Olson Happens

  • Charles Olson and Ralph Maud (Editor)
    Muthologos: Lectures and Interviews. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Frank Davey
    When TISH Happens: The Unlikely Story of Canada's "Most Influential Literary Magazine". ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Clint Burnham

The story of Charles Olson, his poetry, and his influence on Canadian writing has been told many times in the past fifty years: from his early years (in the 1930s and 40s) when he wrote the still-important study of Melville (Call Me Ishmael); to his key role in the Black Mountain College in the 1950s (where, with Robert Creeley, John Cage, and a host of painters, poets, and teachers, he was part of a great experiment in arts education); to such manifestos as the essay Projective Verse, where he established the page as a site for poetry, breaking out of the left margin of what Charles Bernstein would call official verse culture; and of course culminating in his magnificent epic, spatial, local but also globalized poem, The Maximus Poems, begun in 1950 and not completely published until after his death in 1970, the great bridging text from the modernism of Pound and Williams to the postmodernism (a term he is credited with inventing, at least in English) of TISH, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, and beyond. So much is official and historical, so much is true, and yet so much is disappointing when you read beyond Olson’s poetry and essays. Not when you read his letters (whether in the selected edition from University of California Press or the multiple volumes from Black Sparrow), but certainly when you read, as we do here, this very uneven collection of lectures (at colleges but also around the dinner table, as during the so-called Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963) and interviews (for the BBC and The Paris Review). Muthologos (a second edition assembled by Vancouver Olson scholar Ralph Maud) collects not simply such texts, but versions of such texts that do a weird disservice to the work, perhaps falling into what is too often the cult of Olson, the cult of the great man that arguably reveals too much, as in these ramblings from Olson’s Berkeley lecture in 1965, where, like a scene from a twenty-first-century reality television show (from Gloucester to Jersey Shore?), he ends up commenting on his own self-revealing:

But at this point of time, I find myself — and I’m nervous, ’cos I’m reading this poem, and I’m finding it all right, right up to this point I’ve stopped. How about it, Allen? Right. You’re with me, I think. And I will read, after the third poem, a fourth poem, which says why and how a woman at Black Mountain asked me, and explained to me, or … I don’t know. I mean, we were talking about Paul X entering here, whose cigarette I’m smoking and I said, He’s simply invidious. And I don’t say that again to get into an argument, like they say; but, I mean, I don’t still know why that woman asked me the question which the poem contains. Fair enough? This would be, from my point of view, what really is argument: is the fact that we live out, until there isn’t any, the argument of our own being. That’s why I believe, as I’ve kept saying this week, and I’m enough up to say now why I think the private is public, and the public is where you behave. And that’s its advantage. [DRINKS]

Also to be filed under TMI is Frank Davey’s hilarious (at least for me, since
I’m not in the book) memoir When TISH Happens. TMI, as in the pop locution too much information, is no doubt how some of Davey’s poetry comrades from the 1960s might view this narrative of sex, drugs, and mimeograph machines. TISH, of course, was the poetry magazine that Davey co-founded with George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Lionel Kearns, Gladys Hindmarch, and Jamie Reid. Taking inspiration from the new American poetics so famously embodied by Olson (with no little help from UBC’s Warren Tallman). Davey really does bare all here—complete with details of affairs, poetry battles, and debates over how high Robert Duncan’s voice was. But in that last regard—Davey on the American poet’s visit to UBC in the summer of 1961—we see the everyday ground of how Black Mountain interacted with TISH and, indeed, how Olson’s work, as opposed to his persona, was so influential: Magic’s greatest enemy … is fantasy. Duncan is now explaining Olson’s The Maximus Poems and how Olson has rigorously grounded them on actual events—[T]here must be an actual occurrence … You’ve got to know what is there.

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