Thanks for your letter regarding Sharon Thesen’s essay, “Charles, Frances, Ralph, and me.” I agree with you that the essay is, as you say, “balanced and informed” and I share your enthusiasm for it. I did find your letter a bit disingenuous, however. While you begin by praising Sharon’s essay, you almost immediately turn the occasion into a defense of Tom Clark’s controversial biography of Charles Olson, and an ad hominem attack on Ralph Maud. It is as if your praise of Thesen was a ruse that you use to get to your real business.
The problem for me is that you undo what Sharon Thesen has so exquisitely done. She has given us a poet’s portrait of the complex forms of relation with all their flaws, small cruelties, power inequities, and bursts of brilliance and affection that at various times coalesced among these people as they worked together to create something of value. Whereas sociology gives us moralized generalizations and judgements about abstract power relations, Thesen has woven a luminously honest story of the ways people engage with each other in the pursuit of what is more than them or their relations. You have turned it into a morality play with good guys and bad guys (or a bad guy) because of your animus toward Ralph Maud.
Thesen’s relationship with Ralph Maud in some ways encapsulated the whole situation. The gendered power inequities and patriarchal stupidities that Thesen writes about in relation to Maud, while widespread and even defining in patriarchy, are as different and specific as the people they are entangled in and the relationships they shape. As she says, she had known Maud since she was an undergraduate at SFU in the 60’s and was well-aware of his eccentricities and, well, weirdness. You have to be eccentric and a little weird to dedicate much of your intellectual and actual life to one man, including reconstructing his library and intricately – some would say tediously – documenting every error of fact Tom Clark made in his book (although that, in fact, is what many scholars do – but it’s different if the man is Shakespeare or Milton – isn’t it?). But she also chose to be in that relation with him, and she writes about it with as much tenderness as anger, as is fitting for a friendship decades long. She admires his thoroughness as much as she disdains his sexism. You have missed the tone of her address, and it’s all in the tone.
I discussed Tom Clark’s biography with Jack Clarke shortly after the first edition came out, and Jack pointed out something that I think is relevant to Thesen’s narrative. Jack compared Clark’s Allegory to Charles Boer’s Olson in Connecticut. The figure at the centre of both books is similar in many often unpleasant or unnerving ways. Olson never quite fit, was never the good guest, was demanding, even narcissistic, though not autocratic. The difference, Jack said, was that one book was written with love, and the other wasn’t, so that the figure of Olson in Boer’s book is finally – sympathetic isn’t quite the right word, say, profoundly human in proportions that enlarge the possibilities of that category, while in Clark’s book, he comes out looking reduced, inhuman in his appetites and manipulations and abuses.
Ralph first approached Richard Rathwell and me at an English Department party at SFU in 1969. We were sitting against a wall sharing a bottle of Retsina and Ralph came over and stooped down next to us. Ralph, who was a Dylan Thomas scholar and an inveterate old-time-working-class-Welsh-socialist-cum anarchist, knew we were in Robin Blaser’s Olson course (along with Sharon Thesen). He seemed slightly stunned by what he had heard of Olson and wanted to know what we thought. We had been reading The Mayan Letters and were knocked out by Olson’s story of riding in the bus with the Mayans. His description of the ease of their flesh as they moved against each other, as contrasted to his own stick up your butt US American physical awkwardnesss, was eye opening on many levels and played right into our own thinking at that moment about democracy as an ontological event. When Ralph heard that, it sparked the implacable Welsh socialist in him. You could see his eyes light up. And he was off and running.
Scholars of literature dedicate their own work and lives to explicating the work and lives of others. That’s what they do. Presumably, they see some aspect of their own alienated self in their subject. But their dedication, the good ones, is to accuracy and detail. To outsiders it can look completely crazy. In some ways it is – acute OCD in the library and the archives. Ralph’s eccentricities in relation to Olson are well-known, and include his ridiculously anachronistic, patriarchal attitudes including his dismissal of Boldereff’s obvious entanglement in Olson’s thinking. That said, however, as Sharon Thesen relates, he did give us (along with Thesen) a meticulously edited and indexed record of that relationship even though it proves him wrong. Scholars do that, too. His deep admiration for Olson and his work was in that sense necessarily antithetical to Tom Clark’s relation to Olson.
You take Clark at his word and call the biography an allegory, which is a literary form in which one textual level refers to the meaning/truth of another textual level. I don’t think that’s what Clark did at all. I would call his work vivid, literary fiction, kind of like Robert Graves’ Roman novels. Or Clark’s novel of Celine (or was that a biography?). You relate Maud’s obsession with determining a particular road that Olson took one night as evidence of the silliness of his attention. That’s because Maud was obsessed with a quest for the recovery of the specific details of Olson’s life and every detail he uncovered was further proof that Clark’s book was fiction – not allegory, but fiction. Maud was obsessed with it. It was his passion, and like many passions, left him looking silly to those who have no such passion.
In a recent exchange with Tom Clark, he described to me in detail the meeting between Robert Creeley and Jack Clarke on Clarke’s deathbed: “Bob described at length and with specificity and care the poignant memory of Jack’s dying bestowal upon him of his most precious LPs, with detailed account of each having taken place, between these two men who you are imagining as eternally reft by some phantom literary bullshit.” It’s a moving image, one I am sure Tom wrote with a great deal of passion, and even believes. Problem is, I was there, and it never happened. I was sitting on the side of Jack’s bed when Bob and Pen came to say their goodbyes. It was indeed poignant. As I recall, although admittedly it was a long time ago, there was also a definite tension between the two men over the unresolved, unspoken issues that divided them at the end of Jack’s life. Be that as it may, one thing for sure, no LPs exchanged hands. Kevin Doyle got those.
But that is how Tom writes his “biographies,” his literary fictions. He is a terrific poet with a vibrant imagination, and an almost romantic sense of the dynamic relationships of the life he has led among the major literary figures of his lifetime. But he is not so good on actual details. And the problem is that his readers for whatever their various reasons tend to read the fiction as if it were actually biography. That was the problem Maud saw looming. Clark loved Olson at a certain time in their lives. The wild and woolly late 50s and early 60s, the days of the opening of the poetry wars, was a moment of intense bonding for Clark. The problem is that Olson changed. He was in fact always changing, but Clark didn’t know him in his previous incarnation, and didn’t much like him in his later incarnation.
For Olson, the decisive moment was the Berkeley Poetry Conference where he announced his departure from the very world of literature that Clark identifies with. Blame it on the acolytes. Or the drugs. Or Henry Corbin. Or . . . whatever, but someone had to be blamed for the loss of the good Charles, the beat Charles, and the emergence of the guy who talked about angels and primal gods and hung out with students at Buffalo who took him as their teacher. Creeley nails it in his introduction to the second edition of the biography. Clark’s book tells the story of the “poet of historical geography,” Creeley says. In case you missed it that is in implied opposition to the poet of “mythical reality” in which geography erupts with meaning, the poet of further, the poet of the Institute of Further Studies. I am not interested in psychologizing what happened. Sharon Thesen is right on about Clark’s understanding of the importance of Boldereff. He got the importance, even if he didn’t quite get the relationship itself and tends to treat Boldereff as if she were a victim. As Thesen makes absolutely clear, Boldereff was no victim. Clark’s anger at Olson’s “treatment” of Boldereff tells us more about Clark than it does about Olson.
Perhaps it no longer matters. As Susan Howe noted, “Olson has currently fallen out of favor . . .” He is read by fewer and fewer people, is not present in many classrooms or on many syllabi, and has a very unpleasant reputation as a bully, a drunk, a narcissist, a manipulator, and an exploiter and user of women (many of which traits are central to Clark’s representation) who wrote boring, reference laden, totalizing poems. As Charles Bernstein, in “Undone Business,” wrote: Maximus…falls prey to the impulse to justify America by the appropriation and overlaying of privileged texts (such as the Hesiodic myths, so specifically rooted in their own geographical and historical context) that are ingeniously contorted to appear relevant but are only relevant within the wildest leap of the Gnostic imagination.” Out of favor, indeed. So given Olson is out of favor and out of mind (except for an occasional glib gloss of “The Kingfishers” as a way to establish your unbiased authority as CEO of Avant-garde Poetry International), the continuing argument over differing interpretations of the biography are not just boring and tedious, they are second level boring and tedious. Who cares?
In that sense, Thesen’s essay is just more irrelevant information about events that occurred a long time ago and have been talked to death. Maud, Clark, Olson blah blah blah. But there is a very real sense in which what Thesen gives us is absolutely critical for the survival of poetry. She makes evident both the importance of acknowledging the facts – Ralph’s patriarchal blindness, Olson’s emotional ambiguities, Boldereff’s ambiguous choices, Thesen’s willing participation, and all the rest of it – and locating them as part of a world of dynamic relation between creative, thinking, flawed, beautiful people who made something marvelous even as they sometimes wounded each other. People do that. No amount of sociology or moralizing can ever explain it.