When Buffalo Became Buffalo
There are several issues embedded in my title, I suppose, not only when Buffalo, the private University (after 1962 the State University of New York at Buffalo), became Buffalo but how and why Buffalo became a center, perhaps the center, of American poetry. For me, “when” is easy. Buffalo became Buffalo on August 5, 1963. That afternoon, the poet David Posner, then the Director of the Lockwood Library Poetry Collection, gave a party in his apartment on Main Street, just across from the old campus, one floor above the Chicken Delight take-out shop, for the incoming chair of the Buffalo English Department, Albert S. Cook. Posner was a collector, and his shotgun-style apartment, with windows on Main Street at one end and above the rear alley at the other, was a dense clutter of camelback couches, old, velvet-seated chairs and a soft, forest-floor matting of oriental rugs. The effect was a kind of worn luridness, aged Persian reds and Victorian blues. Books were stuffed into glass-fronted oak cases, and there were paintings and prints, mostly 19th century English landscapes, though above the weighty dining room table, there was a small Derain, nude dancers in a circle.
I don’t remember everyone at the party. Al Cook was there, of course, so were Mac Hammond, who had followed Cook from Western Reserve in Cleveland, Aaron Rosen, who had been on the Buffalo English faculty for some time, the poet Saul Touster, who taught in the law school, Charles Doria, Irving Feldman perhaps, and towering above everyone, Charles Olson. Al introduced me. “Michael is writing on William Carlos Williams.” Charles took my hand, pulled me toward him and draped his left arm over my shoulder. “Bill Williams,” he said in what started out and ended as a rumbling kind of laugh. “He got us part way there. We’ll manage the rest.” Us. We’ll. A part of Olson’s genius was pure politics, LBJ or Tip O’Neill rounding up votes. Held close, with that great round face bending down toward mine it was clear that I was, we all were, eventually, in his company. Poetry was for Olson a project we would manage together. That was the underlying assumption, never quite stated, but always clear, of his seminars, which were not workshops in any sense but rather shared, speculative endeavors, to use his word, projections, toward a significant poetics.
I had met Al Cook for the first time, just minutes before he introduced me to Olson, in the archway leading to the table of wine and snacks in Posner’s back room. That he knew that I was writing on Williams was surprising then. Later, it would seem just ordinary Cook, who never went into any situation, academic or social, without researching all the players. His descriptions of the backgrounds and relationships of any meeting, panel or a publishing venture were at times dizzying and always Byzantine. By 1963 Cook had been at Harvard, Berkeley and Western Reserve and had already published The Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean, an effort at creating a philosophy of comedy from Aristophanes to Finnegan’s Wake, a book on “meaning” in fiction, a casebook on Oedipus that accompanied his own translation and a book of poetry. In 1963 he was at work on The Classic Line, a book on the epic. He read Greek, Latin, Italian, German, French and Spanish. For a book on the Old Testament, he acquired Hebrew. A month or so into a semester-long stay in Russia he had enough Russian to write to me at length about the language in Yevtushenko and Voznesensky. His level of energy was extraordinary. Olson called him “the muscle,” flattering in an Olsonesque way. At any moment, while he was recruiting faculty and reshaping the department, he had a stack of book projects underway in his study plus a vertical file of Manila envelopes into which he would deposit scraps of paper with ideas for as yet unnamed, future work. He stayed at home one day a week to write and famously told Virginia, his secretary, that she could call him if the building was on fire but only after she had called the fire department. He could be harsh, especially in dealing with unearned privilege, but his enthusiasms were boundless.
In an introduction, I once called Cook, “an egalitarian elitist.” He was happy with the notion. What I had in mind was his sense that if you managed to present an idea or point of view he hadn’t already considered, you joined his circle as an equal. More impressive, though, was that he never forgot your insight and always attributed it to you. At the 1963 MLA in Chicago, he took me to dinner with Northrup Frye and Benjamin DeMott and spent part of our time over State Street pepper steaks praising an analogy I had made between science and poetry in an earlier conversation. Browse Cook’s indexes, and you’ll find entries for ideas and texts by former students. A single Cook essay in that period, say “Diffusion as a Technique of Composition in Modern Poetry,” would include references to Yeats, Pound, Hopkins, Valery, Rilke, Benn, Dickinson, Baudelaire, Reverdy, Perse, Whitman, Mallarmé, Williams and Montale. It was obvious that the graduate school world of narrow, cautiously defined areas of specialization was about to change, and the first public signal of that change, and in many ways its most enduring marker, was Charles Olson.
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Olson’s first reading in Buffalo was held in the Baird Music Hall recital auditorium early in the fall term. The building was modern, faced with black glass and walled inside and out with exposed grey concrete. The auditorium walls were bare, the fixed seats cushy velvet and the sloped ceiling scaled with dark, acoustic baffles. One corner of the front of the hall was taken up by a concert organ with graded pipes in brushed aluminum. The stage was raised and large enough for a chamber orchestra.
The reading began with a fuss over a portable tape recorder that had been set up on a small table next to the podium. Olson and a student checked and rechecked the machine. The student withdrew and Olson began. He was dressed, as almost always that year, in dark pants, a blue work shirt with a wool tie. I’m not sure how he began or whether there was an introduction, and I’m not sure what he read or the order of the poems. I was in his seminar then, where he sometimes read poems or played tapes, so though I can still hear him reading a number of poems, I can’t be sure of what he began with or in what way the poems followed each other. I am certain, though, that he began laughing. At Olson’s wake, Allen Ginsburg talked about Olson’s round face, how it came down and blessed you. In larger gatherings his laugh had the same effect, a kind of general blessing that settled on the crowd.
In the course of the hour, he read from The Distances and The Maximus Poems. From uncollected work, he read “The Gulf of Maine,” which had appeared in the anniversary issue of Poetry. He was fond of it and of its ending, “and mostly well-dressed persons frequent it,” an example, for him, of how a poem could simply exhaust its occasion and its speech with a single breath. At one point he announced that he would read “The Death of Europe/for Rainer Gerhardt.” And he began reading it, out of The Distances. He managed a few lines, stopped, then started again. He explained that he was not reading it well, and gave us the sense in successive starts and stops that his voice was trying to catch up with a pace that was moving in his mind, moving even in his tapping foot, like a dancer trying to catch the music, which somehow, in its first moves, the body had irretrievably failed. Setting the book aside, he said that he had read the poem well that summer in Vancouver and that he would, rather than read it badly, play a tape of that reading, so the tape recorder was turned on, and Olson pulled a chair up next to it and with us sat listening to “The Death of Europe.” He was so tall that when he sat in the chair, his legs rose in long angles up from the seat. He smoked a cigarette and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and tapped his foot to the rhythm of his recorded voice reading his poem. In the center of all those angles of arms and legs, his great round face smiled and nodded. Somehow, it didn’t occur to me until later that something very strange had happened. While it was going on, I was too focused to notice that Olson had turned the whole ritual of the poetry reading upside down, that the familiar drama of those occasions had been at once radically altered and marvelously parodied. I had just begun to know him so I was just becoming accustomed to the way he would, without apparent effort, move things into another order of occurrence. The voice on the tape recorder read the poem brilliantly. Olson listened, and we listened and watched him listening, tapping our feet with his, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
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I have tried for more than fifty years, never very successfully, to characterize that first Olson seminar at Buffalo. It is difficult, in part, I think, because the seminar evolved as it went along. On the first day he wrote his name, Duncan’s, Creeley’s and Ginsberg’s on the board and said, “These are the old guys,” the poets we were meant to succeed. He asked a few of us to read. Boer read one of the Odes. Doria read a poem from a sequence, called “The Versions.” I read one of the Missouri River poems. Olson listened intently but didn’t comment. Instead, he read “The Gulf of Maine” (“They were in a pinnace off Monhegan…”) rumbling through its opening historical details as though they were shimmering particulars in that very moment. Perhaps, that first day was just a getting-to-know-you exercise, but the readings, ours and his, put us in an equal literary space, a flattering and empowering gesture. Charles Boer and I discussed that first day for years. His memory had a different focus (see Charles Olson in Connecticut). He has Olson stalking around the seminar tables, pausing behind Boer with his coat draped over Boer’s head. Boer’s laughter began their long friendship and was, according to both Boer and Olson, the opening note of the class. It wasn’t my head or my laughter, which is probably why I don’t remember it except in Boer’s wonderful, always laughter-filled retelling. That class included Boer, Charles Doria, William Moebius, Charles Brover, Henry Lesnick, Mary Griffin and Joe Keogh. There were three or four linguistics graduate students from the University of Toronto and as the year went on visitors— Robert Duncan who conducted one session, John Weiners, Jonas Mekas and Grayson Ruethven, a poet and titled Earl from London, who lived for a time in a Chicken Delight apartment above Posner’s.
For most of my student life, I was an obsessive note taker. I have piles of spiral notebooks from all sorts of subjects, graduate and undergraduate, but I don’t have single notebook from that year with Olson, not because there was nothing to save but because the class moved with such speed that writing down one idea might mean that you would miss the transition to the next. The subject was Olson’s concerns, modified and amplified by our interactions with them. He liked, even invited, contentiousness. He would lean into your remarks. “I hear you,” he would say emphatically, then lead you back to the central question. The notion has been around for some time that Olson was in search of followers, a subset of younger Black Mountaineers. He attracted followers, certainly, but that was never the goal of the seminar. Most of the poets in the class had already written a good bit and published. There was no effort to shape our poems. The goal, when it came up, was to give us permission to be more ambitious and inclusive. No time was spent on positions he had already taken; that is, he didn’t reprise projective verse, his view of Melville or the Elaine Feinstein letter. He assumed, correctly in most cases, that we knew those texts. He was particularly taken that fall by the idea from J.A. Noutopolis of parataxis, that sense that there was a poetic in Homer that was determined by the order of perception and not by an over-arching syntax. Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato was another recurrent focus of attention, the notion that there was a pre-Socratic, pre-Aristotelian discourse to be recovered, a unity of body, speech and perception that existed before the alienations inherent in rhetoric. Etymology was seen as a route (root, Duncan would add) into that past and the conviction that sounding, speaking, as well taking the word’s etymological depth, as a sailor sounds a harbor or a whale sounds plunging downward into the sea, could give the contemporary poet access to that past, but the topics also ranged to neurology, geology, linguistics, history, music, dance, perception, proprioception, myth and early politics. I’m not doing justice, I’m afraid, to the excitement involved in these discussions. Olson was inviting us into his thought process—brilliant, angular, unpredictable, often initially wholly puzzling—as companions, sometimes merely as oarsman, sometimes at the helm. Poetry and poetics were, for Olson, collaborative ventures.
Each afternoon’s progress was in the best sense improvisational, inventions at once scholarly and transgressive. The best measure of Olson’s seriousness about these excursions and their originality is that he would stay after class and copy down what he had written and drawn on the blackboard. The board was the register for what emerged from the discussion. He would move around the room, sit sometimes, but always go back to the board where words and figures were connected by arrows, spirals and brackets. After he saw the Emilio Grossi photo of himself at that blackboard, which eventually became the cover of the first issue of the Niagara Frontier Review, he assigned a student to photograph the board at the end of each class. That Grossi photograph, showing only about a third of the board, is for me a kind of shard, something that represents that occasion but certainly doesn’t explain it. “Embodiment.” “Enharmonic.” “Gesture.” Three words in a kind of column, capitalized. Gesture has an arrow heading off the page. There’s an essay lurking there, tempting—embodiment as an essential fact of myth, enharmonic, that is, the continuity of the musical scale, each sharp sharing the succeeding flat, hence the continuity of song, and gesture, art’s and the poem’s business, the appropriate outcome of the previous two. Perhaps? Or merely guesswork across a chalky haze of time.
The seminar didn’t have a syllabus or a reading list, and no papers were required. Instead, Olson asked that we write him letters on the weekend that he could incorporate into the next Thursday’s class. There were only a few letters. I wrote one on appearance and reality, Bradley, Pierce and Whitman. He brought it to the next meeting and set out to use it to open the discussion. He read a sentence or two, stopped, then pushed it across the table to me. “You read it,” he said, “I can’t.” I took it initially as a kind of rebuke, but as we went on it was clear that he wanted me to occupy my argument. His reading—and he didn’t care for my rather rank and file prose—would have, as he forced his way through it, taken the text from me and displaced him. Olson had a deep faith in the efficacy of reading, occupying, as I said, the text in speech and breath. It was more than a question of performing something well, the issue at the Baird Hall event, but an essential interpretive act. At the first of Cook’s famous English Department colloquia, David Landrey, then a graduate student, read a paper on Benito Cereno. Olson was there to give the faculty response. David’s was a well-crafted, closely argued essay. When he finished, Olson, sitting in the front row, leaned forward and said, with apparent affection, “David, you’ve got it all wrong.” No one knew what to do. Olson said, “Do you have the book?” Landrey pulled it out of his bag and gave it to him. Without additional commentary, Olson read the first three or four paragraphs aloud, gave the book back and said, “See what I mean?” A critical reading of Melville was less important than an actual reading—the body in breath and speech, first.