Dear Ms. Emily Post-Avant:

I learned about a poet named Charles Olson a couple of years ago in an extension course here at the local college. He is a real hard read, but I liked him anyway. I got some stuff, which seemed interesting about history and what not, but even what I didn’t understand sounded good. And it was about interesting stuff – fishermen and old time sailors instead of all about how he felt, which I am not much interested in.

So while looking through your site a few days ago (it’s the talk of the literary community here in Moosonee – well, our book club, anyway.), I was excited to come across a link to the Gloucester Writers Center called “A look at Charles Olson through the works of Kate Colby, Amanda Cook and Kate Tarlow Morgan.” Aha, thought I, I’m going to get the scoop on this fella.

I was disappointed, though. The only thing Ms. Colby said about him was that he wanted to “include everything” in his poem. She said that a number of times. I take it she thinks that is a bad thing, because she couldn’t stop saying it, and that she didn’t do that. I am not sure what that even means, however, so I kept waiting for her to quote some Olson that would clarify things and show how he does that “include everything” thing. But by the time I got to the end of her talk, there wasn’t a single word from Olson. She had completely silenced him.

She did talk about and quote some French novelist named Joris-Karl Huysmans. In fact it seemed like he was her man, and they were lined up against Olson. Irene, in the book club last night, when she heard I was writing to the great Emily Post-Avant, she said, “You might want to question what Against the Grain has to do w/ the price of rice in China.  And you might question why she chose to use as Olson’s foil a later-day mystic who took a vow of silence & died of mouth cancer. Wassup w/ that?” When Irene talks, you can actually hear those /s.

So I found myself wondering, is that all there is to this Olson fella? Then it occurred to me maybe there is no Olson fella. Maybe “Olson” is a just a “rhetorical figure.” Rhetorical figures is something I learned about at the college. Is Charles Olson a kind of anaphora, I asked myself, seeing how Colby repeated over and over that “Olson wanted to include everything.” Or maybe a reverse paralipsis, if there is such a thing, in that she kept saying “include everything” like she was going to explain it, and then didn’t.

The sad fact is, you couldn’t really get much on Olson from her talk – other than that inclusion thing she goes on about. You do get a lot about Kate Colby, though. Her talk was really all about the fascinating topic of . . . Kate Colby, not Charles Olson at all. He was just something she occasionally brought up as a way to talk more about herself and how she didn’t want to include everything in her poems.

Anyways, my question to you (at long last – ha ha) is this: is this “Charles Olson” fella a real fella, or is he just a rhetorical fella?

Actually here are a few more while I got your ear.

  • What does it mean to say that “Charles Olson” wanted to “include everything” in his poem?
  • If this Olson is a real fella, why do writers like Kate Colby and Susan Howe (I read about her in another one of your articles) want to silence him, turn him into a marionette, putting their words in his mouth and claiming they are his?
  • We know it’s a bad thing when a man silences a woman. Is it OK for a woman poet to silence a man poet?

Oh yeah, one more easy one:

  • What did Robert Duncan mean when he said the Maximus Poems contained the mysteries of “the men’s longhouse?”

OK, that’s it for now. I am going to listen to the other two. Hopefully I will learn something about Olson from them.

We love your column up here in Moosonee. We are your biggest fans. Gladys, down at the Home Hardware, she has your column about those Oakland communists tacked up on the cork by the checkout. It gives her such a hoot. Can’t stop talking to people about it.

Sincerely yours,


A big P.S.:

I just listened to the other two talks on that tape and it was very interesting. The first one, Amanda Cook, grew up in the same town Olson wrote about and she had some anxiety coming out of that. Who can blame her? She seemed to like him, at least at the start of her talk, and wanted to find some way to come into a relation with him and his poems (which she included, so we got to judge what she was talking about) that didn’t overwhelm her. Like silence her, you know? But then she seemed to get more and more angry with him, and the more angry she got, the more all she could talk about was her anger. Mr. Olson disappeared and the Rhetorical Fella took his place. That’s not so interesting to me.

But I got to tell you, that third speaker, she was a real humdinger. Kate Tarlow Morgan. Right from the git go she went into Mr. Olson’s writing in a way that was critical but respectful and obviously interested in conversing with him about the body and thinking and all sorts of interesting stuff. She had her own ideas, and she talked to him about them. And it seemed like we all learned something, her, me, even that Olson fella if he’d been around. If you want to learn something about him, she’s your woman.


* *


Dear Perplexed,

I listened to it, too. The first presentation by Ms. Colby, that is. It was a very long 27 minutes.

What does any of this have to do with Charles Olson, I kept asking myself, and then, when it was over, I changed the does to did and the this to that. I have been sitting here for forty-five minutes trying to write the next sentence. I give up.

But in this case, it’s OK for me to fail for words. Your questions don’t require answers. They are charming, brilliant examples of performative hypophora, and thus they answer themselves more pointedly than any reply I might provide.

Say hello to the good folks at the Home Hardware, and tell them I am flattered they read me. Believe it or not, I was in Moosonee once, at the police station, booked for going 50 in a 25 zone on Main Street. I was trying to make the next ferry to Moose Factory so I could get there before Happy Hour at the Lobster Trap Tap was over. It’s a lovely little town. I’ll bet Charles Olson would have loved Moose Factory. The longhouse there is full of ghosts.

—Emily Post-Avant