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No Proper Setting

The letters of the poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson are so voluminous that their editor, George F. Butterick, did not live to edit all ten volumes of their exchanges. The letters themselves cover only the years of the 1950s, when Creeley was beginning to write the first poetry that would make him a worldwide name with his collection For Love, and Charles Olson began to teach a generation of artists at Black Mountain. Both were possessed by an idiosyncratic letter-writing style that prefigures modern poetics and speech. They did not meet in person until they had exchanged letters for many years, and although both were married throughout, their intimacy goes beyond the artistic and the emotional to reflect the pairing of two like minds searching for each other in the wilderness.


olson walking with robert duncan

Black Mountain, N.C.

tuesday may whatever it is

May 9th, 1950

my dear robert creeley:

this is going to be a note, only to tell you i have been on the road for ten days, and will write you the moment i am back at my desk

but i want you to know how very glad i am that you saw Morning News, and that goes for y & x, and the new two, too it is fine

it did startle me, you speak of education, & plan to speak up: nothing could be truer, when poets are the only pedagogues

i don’t think you could know that you would catch me, with yr letter, when I was at Alabama College does a speech on verse and showing Cagli drawings And now i am here at this little hotbox of education, to do the same

i shall try to put down something on education for you: USE, it is the use they make of us

above all things resist, to be sick at heart: we are forward and it is such gratification, that you are ready to go with me



talking to fanny howe

Olson must have been stunned to receive Creeley's response, for what other individual in the world could be tuned into exactly that wavelength?

Littleton, N.H.

May 18th, 1950

Dear Olson,

Good to have your letter, and very good of you to have sent the copies down to the people. Hope to be able to make this up to you, somehow, sometime. For the moment, my thanks.

These letters from you: good to have the fact of your concerns, which, as it happens, mine. The distortion that can come in with an over-emphasis of mistaking EP‘s thought, or the Dr’s for that matter: cripples many that wd be of use. This not to protest that I have the word from God, etc: but that I’m capable of recognizing its misuse in the hands of others: which they might take as ‘friend.’ Usual. But sad, as in the case of Eliot and EP.

Particulars: letters have driven me a hell of a ways from that in the past months, but also: back again. The job of making sense for a particular dozen: worse than I might take it, for the magazine, where there wont be the emphasis on ‘individual’ explanations, etc. I.e. some duds cant see their nose, etc. I cd name names, etc. But pointless. The point: that I find you interested and willing to help before you’ve seen 10 yrs of ‘successful’ biz.

I wd make this an offer, subject to what time you have to work with, and subject to what you may think of the 1st issue, wht you can get from these letters, etc: you to judge: that if you want to take an active hand in these matters, beyond what you mean as a contributor, and as such, will count on you for staples, etc.: to take up, often, those matters pertaining to the center, by way of reviews, etc., the dirty work. Leed & I cant do it all. Some doubt now as to whether or not we can put reviews in this 1st attempt, since they are all written by the same violent hand, mine, and the rapid succession of CLIMAX, wd tell on a man. As Leed put it: this isn’t criticism, it’s the expression of a taste! Which, as it happens, was what I meant it to be, not taking the paraphrase, etc. the digesting of a book in public, to be the best thing you can do for it. What I wd take as better: pointing to ONE GOOD REASON why any damn fool might become less of one, by reading it, etc. Anyhow, you will see the difficulty. Reviews, for example, cd be put to good use in this way: beyond getting to books not given general attention: that others don’t treat, etc — they can be used to cover related ground which we cant get to directly in the criticism. Just there, in other words, that anything from good housekeeping to astronomics can be made to bear: granted a head. Anyhow, that’s one thing. A lot besides. Getting material: always a bug. But think it over, and we can get to the particulars when you will. You sd have a better idea than you do have before you go one way or the other, so hang on for the moment.

Robert Creeley

As the two became better acquainted, the one-eyed Creeley looked to Olson as a mentor who could not only read and give feedback on his prose work (the main focus of his efforts at the time) but who could recommend other directions for his prolific appetite for reading. The following letter, which was never sent to Olson and found among RC's papers, examines his struggle with the form.

Littleton, N.H.

August 30th, 1950

Dear O/

Unfair. My wife says of the enclosed: it doesn't make any sense, not that it is wrong (like Ez had sd, also bitterly of you, that) in matters superficial, but that it is wrong at bottom. Against the light. I can thin of damn little that is not against the light, & yet am committed to the belief that at the bottom, the very, there, only: light. It gets beyond, exact, matters of the simple run of coherence as I might, here, tell you a story, a story, in a matter of some 25 words which could satisfy that, completely, wholely, altogether. The end of it. But nothing is the end, in prose, is that, exact. I am after, trying, to pick up that thread, as the only way occurs to me is: myself and the variations possible upon my experience. My wife thinks that everything I write is 'true' or that it tries to force its way thru to that 'quality.'

I am not in any sense a moralist, more than I can be, a transmitter, thru which work: forces, moral or otherwise. I ask only that exactness, that the words keep with the head/as that carries thru, to consciousness, what charge the emotions are capable of. The complex. To that, to only that, should any art commit itself. It is to have no hesitance between what the head is thinking & the hand is putting down. To force that coupling. To NOT avoid. Well, I throw this at you, only as it is something just done, and about which, since it is, I know or think very damn little. I don't care for any one instance more than any other: one instance.

There is no stasis in this business. Nothing to pin down. No: as my wife laments: point. Pride, & a good deal else, makes any such effort a pain / obnoxious and lamentable, to those who try to stomach it, alongside & not in. The process. As love, as any instance, is enough — does it matter one damn whether or not it 'happened' & yet there it is, what she hates there — my logick for having fallen in love with this one, as she is there in the story, and why? she asks. And I ask the same. I don't expect or even want an answer. I am, if she would want an answer, which I don't think she does, or needs, in love with her. In love with, other, possibles. As any living is. But what I wd pin down: wd be the only 'way' of a thing, since I think all else wd be false in the frame given. The act of writing belies the conclusion which it might get to - because it is when I've finished, that it all occurs to me, what might have been done. But I have already done something, whether right or wrong, and what these mean...it's done. As it came, it had its logic, because it came. Not sophistry, but NO: actual, it grew. It was the 'way.' A failure. Up to what framed it — that I tend out, from others, into a language, & a speech, reasons, that I have no right to expect them to know. My own failure. That I haven't a language, or a depth of caring to make me concerned with communication.

I am, like all, perhaps, if sentimentality is a quantity, and not a mood, waiting to come to life. I know, & try, to put only, what seems now & again, to come there, as out of me: living. Which is often a joke. But the attempt. That is my own attempt.

Perhaps this has a logic that I having written it, and she having her own place here, can't get. That would be the main question — what does it come to, beyond what I must think.

Yr lad/


The following letter emanating from the south of France prefigures, if only in some small way, Creeley's masterpiece "Anger."

Fontrousse, Aix-en-Provence

January 9, 1952

Dear Charles,

Beating my head on the stories this morning, trying to get something finished of that Musicians, i.e. I had held on to the first page. But nothing doing. It scares me, but I can't see what else. It seems very dry & dead.

Otherwise, I get out a little more, but that is not much pleasure. I'd forgotten how damn dreary the bix of people can get, or how dull, say, the usual conversations. The policies are as much here as they are anywhere. Either one is most light & gay, or most serious, and I can't make either tone with any damn grace. (I wish you might see me, trying to.)

The whole damn frame, call it, is way the hell off. Not that I haven't some damn security in simply thinking of what might happen, any damn time, and anywhere. But to move it, — that I damn well can't make now. The story, above — it should be something to go on. I have just the two people; more than that, I have them in ways that are in my own feel, etc. That is, there they are, just in the room, and sitting, the whole space of it falls in, and what to do, they are thinking, and what more precisely, to say. In any case, there is hardly a music to hear; that side of it, the echo, is very far off — even in actual miles. They hear, if anything, just that echo of it, and both feeling that i would be so great have that way of it, to make those sounds, say, they are, envying, each very separately, the supposed feelings of these others who can play, as my mother used to have it, an instrument.

But more than any of it, — they are simply sitting there, just in the room. The walls are somewhat steep even, there's not much more light than just one high window, which must be only a foot above the actual street level. It is a cave of sorts. The woman is married, but all there is, is things, etc. Table, chairs, a couch in the corner, and beyond, in the next room, he can see the refrigerator, etc. They take it that it wouldn't honestly be any problem. But what are they in love with, because it is, very clearly, not each other. She loves, say, her husband, one supposes, even less, but she is not at all in love with the man who is, most literally, there. Himself, he doesn't quite know; looking at her, I expect he wonders if it isn't a good time, as one had thought of back such a long time, - conquests & all such dreams, etc. But god knows there is some music. She is playing records, and the sounds, familiar, etc., interpose something else, so that she has begun to dance, of herself, etc, and he is put off by the apparent staginess.

The conversation might well begin just there. There is hardly a damn thing to lose, and he might even turn the damn thing off, etc, though I know he won't. He watches, anyhow; he has that way of doing anything, and can sit it out, and feel something is done even by that. But they will be forced to say something: somehow they are there, the logic of it only their knowing one another, and something not at all right in either one. I don't see how they can not talk, but what they might be saying, or will — what I haven't yet been able to find my way into.

So, I sit. The sun just begins to come through here, — about 10:30, I think it must be now, etc. Last night I got some shelves up, and have, at least, things where I can get to them. Yr picture, likewise, now up. no frame, sadly, no proper damn setting - phew. But can see it now simply, and I like it.

I got a check from ND yesterday: $26.68. Five damn stories. It say,s in the letter with it - $800 is what they have for total sum coming to contributors on this first issue of 2000 copies. And who the hell can think they'll issue more, etc. It bugs me, not that, say, the loot that is needed, but how christly little it all is, etc. I see, too, he pays 8%. I wonder why he damn well bothers.

Have you seen the damn book? Will he damn well give you something for that intro? Let me hear. Will get you a copy myself, if they damn well don't. Nothing in here yet; I don't figure it will be any damn pleasure, at that. Damn.

Well, fuck it. Let me put this by for ab it, and see whether there's one from you in the noon mail. Will try to get this off this afternoon. Can't damn well sit here, thinking of the damn story & how, how damn precisely, I can't do a damn thing with it. Ok.

All our dearest love to you all,


In this abridged letter, Olson describes a college scene where a promising young student almost drowns. The incident appears to have affected him deeply.

Black Mountain, N.C.

January 29th, 1952


just to sit here, & put you on — am worn, & chiefly from a business last night at 1 am which threw me:

i came into it as I had just opened the water cock of the radiator of the car, the night promised to be that cold, & snow had been falling for a couple of hours. to get my hand down to the cock, to see it, i had just borrowed a flashlight from the care of one Rauschenberg, by way of his friend Cy Twombly (the two of them are constantly together, and I had found Cy in the dining hall playing a little organ while Nick played a guitar, Oppenheimer the drum, & Solomon the piano. Cy's getting was, too bad you weren't here sooner, we were really beating it out, now, it's leveling off. And he told me where the flash was.

class picture at Black Mountain

two minutes more & i'd have put the flash back, and gone into the house (Con was up, feeding Kate, and I was anxious to be in, & talking with her, the whole day had been consumed with visitors, then two faculty meetings, & a four hour go of the class in the evening) but as i was turning away, there was a cry from the direction of the dining hall, and off toward the end of it where the path to the lake goes between the dining hall and the music cubicle, "Olson, the flash, hurry"

i started off slow, not catching the voice, but some stir there quickened, and i raced about the time i went under the pine tree in front of the stone house, and it was on me in that way that all such things happen — even before i passed the flash to Nick, an saw the beam pick up a head out in the lake, i had the picture: Twombly was twenty feet out, up to his hips, and saying, with as much tension as his southern voice can, that he couldn't go any further, that he couldn't catch his breath. And it was Rauschenberg farther out, out towards the middle, making these moans, & catchings of the voice — and obviously, at least mixed up, & probably stuck, in a trance, not the mud so much, though the mud came into my mind, and I already dreaded the thought of going in to that damned cold water, and the mud, and seemed afterward to have resolved to dive in, wrapping my topcoat around me, and going fast, to get the boy, damned reluctantly.

black mountain college, summer sessionThis excerpt from a longer letter predates an Olson essay. Olson's paranoia was inspired by a visit from the FBI doing a background check on him for a fellowship.

Black Mountain, N.C.

February 1, 1952

I have not lived in a fascist State. I was not born to be a citizen. I have taken the principles of these States as usable facts. I therefore shall behave so, admitting this existing & power, admitting — what I cannot fail to admit is the DIALECTICAL (that which ultimately is the cause of the FBI coming to this point, that my life (my fate) is herewith interfered with — even if nothing happens, it has been interfered with: I have had to feel that shadow. What a shadow, and I, as an American UNPREPARED. That is, as citizen, NOT as MYSELF.

(Yet these absent wings must be felt, to experience, citizenry: no tax-collector, or draft board, has this force; not even the police, — tho they are closer: this must be the old European thing anew, the SECRET police)

It has been a tremendous thing, this visit, that, I was called (on) (for) I WAS CALLED.

I have felt too long that component, that evil. CAUSATION, to duck out now, to take any of the postures: a man cannot escape the MORAL as the only excusable use of the INSTANT — no personal pose can manage the present, no theoretical one, no "movement": back to the farm, or whatever

This hugely argues, for me, the import of CONJECTURE. (You will have noted, how, again, in that Twombly piece, it came out.)

I still take it back to those two decades, 1830-1850. It was in those years that the MALE principle did itself in. From the studies of those two decades came those two LIES:

I that nature is a fate: EVOLUTION (what fooled em was, that, because it did not seem "fixed" fated was not a fate concept: witness the result, existentialism, the false management of despair, the inability to cross over, to get to the other side of, despair: the filthy attempt to fix despair on us, instead of, action, from the other wise

II that the state is a fate equal to nature: MARX is only the image of all that has come since, capitalism, communism, fascism and all the naive and saintly oppositions to all three — the thin boys, the palefaces, the untragic ones

Still it goes: MELVILLE (shaped in those same years, DIFFERENTLY)

RIMBAUD (the first man confronted with the results, and cutting through, but not knowing (it was that early any other action than running guns for Menelik: I had to pass thru this stage myself, and did, ten years ago,  those years, exactly, it had to be still known, done, then. Now (since the Spanish War, 1938) not necessary.

LAWRENCE, THE MAN WHO SAW: what he saw (and he's the only one who saw, up to the men who were born after 1910) was, that the MIND is a TEMPTATION which has to be defeated

and my own sense is that CONJECTURE is the defeat of DIALECTIC, is the ploughing back of that thing, the male mind, to the INSTANT (let me quickly toss in this premise, that there is a difference of the female mind ((these are not at all necessarily accompanied by corresponding sexual parts!)) (((by god, just checked Hegel's dates, and find he dies just where i date the birth of the 20th century: 1831 (from 1770. For it was he who put the name on the mal-usage which made them modern world, that thing raised on those TWO LIES: he gave these dialectical triumphs their language

(I have this horror, — oh to hell with it, only, THIS:


and CONJECTURE takes all that energy (i dub it the MALE energy, and the proper one to the MALE act — without it men are dangerous - without the understanding that they are metaphysically creative, and thus organic, as the female is physically

(((don't scream, Ann:

this is exactly the opposite of an exclusion, simply, that it also restores that respect

takes all that energy and redisposes it ANTI-HISTORY, says, the INSTANT, (which a woman can know without need of any other component) is METAPHYSICAL:

a dogma: that a MALE can act MORALLY only as he enters INSTANT, and that his only gate to the experience is the metaphysical gate

what troubles me, is, that I find it necessary to be myself dialectical in order to expose the condition of same!

OK. Anyhow, as I say, I had to be without fear, those two hours, when exactly the two wings making the shadow were not at all the present but were, each wing, one the past (whom i knew 10 years ago) and the future (where I'd go, say next year — not to worry at all about: for the rest of my life, eh?).

and that is the WRONG — that anything should take away (a) my fate and (b) my engagement in life as a fate separate from myself but only useful to me the degree that its workings are left open by men:

it is this sort of OPENNESS that i say that men can only restore as they deny dialectic as a means adequate to keep nature & society so open — or open to the degree that they can never be, both of them being by their difference different from ourselves

what racks modern man is, that, due to those decades, both nature & society are fatal propositions, under whose spell he is downtrodden

and the only act worth a man's life today is to confront that, to give his fellow men freedom from these rigidities:

all present fear & trembling is NOT momentous, is not MORAL, simply, that it is neither (a) any one's in his or her self — his or her fate; or (b) is "life's," that is, the thing you, RC, have so carefully extricated from (a), without in any way disturbing the FIRST FACT, that they are inextricable

What has shocked me is, to have the MONSTER, to have the combination of these two lies, COME TO MY DOOR!

It had to come. And it did.

The thing is, that to have it happen, was, a sort of joy!

I have no fear left, of that sort: I am able now to see how otherwise I am defeated! Love to you both,


PS: the error of Kafka (which I always felt) I can now prove: he was "feminine" in his disposing of himself (his father took the balls out of him) — it is this side gives the poetic to his universe; and he was intellectually dialectical (the monster took the conjecture out of his mind, the male of his intellect). And so, there shld be no surprise, that i has been existentialists, socialists, homosexual and jews who had found him of use — His inaccuracy was a subtle one.

What also occurs to me, from this get go, is, how logical that we should live in a world in which — ultimately — it is a BABY who is the important human figure: for when both nature and the State have been allowed to loom as of such importance that man seems only important (nature-wise) because he is an instrument of the species, and he is only important state-wise as he is for or against it in war, then surely, it is logical that a baby is more important than any of us.

The following missive from Creeley's young son David was enclosed with a June 1952 letter. The boy begins by signing his name.

david creeley

olson pggy (this is verbatim...) mama is piggy david creeley. we live outdoors and just in the street and dada wrote that letter on the chimney. we have electricity and a sink and a tree for me to climb on. we live in a little village, so little-so little house this big. we got the garden too except it's all the time full of grass except the things that are growing in it aren't ours —. Mr. Marti who own the things in the garden. Corn and beans are ours. We don't have almost anything - piles of trees. WE went to a fete and it was a nice fete with lots of people dancing, piles of people watching the fete and & nice pretty girls dancing with pretty clothes. We don't have any windows or anything except we live on one porch. There's a tree all dead, doesn't have any leaves on it. We have a basin. We go swimming in it.

Four (i.e. he's four, etc) Thomas one.

f uhttttedd



You can read the autobiography of Robert Creeley here. You can read Charles Olson's "First Fact" here.

"Dead Moon (live)" - Madeline (mp3)

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Jerry Heiserman, Dan McCloud, Allen Ginsberg, Bobbie Louise Hawkins Creeley, Warren Tallman, Robert Creeley above Charles Olson.

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