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Contemporary Olson edited by David Herd (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Contemporary Olson edited by David Herd (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Contemporary Olson, based upon talks given at a University of Kent conference in 2012, re-assesses Charles Olson’s work and place in recent poetic history. Written by writers, poets and academics, this book of essays contextualises Olson’s thought and work, placing him in his period, and focuses upon individual poems and essays. Olson’s ideas, assumptions and practice are examined and contested with a critical eye. These engagements are divided into sections, knowledge, poetics, gender, history and space, based on key preoccupations within Olson’s work.

There are some terrific essays in this wide ranging volume and I shall try to give a flavour of some of its contents.

Peter Middleton’s essay ‘Discoverable unknowns: Olson’s literary preoccupation with the sciences’ delineates Olson’s concerns with the sciences and scientists and points out the poetic consequences of inscribing scientific knowledge and methods into the field of the poem. Reitha Pattison analyses Olson’s understanding of cosmology and clarifies the function of ‘cosmology’, ‘space’ and ‘breath’ in his prosody. She concludes that ‘Apprehending the extent of Olson’s insistence upon the concrete and literal condition of all cosmic forms in his prose permits a more accurate sense of the textual space the writer heralded in ‘Projective Verse’. Michael Grant and Ian Brinton translate Olson’s concern with space and breath into one of void and voice, and place his postwar image of hell in ‘Cold Hell, in Thicket’ in relation to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, where there is a different understanding of the physically projected voice.

Some notable facts are explored and deepened, such as Olson’s work as a poet-teacher, which is founded upon intellectual and poetic exchanges not only with male poets, such as Paul Blackburn as read here by Simon Smith, but also some relatively ignored women figures, such as Frances Boldereff, a relationship examined by Robert Hampson. Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes how Maximus, in its detailed attention of the world of work, ignores female labour, and is framed by its masculinity. There is recognition of the importance of Olson’s typographic work for several subsequent women poets from Susan Howe onwards. Stephen Fredman in his reading of Olson’s poem, ‘The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs’, first published in Evergreen Review 4, locates him, through the central image of motorcyclists at the heart of a cultural moment in the late 50s and early 60s. It might have been interesting to compare that poem to Thom Gunn’s ‘On The Move’ and other motorcycle poems published in 1957.

Gavin Selerie outlines Olson’s British contacts, travels and legacy, including his visit to Dorchester County Museum, to research Weymouth port records, in the summer of 1967. Ed Dorn would similarly visit south Dorset for the summer a few years later. Elaine Feinstein recalls the moment when Olson’s poetics first intersected with British poetry. Iain Sinclair, in an outstanding essay, recalls the effect of encountering Olson in July 1967 and returns the reader to Olson’s position in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the sea’s edge, and recounts his visit there watching Henry Ferrini’s DVD of John Malkovich reading sections of Maximus at the Writer’s Center. ‘The real punch arrives at the end as one of the extra features’, writes Sinclair, when Olson reads and is ‘absolutely mesmerizing and lifted everything from the theoretical pitch … to a different register. You witness the man, the energy of him as he grasps his own poem; the practical demonstration of projective verse, the full body reading.’

Ralph Maud also takes the reader to the Cape Ann coastline that was the vantage point of Olson’s major writing and first poem, and emphasises that Olson’s work should always be read as a work in progress, a draft that is designed to stimulate and enable thought. As Olson wrote:

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

Here ‘undone’ is read as ‘ongoing’ with a necessity to engage once more. The contemporary relevance of Olson’s work rests precisely in the opening up of possibilities, which it continues to do. To my mind, one of the greatest testimony to Olson’s achievements, and this could have been explored more, is the impact of Olson as a poet-teacher, at Black Mountain and elsewhere, on the likes of Ed Dorn, Jeremy Prynne, and others. In particular, the practical, as opposed to theoretical, knowledge that Olson gave Dorn. This knowledge, in turn, helped shape a way of reading people and landscape, of asking and shaping questions, of reading signs and history. Much could have been made of the fact that both Dorn and Prynne departed from Olson’s direction as very different poets from the ones they were before their encounters. Prynne one suspects drew many lessons from Olson, one of which is surely seen in his acknowledgement that thought is always ongoing, subject to correction and error.

I am looking forward to reading many more essays, including those by Charles Bernstein, Ben Hickman, David Herd, who also provides an introductory essay, Anthony Mellors, Miriam Nichols, Sarah Posman, Kalien van den Beukel and Tim Woods.

David Caddy 18th February 2015

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