from Maximus to Gloucester

Edited by Peter Anastas


From the Introduction to
Maximus to Gloucester

Between mid-December of 1962, and his death on January 10, 1970, Charles Olson wrote a total of seventeen letters to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times. Five of these communications were in the form of poems; the remaining twelve were prose letters. Fourteen were published on the editorial page, either under the usual "Letters to the Editor" column or in special layouts, often illustrated with photographs and sometimes accompanied by editorials on the same topic or issue, as if to highlight or underscore the importance of Olson's views. Olson sent and subsequently withdrew one letter, dated January 22, 1966, and drafted an additional letter to the editor, dated January 3, 1966 and one poem, dated November 26, 1968, which he did not send. Both were later discovered among his papers at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

These letters and poems, which constitute the core of the present volume, can be grouped into three clusters, correlating roughly with the dates of Olson's permanent residence in Gloucester. Olson maintained his 28 Fort Square apartment from July 1957 up until his death, even though he spent substantial time away from it. The first group or cluster consists of three letters and two poems, written and/or published between September 1965 and October 1966. This was the period during which Olson had returned to Gloucester after nearly two years of teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The dates of the letters and poems are: October 16, 1965, December 3, 1965, December 28, 1965, January 3, 1966 and January 22, 1966.

The second group of four letters and one poem appeared between July 1967 and March 1968 after Olson had returned to the city from England, where he stayed from October 1966 to July 1967, with a brief trip in December to Berlin to give a reading. Their dates are: August 8, 1967, October 25, 1967, January 18, 1968 and February 12, 1968.

The third cluster of letters is the product of Olson's last period of residence in Gloucester after he returned, in May 1968, from a reading trip to Beloit College, in March 1968, followed by a visit to San Francisco. Olson remained in Gloucester from May 1968 to September 1969, completing The Maximus Poems. In September of 1969 he left Gloucester on the visit to his former student Charles Boer, then Professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, which led to his being offered a teaching position in the English Department, a position Olson held until his hospitalization in late November of 1969 and his death of cancer some two months later. Letters in this cluster, including two poems, are dated: September 4, 1968, October 28, 1968, November 26, 1968, January 29, 1969, April 7, 1969, and May 30, 1969. Included with this set of letters is an article, "Neighbors Silence Ten Pound's Wail," published on August 8, 1968 and containing the only interview with Olson known to have been conducted by the Times. Olson's opinions expressed therein are of a piece with those of his letters to the editor.

Olson wrote only one letter to the editor during the first period of his return to Gloucester, between July 1957 and September 1963, when he left to take up his duties at Buffalo. Those years were filled with intense work on the second phase of The Maximus Poems, for which Olson did substantial research in local and county records. It was a time in which the poet was more involved with family and had a constant stream of visitors and guests at his Fort Square apartment. Consequently, he turned his attention to the daily events of the city's life only as they impinged upon his work. Those first years back in Gloucester were also, by his own admission, years of desired anonymity. He sought no publicity and called little attention to himself or his work, save for a reading he gave at the Hammond Castle, on September 3, 1960 and another, on February 3, 1963, at Gallery Seven in Magnolia, which was reported in the Gloucester Times, accompanied by a photography of the poet (during this period Olson also gave a private reading at the home of Philip Weld, publisher of the Gloucester Times).

However, after the death of his second wife, Betty, in 1964, and his decision to leave Buffalo in September of 1965, Olson returned to a Gloucester in flux, a city in which the consequences of an economic slump in the fishing industry (due in part to the collapse of stocks) and the hope of revitalization through urban renewal were having effects upon the quality of local life and consciousness Olson had so esteemed and written about in the earlier Maximus Poems. Gloucester was changing, for good or for ill, and the facts of that change, together with the words of its agents, were reported almost daily in the city's only newspaper, which Olson habitually read as soon as it was delivered to his door each evening. Those changes were also becoming painfully evident to Olson on his walks through Main Street and along the waterfront. Someone of Olson's critical discernment and ability to read into the meaning of these changes could not long remain quiet about their effects and consequences. It was no longer enough for Olson to write about them in the poems, even though many of these poems were intended as "letters" to Gloucester; he would have to speak out more immediately, and this is what he did.

Olson's letters and poems to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times parallel certain poems in the Maximus sequence in terms of subject or focus. For Olson deals with many of the same subjects or issues, though sometimes differently, in his letters to the editor and The Maximus Poems. Indeed, the letters to the editor should be considered as a corollary text and studied as such. But they are also — and quite dramatically — an attempt to call the people's attention to a number of pressing issues, from the city's seeming amnesia regarding her greatest painter, Fitz Hugh Lane (now Fitz Henry Lane), to the consequences of the razing of precious buildings, by urban renewal, or what Olson referred to as "renewing without reviewing."

The letters and poems move from simply noting facts or ironically commenting upon the jingoism of a Winslow Homer Day (as in "A Beef About Homer Stamp") to openly accusing the city of greed and stupidity with regard to the destructive benevolence of its businessmen and YMCA board members in tearing down the Davis-McMillan house to make way for a swimming pool, "another of its cheap benevolent places/bankers raise money for ('A Scream to the Editor')." Having fulminated against the destruction of one house and the proposed filling of Mill Pond in Riverdale to build a school, and wetlands on Essex Avenue for a used car lot, Olson tried actively but ultimately in vain to save yet another house, the Parsons-Morse homestead on Western Avenue, actually offered to him by the City Council if he would move it ("Poet Asks Public to Call Council").

But Olson's letters and poems to the editor are not mere criticism or jeremiad. They contain a wealth of historical, practical and ecological information and insight. Long before ecology became a household word and "environmentalists" were armed with wetlands protection measures, Olson, who had been a close reader of Carl Sauer's ecological geography, was speaking out against the filling of tidelands and productive marshes. He defined ecology, in one letter, in terms of "creation as part of one's own being," while alluding to the impact of topology on the quality of one's aliveness to the landscape, so that one could understand that to erase the land of its original forms and contours, either natural or man-made, would be to live a debased personal life on it. Furthermore, he showed how, if one is ignorant of one's own history, one's future is already circumscribed, if not blighted. And finally, he insisted in one visually stunning evocation after another — of the West End's brick and granite architecture, the pristine marshes of Essex Avenue, the mist-shrouded banks of Mill Pond — that even though much of the city was "invisible" to her citizens as a result of the daily habit of living here and taking her extraordinary beauty for granted, the destruction of even a portion of that beauty ("the brightness which sparkles still for me, a heron, some red-winged blackbirds, several hornets sweeping down the run of that small raised path") would constitute immeasurable loss, not only for those living now, but for "persons unknown to us in the future, who will never know what they have lost because easy contemporary ideas and persons dominate the land."

Taken together, Olson's letters and poems constitute a blueprint or handbook for living in Gloucester in concert with her history and natural ecology. They are a call to be awakened to the morning's light as it illuminates the "rosy red" facades of 19th century Main Street, the curve of roadways on a winter's night, roads that follow still older, indeed aboriginal and animal paths across Cape Ann. They are a reminder, as Thoreau insisted, that no matter where we go on the face of the earth, someone has been there before us.

Deeply and specifically, Olson's letters are a plea that we citizens recommit ourselves to our original stewardship of the land and sea, to be held in common for human use and sustenance, not to be exploited for individual profit or gain. They are an indictment of unplanned growth and development, which was beginning to occur in Gloucester during the 1950s and 60s. They speak of unnecessary change, which brings with it resentment and anger at the loss of familiar landmarks. They speak against arbitrary decisions of government to build this or destroy that, decisions which do not include those who will be affected. And they make clear, again and again, that the loss or disregard of specific local knowledge — of the land, the sea, the people, their histories and customs — leads only to a historyless future, in which Gloucester, one of the primary cities of the earth for Olson, will become "indistinguishable from/ the USA."

Unlike the Maximus Poems these letters and poems demand more than the engagement a text requires with itself and its premises. They demand response, action — reaction. In this sense, they combine Olson's role as historian and teacher. In the letters and poems Olson speaks directly to the community as one of its members, sharing the fruits of his midnight labors, his early morning insights, which parallel the work of the city which gets up at dawn, or much earlier, to go fishing, to pack fish or cut it — to earn its living. And Olson found a new language, a more direct and immediate voice in these communications to the readers of the Times, although still elliptical at moments, idiosyncratic in its diction or syntax, its allusiveness.

Paul Kenyon, the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times for much of Olson's residence in the city and a writer himself, understood both the nature and the importance of Olson's letters. Beginning with "A Scream," in 1965, he gave the letters and poems top billing on the editorial page. Often he arranged a special layout with photographs of the subject at hand and explanatory notes. On at least three occasions he wrote editorials himself that accompanied the letters or poems, pointing out what Olson was driving at, elucidating events or situations. As a long-time reporter and editor and a repository of the community's collective memory (something the Gloucester Times has lost today under its absentee ownership and with a rapid turnover of reporters and editors), Kenyon recognized what a resource the city had in Olson and he made every attempt to make him accessible and to call attention to what the poet proposed in his pleas and complaints, his exhortations and teachings.

The letters also received positive response from other citizens and letter writers. Few letters went uncommented upon, and Olson's quirky, allusive prose style became known to the paper's 12,000 readers, even if they had difficulty understanding what he was driving at or were unsympathetic to or simply ignorant of his message. Olson's letters and poems opened up a dialogue with the community which the poet would not otherwise have enjoyed in his lifetime. Although many were written in vain because the things he wanted saved were often lost, they had echoes and reverberations in the coming years. They opened the way for an emerging ecological and preservationist consciousness in the city, even though Olson criticized preservation as such. They helped others to save specific buildings, historical landmarks and open spaces. Indeed, they paved the way for the restoration of Gloucester's West End and the emergence of an activist Historical Commission, made up of members like Joe Garland and Greg Gibson, writers who were well-versed in Olson's ideas and who, in their own ways, had done their historical homework.

Mostly, though, the letters and poems were prophetic. They can be read today for their prescience about the wrong-mindedness of urban renewal as a quick fix to problems that were far more deeply rooted than its proponents and beneficiaries were willing to concede. When Olson said that in "five years all [that has been destroyed to make way for new development] will be wanted back," he was more than prophetic, for now it is commonplace for even the city's highest elected or appointed officials to lament the depredations of urban renewal while criticizing the haste of its implementation and the almost complete absence of historical and cultural insight on the part of its administrators, both locally and nationally.

Indeed, urban renewal is now generally looked upon as having been a rather simple-minded panacea, enabling cities and towns to clean up "blighted" areas while displacing the disadvantaged who were constrained to live in them — always under the guise of progress and economic revitalization. Its promise of "newness," often for its own sake, has since proven to be shallow at best. And many cities and towns are now lamenting that they obliterated much of their architectural heritage and historic character in attempting to "renew" themselves. When Olson spoke of Gloucester as a "deleterious imitative city," that was turning its back on its uniqueness in order to grab onto whatever came down the pike of Route 128 in the form of supermarket plazas, industrial "parks" and urban renewal — all the suburban fads of the 1950s and 60s — he was really laying the basis for an educated activism that so far today has prevented the construction of a shopping mall in the heart of the working waterfront and banned any new housing (read: luxury condominiums) from this area, which has historically been devoted to marine industrial uses. It is an activism that has seen the rise of neighborhood protective associations over the past decade and the demand for a complete revised and updated Master Plan for the city's rational growth, the preservation of her heritage and the assurance of a continued quality of life for her inhabitants.

Even though they were written 25 years ago [42 years ago as of this posting], these letters are immensely alive and bristling with Olson's verbal and intellectual energy, as even a cursory reading will reveal. The issues they deal with — the filling of wetlands, the rush to tear down what seems dated or irrelevant on the surface — are still relevant, their urgency paramount. They are the statements of a person who knew his city better than most, more intimately than some who had spent more time here than Olson. They are letters demanding response, to be sure — action; yet they are also love letters, in the sense that a lover often cajoles the beloved, points out his or her attributes as well as flaws, foibles or peccadilloes, always because the lover holds in his or her heart and mind an ideal of the beloved, something either perceived or imagined to which the love-object is compared as to a promise of the future.

If they seem often to end in admonition ("I'm asking now that the city regard herself in the mirror. She looks bad, there") or despair ("the ludicrous anal goodness or vicious commercial ambitiousness of the city today"), this, too, is the prerogative of the lover. And it is ultimately with Olson's love in mind — if often unrequited — that these letters should be read and taken to heart. For, at bottom, they speak not only of living in one particular city, but of the most important of human pursuits: dwelling responsibly in the places of the earth, regarding the land and sea as sacred, and human and animal life as part of one great web of being. As such, they are both a gloss on The Maximus Poems and a special part of Olson's integral achievement. They are the poet's direct, loving, open and honest words to the city he loved above all others, the place he had both chosen to live in during his lifetime and to write about for all time.

Coda: September 2009

It was Olson's activism against urban renewal, against the loss of Gloucester's historic architecture, against the filling of wetlands and all the "erosions of place," as he called them, that inspired my own activism on behalf of the fishing industry and a working waterfront, the preservation of Dogtown Common, now a public conservation trust, and against overdevelopment and gentrification. For in the end, my activism and that of the many individuals and groups I've worked closely with for over forty years, is about the preservation of place, not only as an idea or ideal but as a real, living, breathing community, as home and biosphere. Even as I write, Olson's own neighborhood, the "Fort" section of Gloucester's waterfront, where marine industries and residents have co-existed harmoniously for over a century, is under siege by officials of what Olson called a "deleterious imitative city," who tried first to develop a resort hotel at the site where Clarence Birdseye invented his "flash-freezing" method for the preservation of fish (in a move Olson would have loved, neighbors organized to stop the hotel and protect the integrity of their way of life) and are now attempting to re-zone the neighborhood to allow non-marine uses.

Letter 1
December 22, 1962


The occasion of Olson's first letter to the editor was the celebration of Gloucester Winslow Homer Day, on December 15, 1962. An editorial published in the Gloucester Daily Times, on December 14, noted that, "Tomorrow is Gloucester day in the stamp collector's calendar. First day covers postmarked Gloucester will go all over the world, because the Post Office Department decided to issue the Winslow Homer commemorative stamp in Gloucester." The event was highlighted by the arrival of Postmaster General Edward Day, "the second member of President John F. Kennedy's cabinet to visit Gloucester this year," the Times reported. Day was guest of honor at public exercises at Gloucester High School, where, according to the Times, he reviewed the ROTC brigade and was escorted "to the auditorium by cadets and postal officials." A noon reception for the Postmaster General was followed by dinner at the Tavern Restaurant (which became Olson's home away from home during the final years of his life).

The four-cent commemorative stamp, which Day characterized as "perhaps the most beautiful the department has ever issued," reproduced Homer's painting "Breezing Up," owned by the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C. The Times editorial of December 14 concluded," Ninety years after Winslow Homer painted a picture of a catboat under sail in Gloucester waters, this picture becomes internationally famous! Let us all do our part to keep Gloucester attractive to creative, constructive people in the years ahead. . .and at the same time insure our own enjoyment of our wonderful home city. . .'perhaps more widely known than any other town its size in the world."' As part of the Gloucester Winslow Homer Day, the Times reproduced several Homer paintings and published in successive issues of the paper a number of feature articles on "Homer's greatness," followed by letters to the editor commending the city on Homer Day. This, then, was the backdrop against which Olson's "beef" appeared.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910). . .

Spent June and July of 1873 painting in Gloucester, later returning briefly in 1880 before settling permanently at Prout's Neck, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in 1883.

Marsden Hartley (1887-1943). . .

A Main native, first visited Gloucester from June to October in 1920, later returning in 1931 (July-December) and 1934 (July-November).

Feininger-Hartley catalogue. . .

Issued for a dual retrospective of the two American painters, Hartley and Lyonel Feininger, held between October 24, 1944 and January 15, 1945, at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. It is not known if Olson, who spent part of that winter in Key West, Florida, actually saw the exhibition which presented 106 works of Hartley's, painted during all periods of his life and including several paintings and drawings of Dogtown Common, the site of a deserted early settlement on Cape Ann and of terminal moraine geological formations, which initially attracted Hartley to the area. Recent Hartley scholars concur that his visits to Gloucester were decisive, as Olson suggested, in Hartley's return to native subjects, rendered in the distinctive late expressionist style he has since become known for (See, for example, Barbara Haskell, Marsden Hartley (New York, 1980) and Gail R. Scott, "Marsden Hartley on Dogtown Common, Arts Magazine, 54, October 1879, pp. 159-165). Hartley and his Dogtown paintings also figure in "Letter 7" of The Maximus Poems.

that somebody who was a Gloucester painter. . .

Gloucester native Fitz Hugh (now Henry) Lane (1804-1865)

Elwell. . .

D. Jerome Elwell (1847-1912), described by John Wilmerding as "a young admirer of Lane's," who "later painted in his manner. . . He completed high school in Gloucester in the last years of Lane's life and shortly after went to Antwerp to study. . . During the 1870s, Elwell traveled around the Low Countries and elsewhere in Europe, at one time (it was said) sharing a studio with Whistler in Venice (Fitz Hugh Lane, New York, 1971).

Whistler. . .

James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), celebrated American painter, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, lived in Europe, settling permanently in London.

Kipling. . .

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), British novelist and short story writer, published Captains Courageous in 1897, a novel about Gloucester fishermen based upon visits to Cape Ann during the summers of 1894, 1895 and 1896, while the author was residing in Vermont.

Ten Pound Island. . .

Small island with lighthouse and keeper's cottage in Gloucester's outer harbor, which Kipling is said to have visited. During his 1880 visit to Gloucester, Winslow Homer boarded with the Merrill family in the keeper's cottage where he also painted.

Longfellow. . .

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet (1807-1872), whose Gloucester-inspired ballad, "The Wreck of the Hesperus," about a ship by the same name, said to have been destroyed during a storm on the reef of Norman's Woe in Magnolia, Mass, appeared in his Ballads and Other Poems, in 1841.

To Olson, Homer, Longfellow and Kipling were examples of artists and writers, who, while having popular "international" reputations, nevertheless sentimentalized Gloucester subjects, thereby depriving them of local specificity and power and, consequently, of authenticity. Conversely, for Olson, Lane and Hartley remained true to the local in their vastly differing works, Hartley actually forsaking an early European Modernist approach for what Olson called "his Maine thing."

Olson has since been amply vindicated in his early advocacy for Lane and Hartley. In 1980, a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City revived interest in Hartley's work, and 23 years after Olson's letter, during the summer of 1985, the Cape Ann Historical Association in Gloucester (now the Cape Ann Museum) mounted "Marsden Hartley: Soliloquy in Dogtown," an important exhibition of Hartley's Dogtown paintings and drawings. Equally, the reputation of Fitz Hugh (Henry) Lane has grown from that of a minor 19th century "marine" painter to that of one of the founders and chief practitioners of the Luminist school of painting, culminating in a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, during 1988.

Winslow Homer Stamp

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Book Copyright 1992; 162 pp.
Ten Pound Island Book Company
Gloucester, MA 01930