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« In Which We Lather Our Sensibilities At Length »

Reading at Berkeley

I'm knocked out. I mean, I had a glass of whiskey. I said I hope nobody thinks I'm drunk. Man, I was high this afternoon, and I'm just exactly the same way now.

On July 23rd 1965 the poet Charles Olson took the stage at the University of California-Berkeley Poetry Conference, ostensibly to read a few poems. There was always an apprehension among Charles' friends whenever he attempted public speaking during his last years. The full text of Olson's remarks that evening runs over 60 pages, and it must have been evident to everyone in attendance that Olson, while somewhat cogent for him, would have to be dragged off the stage. Olson's talk that night has alternately been called "a tour de force" (by editor George F. Butterick and "an absolute travesty" (by most others). What follows are some excerpts from the text, along with private remarks during intermission transcribed by Zoe Brown.

ROBERT DUNCAN: As I think all of you, or almost all of you, must know, the man I am introducing tonight is visibly a large man. And he has to find in poetry — a phrase came up in a seminar of his: suddenly he was saying he was trying to find a position inferior to language. Every American impulse from the beginning has been to use it right away, and cash in on it, no matter what it was.

What I want to suggest is, if you find difficulties in Olson, they're because that the only thing in poetry for him is going to be found in a struggle, and because his knowledge of language is such that its usability seems everywhere, I keep thinking he'll never find how to take ahold of that so it isn't usable. We're absolutely baffled. But when he does, we have, the rest of us poets, been absolutely baffled. But when he does, we have the rest of us poets, been confronted with some amazing dimension, in which we find the — will "bedrock of poetry" do? I mean, the really resistant thign, the poem.

He has had to occupy an area in history big enough for some spirit size. You know, it's like he's trying to find clothes big enough for him. The spirit which can roam over anything it can imagine, and then imagine one that is still restless because it can't find a space big enough for it to exist in: we, this evening, will attend a poetry of this order.

One thing I find, for those of you who may really find yourself having to go along with something that will leave you feeling like you could have fitted it in a much smaller space and time, the other things he delights in sometimes are really beautiful songs.

And then you discover that, whatever the huge size in space, in time, he occupies, he also occupies beautiful and discrete, almost ordinary areas.

So, may I now get from the back of the room there, Charles Olson, who will take over.


CHARLES OLSON: Thank you. It feels like a convention hall. And I never was running for anything, fortunately.

Oh, would somebody loan me The Maximus Poems? I haven't a copy. Thakn you.

Gee, I did it again. I left something in the room. Yeah, that's right. How the hell do you prove what you always...? Hm, wow, that's crazy. That's a funny one. Where the hell did they go? Somebody took 'em. Would by any chance, Robert Creeley, you have — ? Oh here it is. I got it.

I'd like to first read a — thank you, Robert, for that word "song." In the face of the poets that have read here, I have had an experience.

DUNCAN: Charles, would you please put the microphone on?

OLSON: Oh. Did you say that? How do you do this if there ain't...? Just connect...? You see, this is life. I mean, I either am the Hanged Man, or... Where do you put that, like? Where does that go? There's no hole! Where do you put it? You'd better show me, Mr. Baker. Able Baker. You see, security.

Thank you. That's what we got our nation for. That's why, the rest of us are, fortunately, as Mr. Creeley proved last night, free. And then there's really no worry about the land of free, cause it's been replaced. Like Allen did! Instead of drinking to you and me, I'll drink to that, hm?

But I would like to read first what for me was kind of an experience of writing a song. It's called "The Ring Of" and I hope it's, if my memory is right...Mr. Creeley? That you did...?


OLSON: Yeah, O.K., that's why. I mean that was so much a matter of support that I felt... Here it is.

It was the west wind caught her up, as
she rose from the genital
wave, and bore her from the delicate
foam, home
to her isle

and those lovers
of the difficult, the hours
of the golden day welcomed her, clad her, were
as though they had made her, were wild
to bring this new thing born
of the ring of the sea pink
& naked, this girl, brought her
to the face of the gods, violets
in her hair

Beauty, and she
said no to zeus & them all, all were not or
was it she chose the ugliest
to bed with, or was it straight
and to expiate the nature of beauty, was it?

knowing hours, anyway,
she did not stay long, or the lame
was only one part, & the handsome
mars had her. And the child
had that name, the arrow of
as the flight of, the move of
his mother who adorneth

with myrtle the dolphin and words
they rise, they do who
are born of like

Hm, thank you. I just learnt it from you last night. OK, we're off. I mean the horse is at least on the track. See if we can win.

I also wrote a poem which I'm sure neither Creeley nor I would include in anything, but I want to read it. I'm going to read three poems first — that one, this one, and then "Letter 9" of the Maximus Poems, which has to do with this same book, this beautiful book, which I love...because that design on it was done — and then I don't know how many years later, enormous years later, I, after Creeley had criticized me and taught me everything one night, when I was burned up that he let a class go to go down to Peek's to have beer, and I thought the whole of Black Mountain was going to fail if we didn't get those windows in before the freeze that night — and long after, he said, "Don't flip your wig, man."

And that made me, that brought me up to time, eh? I mean, he knocked any wig I ever had off my head that night. And it was beautiful, because he knew exactly what he was saying. And he was right. And I was not up — I mean, I was obviously, like they say, not with it, not right. But curiously enough, it was so many years after even that, that I was left alone at Black Mountain, with my wife and son, and with the beach wagon, which Wesley Huss had acquired before we closed Black Mountain, in fact, within three days I had a beach wagon.

So I feel even comfortable in reading what I consider, and I guess everybody else does, a bad poem, which I wrote as a Christmas pageant or something, a poem for Christmas at Black Mountain. Ha ha ha! Because I suppose Allen Ginsberg still thinks I'm Santa Claus. I'd like him to say,"No!" or I'll run you for whatever you — what do I want to run for, Allen?

ALLEN GINSBERG: Read the poem and I'll decide.

OLSON: That's why I'm reading it. It's called "An Ode to Nativity," and I don't believe it's ever been read. Except for this morning, I thought I'd look at it and I liked it, you know how you do. I don't think anybody has ever...By the way, did you reject, did you even bother to consider it, Bob? How far can I come with this tether?

GINSBERG: Go ahead and read it, read it.

OLSON: Oh, I'm going to do it. Look this thing is so bad, I can't ruin it. The only thing I can, as Allen says, is it might turn out to be how it sounded to me today. I guess that's really how it feels for me tonight, or this morning.

All cries.


All cries rise, & the three of us
observe how fast Orion

Naah, that's too poetic.

All cries rise, & the three of us
observe how fast Orion

Jeez I'm looking it all. Big voice... Shit! You see, you shouldn't talk; you should just read the thing.

All cries rise, & the three of us
observe how fast Orion
marks midnight
at the climax
of the sky
while the boat of the moon settles
as red in the southwest
as the orb of her was, for this boy, once,
the first time he saw her whole halloween face northeast
across the skating pond as he came down to the ice, December
his seventh year.
Winter, in this zone, is an on & off thing, where the air
is sometimes as shining as ice is
when the sky's lights... When the ducks
are the only skaters
And a crèche
is a commerciality
(The same year, a ball of fire
the same place - exactly through
the same trees
was fire
the Sawyer lumber company yard
was a moon of pain, at the end of itself,
and the death of horses I saw burning,
fallen through the floors
into the buried Blackstone River the city
had hidden under itself, had grown over...


Recorded during the intermission:

OLSON: Allen, I'm just proving that oral poetry exists, O.K.? Ain't I or not?

GINSBERG: It's very good, it's beautiful.

OLSON: Isn't this oral poetry? Isn't this improvisatory, spontaneous poetry?

GINSBERG: All except one thing, when you had the cigarette in your mouth.

OLSON: And what happened? Was that visual?

GINSBERG: Couldn't hear you at the back.

WELCH: We were worried it was backwards.

OLSON: Gee, I wish it were. I needs to be backwards. That extra piece that I needed: I don't need it, I'm drunk on you guys. And I meant it.

WELCH: Hey, don't you have to pee too?

OLSON: Nah, shit pee? I never pee. The reason why I'm not a queen is I don't have to pee to prove that I'm a man. Go pee, Allen. We got over that tonight.

PAUL X: Can I have a cigarette?

OLSON: Of course, it's yours, baby. Isn't that crazy, I should be smoking your cigarettes? Goddamn it, it irritates me, but it also -

PAUL X: A broad gave them to me, so it doesn't matter.

JOHN WIENERS (introducing a girl): Just here visiting.

GIRL: Hello, how are you? I'm enjoying it so much.

OLSON: Awfully nice to see you. Pleasure. I'm glad. Will you kiss me too? You would kiss me, anyhow, but I want you to kiss me in honor, as well, will ya? In love and honor.

WELCH: That was why we did it.

SUZANNE MOWAT: What are you doing?

OLSON: I'm doing just what I ought to be doing, don't you think so?

MOWAT: I don't.

OLSON: You don't? You think I should be reading poetry? God, I got the poems, but -

WELCH: Charles, do you know John Montgomery? Allow me to introduce John Montgomery.

OLSON: I know Stuart Montgomery, the guy who's publishing Ed and me in London.

WELCH: No, he's the guy who talks so funny in The Dharma Bums, that forgotten painter.

OLSON (drinking): That's the last of it, dammit. I had one last slug.

WELCH: Don't you want to give him a drink?

MOWAT: No, I don't think you should.

OLSON: "...and John Montgomery." Let's do this thing the way it's coming out tonight. "Charles Olson and John Montgomery." O.K.? Now give me that shot. You got a whiskey.

WELCH: I brought this for you, but no one told me that you drink.

OLSON: What the hell is that? Just that lousy wine. Well, I'll just go like Jack Kerouac, right straight on to Rot Red. Drinks. It's sweety time. You, you drunken bum, have a shot. And if you don't stop drinking...

WELCH: Yeah, I know, I'm a terrible lush.


OLSON: I think the poets are ahead of the scientists now. I know they are. The decadence of the imagery of science is as shocking as James Joyce. I mean, Ezra Pound long years ago returned the presentation copy of Finnegans Wake to himself, with the word "DECADENCE" written over the cover. I mean, that takes guts, the same guts that led him to say, "I thought I knew something." I'd be proud to have been the man in this century... And like, here I am, dragging my ass after Ezra.

Two years ago in Vancouver, what did I do? I tried to read the poems? Now I could, and instead I'm telling you, "Gee I wish they were more." I'm not just avoiding it. I'll be happy to read them. I love some of them. Just like those poems I wrote longer and earlier, I bet they'll turn out to be all right. That's not the point. They're nothing by comparison to what I propose, or what I would dream I might do. Because poets only are worthwhile if they do what they dream. And there's been a few. In fact, the only ones that count are those who want to be, hm, the same in their dream.

last days of the vancouver poetry conference, 1963

And I'm like — let me continue 5, and I'll come back to 9, which I love because it talks about how a book practically is the only goddamn thing that is a dream in a society like this. And do you know it embarrassed me two years ago in Vancouver. I mean, god, Allen an activist, Orlovsky, Dunky, Creeley, everybody that was there, I feel like an old schlumpf from Gloucester. And, in fact, I'd love to read even that crazy "Tantrist sat saw Lingam in City Hall" or something, I mean, a poem I did read, you know, I'd like to read it right now, like that, like that, like.

And just make it like it felt when it was written, that's all. I am a tantrist. But two years ago I was embarrassed, and not because I hadn't been to Buenos Aires. O.K.?

I mean the universe today is a very hard thing for an individual to possess. The whole human race has it. The efficiency of the universe is in our hands. But for any one of us, as what they used to call a private soul, when I protested was a piece of piss at any public wall, in that paragraph, in that opening paragraph of Projective Verse, but you know, it comes out that the private soul — and if I could cry like the cock at the birth of day - which is all I'm doing tonight — that's the only thing that's more than public and private. And like that great thing we've been talking about and we discussed in seminar. Isn't it nice, really? This is the private soul at the public wall. Charlie Olson. Closed verse. Not even bothering to play the music.

I got the music. I mean, it's like scores, Beethoven and all those things, John Keats' letters in Harvard's library. I read 'em. In fact, I wrote a fourteen line sonnet. You know, it's powerful. I was talking to Ed Dorn recently. Probably I shouldn't have eaten supper...

CREELEY: Please read the poems.

OLSON: All right, Bob, I heard you.

July 23rd, 1965

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Reader Comments (2)

Creeley gave my friend (and favorite poet) Aaron Lowinger a tape (his tape) of this Olson reading. We drove around in my car that summer and listened to it, and for us it was what we looked up to in poetry. I like the part where he says Gloucester wasn't the muse for the book, but instead his hometown Worcester (like it was an epiphany on the spot that Maximus was really about Worcester). I also like how he never finishes a sentence -- not once.
May 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterd a m i a n

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