloucesterbook" available for download on the OlsonNow Documents Page. Check it out.

Friday, March 17, 2006

OlsonNow in ABR

The latest issue of American Book Review has a report on the December OlsonNow event by Michael Joyce. You can subscribe on their website. Also, there will be another OlsonNow event at MIT in Boston on May 20, hosted by Bill Corbett and Gerrit Lansing. Details soon....

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Michael Kelleher and Kim Rosenfeld
Wednesday, February 1, 2006, 8 p.m.
$8; $7 students; $5 members

The Poetry Project
St. Mark’s Church
131 East 10th St. (at 2nd Ave.)

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Murat's reference to "scholars or academicians interested in research projects generated by Olson," at last month's highly stimulating Olson Now Symposium at St. Mark's Poetry Project, sent me back to the unconsidered sense in which I felt the terms "poet" and "academic" were being used during the symposium, in relation to Olson. (Including, as one attendee suggested at the end of the discussion, a call to "get Olson out of the curriculum.") Yes, clearly Olson is not academic--yet what does that mean nowadays? Olson nearly completed a Ph.D., directed a "school" for poetry, and constantly advocated boundary work, pioneering and inhabiting fields available neither in academia nor in the poetry scene.

One might even argue that, with Duncan and Zukofsky (and the help of an "academic" like Donald Allen), Olson secured that "other" field--opened by the likes of Pound, Williams and Stein, amongst others--out of which poet-scholar movements such as "language" writing would later emerge.

To be a scholar poet, or even just a scholar of poetry, as Susan Howe put it so eloquently, demands all the resources of poetry, plus something. Many poets nowadays take academic jobs, not just to put bread on the table, but to cultivate such resources, and perhaps to shift the boundaries between critical and creative work. A research project generated by Olson could be the beginning of a poetic work--probably should be, if it be true to its origins.

I think some of us who ended up at SUNY Buffalo to do scholarship rightly blame (or thank) Olson for our inability to be content with the MFA or the poetry scene more generally, which certainly sustains us in other ways. Or some scholar poets probably blame Olson for drawing them out of academia--where they found him making Hesiod new in exciting, "ungrammatical" ways, etc.

The fact that, as it seems to me, Call Me Ishmael gets more recognition than The Maximus Poems, testifies to this ambiguity, and to the boundary-crossing nature of any widespread interest in Olson. Olson *was* a scholar--and he could have been an academic; certainly, many poets find him "too intellectual"--he just wanted his prose to jump into poetry. And he wanted poetry to engage prose. The feat is rare.

And, yes, as Howe also noted, poetry scholarship is nearly impossible within the academy. (Too often the academic work of poets with academic jobs is just "bread-and-butter" work, not of a piece with their work as poets--a situation Olson rightly found intolerable.) But it's also difficult in a poetry scene often ready to dismiss learned reference as "academic."

What does it take to be a "whole" poet--or, to borrow the motto of Sulfur Magazine, a poet of the "whole art," a scholar poet? Though far from taking the only viable approach, many poets nowadays choose to negotiate this position with one foot in poetry and one in academia. It's less than ideal, but so is the view from either side of what is, after all, a shifting boundary. More than ever it's important to be deliberate about how we define or enact this limit.

Of course, the fact that Olson waged unrelenting war on the logocentric underpinnings of Western academic discourse might have something to do with his intractability in the academy! A lot more than just jumping from prose into poetry kept (and keeps) Olson out. But he knew his enemy. How much interest is there in that kind of deep-ranging knowledge amongst today's poets? A thinker first credited with using the term "postmodern" would be both intrigued by and aghast at the highly specialized practices that work under that rubric nowadays.

I don't think we can get very far if we try to separate out the poet from the scholar in Olson, or divide up Olson's reception into "academic" and "poetic" interests. Olson asked more of the poet, and more of the intellectual, in a way that drawing quick boundaries between "academic" and "poetic" just won't help us to understand, let alone do the real work of the limits "any of us are inside of."