Karl Young on Charles Olson's "Maximus to Gloucester"

Maximus to Gloucester; The Letter and Poems of Charles Olson to the Gloucester Times, 1962 - 1969

Edited by Peter Anastas
Foreword by Gerrit Lansing

Review by Karl Young

The parameters of the genre of publishing that deals with literary epistles may seem to be firmly fixed. Academicians usually edit these books, often as a means of enhancing their bibliographies or as an adjunct to other projects. The books usually contain letters written to other literati, though some may venture into amorous or family correspondence if the writer's life was sufficiently flamboyant or if such letters tend to support the editor's particular brand of psychobabble. University presses and presses with strong textbook markets publish most of them, as often as not to enhance the prestige of their catalogues or augment textbook sales. Scholars, poets, and novelists make up the target audience -- though, again, some figures attain a larger audience due to prurient interests. The books are meant to be read in detached tranquility and ruminated upon by appreciators or used judiciously by scholars writing for the usual audience. This machinery publishes some excellent books (such as, recently, the correspondences of James Laughlin with William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth) -- but the infrastructure itself seems unamenable to alternatives in publishing. What happens when you break these boundaries? Are there things that can be done outside this framework that can't be done within it? Maximus to Gloucester, a collection of letters by Charles Olson to The Gloucester Times, breaks all the standard parameters. In fact, if you set out to produce a book counter to the standard, you probably couldn't go farther than this, even if you invented the author, the publisher, the circumstances of publication.

Peter Anastas, a writer without university affiliations, edited this book with full, precise, and copious critical apparatus. George Butterick had suggested the project two decades ago, but Anastas ran into a number of stumbling blocks. He overcame these in time to use the book according to local need. All sorts of interests have tried to buy and denature Gloucester since its founding. Puritans tried to recast it in their own image and failed. More recently the Moonies, another group of theocrats, acquired holdings in the city but were prevented from going further. The last onslaught came from people who wanted to build a mall in the center of the working waterfront, which could destroy the economically beleaguered fisheries. Anastas and Ten Pound Island Press published the book in part as ammunition in the fight against the mall and other such incursions. They hoped it would give the people of Gloucester a better sense of who they were, where they came from, what kind of people had lived among them, and what they could do if they held to their heritage and their uniqueness. Anastas believes that related activities helped to set up zoning that prevents gentrification and the building of condominiums on the waterfront. At the time of writing this essay, the battle over the mall is still in the courts, but Anastas feels confident that the anti-mall faction will prevail.

This publication history seems in tune with the letters themselves. They were addressed not to individuals, but to the people of a city, and the medium of address was not the secret mail but a local newspaper. Olson was trying to preserve something in Gloucester as a living entity, and engaged in other activities to back up the letters. He tried to prevent the destruction of buildings, not to make them into museums or quaint showpieces, but to keep them functioning as habitats and workplaces, supporting a way of life that he hoped could save America from itself. Many historic buildings had been partitioned for use as low-income housing. As is usual in such situations, the occupants would join the ranks of the homeless without these dwellings. Saving wetlands is another important subject of the letters, letters which were considerably ahead of their time in environmental awareness. Some deal in what may now seem trivia, such as the issue of a Winslow Homer postage stamp commemorating Gloucester (Olson preferred using a painting by Fitz Hugh Lane -- a real Gloucester painter, not a tourist). In one of the most personally revealing of the letters, Olson, perhaps deep in his cups, claimed honors he had not won. He withdrew this letter before publication. It's impossible to know Olson's motives, but it seems likely that he was not afraid that anyone would prove his claims false, but that his basic honesty prevented him from allowing the letter to be published once sobriety had overtaken him.

One of the unusual circumstances behind this collection is that the editor of the Times, Paul Kenyon, was sensitive and sympathetic to what Olson was doing. The letters were usually printed in generous format with photos and sidebars. Kenyon did not tamper with Olson's style, sometimes reproducing Olson's typewriter script. This may make the Times uniquely perceptive among American newspapers. How many editors in North America are willing to run letters in any kind of verse, particularly what would be for them a highly eccentric type of poetry (consider, for instance, Olson's habit of leaving sentences unfinished), and to publish them in such generous format?

Anastas had an extended local readership in mind when publishing the book. The book's second purpose is to reintroduce Olson to Gloucester, this time as poet. Although Olson knew many people in Gloucester and had more friends there than most people do anywhere, his poetry was generally not read by Gloucesterites, except for the pieces in the Times. Traditional Gloucester, the Gloucester that was important to Olson, is basically a town of fishermen, sailors, on-shore maritime workers, and their families, people who are not unfamiliar with fights of every magnitude and description, stubbornness, egotism, personal quirks, people with moods, people with habits, people with eccentric friends. These aspects of Olson's life apparently didn't bother his fellow citizens (though some thought his schedule of sleeping during the day was not quite decent). It is only recently that Gloucesterites have begun reading Olson seriously, and not writing his poetry off as something incomprehensible. According to Anastas, many no longer find the formal difficulties of Olson's work as insurmountable as they did a few decades ago; many find what he had to say more relevant now than it seemed at the time of composition; and some now see him as a prophetic figure. Perhaps this would have been comforting for him to know since virtually none of his advice was taken by Gloucesterites during his lifetime, which probably added to the despair of his later years. Of course, appreciation isn't anywhere near universal now (I am talking about Gloucesterites), but Olson would probably have been pleased to know that he is still causing debate among his townspeople. If you check him out in another context, that of Black Mountain College, you could say that his notion of community was based in active debate.

The first letters were written after the publication of Maximus, I, II, III, when Olson was working on the next group of poems to Gloucester. As in the early Maximus, the letters are firmly based in speech patterns, but not the speech patterns of one who is delivering an oration (grandiose or homey) to a passive and silent audience: this is the speech of one who may need an oratorical stance and a command of strong rhetoric, but also one who has to make his points quickly, emphatically, pointedly, one who has to stay a step or two ahead of an opponent, who gets new ideas from what he himself is saying, who may have to adjust his argument in mid utterance, and who perpetually risks interruption. This characteristic of Olson's middle style turns some people off, but it makes it most active and most thoroughly alive to sympathetic readers. As the book moves towards the final letter, the oratorical and rhetorical elements tend to give way to private rumination, as is characteristic of the final Maximus volume. This is a language spun out of its own nuclei on the spot, moving away from imagery and conventional grammar and, in some ways, foreshadowing poetry in vogue in the '90s.

The book begins with letters protesting the Winslow Homer stamp. At this point Olson is dealing with local myth in a more or less conventional way: he wants to see the right guy be the hero. By the end of the book, he is, on the one hand, embittered and aware of his impending death, and, on the other hand, trying to encourage people to create their own mythology out of the material at hand, without the need for someone else to make it for them. Early or late, this mythic dimension is always tempered, refined, and informed by contact with the people of Gloucester, some becoming part of Olson's local mythology. The publisher of this collection, Ten Pound Island Book Company, operates out of Gloucester's bookstore. Proprietor Greg Gibson has published other books that relate to New England history and to nautical design. Some of these books have dedicated if small audiences, and the press more or less holds its own. Inland Distribution handles the book outside Gloucester, suggesting that Gibson is aware of the potentially larger audience as well. That audience, of course, includes dedicated Olson fans. For others, the book may be a useful introduction or adjunct to the rest of the opus.

Okay: the book is unusual, and maybe it'll do some good for a small city in New England, but does that have any significance for readers not interested in Olson archana or east coast fishing towns? In this case, it has a profound and emphatic significance: it firmly and irrefutably throws the emphasis of Olson's work back on the local -- on the detailed, immediate, and particular life of a polis that Olson thought essential to a proper vision of the world and existence in it. We are in a time when criticism can turn everything into abstraction, and for hundreds of readers Gloucester has only a metaphorical or imaginary significance, like Camelot or Tolkien's Hobbit land (you can get maps of the latter, perhaps more readily than maps of Gloucester). I don't see how this book could enter the realm of much contemporary criticism where "the local" is about as palpable as tertiary implied ontology. As such it insists on Olson's most basic premise in a way that a conventional scholarly work could not do.

This review was first published in American Book Review,
August-September, 1993.

Copyright © 1993 by Karl Young