Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Editing Olson

Ron implies that I’ve “disparaged” WCW’s late poems: hell, yes! There’s a difference between reaching a certain “relaxed” moment in one’s career, a place where you can slacken up on the hard tightened forms of earlier moments – I see that in Journey to Love and The Desert Music, and in parts of Paterson – and the simple, pitiable symptoms of age and infirmity. There are moments in the “Pictures from Brueghel” poems where one sees WCW’s old cunning & fire breaking out, but there are a lot more moments where he’s just squeezing out lines in order to keep some grasp on his own self-image in the face of strokes, cancer, near-blindness, etc. It’s deeply admirable, and often heartbreaking, but it doesn’t make for compelling art.


I’m about halfway thru Charles Olson’s big Collected Poems (Excluding the Maximus Poems) (and that’s one big exclusion). A frustrating read. Olson can be so good when he’s on, and so unutterably limp and wooden when he isn’t. I won’t say that he’s a dour poet – to the contrary – but he’s got one of the bluntest, least subtle senses of humor in 20th-century American writing.

One of the frustrations with Olson’s Collected is that one never gets the sense of an ongoing career, spelled out in a series of collections. It’s just there – about 650 pages, over 400 poems arranged in rough chronological order of composition. I can see the wisdom of that on the part of George Butterick, the editor: after all, Olson simply didn’t seem particularly interested in issuing volumes of short poems that would serve as signposts to his work, as you can chart WCW over Kora in Hell, Spring and All, and so forth. But what’s missing in this behemoth of a book is any sense of Olson as arranger of his own works.

Olson’s short poems were gathered in three significant collections during his lifetime (I pass over a number of chapbooks and very short gatherings), and in one further collection shortly after his death:

In Cold Hell, In Thicket, published by Robert Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca in 1953: this volume includes 23 poems (Olson had chosen 26, but Creeley as editor deleted 3), including such masterpieces as “The Kingfishers” and the title poem. A major book, announcing Olson as a major poet.

The Distances, published by Grove Press in 1960: includes 21 poems, the first 10 of which are recycled from In Cold Hell. Olson had apparently planned a much larger volume, but got cold feet and withdrew many of the poems intended for the book. This is a beautifully printed and textually quite sound edition. (In the intro to the Collected Butterick cites only 5 errors in The Distances, and four of them have been corrected in my copy, which is the 3rd printing.) This was, incidentally, my own introduction to Olson some 20 years ago, and it still stands as one of the landmark reading experiences of my life.

•The New Directions Selected Writings, edited by Creeley in 1966, contains a section of short poems that includes 16 poems, most of them from The Distances.

After Olson’s death, Albert Glover and George Butterick put together Archaeologist of Morning (Grossman, 1971), which collects every poem Olson ever published, whether in book form or periodicals. It contains around 100 poems, which means that roughly 2/3 of the poems were appearing there for the first time in book form. The U of California Collected Poems ups the ante by including unpublished typescript and manuscript poems as well, bringing the total up to over 400 – three-quarters of which had never before appeared in a book.

This implies a couple of things to me: First, Olson (leaving aside whether, once he’d gotten Maximus underway, he really cared much about what happened to his short poems) never much thought in terms of short poem collections: the three gatherings during his lifetime are very much in the vein of “selected poems” (“The Kingfishers,” for instances, appears in all three). There’s no sense of “hey, I have a 100 or 150 pages of manuscript lying around, let’s do a new collection.” Second, what arrangement and thought Olson did give to his short poems – and I’m persuaded that In Cold Hell, In Thicket and The Distances are deeply thought-thru selections, carefully programmed and ordered -– is entirely lost in the big Collected Poems. If you're a real masochist, you can figure out which poems appeared in which collections, but only by wading through the textual notes at the end of the book; and there’s no way whatsoever of figuring out how the poems were originally ordered in those collections.

That’s a great loss, and it’s not at all compensated by having everything in chronological order, whatever advantages such ordering might otherwise have. Given the lavishness of the California presentation – it’s a big book, beautifully printed – and given Butterick’s otherwise scrupulous attention to textual matters, it would have helped all of us out a great deal to include a four-page appendix with the tables of contents of In Cold Hell, The Distances, and Selected Writings (not to mention Y&X, Olson’s first chapbook, and such ephemerae as O’Ryan and West). It would at least have helped the reader who wants to go straight to Olson’s own selections of his work, and then slog her way through the poems that he dashed off at odd moments and then lost under the stacks of magazines or shoved into the odd copy of Moby-Dick.


Jesus H. Christ.


Ron said...

Which 3 poems did Creeley omit from In Cold Hell, In Thicket?

fairest said...

I never thought of Olson as being humorless, but yes, that's exactly it. I often find his prose more interesting, more vital, and the adjective of his name more important than the actual work.

Did you hear radio commercials for the Regan contest? "Who will it be... the greatest American ... will it be the man who ended the civil war ... or will it be the man who ended the cold war ... stay tuned as you puke!"