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Reviewed by:
  • Contemporary Olson ed. by David Herd
  • Mark Byers
Contemporary Olson. David Herd, ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. Pp. 272. $110.00 (cloth).

Early in Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana (1971), the television executive David Bell reports a long-running prank in his New York office. For over a year someone—an unknown colleague Bell refers to as “Trotsky” but is more generally known as the “Mad Memo-Writer”—has been distributing company memoranda bearing enigmatic, sententious, and otherwise philosophical reflections from thinkers and poets of the past. The most recent missive is from Augustine, but “previous memos had borne messages from Zwingli, Lévi-Strauss, Rilke, Chekhov, Tillich, William Blake, Charles Olson and a Kiowa chief named Satanta.”1 The list positions Olson (who had died in January 1970) in decidedly mixed company, but DeLillo’s eclectic catalogue suggests what the “contemporary” Olson was to an observer in the year of his death: an iconoclast, whose poetry is perhaps less remarkable than the obscurity of his ideas and the offbeat reverence gathered about his person and his work. Such a figure—the figure of the poet as guru—could easily have been derived from the most recent publications from Olson’s oeuvre, particularly Charles Olson Reading at Berkeley (1966), Causal Mythology (1969), and The Special View of History (1956, 1970), each of which—not to mention Gerard Malanga’s infamous Paris Review interview in 1969—would have furnished no shortage of material for DeLillo’s memo writer.

Guru Olson has never been fully exorcised, though the figure was refined in the years following Olson’s death. Robert von Hallberg’s Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (1978) anticipated a series of full-length scholarly accounts of the poet in the next decade which judged the poet, more temperately, by his place in the later history of modernism. Few major studies of the poet appeared in the 1990s but new collections of prose and correspondence—particularly the oddly titled Modern Correspondence (1999) with Frances Boldereff—generated further critical interest. A burgeoning critical literature on late modernist poetry has found Olson an indispensable (or, as [End Page 484] some would see it, unavoidable) figure in innovative postwar poetry, above all as an intermediary between Pound and Williams and a later generation of experimental American and British poets.

This new volume of essays edited by David Herd, Contemporary Olson, attempts to sight the poet’s “thought and writing” through the optic of immediate concerns (3). In his editorial introduction to the volume, Herd develops the case that Olson is “necessary reading in our own politically and economically conflicted moment,” principally because of the “suppleness and scale with which he is able to figure the complexity of inter-relations (whether between people, between people and the world, or between areas of knowledge)” (3). One of the tensions in the introduction, and one which plays out across the volume, is the problem implied in the phrase “thought and writing.” As several of the essays attest, it is one thing to claim that a poet’s practice as a writer remains pertinent and quite another to claim that their “ideas”—insofar as they are distinguishable from the writing—are germane or “necessary” too. Though Herd insists we read Olson critically, his own account risks reprising Olson as guru. Indeed, we are told that “his thought seems once more a necessary intellectual resource” (13).

Not all of the twenty-three short essays that follow are so sanguine about the “necessity” of Olson’s ideas. From the outset, acknowledgement is given to the fact that the poet’s work (particularly The Maximus Poems [1953]) is vulnerable to critique, and from several perspectives. In the first essay, Miriam Nichols observes that The Maximus Poems must answer the same charge that Olson himself leveled against Pound’s Cantos: that the only organizing principle in the poem is that of Olson’s own purview. This would presumably prove fatal to Olson’s contemporaneity given how obviously it offends the “postmodern/poststructuralist position . . . that no discourse is more authentic than another” (34). “Olson gets into trouble with readers,” Nichols notes, because, “instead of being inspired to develop a...


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