Last weekend the University of Kent held a conference commemorating Charles Olson’s centenary. I feel I should get something down right now about this event though it’s difficult so soon after to begin to unravel the threads that ran through it all. Considering that Olson’s poetry writing career spanned a mere twenty-five years it’s worth considering the effects of his work as a kind of delayed explosion. Most educational institutions apart from one as open as Black Mountain simply haven’t been able to package Olson to suit their needs or, more precisely, the needs pressed upon them by funding bodies. This conference was, in its way, a kind of miracle: it offered a model of what learning ought to be. It brought to life concerns linking Olson’s ideas and practices to our own positions. There have been a few conferences prior to this one celebrating the centenary. If they were as good as the University of Kent’s then 2010 is indeed an annus mirabilus.
David Herd and Simon Smith and their organising committee coordinated the conference. Contributors included Ian Brinton, Elaine Feinstein, Allen Fisher, Robert Hampson, Ralph Maud, Anthony Mellors, Peter Middleton, Stephen Fredman, Gavin Selerie, Iain Sinclair, Harriet Tarlo, and Robert Vas Dias among others. It’s hard to figure where to begin in recounting such a crowded weekend. A few thoughts will have to do.
A discussion of Olson and women continued through the weekend complicating the notion that ‘projective verse’ is by definition a masculine project. Women are, of course, notoriously absent from Maximus; at most there is ‘woman’, characterised by Susan Howe as ‘cunt, great mother, cow or whore’. Yet many of Olson’s ideas on the process of writing were developed in his correspondence with Frances Boldereff (he suppressed this in his later and more publicised exchanges with Robert Creeley) together with their concerns for Egyptian and Sumerian culture. Boldereff herself was especially interested in the placement of texts on the page (indeed she had trained as a book designer). The ideas behind ‘projective verse’ were also anticipated by Muriel Rukeyser. And of course subsequently Susan Howe has worked in a manner which owes much to Olson (it would have been impossible without him) while being by no means the product of a ‘male poetic’. Olson’s processes of writing involved clearing ‘the gunk out’ and returning to the ‘literal’ (‘the literal is the same as the numeral to me’). ‘The nouns’, said Ed Dorn, ‘seem to become themselves here’. ‘Muthologos’ may have been the mother of a logos (or a mother-of-a-logos!). Field poetics involved field-work and Olson, coming from ‘the last walking period of man’, anticipates eco-poetics, a far from masculine concern.
TJ Clark’s description of modernism as ‘a ruin’ rescues that moment as one we can go back to as historians. I was reminded of Wyndham Lewis’s statement that his own work and that of his associates had become ‘part of a future that has not materialised’. ‘By the end of this century’, Lewis continued, ‘the movement to which, historically, I belong will be as remote as predynastic Egyptian statuary’. Peter Middleton’s fine lecture observed Olson’s science (and his scientism) as they developed in the immediate postwar period that saw scientific discourse become a model for work in other areas. By the year of Projective Verse’s publication the ‘energy field’ had become a paradigm. The concern with ‘measure’ ties up with all of this. Of course Olson is ‘dated’ by it all, yet we can still return to his work as a ‘great fire source’.
Olson’s reception in Britain (both physical and intellectual) was also addressed. He had indeed conducted archival research for Maximus in Dorchester in 1966 (here I couldn’t help but imagine all six foot seven of him crouching in a village pub). That year, I reflected, a twenty year old Englishman called Kris Hemensley moved to Melbourne, Australia, taking with him word of Olson (The New American Poetry had preceded him but Hemensley was both a practitioner and a persuasive advocate). In 1967 Olson read at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Southbank. His work along with that of others connected with Cid Corman’s journal, Origin, had begun to percolate into the Isles in the 1950s, largely through the work of Gael Turnbull. The notion that ‘I’m going to move on or break it as soon as it happens’ starkly contrasted with the ‘books are crap’ postures of the Movement. It appealed strongly to a number of poets whose work still exists outside the sanctified realm of the TLS and LRB. Gavin Selerie noted that the Scottish poet/playwright Tom McGrath formed a jazz group named after one of Olson’s essays, ‘Proprioception’.
Ralph Maud gave a generous and self-deprecating account of his own contacts with Olson, framing a film featuring the poet reading several pieces including ‘The Librarian’. Iain Sinclair ended the conference with a peroration worthy of the time he spent at Trinity College, Dublin. In this he noted of the film that Olson’s eyebrows appeared like ‘two mice that had swum all night in a sea of ink’. He contrasted the ‘outward’ nature of Olson’s work and influence with the inward (and right-wing) turn of another of Gloucester’s former inhabitants, HP Lovecraft.
Six of us read poems over the Friday and Saturday evenings, if anything showing what a ‘various art’ Olson’s influence has produced. And Simon Smith and Matthew from Manchester University Press kept the bookstall going throughout. I picked up Ralph Maud’s new edition of Muthologos along with Proposals, a new and self-published book by Allen Fisher featuring his remarkable artwork alongside the poems.
Why has Olson slipped off the agenda? This was one of many questions addressed at the conference. I remember how university libraries both here and in Australia were much more receptive to recent American poetry and poetics up until around 1975 or so when the collections ceased to be adventurous. Ian Brinton noted the way the schools have begun to teach poetry, reducing the area to a few select and easily ‘teachable’ texts (Simon Armitage and his ilk) thus smothering the students’ interests while at the same time boosting the school’s reputation for securing grades. The impingement of ‘market forces’ (soon, under the Conservative government, to become an avalanche) was in the air. Australian right-wing commentator, the late Paddy McGuinness, once figured that the humanities were ‘bullshit’ (unlike economics, which was a ‘science’). Britain’s government seems about to put his less than eloquent theory into practice. So there was a slight valedictory feeling about the conference. If there is such a thing as justice this gathering should be a beginning, not an end.