The recent fracas that followed an audience “question” about how Black Mountain College could call itself progressive when it was patriarchal, racist, and white (following a four-poet panel discussion at the Black Mountain College exhibit in Los Angeles), as well as my own very recent visit to the exhibit, has precipitated some memories and feelings about my long association with the late Ralph Maud as co-editor of the two editions of the correspondence between Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff. You might say “patriarchy” was the underlying theme, in both theory and practice, not only of the correspondence but also of Ralph’s and my relationship as we slowly transcribed and published the letters. The bickering, the disputes, the discussions centred mostly on how “crazy” Boldereff was (Ralph) or why she may have, legitimately, felt Olson was exploiting her (me), mirroring uncomfortably Ralph’s and my own working arrangement.
Ralph always took Olson’s side when it came to any problems between him and Frances, many stemming from the fact that Olson was married (first to Connie Olson, then to Betty Olson) during the most intense years of their love affair. Frances’ most egregious and unforgivable acts, in Ralph’s view, were when she got involved with a “beautiful young Negro” she’d met (picked up) on the subway and told Olson about; the other was when she wrote to mock Olson that she had found a man more Maximus than him.
Otherwise we were working out technical things—probable dates of undated letters; possible missing letters; illegible handwriting; unknown references—which, when solved, caused us great satisfaction. I’d type the transcription for an hour or two each working session; then we’d have lunch and then maybe work for another half hour. We did enjoy the fraught and the unfraught times, both between Boldereff and Olson and between ourselves. Ralph was unhappy any time he thought I found any legitimacy at all in Boldereff’s “demands,” as Ralph called them, on Olson; and any time it seemed that I might be in agreement with Tom Clark about Boldereff in particular, or with any of Clark’s opinions about Olson.
For the most part I didn’t—I was as put off by Clark’s 1991 biography as many readers were. But later on, I began to think more generously about what Clark may have been trying-to-say. (This was confirmed a couple of years ago while reading Iain Sinclair’s American Smoke, in which he writes “Clark is not composing a biography. He’s attempting a fiction of history: large poet in small times, a culture that has no use for him.”) Ralph, as Olson’s chief defender, was fact-checking every sentence in Clark’s book to the point of actually proving the biography was fiction. Olson criticizing female students at Black Mountain College; Olson chasing woman X or Y around; Olson breaking John Wiener’s heart by spiriting Panna Grady off to England to abort Wiener’s child; Olson taking fistfuls of psilocybin mushrooms; Olson hitting a child with his car: all lies or distortions, as Ralph detailed in many issues of The Minutes of the Charles Olson Society newsletter. Clark’s riposte was to republish the biography with not a word changed. Ralph’s riposte to that was his own 2008 “reactive biography,” Charles Olson at the Harbor, which consolidates the anti-Clark research published in years of Minutes issues.
However, my big victory had been to persuade Ralph that Boldereff’s side of the correspondence was worth transcribing in the first place. (Not that it would have gone unpublished for long.) One day in the middle of the 1980’s, Ralph had phoned and asked me if I’d have a look at some materials he’d brought back from the University of Connecticut: a 20-year correspondence between Charles Olson and the heretofore unknown Frances Boldereff. Ralph thought Frances’ letters were embarrassing and worthless, while Olson’s would prove to be very useful to the fund of Olson scholarship. I was also being asked to “look at” the correspondence with a view to, possibly, transcribing it for publication. I was a lightning typist and had worked with Ralph before, while a student at SFU in the 60’s, and we had continued a productive friendship.
Unfortunately for Ralph, he had gotten the same answer (i.e., no) from another woman he’d shown the correspondence to. But by then he had run out of options. I had the skills, the experience, and the basic knowledge of Olson’s work to do the transcription. Plus, I was curious, and eager to delve into the scandal and energy of the letters. The only thing I didn’t have was a lot of spare time.
The task seemed Herculean. There were nearly 500 letters. And Ralph was a stickler for detail. It took three decades for the entirety of the correspondence to be published; the first edition of the letters, A Modern Correspondence (truncated for the sake of length to the 1947-1950 period) wasn’t published until 1999. But then, Ralph wasn’t all that eager to spring crazy Frances onto the Olsonian deck; and I was, as Frances had been, a single working mother with many other projects and adventures both current and pending.
Ralph would come over with the three-ring binders he used as a filing system for everything he was working on, including The Minutes of the Charles Olson Society. He would have arranged the letters in chronological order and I would transcribe one small batch of them at a time, with Ralph beside me proofing what was showing up on the computer screen. Olson’s letters were typewritten to start with, but Frances’, being hand-written, could be harder to decipher. Ralph insisted on including marginalia, envelope notes, telegrams, postmark details, and unsent letters in the final manuscript. But it was also fascinating material, fascinating to see their relationship unfolding, folding, and buckling under mythologized pressures (visualized gorily in Ken Warren’s Jungian/anthropological fantasia in a House Organ review in 2000.)
Ralph had taken very seriously Olson’s request that he become Olson’s “scholar.” This had occurred at the 1963 Berkeley poetics conference. Featured poets were permitted to have their scholars accompany them (for free admission) to the various events. (I wonder who else’s scholars were attending the conference, and who they were.) From then on, Ralph conscientiously fulfilled his role. Legendary is Ralph’s patient replication of Olson’s library in his own home in Vancouver; legendary also his patient pursuit of anyone who had been acquainted with Olson, including Frances Boldereff, whom he had visited at some point prior to my involvement with the correspondence. There were to be no more visits; I would now be the visitor/detective, since Frances had told Ralph not to come back.
When I finally met Frances a year or two after we began the transcription, she was eighty-six and in the beginnings of dementia. I’d gone all the way to Illinois, presented her with a bottle of Irish whisky, and settled in to talk. When I mentioned Charles Olson, she had no idea what I was talking about. Sometime the next day she said “Olson? I knew an Olson once.” She complained that he ate her out of house and home; and how he gave her nothing back as a woman: “I’m writing to her. What more does she want?” What Frances really liked to talk about were the glories of the New York Public Library, where she had worked for a time and where she’d borrowed the Irish books and the volumes of Blake that began her research into Finnegans Wake. I visited Frances three times, once at her house in Woodward, Pennsylvania, where I also went in 2003 to attend her funeral; and twice at her home in Urbana, Illinois, where she lived with her husband, Thomas J. Phipps, Jr. Each visit presented a more compromised Frances, but never were they boring or uneventful. Frances talked nonstop. It was instructive, and moving, to witness how a life is imagined by its speaker, how its five or six main themes resonate kaleidoscopically.
Ralph’s role as Olson’s scholar became seriously time-consuming when Tom Clark published The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. No one’s objections to it were as detailed as Ralph’s. “Tawmmm Claaaark,” Ralph would intone whenever he had occasion to mention his name. And if I ever preferred Frances’ conduct to Olson’s in the correspondence, or thought Frances was influential in the invention of Maximus, I’d be accused of being on the side of TAWMMM CLAAARK.
But I’d always thought Clark’s respectful treatment of Frances Boldereff in the biography was immensely preferable to Ralph’s denigrations and belittlements. Clark saw that Boldereff had played an essential and significant role in the development of Olson’s poetics. To me also, working so closely with the “voice” of her letters, this was obvious. And it remains obvious to me, as it is to Clark, that Frances Boldereff was instrumental in the development of “projective verse” (the essay and the poetics) and in the generation of the Maximus poems, not to mention the untold number of references and images gleaned from “his Muse” (as Clark refers to her) in many other poems including “In Cold Hell, In Thicket,” “The Kingfishers,” “For Sappho, Back”,” “La Chute,” “The She-Bear,” “Ode on Nativity,” etc.. Boldereff’s leads, suggestions, and urgent recommendations (in conversation as well as in letters) were vital encouragement of Olson’s iterations of an archaic “post” modernism, that would, without going backward, create a renewed polis and a clearer-sighted citizenry.
I argued in the introduction to the second edition of the correspondence, The Later Letters, that Boldereff’s effect on twentieth century poetry and poetics was “incalculably diffusive.”
She also inspired Olson in his thinking about the breath-line, the typewriter as choreographer, and the poetics of the open. A single mother, and a typographical designer, she lived at times in desperate straits as she kept losing jobs in the New York publishing industry owing to what she called her “fiery nature.” Her book-design standards were fastidious, and she mourned the carelessness creeping into typography and book design . She was also constantly researching, writing, designing, and self-publishing books on James Joyce’s sources (beginning with Reading Finnegans Wake in 1959), few of which were reviewed. She had many complaints about the “deadness” of American culture at the time (1950’s and early 60’s), and she proposed to Olson many theories and texts that supported her own critique and suggested possible remedies. Boldereff either did not seem to recognize the post-war renewal of patriarchal authority that underlay these conditions, or she saw it in her own way . Olson himself was a remedy, she thought, when she first wrote to him about Call Me Ishmael in November 1947. “Every lover of Melville must feel deep gratitude towards you,” she wrote, adding that Olson was “one of the ones we so urgently need.” She thought, from the beginning of her relationship with Olson, that he would articulate on her behalf a new vision of America. She had many reasons to find American culture too attached to what she called a “depraved sex morality.” Un-depraved was her and Olson’s love affair. After a few days or nights with Frances, Olson was, in his own opinion, resurrected. She, however, was left alone once again.
Frances’ passionate nature, the value of her lively and delightful company, and the immense gift of her letters, including her leads, recommendations, and tips, were never publicly acknowledged by Olson, even when, later on, it may have been safe, so to speak, to do so. Even so, Olson would go into a panic whenever Frances threatened to stop writing to him. He needed her letters, for they kept on setting the path of his thought, and they kept on caring about him and challenging him as a person and as a poet. Ralph, however, characterized Frances as a “Circe” in Olson at the Harbor.
There is no doubt that the Olson-Boldereff dynamic is in many ways a nightmare of inequality and double standards. How many times did I roll my eyes or my mind at one of Frances’ more florid pronouncements? Must she claim that she and Rimbaud are the same person, not to mention herself and Olson (“I the blood, he the ink”)? Must she throw her lot in so completely with male poets and writers, and have absolutely nothing to say about any female writer other than Dora Marsden? (When I asked her about Simone de Beauvoir, she said de Beauvoir was “too much up in her head.”) Did she have to use the term “Hebraic” in such a distasteful way? Though she articulated passionately several “programs” for the improvement of the condition of women in her time, terms such as “equality” never came up. She advised women to return to what she imagined were the mental and sexual habits of Minoan times. She believed that Nature (was to blame for women’s debased status—Nature, and women themselves, for reasons she enumerated. She was not in favor of any program to “do away with the sexes”; what she envisioned was the removal of the “thorn” or the “sting” of relations between them. She thought women had become “mentally lazy” and materialistic and unhappy and that all three conditions were related.. She also had absolutely no use for Joyce’s sentimentality about “the Eternal Feminine.” Yes, she should have been more aware of the ways she rationalized Olson’s exploitation of her. Yes, her self-effacement vis-à-vis powerful male writers, her frequent references to “blood” and “race”, her admiration of Otto Weininger and other now-suspect theorists of gender such as D.H. Lawrence, could very well compromise the hopes involved in her theories. I might describe Boldereff as a masculinist feminist, a conundrum Rachel du Plessis effectively delineates in her chapter on Boldereff in Purple Passages.
Because she failed to articulate a sufficiently ideologically rigorous feminism, because she was crafting a vitalist stance on womanhood that was apposite to the problem of the “deadness” of her own times (and images of death and stagnation haunt her condemnations of 20th century American life), Boldereff has not been taken seriously in intellectual and aesthetic terms. This is not surprising, since Frances was neither an academic nor “a writer,” “a writer” being a term she frequently denied applied to her. She chose instead to consider himself a compiler, a reader, an editor.. And as the engine of Olson’s assault on what she first called “the whole inherited puffball,” she created a metaphor Olson made his own and which his readers, as well as the subsequent history of American poetics, remain the beneficiary of.
Except for an illuminating review-essay (“Prelude to the Black Mountain Years: Olson and Boldereff”) by Eleanor Berry in Mississippi Quarterly (2000), there has been little acknowledgement of the essential role Boldereff played in the development of projectivist poetics. The critical problem seems to be the distortions of gendered, patriarchal assumptions within projectivist poetics themselves, if we confine projectivist poetics to the vernacular of Olson’s 1950 essay alone and ignore an influence far beyond it, an influence DuPlessis argued during the panel discussion that, for herself, was in its opening of form.
Ralph continued to insist that Frances had no significant effect on Olson’s writing, even though Olson said she did. After 1950, Olson was writing mostly to Robert Creeley. Creeley was involved with Black Mountain College; Boldereff was an outsider who thought that Black Mountain College was ruining Olson’s life and his writing. She felt his attention shifting far away from her interests and concerns, but for a while was able to reconnect with him via the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, specifically Rimbaud’s poem “Credo in Unam,” which Frances translated as “I believe in wholeness.” Olson replied with the poem “I Believe in You” and gave a seven-hour lecture at Black Mountain College based on her translation. “I caught fire and went 7 hours, and so much I sd….sounded as much yrs as mine.”
The current critical trend to delight itself with ahistorical, absolutist enumerations of the errors of the past, including the ostensibly “patriarchal, racist, white” identity of Black Mountain College (1933-1957) is fundamentalism. What is the point? To flatter the scrupulous ethical standards of the inquisitor? To blame as insufficiently sociologically current Black Mountain College’s conscientiously progressive mandate at that time, in that era in the American South? To withhold imagination from judgement? What about the catastrophic errors of the present, the ones we are most blind to and most willingly accommodating of? Olson’s term “pejorocracy” is due for renewed methodological attention, as is his insistence on the value of seeing for oneself.. We might reconsider as claims to knowledge today’s exponential increase in the number of categories and classifications. As Miriam Nichols writes, Olson’s “polemic against Western metaphysics, Plato to Melville, comes of the conviction that humanity has so anthropomorphized its own material life and that of nature that it has mistaken the mental realm of concepts for reality as such.”
Everyone involved in the Olson/Boldereff correspondence could be condemned for being less than exemplary. Ralph is probably in Purgatory as we speak, regretting his sexist views of Frances. I wish I had done a lot of things differently. Frances once asked Olson to lend her some money but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Frances hurt Olson’s feelings with her “more Maximus than you” remark. Olson never publicly acknowledged Frances as a person he loved and cared about. Frances had a destructive effect on both of Olson’s marriages. In the end, Frances had to admit that as far as Charles Olson was concerned, she had been “misled by joy.”
Which is why we need artists, poets, and visionaries; philosophers, mystics, and geniuses; autodidacts, elders, and scholars: for the sake of joy. For the sake of the everything that is the world and the everything that is poetry.. Sometimes they make fools of themselves. Charles and Frances thought that their mutual project was powerful enough to “dynamite the Patriarchy.” What a thought! And, to fortify it, we might imagine being Frances Boldereff that November day in 1947, “standing longingly in front of the Melville shelves” and coming across Call Me Ishmael by the relatively unknown Charles Olson who, up to that point, had published six poems.