IN THE first election year that mattered to me, 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, my country killed hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, and Richard Nixon was elected president. In the decades that followed, I have always been unhappy with the leadership and direction of this country, usually very unhappy.
I was born a believer in peace. I say fight for the right. Be a martyr and live. Be a coward and die.
— Susan B. Anthony speaking in Gertrude Stein’s “The Mother of Us All”
Here are two elusive pieces of the context of midcentury American poetics. The Robert Duncan/Charles Olson letters have been available, until now, only in the brief reviews of each other that the poets extracted from them (“near-far Mister Olson” and “Against Wisdom as Such”), passages quoted by scholars who have been able to visit the archive at Storrs, and handfuls in Sulfur, Poetry, and Olson’s Selected Letters.
The tape recorder, implies Olson, makes a demand that is contiguous with the audience at the reading. It calls for the reading to become a performance, like a “concert or something.” This problem seems ironic coming from Olson, who described projective verse as a return to the possibilities of the voice and orality. I would like to take Olson’s question — and his anxiety — seriously in order to argue that it embeds both a threat to and an unacknowledged affinity with his poetics.
In response to a request to record his reading at Goddard College on April 12, 1959 (made available by the Slought Foundation and PennSound), Charles Olson quipped about the apparatus in front of him: “What happens if it just goes on and I don’t say anything?”
Olson and his translator Klaus Reichert, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Dec. 15, 1966. This recording has by far the best version of "Maximus, to Himself." While PennSound has another recording, the quality is poor. Thanks to Norbert Lange for making this recording available to us.
Bobbie Louise Hawkins took these home movies from 1962 to 1965. She provided them to Robert McTavish for his film about the Vancouver poetry conference of 1963, The Line Has Shattered (2013), and then asked McTavish to send them to PennSound. Penelope Creeley and McTavish provided most of the annotations. We welcome any further identifications: let us know!
I’m back, with apologies for the long absence. The bad news is that I had to take a month break from these Commentaries due to a minor but temporarily disabling health issue, that pretty much knocked me out of commission, for anything but the day job. The good news is that I’m healed, my “tenure”here has been extended, and I'll be posting these Commentaries through November.
Last fall, on my trip across the country (mostly by rail) to visit the park spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, I worked in a visit to one of the poets most readily associated with American space (though not urban space), Gary Snyder, at his residence high above the Yuba River, Kitkitdizze. I have yet to document that conversation (we spoke, amongst other things, of Gary’s experience bivouacking in Central Park in the late ’forties, while awaiting his seaman’s papers), which will happen, when I get around to it, on the Olmsted blog. After I left Gary, I stopped just on the other side of the Yuba River, to check out something called the Independence Trail. It turns out that the trail — occupying the site of old, abandoned hydraulic miner’s ditch — was built in answer to a request to, “Please find me a level wilderness trail where I can reach out and touch the wildflowers from my wheel chair.” It is a mostly level trail, shaded by oak and pine, that contours the slope of the undeniably wild Yuba River valley, with views to the river below. At the time, I did not know that this trail, the “First Wheelchair Accessible Wilderness Trail in America,” had been created by one John Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law. J. Olmsted worked to save hundreds of acres in what is now the South Yuba River State Park, as well as what is now Jug Handle State Nature Reserve on the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County, Goat Mountain in the Coastal Range, and the Yuba Powerhouse Ranch. He wanted to create a “Cross California Ecological Trail.” Walking his Independence Trail helped me realize, yet again, how limited my conception of wilderness can be.
The caption to Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of migrating snow geese reads: “Nearly 300,000 snow-geese arrive from their nesting ground in the Canadian high Arctic to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early autumn. They feed sixteen hours a day on a type of cotton grass to build fat before they start their long migration south to places like New Mexico (my home), California, Texas, and Mexico. During spring and summer months nearly ninety species migrate to the coastal plain from all six continents to nest and rear their young, to molt, to stage, and to feed. In my mind through migrations of these birds, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gets connected to every land and oceans of the planet. For several decades, the United States Government has been pushing hard to open up this coastal plain to oil and gas development.”
Banerjee’s Arctic images (which have become ubiquitous in media about climate change) are balanced with attention to the life ways, opportunities and challenges of the peoples most closely tied to the Arctic ecosystems (Gwich’in, Inupiat). His own personal politics as an artist who has forsworn the financial speculation of the gallery system, extending his “art” into a range of political engagements, also adds to the meaning of his images. Above all, this image speaks to the fact that every person, and every species, on this planet is connected to the fate of the Arctic ecosystems, in part through the epic migrations of species like the Snow Goose.