One of the advantages of being an academic is a steady trickle of free books – desk copies, exam copies, payoffs for evaluating manuscripts. And one of the advantages of living with another academic is precisely doubling that advantage. In short, J. read a manuscript from a press the other month, and one of the new haul of freebies was for me – Ralph Maud’s What Does Not Change: The Significance of Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1998). It’s a nice piece of work: a compact, lucidly-written long essay presenting an old-fashioned explication-du-texte of Olson’s 1949 long poem – a poem which would prove to be a milestone in the foundation of postmodern American poetries. It’s the very first selection in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry, the first thing to jump out of the book at the host of casual backpackers & hitchhikers who carried that anthology in their rucksacks over the first half of the 1960s.
I’d already read Maud’s previous book, Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography (Southern Illinois UP, 1996), which was sublimely informative, and a great idea, as well: to tell the working life of a famously “bookish” writer by painstaking chronicling what he was reading at any given point, & how it got into his work. What Does Not Change does a certain amount of similar source-hunting, and as far as I’m concerned pins down precisely all of Olson’s sources for “The Kingfishers.” In many ways, Maud’s book is a response to his old grad school colleague Guy Davenport’s “Scholia and Conjectures for Charles Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’” (1973), which now appears to be composed far more of “conjectures” than of reliable “scholia.” So now we know who “Fernand” is (one John Gernand, whom CO met at a party in 1948 & then misremembered his name), & the source of O’s factoid about the Mongolian louse in pre-Columbian tombs (Frederick Merk’s 1937-8 lectures in History 62, Harvard).*
Maud does a sturdy job of interpreting the poem – he firmly believes, like Robert Von Hallberg, that Olson’s is a discursive poetics, that he has something to say – & he nicely situates the poem in the context of Olson’s early career. I suppose what I’d like to read now is a history of the poem’s life among readers, its afterlife among all those hitchhikers with The New American Poetry wearing corners between their shoulderblades.
In re/ that last post about the Academy of American Poets’ website: as per Norman’s suggestion, I copied my sniffy letter to a couple of sympathetic chancellors of the Academy, and by the end of yesterday (Monday) I had spent some time on the phone with an Associate Director, who apologized handsomely; things will be put right. As I’d suspected, there was an intern back of it all. But out of sheer cussedness, I’m gonna keep the post up for a few days before deleting it in the spirit of Xtian (or at least “gearing up for this Fall’s Bible as Lit course”) forgiveness.
*Of course, committed Olsonians have probably known this stuff for ages; but it’s nice to have it all between one set of covers.