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  • Continental Drift:Charles Olson and The English Intelligencer
  • Joseph Pizza (bio)

Though little discussed, toward the end of his career Charles Olson exercised a significant influence on contemporary British poetry. In fact, for the young writers who contributed to the influential worksheet The English Intelligencer, Olson's way of extending the international poetics of modernism proved to be exemplary in their struggle with what they saw as the insular conservatism of the dominant poetry in Great Britain, represented by the work of poets like Philip Larkin and those associated with The Movement. In the past decade, scholars have begun to recognize this. In one of a series of articles titled "Black Mountain in England," Ian Brinton explored Olson's influence on the work of Chris Torrance. Focusing on the long poem The Magic Door, Brinton examines the way the intertwined "landscapes of geography, geology, and history," common among many of the Black Mountain poets in general and Olson in particular, is transferred by Torrance from America to Wales (Brinton 74). In this way, the "poet of the Neath Valley" bears witness to the influence of the poet of Gloucester (75). Similarly, Richard Owens has explored the relationship between Olson and J. H. Prynne. Prynne, whose long career as an experimental poet has now gained for him a reputation comparable to that of Olson's at the end of his career, has gone on to mentor and inspire many in Britain's late twentieth-century avant-garde. Though Owens claims that the lyric scale of Prynne's work bears little resemblance to Olson's epic understanding of projective verse, he demonstrates that Prynne's roughly decade-long correspondence with Olson maintained a transatlantic connection [End Page 277] that proved influential for a younger set of British poets (Owens 135, 139). In fact, he suggests that much of the poetry appearing in The English Intelligencer, the primary work I consider here, can be attributed to Olson's "ghostly presence" over the worksheet (139–41). Here, as with Torrance's work, Olson's example is pervasive. Together, these articles helpfully broach the subject of Olson's influence in Britain, laying the groundwork for future considerations.

More recently, Alex Latter has devoted significant space to the Olson-Prynne relationship in his book-length study Late Modernism and "The English Intelligencer". In fact, the appearance of the book marks an important point in the critical discussion concerning the Intelligencer, as it is the first monograph dedicated to the subject. While Latter is right to focus on Prynne's role in overseeing the creation and dissemination of the worksheet, the Intelligencer was, as he amply demonstrates, a collaborative project aimed at developing an avant-garde poetic community. As such, any comprehensive understanding of the Intelligencer, or of the subsequent poetry that followed from it, must begin with Olson's relationship with Prynne. A key passage in their correspondence concerns their shared enthusiasm for the then-current geological discussions of continental drift. I will expand on this later; for now I simply point out the metaphoric power, especially for a transatlantic correspondence, of finding scientific evidence for a previous world in which North America and Great Britain were joined as part of one continent. The sense of the Earth as being in constant flux would seem to carry great import for practitioners of projective verse, of a form always on the move. Indeed, not just in his correspondence with Prynne but also in his relationship with Andrew Crozier, the founding editor of The English Intelligencer, Olson shared this enthusiasm through closely related subjects. Consequently, I wish to expand upon the growing body of scholarship dedicated to exploring Olson's influence in Britain by considering his relationship to Crozier, Peter Riley, and the larger Intelligencer community. Although that process began in many ways with Prynne—and, to a lesser extent, with the "Letter to Elaine Feinstein"—it was shaped for the Intelligencer community in large part through its actual editors, Crozier and Riley. Indeed, as the founding and longest tenured editor, Crozier played a crucial role in developing the Intelligencer's community through [End Page 278] his personal engagement with Olson. In attempting to extend our understanding of...


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pp. 277-307
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