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Reviewed by:
  • Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence
  • Andrew Mossin
Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen , eds. Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence. Hanover, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. xviii + 543 pp.

Charles Olson's status as a canonical figure of postmodern poetry would seem secure if one judged by the regular inclusion of his poems in anthologies of contemporary work (e.g., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry) and the number of dissertations on his work originating in graduate programs across the United States. Yet the literary-critical conversation about his work has ebbed over the last fifteen years. Despite the singular use made of his work by Susan Howe, Olson's "usefulness" for many Language and post-Language writers has come to seem peripheral. With its emphases on "causal mythology," the notion of the polis or state governed by a strong rhetor (i.e. Maximus), and a masculinist orientation, once galvanizing but now alienating, Olson's poetry and poetics no longer seem the breath of fresh air they once were in the early 1950s, when his essay "Projective Verse" hit the American poetry scene like a force of nature. Yet his value as a constitutive figure in the development of post-war American poetry and poetics cannot be denied, nor can his continuing influence on [End Page 195] various branches of the New American poetry where his work met its earliest and strongest reception among such poets as Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Cid Corman, and others.

The 328 letters collected in Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence represent a definitive contribution to what we know about Olson's early development as a writer and thinker. The correspondence spans roughly three years. It starts on November 22, 1947, when Boldereff, then 42, divorced, raising her daughter on her own, was working as a book designer for Pennsylvania State College and first contacted Olson after finding a copy of his Call Me Ishmael (Olson's still influential book on Herman Melville) in the Penn State library. The final entry in the correspondence is Olson's September 7, 1950, telegram to Boldereff, now living in Brooklyn, instructing her where to meet him in New York City. What falls between these two dates - and more letters would pass back and forth between Boldereff and Olson, until the poet's death in 1970—not only charts the development of an extraordinary love affair between them (Olson was then living with his common-law wife, Constance), a love affair that was carried on almost exclusively through these letters—but also documents Olson's shift from epigone, following the disappointing responses to Call Me Ishmael, to the author of "Projective Verse," such early poems as "The Kingfishers," "The She Bear," "In Cold Hell, In Thicket" (all of which first appeared, in different forms, in letters to Boldereff), and the early phases of the Maximus Poems. What is stunning about this collection is the density of intellectual and cultural observations by both participants in this dialogue—and the ways in which Boldereff and Olson's mythopoetic shoptalk quickly shifted in and out of the amorous and plainly erotic, which here so often serve as the groundwork of the intellectual and cultural materials.

While Olson's range is still astonishing, as is his tracking of non-Western myths as source texts for his own poetry, what the correspondence reveals is the degree of Boldereff's influence on his intellectual life. In her superb introduction to this volume, Sharon Thesen notes the ways in which Olson scholarship has all but ignored the signal contributions Boldereff as a thinker made to Olson's project during these critical years of his development:

It was Boldereff who encouraged Olson in the notion of a poem as construct of energy and therefore Boldereff who stands behind [End Page 196] the ideas in "Projective Verse." When Olson sent Boldereff a copy of "Projective Verse," Boldereff replied that "the essay is terrific. . . . The main points have points lying behind them which are all Motz [Boldereff's maiden name, often used as a nickname in the correspondence] points. . . . my critique of my time for myself (12 February 1950). Olson admitted...


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