IS THIS CHARLES OLSON?

By Patrick James Dunagan

I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of all things Charles Olson since discovering The Maximus Poems on a library shelf at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire around 1994. Soon after that I reached out and got in touch with Olson scholar Ralph Maud in order to eventually receive a near complete run of the Minutes of the Charles Olson Society. I immediately became aware of lurking controversies around this wonderfully great behemoth of a poet’s work and life (Olson stood 6’8” the Maximus Poems doesn’t end but unravels at 600 some pages, his early book on Melville Call Me Ishmael is a groundbreaking thrill-ride of sensory delight).

When I learned last spring of Heriberto Yépez’s The Empire of Neomemory (Translated from Spanish by Jen Hofer, Christian Nagler, and Brian Whitener / Chainlinks 2013)  I immediately reached out to get a hold of the book in order to write a review. My review appears in the summer print edition of Rain Taxi. I had no idea what to expect from Yépez’s book. What I found was a lambasting of Olson faulting him for the miserable state of affairs that is Western Civilization:

An emissary of the dying gods of the Oxident and of the nascent empire of the United States. The poet known, almost unanimously, as the father of those so-called “New American Poets”—the generation of the beatniks and the counterculture—the poet who is, like Pound, Stein, or Ginsberg, a communicating vessel for studying an entire civilization. Olson’s tracks lead us to the avatars of empire. Biocriticism of the geopolitical.

Yépez takes up all the negative critiques of Olson and lays them out as stepping stones for his own scholarly hegemony as critic lording over the poet. I felt this unfair to Olson yet a justified stance in its wider terms. The conceptual dynamics and extra-lingual twists and turns deployed by Yépez are fascinating. I knew it to be a work that would excite a generation of younger poets and scholars. I did however fear that this would come at Olson’s expense.

I attempted to be fair and balanced in my review, indeed keeping in mind my ideal reader as being among the young poet communities of Oakland or Brooklyn. I don’t know how many of those poets have read Yépez’s book or my review, or are likely to read this. However I did receive word from one poet of the East Bay that he found my review “very measured very KEWL, surprised me a bit, if anything your Olsonian tendencies tend to be, well, tendentious to say the least.” Which leaves me feeling that the review more or less accomplishes what I intended.

Near the end of my review I mention Ammiel Alcalay’s recent book a little history drawing a comparison between the two as complimentary texts, also hoping that some of those less enthusiastic about Olson and/or less familiar with his work might pick up Alcalay’s book for a perspective drastically different from Yépez’s. Where Yépez tends towards a theory-oriented politics of reading Alcalay remains grounded in one thoroughly lived from the ground up.

 

Not long after the issue of Rain Taxi appeared I heard from local poet Benjamin Hollander. A compatriot and friend of Alcalay’s he was stoked that I had mentioned a little history but despairing of Yépez’s book. Hollander is of a generation of poets, like Alcalay, who came of age shortly after Olson’s death and witnessed a barrage of scholarly antagonism towards Olson. Not that there aren’t numerous critical engagements with Olson’s work that remain relatively positive in tone, but that there is a distinct presence of a poet such as Robert Lowell—who I feel Yépez could have taken up his charge against just as easily, with hardly changing a thing aside from the name of the poet—receiving an automatic pass while Olson continually gets rung up.

Around the time Yépez’s book appeared, Jacket2 ran a brief commentary featuring the book which included excerpts, primarily on Olson and Empire. (link here)

Last week, Jacket2 ran a follow-up commentary, consisting of a response to Yépez’s book from a group Hollander brought together in order to come to Olson’s defense. The group is known as Il Gruppo and includes the poets Jack Hirschman, Amiri Baraka, Ammiel Alcalay, Benjamin Hollander, and Carlo b. Carlos Suares. Here’s a link to that commentary.

The debate is just beginning. At the center is not only Olson but many of the poets and writers he had a hand in encouraging early on, figures such as John Wieners, Ed Dorn, Diane di Prima, and Michael Rumaker. Il Gruppo intends on keeping their operation moving ahead. Yépez’s book stands on its own, yet perhaps he’ll participate in the conversation Il Gruppo has begun. Sunday October 6, he reads along with Rachel Levitsky in San Francisco for Small Press Traffic @ ATA  http://smallpresstraffic.org/2201. Whether at that event, or in a different forum some other time, it would be of interest to hear if he has any comment.

As for myself, Olson will always remain to me an astonishment. Such a figure as one would never be capable of imagining, let alone searching for. The fact alone of his words which embody his life and work remains the sole record we have and that is the record I hold most dearly to, “for dear life” as Wieners says. Yépez argues for a world we’re living in. I join Olson in looking for a world that is in back of that world. A world we get but glimmerings of.

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Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. His poetry and/or criticism appears here and there roundabout. His books include GUSTONBOOK and Das Gedichtete.

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