(Peter Anastas and Vincent Ferrini at Charles Olson’s apartment, 28 Fort Square, Gloucester, January 1970; photograph by Charles Lowe, Gloucester Daily Times, from the archives of the Cape Ann Museum)


An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, Robert Berthholf (Editor), Dale M. Smith (Editor), UNM Press, 2017.


“We also knew Olson as a secret spy of all the Gods in disguise.  Walking around Gloucester as a big man in sloppy pants; hanging around the bars; talking to the fishermen; shuffling around in the registry of deeds; looking at old court records to find out who first stole the land from the Indians; how much they got when they resold the land; and how the new owners abused the land, subdivided it, killed the Indians and the animals; and how their descendants continued exploiting their stolen property, and turned it into inhuman plastic.”

—Allen Ginsberg, at Charles Olson’s funeral, January 13, 1970, Gloucester, Massachusetts


I read my first poem by Charles Olson in the pages of Vincent Ferrini’s magazine Four Winds as a high school student during the summer of 1952.    But I came much later to Robert Duncan.  In college the Beats were my poets—Ginsberg, Corso, di Prima.   When I returned from Europe in 1962, Duncan’s name was prominent during nightly conversations at Olson’s 28 Fort Square dinner table.  Those who gathered to discuss everything from James Joyce to JFK were expected to have read poets like Irving Layton and Drummond Hadley, whose names often entered the talk that usually began after Olson emerged from his bedroom at the dinner hour and continued until early morning, when the whiskey had been exhausted and Olson excused himself to spend the remainder of the night writing.

Don Allen’s The New American Poetry, was published in 1960.  This seminal authority became the handbook for an understanding of what had been written by the Beat, Black Mountain and other vanguard poets, who replaced the academic poets of the 1950s, like Lowell and Snodgrass, whom our teachers had without success been urging us to read.  If it wasn’t Ginsberg, McClure or O’Hara, whose incendiary work came to us in the Evergreen Review, it was their progenitors Pound and Williams, who excited us.

I had not read Duncan’s poetry until that time, though I ought to have encountered it in the Evergreen Review, or in Cid Corman’s Origin, which I had been given by Vincent Ferrini, one of the stalwarts at Olson’s table.  Nevertheless, it was Olson’s mention of Duncan as though he were among us, and his reading to us from Duncan’s letters as soon as Don Whynott, the letter carrier, delivered them to the door of Olson’s second-floor apartment, that sent me back to Allen’s indispensable anthology, and hence to Duncan’s masterful The Opening of the Field, which appeared in 1960, the same year that Olson’s The Distances was published, both by Barney Rosset’s Grove Press.

Though Olson carried on important correspondences in those years (1957-1969) after he returned home from Black Mountain—his longest with Creeley and Frances Boldereff, and a briefer but no less crucial one with avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage—his exchange of letters with Duncan, that began on September 9, 1947 and ended with the older poet’s death, on January 10, 1970, seemed of paramount importance.

“Charles is just like I am,” Duncan once said of his fellow poet.  “He sits around and reads all day.”   No one read as much and as deeply as Olson, except possibly for Gerrit Lansing, who left a library of over 20,000 volumes.  But Olson, who’d worked as a letter carrier in his adopted city (“people want delivery”), was equally a writer of letters.  “Don’t hesitate to use the mails,” Olson often exhorted friends blearily on their way out of his kitchen door at dawn, so that the conversation we had been engaged in all night could be sustained on the page.

As for Olson himself, he is still remembered as lumbering down Main Street enveloped in a blanket—it was actually a Mayan Indian serape, acquired while doing archeological and linguistic research in Yucatan in 1951 on a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant.   Since his days in Washington at the Office for War Information, he had grown a thick mustache, and his hair was tonsured like a monk’s.  As it whitened, he allowed it to grow long, often tying it in a ponytail.  Along with the serape, he would wrap a moth eaten Shetland sweater around his neck, summer and winter, to keep the chills that assailed his massive frame at bay.

To be with Olson in those years was to have lived intensely.  One had a sense of what the Concord of Emerson and Thoreau might have been like, the talk of books, the activism, Olson’s attempt to live a life free of materialism—“in the midst of plenty walk as close to bare.”  In Concord, Emerson’s “plain living and high thinking” was tested by the rise of the Abolitionist movement, just as our city was being torn down around us by Urban Renewal (“renewal by destruction”) and the nation was in turmoil over Civil Rights and opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.

So while the talk at Olson’s table was of poetry, or who would be visiting or had visited Gloucester (Jack Kerouac, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka, Hettie Jones, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, John Wieners, Ed Sanders, Ann Charters, among many others) to pay their respects to a poet who lived with his wife and son in a $28 a month cold-water walk-up overlooking the city’s waterfront, the background to our talk and the reading of letters, journals and books that arrived daily in the mail, was the war raging a world away and the growing opposition to that war in the country’s streets.

Such were the times: and I can only mark them here as an era of turmoil, during which we watched our republic falling apart, just as we experienced some of its greatest achievements in the work of writers and visual artists, whose poetry and paintings continually energized our conversations, keeping us sane in a world we believed gone mad.

There was a great spontaneity about Olson, along with a huge thirst for knowledge, for getting it right, even if it kept him and his friends up all night.  I remember one day—oddly in the afternoon—he called me over to his house to help him translate some passages from Hesiod’s Theogony (Smith kindly mentions my knowledge of Ancient Greek in the notes to these letters).  The gigantic poet was in bed—he often took to his bed when life got to be overwhelming, or when he needed to be utterly isolated so that he could work in peace.

I knocked quietly on the door to be let in by his second wife Betty, mother of Charles Peter, soft spoken with raven hair piled high on her head, the delicate abstract paintings she was working on spread out on the floor of the room between the kitchen and Olson’s study-bedroom.  She led me to Charles who sat up in bed surrounded by stacks of books—the original texts of Hesiod’s Theogony, his Greek-English lexicon, some hand written lines of a poem in which he hoped to quote Hesiod.

“I’m stuck on a phrase,” he said, making room for me to join him on the double bed.  He was in pajamas—Betty told me he’d only left the bed to eat and use the bathroom, he was so intent on the poem.   He smelled of the cigarettes that never seemed to leave his fingers.  We got to work, comparing the Loeb translation with Olson’s reading word by word.  I experienced first-hand how Olson’s mind worked, grasping for an idea or insight, rejecting it, checking the definition of  a word in his Oxford dictionary, or maybe the big Webster’s that lay open on his immense work table.  What were the roots?  How might Hesiod have employed the word or phrase, Homer? (Olson’s bible was Victor Berard’s 1931, Did Homer Live?, his copy made illegible by marginalia).

In retrospect, I do not know how helpful I was to Olson, but in encounters like the one I describe I observed one of America’s most original minds in action, to such an extent that I received an education I could never have obtained in graduate school, which I soon abandoned.

Olson’s kitchen had a gas-on-gas range that heated only that room.  There was a rusted kerosene stove in his study and some electric space heaters scattered around the flat, always damp from the fog off Gloucester harbor.  On the walls were coast and geodetic survey charts of Cape Ann and the Gulf of Maine, and a street map of Gloucester on which Olson pinned notes about who had lived where, and when.  At the center of that map was Dogtown, Cape Ann’s vast, wild interior, whose mythic origins Olson counterposed to the maritime history of the city (“go inland, the city is shitty…”)

Often at the table, along with Ferrini, whom Olson had met in 1949, when he paid a “fan call” to the former General Electric bench hand at his Liberty Street home, after reading a poem of Ferrini’s in a literary magazine, was Jonathan Bayliss, a Harvard and Berkeley educated novelist and playwright, who made his living as a market analyst at Gorton’s, Gloucester’s principal seafood company; Gerrit Lansing, also Harvard, whose exquisite poetry was just then beginning to be published; and painter Harry Martin, at whose studio on Main Street the group from Olson’s kitchen often spilled over to, along with whoever else happened to be visiting—once it was Harry’s friend Patrick Balfour, the 3rd Baron Kinross.

This then is the setting: Olson’s dinner on the table, which he picked at while talking, smoking and drinking; the day’s cache of mail, from which he read us a prize letter from Duncan when it arrived, or from J. H. Prynne; dozens of little magazines in German, French and Japanese; and the other correspondence from writers of his acquaintance going back to Harvard and Washington, D.C., from Black Mountain students and friends; though much of it came from readers he did not know, but who, having discovered a Maximus Poem in one of the many journals where the poems often appeared (including Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts) were prompted to write Olson.

I linger over these details to help you see what it was like to be around Olson in those fruitful years before Betty’s accidental death in Buffalo and his wanderings away from Gloucester to teach and read in the larger world.  For the atmosphere in which Olson lived and wrote, and into which letters like those from Duncan dropped, letters that fueled and informed the dialogue that kept Olson writing and thinking about the process of writing, was as much a part of the poetry as his night-long reading in the Quarterly Court Records of Essex County, where he found details of  the daily life—who sued whom for slander, which husband left his goods and chattels to his second wife; who had encroached on whose property, or stolen prize pears from a neighbor’s tree—in which the poetry was grounded.

While it is true that the most important phase of the correspondence occurred before Olson had returned to Gloucester, the years in which he and Duncan grappled with the work of creating a new poetics, the letters of the Gloucester years, though less frequent, are no less significant.

Looking back, it now seems to me that our talk and the endless conversations Olson had with other friends and visitors was like a holiday for the poet, a time and place for letting his hair down, for sharing what he had been thinking, trying it out among contemporaries who were open to it; while the real work of thrashing out the methodology through which the great Gloucester epic was expressed took place in Olson’s voluminous correspondence.   There was the reading, too, the work of intense and deeply mined research; but it was in the correspondence that Olson was utterly himself.  To turn the pages of An Open Map, is to discover two major poets, possibly the most important of their time, connecting intellectually and through their delight in language, in ways that in our era seem nearly impossible.

It is difficult to find a finer premise for these letters than in the introduction to the collection by Smith and Bertholf, where the editors describe the correspondence as “one of the foundational literary exchanges in American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century.”   Duncan and Olson are said to have “met each other with huge accomplishments, an inquiring declarative intelligence, wide ranging interests in history and occult literature, and the urgent demand to be a poet.”  Struggling together “to articulate a new basis for poetics, their shared goal was to reestablish the uses of poetry beyond the domain of literature, to confront a large cultural and historical field of action.”

As the editors equally assert, both poets favored the open approach “in resistance to New Criticism and to the models of closed form verse then promoted in academia and the literary public sphere.”  In other words, the verse they were each striving to achieve was open, not unlike the manner of Pound’ s Cantos, to whatever was happening or had happened in the world around them, personally in their own lives, and also to what they were reading, or what had simply occurred to them daily: a word on the street, a newspaper article, or an inquiry from a friend or reader.

There is nothing that seems to have escaped them in their struggle to make a poetry that was both original (Olson’s “projectivity,” Duncan’s “thinking of my own going at it along a literary voice”) and resonant. So while Duncan writes on January 9, 1963, “in vegetative terms I’m likely to luxuriate; not, here, to go beyond my roots, for I put out roots as richly as I put out branches: but to go outside of my seed,” Olson responds with a quotation from one of his most powerful poems: “I have this sense/that I am one/with my skin.”  For both poets the body was central, as ground of being, as Olson had explored in his essays on Proprioception, and Duncan had written about in his masterful poem Groundwork: “Now so late that my body/darkens and the gossip of years/goes on loosening the tides of/my body.”  “I now lie in a dark of my own/nursing my body’s unquiet watch.”

While there were few face to face meetings between the two poets, the correspondence promoted a closeness, a sense of collegiality that could hardly be imagined now in the illusory intimacy of the internet.  “I miss your spirit in in my life,” Olson, lonely and declining in health, wrote to Duncan in April of 1968, seven months before his diagnosis of liver cancer, “and got part of it reading your piece on Dante…got it right beside me now,” And on December 18, 1969, Duncan responded, as his friend lay dying in New York Hospital: “It is a beautiful music for these here ears, and a music that is thruout, a melody of idears [sic] (as vision we hear must be.”)

There was much that was new to me during those years in Olson’s kitchen, much that I did not understand; but reading this immaculately edited collection of letters between Olson and Duncan it all comes back to me with a stunning sense of revelation, of deep humility and gratitude for what I was privileged to have participated in.

(This review first appeared in Beat Scene, #90, Late Summer 2018)