John (Jack) Clarke and Charles Olson first met in the spring of 1964 at Albert Cook’s house in Buffalo, New York. The previous year Cook had recruited Olson to teach at the newly expanded State University of New York at Buffalo, offering him free reign with courses in both modern poetry and myth. Cook, who had directed Clarke’s dissertation on William Blake, was also trying to hire him away from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana and invited him to Buffalo for a job interview. Clarke came to the interview knowing nothing of Olson, and with several reservations about the possible move to Buffalo. After the job interview, there was a party at Cook’s house. Clarke recalls:
Later that night Charles came down to the party. I was sitting on a straight chair by the fireplace and he sat down on the couch, like so ‾‾‾‾‾• and the connection was instaneous—maybe that’s a new word, I meant instantaneous, but like that one better, it accents the sta etymon . . .. Olson’s report of the meeting, as someone later told me, was that he dug my pants, the material they were made of, and the way I was sitting with my legs crossed. Upshot of course was that all other considerations were blown away: I was coming to Buffalo.1
It was a turning point in both men’s lives. The relationship was mutually generative and productive. Olson, among other things, got Blake, a visionary poet who became increasingly important in his thinking, from Clarke. He also got the loyal friendship of a remarkable person with a brilliant, unorthodox mind who was interested in and able to keep up with his cosmological venturing.
It was the first time Olson had taught since Black Mountain College. He dove into his topics with fervour, exploring and developing his own thinking along with his students’, pushing into realms of deep cosmological space following his understanding that poetry is a mode of knowing, what he called “animate” (“the aboriginal instance of activity”) and essential: “I am here seeking to speak within, or across the ‘range’ of a principle of likeness which includes, and seeks to ‘cover’ what Henry Corbin reminds me is a constantly affirmed homology among the initiatic cosmos, the world of nature, and the celestial world.”2
As early as 1962 at Goddard College, Olson had expressed his rejection of the literary and, implicitly, the professionalization of American poetry, including the drift of the New American poets into that range of political compromise.3 As Fred Wah put it, Olson
was ‘ideologically’ insisting on a certain “attention” to the politics of poetry and his particular map of Amurican poetry. Eg: In September 1964, as I think I’ve mentioned to you, in our first class, he erased Drummond Hadley from the map, the only poet remaining from the previous year. This had to do with Drum’s decision to not publish his book with Harvey [Brown’s Frontier Press]. That is, O still had definite ideas about poetry as a social and political possibility. Both the Goddard (I would guess) and the Berkeley were him performing the necessary resistance to the poetry world’s appropriation of the NAP.4
This move was entangled with his reading and teaching at Buffalo and the dimensions into which his thinking was tropologically leading (“of tip and end / of gravity”), setting the stage for the scandalous Event he enacted at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference that left so many of his former friends dumbfounded and even hostile.
From 1963 through the death of Betty Kaiser, his wife, in a car crash in March, 1964, to the Berkeley Conference, until he finally turned his myth class over to Clarke and left Buffalo for good in September, 1965, Olson’s thinking and writing were intricately tied to his work with his students in Buffalo and his rejection of a poetry world that was increasingly professionalized. Clarke was close to Olson through all of that. The Magazine of Further Studies, which was published by the students in Olson’s courses, including Clarke, stands as a still living example of the rejection of the institutionalized literary.
For his part, Clarke found his intellectual and artistic life redefined in terms of a company of scholars and poets crystallizing around Olson’s prodigious and provocative cosmogonic energies. He became a self-described student of Olson’s, or as he puts it in one of the essays included here, a novice, as in Novalis’s Novices of Saïs. He had a popular poster framed on his dining room wall, an image of a boy seated next to an elephant, his small arm heroically and lovingly embracing what he can reach of the massive figure next to him. That, Jack said, was an image of his relation to Charles. It was not a relation that many men (or women), especially literary heroes, could entertain. But Jack was about as far from those inherently individualistic modes of being—and the thought of rewards—as it is possible to imagine; not anti, just somewhere else entirely, patiently doing, as Emerson proposed, his work: “My life is not for spectacle. But do your work and I will know you.”
While that work went on in relation to Olson, it is not accurate to speak of it in terms of “Olson’s influence” on Clarke because the dynamic of their relationship differed fundamentally from the relation such a phrase implies. They travelled in the company of each other’s thinking. Clarke found a boundless potential there, a thinking that resonated with Blake’s thinking, opening into otherwise occulted complexities of our strange condition.
Clarke was always further. His reading of Blake, which went on constantly, took him into depths of gnosis that made him the primary transmission point for Blake’s thinking in the twentieth century. No one else absorbed Blake to the degree that Clarke did, turning that thought/poetry/vision into a poetics of full intensity, an emergent thinking. As an accomplished jazz pianist—he toured with a band in his youth—he brought a practicing jazz musician’s ear to the poetic line. His understanding of improvisation was thoroughly grounded in a musical knowledge of rhythm and measure, so that his thinking/knowing is inextricable from musical being.
And by thinking, I mean poetry. After meeting Olson, poetry became the centre of every dimension of Jack’s life. By and large, as the thousands of unpublished poems in his notebooks testify to, most of his mental work went into the thinking of poetry, or poetry’s thinking, or thinkingpoetry, which he understood, like Olson, to be a specific and untranslatable mode of knowing. The piece which opens this selection, “Lots of Doom,” is his homage to Olson’s Berkeley “reading” and embodies that chiasmic identity, moving back and forth, in and out of thinking/talking/poetry as if they were interchangeable. Albert Glover’s editing of Clarke’s writing in “toward a #6” reveals the same multi-valenced mind at work/play in language, including letters, poems, and reading/bibliography, all facets of the same lively attention. So does the dance of mind among the varied selections that compose this book, the lively thinking that charges every word with vision and energy.
Clarke moved, as Al Cook stated, as far beyond Olson as Olson moved beyond Pound. For Clarke, the destiny of poetry was what Blake called four-fold vision, a state of being in which the plenitude of the world is fully engaged in creative entangled workplay, the full realization of the creative. In From Feathers to Iron, his masterwork on poetics, he calls it “the strengthening method of world completion,” a task particularly urgent given the world historical crisis, the broken Sampo, we find ourselves in. Myth is a crucial part of that undertaking because myth’s figures and stories are modes (forms) of knowing the world’s timeless energies, energies that shape and fuel our lives. But so was science, itself a kind myth yielding a particular knowing of the world’s being. And the unfolding dramas of contemporary politics. These were all dimensions of the depth of the world he pointed out, its information. The poetry included here enacts that thinking as it traverses the difficult, shattered condition of the post-modern world, always with remarkable humour and a gentle spirit.
Beginning shortly after Olson’s death, the 1970’s saw a growing criticism of Olson’s reputation and his work from several directions. Perhaps the reaction was inevitable, given the enormous authority that people had invested in him, even if he had not asked for it. But the professionalism that Olson abjured took hold with a vengeance as the culture of rapture, rupture, and transgression gave way to the era of Reagan and Thatcher, and the conservatism that filtered through the common world, even when it proposed itself as “avant-garde.” It was not kind to Olson.
The metamorphosis of Olson’s reputation was not unlike the cycle of Blake’s “Mental Traveller,” the poem Frances Boldereff sent to Olson in 1950, with its vision of the inevitable cycles of revolution and reaction, creative release and containment. As Blake has it in his poem, the energy and imagination that Olson represents are nailed to a rock and bound with iron thorns. By the early 90’s Olson’s character and contribution were subjected to serious, often negative, revision.5 Clarke argued quietly but resolutely against that sad fact, even as he recognized the overwhelming forces lining up against him, including importantly some of Olson’s former friends who couldn’t accept the continuing transformations which took him beyond the literary world they were committed to.
The three essays on Olson were Clarke’s final, reasoned gestures of resistance to the portrait of a monstrous Olson typified by Thomas Disch’s glowing review of Tom Clark’s biography, Charles Olson, the Allegory of a Poet’s Life,6 and to concurrent attempts to reduce Olson to simply a poet of “historical geography.” They were also his assertion of the lasting value of Olson’s unmatched contribution to the thinking of our condition at the bloody end of modern oblivion and, once again, the Babe . . .. The love and respect they embody resonate with a quiet brilliance and insight that will endure.
– Michael Boughn, Toronto, 24 January 2017
1 John Clarke to Tom Clark, October 23, 1986
2 “The Animate vs. the Mechanical, and Thought.” In Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
3 See Charles Olson at Goddard College, April 12-14, 1962. Ed. Kyle Schlesinger. Houston: Cuneiform Press, 2011.
4 Personal email correspondence dated 31 August 2016.
6 Thomas Disch’s review of Clark’s book first appeared as “Iambic Megalomania” in the Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1991. It was reprinted as “The High Priest of High Times” in The Castle of Indolence, NY: Picador USA, 1996