by Bill Considine
A Life of Olson
By Ed Sanders
A Life of Olson, the latest book by Ed Sanders, is beautiful in many ways. Its varied color illustrations suggest an illuminated manuscript, perhaps the life of a saint.
Charles Olson may not have been a saint, but his life was one of devotion to the art and craft of poetry. He was central to both Black Mountain College and the early years of the poetics department at SUNY-Buffalo. As a theorist, he proposed projective verse, to free contemporary poetry from the closed forms of the past, and he extended the range and reach of verse into history. As a poet, he lived on the edge of the ocean, suggestive to Sanders of Okeanos, the primal, raw force of the universe for Hesiod and other pre-Socratics. Olson lived too, in that same place, on the edge of the “new” continent, exploring the local terrain and digging into its history.
Ed Sanders is also a distinguished poet, from his youthful start as an outspoken, free-spirited cultural rebel and opponent of the Vietnam War through a long, prolific, and continuing life in poetry. Sanders set forth his own poetics manifesto, Investigative Poetry, with a lecture at Naropa in 1975 and publication the following year by City Lights. Its central theses: “poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history,” and “poetry, to go forward, in my view, has to begin a voyage into the description of historical reality.” Olson’s poetry is among the first that Sanders cites there as examples of historical investigation, along with Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and certain Cantos and Confucian Odes of Ezra Pound. At its best, Sanders says, in the “data clusters” of investigative poetry, “on a sudden flash! The essence appears; an exquisite line begins and a cadence of purest verse thrills the eye-brain.”
In Sanders’ telling, William Blake was pressured not to continue his sympathetic, investigative poetry on the French Revolution and took refuge in a poetry of symbols, in which English political ogres became mythic, fantastical ogres with exotic names. In that respect, Blake’s illustrated fables are a precursor to the artistry of A Life of Olson. Blake created the merging of word and image in what Sanders calls the “poem-glyph.” There are lovely color-wash illustrations in A Life of Olson, and also many “glyphs,” recurring drawings of symbols, often archaic-looking, that give the page the appearance of sources in ancient, mythic, and foundational knowledge.
Sanders has continued his investigative quest, from its journalistic origins in The Family: The Manson Group and Aftermath through, among other works, 1968, A History in Verse and his multi-volume America, A History in Verse. He has written other biographies in verse as well, including Chekhov and The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg. In Chekhov, one can open the book at any point and become immersed in concise clusters of fact arranged as poems, framed by ample white space on the page, with Russian political history radiating outward from the poems. As in A Life of Olson, there is an unmistakable warmth toward his subject that is very engaging. Sanders has readily achieved what he intended with investigative poetry. The verse lives, surprises, and thrills with the insights resonant in its true details.
Likewise, in his most recent previous book, Broken Glory, The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy, illustrated profusely in stark black-and-white images by Robert Veitch, the reader is quickly engrossed in such dark matters as the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and, earlier the same year, Martin Luther King. Sanders delves into the many dangling threads of police surveillance activity prior to and during those cataclysmic events. From such shadows, it can be a relief to turn to the life of Charles Olson.
Olson was born in 1910 in Worcester, Mass. and baptized a Catholic. His father was a postman. A family vacation at age 5 was his first trip to Gloucester, Mass. He excelled in high school, including taking third place in a national oratory competition, and excelled as an English major at Wesleyan. Pursuing a master’s degree at Wesleyan, he became a Melville scholar and undertook to trace and find the books that had been in Melville’s personal library. He located 134 such books and recorded Melville’s notes and reading marks. He taught for a couple years at Clark University in Worcester, then became a grad student at Harvard, in English and then in American Civilization. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939, and in 1940 he wrote his first poems. In 1942, he went to work in the federal Office of War Information. He left in 1944 to work for the Democratic National Committee on Roosevelt’s final presidential campaign. His work there included organizing a salute to FDR at Madison Square Garden.
He stood in the spotlight
Soon after, Olson moved with Constance Wilcock to Key West, where they resided in the bungalow of the Hemingway House. Olson wrote daily at Hemingway’s desk, at which Hemingway had written For Whom the Bell Tolls. In Hemingway’s book collection, Olson first read poems by Ezra Pound.
What I am relating here is handwritten as poems in A Life of Olson, titled in red ink and framed by red and blue lines. With them is an image of a flyer for the Roosevelt rally. Such handmade, colorful art throughout the book adds to its sense of intimacy and the human hand at work.
By 1945, Olson was writing poems that Sanders includes “Among the Sequence of Early Greatness,” culminating in “The Kingfishers” in 1949. On the page facing the list of Olson’s early poems is a photo of “Early Olson” with an intense gaze, while beneath the photo a glyph shows solar power rays emanating from Olson. On the very next page, we see a mushroom cloud for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Olson at the time was finishing his Melville study, Call Me Ishmael, and researching the destruction of the whaling ship Essex, that was rammed and sunk by a whale in 1820. From the records of cannibalism among the Essex survivors and the nuclear bombings, Olson solidified his thoughts on how “man devours man.”
While in Washington, D.C., Olson made 24 visits to Ezra Pound in custody. In 1947, on a trip west, he met Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Duncan, and others. In the fall of 1948, he began lecturing monthly at Black Mountain, a “tiny college living in a ‘constant state of crisis’” that fostered an avant-garde community of artists. William Carlos Williams wrote to Olson to urge him to meet Robert Creeley, which began Olson’s lifelong friendship with Creeley. Olson wrote his manifesto on Projective Verse in 1950, and Williams featured it in his Autobiography in 1951,
& it commenced its
one of the seed texts
that pointed a path
the next several generations of bards
He married Betty Kaiser, a student at Black Mountain, and they had a child. In 1957, they moved to Gloucester.
From that long and varied beginning, Olson bloomed as a poet, accumulating over years the immense, Gloucester-centered Maximus Poems. Don Allen’s seminal collection New American Poetry appeared in 1960 and went through 20 printings. It began with “The Kingfishers,” concluded with Projective Verse and included 40 pages of Olson’s poetry, establishing his place and reputation. Olson continued to meet poets who became close to him, including young John Wieners, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso.
Betty Kaiser Olson died in an auto accident on an icy road near Buffalo in 1964. Their son was placed in the care of Betty’s sister and her husband in Gloucester. The loss was shattering.
These details that I have gleaned from Sanders’ book are much more exquisitely rendered in the book itself, and I will leave further accounts of Olson’s life in poetry to the artistry of Sanders’ hand. At the end, Sanders includes pages of drawings of a loving send-off for Olson, who died in early 1970 at age 59, in an imagined ancient, funereal boat.
Olson’s historical research is often that of a historiographer, compiling data on provisions and shipload manifests and the locations of houses. He wants the facts, and his facts are redolent of the sea and fish and harsh, damp winters. In that climate, he seeks the foundations, contemporaneous with Shakespeare, of a New World and finds again and again sources for his own projective thinking, extending ever outward and onward.
Other major, poetically rendered histories, besides Olson’s and Sanders’ large achievements, include Testimony by Charles Reznikoff, which relates many incidents of injustice and everyday life evolving into crime, as revealed in trial testimonies that he came upon in his work for a publisher of law books. Its first volume was published in 1965; its volumes cover life in the United States from 1885-1915. Another poetically rendered history is Canto General: Song of the Americas by Pablo Neruda, published in Spanish in 1950 and translated into English only in 2016 by Mariela Griffor. Canto General is an epic in many discrete poems structured thematically. Its scope is enormous, covering a hemisphere and hundreds of years, peopled with historical figures from indigenous peoples through conquistadors through rebels. It is a new aspect of Neruda for many readers in English. In these books, Reznikoff and Neruda convey, as Olson and Sanders have, the living poetry of historical reality.
BILL CONSIDINE (www.williamconsidine.com) writes poems and plays. His books include The Furies and Strange Coherence (both from The Operating System) and The Other Myrtle (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press). His full-length plays performed in 2019 include Moral Support at Medicine Show Theatre and Women’s Mysteries at Polaris North. His verse plays seen in 2020 include Aunt Peg and the Comptometer at The Bowery Poetry Club and Persephone’s Return and Odyssey’s End on Zoom from Polaris North. He is the printed matter editor and poets theater curator for Boog City, and a member of the Dramatists Guild and Brevitas, a poets’ cooperative. Careen Shannon photo.
ED SANDERS is a poet and performer whose roots go back to the Beats. During the Vietnam War, he was active in the antiwar movement and founded the Peace Eye Bookstore on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was also a founding member of the satiric folk-rock band The Fugs as well as the Yippies. He helped found the underground newspaper The East Village Other. He is the author of numerous works of poetry and nonfiction, including Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems, 1961-85, winner of an American Book Award; 1968: A History in Verse; the nonfiction work The Family, about Charles Manson and his dystopic communal family; and a multi-volume history of America in investigative poetry. He lives in Woodstock, N.Y.