Michael Boughn

“When wallflowerism becomes sufficiently established to control history then we have a hell of time believing what is said (of what is said)—the Herodotean Way—over what we suspect (& we are suspicious, no?) & therefore speculate as to, what went on, like REALLY. It’s the urge toward the MONO—. . .”

—John Clarke to Tom Clark, 1/20/87

 When Charles Olson first came to Buffalo in 1963, it had been some 18 years since he’d turned from politics to writing as the work which would center and drive his life (although, in another sense, as the Berkeley reading demonstrated, he never left politics).[1] He came to Buffalo with a significant body of work already accomplished. Call Me Ishmael, Y & X, The Mayan Letters, In Cold Hell, In Thicket, The Maximus Poems, and The Distances had all been published, as well as “As the Dead Prey Upon Us,” “The Kingfishers,” “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs,” not to mention the important philosophical essay, “Projective Verse.”  Maximus IV, V, VI, though unpublished, was already written. He’d been to Yucatan and led the wild, intellectual free for all at Black Mountain. Crucially important for many of those who came to Buffalo to work with Olson was the tremendous push he had made to rethink the epic as a way around the lyric impasse much contemporary poetry was locked in. How, that is, to rethink this crucial mode of discourse and move it past the limits it had been taken to by Pound and Williams. He was thus what Albert Glover recalls as “a living connection to an ‘old’ tradition rather than simply an isolated lyrical voice which was pretty much all there was otherwise.” Though Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry, had opened people’s eyes to a wider range of writing than Glover’s comment might suggest, his point about the dominance of the lyric mode still largely holds true, even today.

All this work was implicated in a move away from what we think of as the “literary,” finally claiming for poetry an altogether other range of importance. What Olson founded in Buffalo, what followed from his arrival there, begins with that. “Literary” in this context, that is both Olson’s work and the work he engendered in Buffalo, has to do with two different but related issues. It refers both to the conventions, modes and procedures of writing that mark, however broadly and ambiguously, what is proposed at any given moment as “literature,” and also with the “life worlds” such practices are implicated with, something loosely called, say, the “literary life,” complete with all its competitions, prizes, career paths, disciplinary bodies, canonical aspirations, and so on. The literary, then, as an institution, as institutionalized practices. Crucial to Olson’s sense of a move beyond or around the literary is his notion that it’s possible to reconnect with or recover energies that pre-exist their historical institutionalization into a specific, fixed grammar of social practices. And even more importantly, that to do that, to push one’s self toward that connection, is to disrupt or alter that grammar, a profoundly political act.

Such a move involves two crucial linked concepts—the ordinary and the archaic—and depends on an understanding of how they might be seen—or revealed—as con-verging in a new world. The ordinary is just that—where we are, what we do, here, today, this laundry, those dirty dishes, that which is arrayed around us. Olson’s crucial move here is to understand that the ordinary, as such, is archaic, has always been, so that what we are in fact estranged from, as Heraclitus and Wittgenstein had it, is so familiar because it has always been there. In this sense, Olson’s proposal is not so much anti-literary (a move which paradoxically is locked in an economy with the literary—the fate of the oppositional and the non-ordering) as pre-literary, an antithetical decentering in whose prolific and devouring wake the unprecedented is recovered.

What Olson called the projective accompanies this convergence. Like form and content in the famous proposal that emerged from the Olson/Creeley correspondence, they are really a Janus-faced energy. To take up the archaic/ordinary invokes the projective that is its method, the way forward. And to take up the projective invokes the archaic/ordinary, which is its ground.

Let me bring in one more term that is crucial to the antithetical practice here proposed—community, which Olson famously had as polis. Of all the terms so far raised, this is in some ways, given our current condition, the most difficult to come to terms with, if only because of the ubiquitous nostalgia for it. Following Jean-Luc Nancy here, I’m proposing to come at this term along the lines of what he says “happens to us—question, waiting, even imperative—in the wake of society,”[2] what appears to us as “neither a work to be produced, nor a lost communion, but rather as space itself, and the spacing of the experience of the outside, of the outside-of-self.”[3] I don’t think I need to dwell here on the way Olson’s sense of America as space foreshadows Nancy’s proposal. One of the ways Olson’s poetics as enacted in the Berkeley reading are antithetical to the literary (in both the senses given here) is in their insistence that such a discharge of energies arises from the circulation and generation of those energies within just such a space as Nancy identifies, and that that process is the act in which community reveals itself to itself.

Such a proposal undermines not so much the concept of genius (there’s still room for the extraordinary within the space of the ordinary) as the promotion of individual production and the specific product, even in its current generic, non-author specific forms. It holds that work to the responsibility of an ordering intervention. Genius, as the Romantics experienced it, is really just an especially intense receptivity to those circulating energies mentioned before. But the community orders (as in ordinary) itself out of the exchange—the call and response—that arises in the projective practice of the ordinary. Whatever else such a community may be, it’s a “place” where hierarchical/anti-hierarchical orderings are dissolved in a synergistic circulation of authorities (authoritative finitudes, Nancy might say) that egg each other on toward their further possibilities—which are the further possibilities of the self-revelation of the community as well.

The critics of the community Olson engendered in Buffalo have from the beginning proposed its defining relation as one of dominance and submission, with Olson positioned as what’s been called the “High Priest.”  Typically, those around him then become identified as “disciples,” “acolytes,” or some other usually religious term meant to signify a loss of “autonomy” or “individual authority”. Within such a community as I’m attempting to define here, however, such traditional vocabularies (mostly directly derived from Enlightenment polemics against the ançien régime) having to do with static hierarchical relations of power—equality, autonomy, derivative, original, subservient—as well as the accompanying package of anti-religious/pro-Reason pejorative labels like cult, church, disciple, etc., are drained of meaning and become inoperative, along with the cosmology that generates them. This is not to say specific persons who still passively identified themselves in that old cosmology didn’t enter into such relations. But they weren’t part of what I’m calling here “the community,” which actively proposed itself as further. In any case, as we’ve known for some time now, that old cosmology (the cosmology of critical modernity)[4] is in acute, probably terminal crisis. One of Olson’s great contributions here was, as Ralph Maud has pointed out, to link the resolution of that crisis to the emergence of the archaic/ordinary, to propose that what he called after Toynbee the post-modern is identical with the archaic/ordinary.

Don’t mistake me. This exercise in clarifying vocabularies is not intended as an encompassing picture, some theory that can include Olson’s work and what it engendered in Buffalo in a neat package. I only want to make clear at the outset what I see as the provocation and the challenge before turning to what followed from that, the response to that call, what Olson furthered. It equally moved the other way. Each call elicits a response, but each response in turn becomes a call. That is the circulation of authoritative finitudes. How else understand what happens with Frontier Press or in the Magazine of Further Studies, for instance, unless you simply want to give up the game and resort to literary judgments, which in the final case can only say what isn’t (“this isn’t literature”) not what is. Given that, each instance in this circulation remains its own splendid and irreducible finitude.

The earliest appearance of community in this sense was around Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press. Harvey Brown came to Buffalo in the fall of 1964. Like many of the others then flocking to the city, he came from Cleveland, Ohio via the Al Cook connection. Cook, who had been teaching at Case Western, was hired as Chair of the English Department at the new State University of New York, and given tremendous resources to build the Department. Many of those he had worked with and taught at Case Western were hired to teach at Buffalo, or followed others there as students. Unlike most others, however, Brown was a millionaire, a designation that still meant something of consequence in 1964. His grandfather had invented a mechanism that facilitated the off-loading of materials from river barges, and the money he accumulated from his invention propelled his family into the upper echelons of Ohio society.

By the time Harvey Brown got to Buffalo, he had rejected both his social position, preferring the company of jazz musicians to debutantes, and his financial position. His relation to the money he inherited was based on the understanding that it embodied two contradictory energies or powers: accumulation and circulation. Call them angels. Brown felt that to capitulate to the angel of accumulation was to give power over your life to money, to allow it to rule your spirit. To give that power over to the angel of circulation, on the other hand, was to subjugate money to spirit. That was the path he chose, and Olson became one of the main instruments he used to realize it.

Harvey Brown’s connection with Charles Olson was immediate and intense. In so far as they shared a sense of political priorities, Olson fit into Brown’s plans to use his money to further certain specific ends. Brown, through his connections with jazz musicians in New York and Cleveland, had started a recording company to further the work of struggling artists such as Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Clifford Brown, and Clifford Jordan. Brown understood the work of these artists to constitute the ground of a new American republic, the visionary incarnation of Winthrop’s City on a Hill. It was an ec-centric community whose importance was both in its antithetical message, and in the method it had pioneered: improvisation based on the call and response of traditional African-American music (see Brown’s fascicle “Jazz Playing” in The Curriculum of the Soul). That method for Brown resonated precisely with Olson’s sense of the projective, and that correspondence provided the basis for Brown’s ongoing support for both the recording project, and for Frontier Press.

His first act was to fund Niagara Frontier Review. After he arrived in Buffalo during the fall semester of 1964, he took over active editorship of the magazine. The Niagara Frontier Review eventually ran to three issues between 1964 and 1966, and became one of the centers for the diverse writers represented in Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry (1960). In addition to Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, John Weiners, Ray Bremser, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, and LeRoi Jone (Amiri Baraka), the magazine also carried work by John Temple, Diane DiPrima, Albert Glover, Fred Wah, the jazz musician Don Cherry, Stephen Rodefer, Herbert Huncke, Charles Boer, and Andrew Crozier. The third issue also carried Cantos CX and 116 by Ezra Pound.

Olson’s interest, however, extended beyond the magazine, and largely through his instigation, Harvey Brown expanded Frontier Press into book publishing. The initial idea was to publish books central to Olson’s current thinking but otherwise out of print. The project soon expanded far beyond that, however, with the “editorial” participation of Ed and Jenny Dorn, and Ron Caplan, so that the list eventually emerged out of a kind of uncentered collectivity. Deeply interested in the new poetries then emerging, Caplan had first met Olson in 1963 when he’d gone to visit the poet in Gloucester. As the book-publishing venture took shape, Olson suggested to Brown that Caplan, who had a small design business in his native Pittsburgh, be involved in designing the books. Given their shared interest, Caplan’s involvement soon extended beyond design to participation in the selection of books for the press’s list. The Dorn’s had been in Buffalo that summer when Ed Dorn taught in the first Buffalo Summer Program in Modern Literature. The process was so open, that it’s almost impossible at this point to know who was responsible for which books. Ron Caplan writes, it was “eccentric but with a strange unity.”

I know there were books I loved that I wished were in print—the Haniel Long stuff in particular, and Spring and All. I think Mid-American Chants was something we both had in waiting. Lenz is Harvey. I THINK I remember it being something Dorn wanted. . . . I think Olson was the main person to please in choosing the books. Then Dorn. Then? Perhaps me . . ..[5]

Between 1967 and1971, Frontier Press published 25 books and pamphlets. There is no other list quite like it (see Appendix A for a checklist of the publications). For all of its eclectic mix, however, it is possible to discern certain unifying features.

It is above all else a political list, though the definition of politics here needs to be pushed beyond its institutional sense toward a kind of visionary activism (see Charles Olson’s 1968 Berkeley lecture). During the time the press was active, the U.S. war against Viet Nam was in full swing, and the social discord it bred in the U.S. was reaching crisis proportions. More and more Americans actively opposed a government that, in turn, was trying desperately to repress them, using increasingly violent tactics that culminated in the slaughter of unarmed students at Jackson State University and Kent State University in May of 1970. All those involved in Frontier Press shared a sense of the extremity of the Constitutional crisis and an understanding that it was first and foremost a visionary crisis. To move ahead (to finally discover America) necessitated the nurturing of an ec-centric, antithetical community that might provide the ground of an American conversion, as Emerson would have it. Call it a recovery of what had been lost to the usurpation of America by the Angel of Accumulation.

The politics of the Frontier Press list proliferate in unpredictable and often surprising directions. The core books suggested by Charles Olson—Brooks Adams’ The New Empire, W. E. Woodward’s Years of Madness—characteristically propose a reading of American history that is antithetical to the authoritative history that founds the current regime of power. Adams proposes a history that explains the advent of an American Empire whose origins he locates in European pre-history. Woodward radically rereads the U.S Civil War in terms that call into question the assumption that it was waged to end slavery.

Other books supplement that reopening of American history. The Haniel Long books are two of the most beautiful productions on the list. Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca re-presents us with an extraordinary figure from the days of the Conquest, a Spaniard who, rather than colonising America, was possessed and transformed by what he became lost in. It leaves us in an other America, one yet to be discovered. The Paths of the Mound-Building Indians by Archer Butler Hulbert also moves through that range of experience. Tracking the archaic paths over which the America of today is built, the book re-opens this world to its archaic realities, the hidden realities that found and shape such mundane experiences as a trip to the store. The Book of Daniel Drew, with its marvellous introduction by Ed Dorn, gives us an utterly lucid and unabashed revelation of primitive accumulation in America, one most historians and free marketeers have since rushed to hide. Those politics become explicit in Alexander Berkman’s Memoirs of a Prison Anarchist, as well as in the pamphlet The Decline and Fall of the ‘Spectacular’ Commodity Economy, reprinted from the Situationist International of December, 1965.

The poetry equally reflects that visionary, antithetical politics. One of the great contriubtions of Frontier Press was to reprint William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, which had been out of print for almost 50 years. H.D.’s Hermetic Definition had never been in print. It had been copied by hand by poets visiting the Beinecke Library, and circulated around the U.S.. Norman Holmes Pearson, H.D.’s literary executor, claimed that he was unable to place it with a publisher of sufficient standing and proposed that Brown was trying to make a profit off the pirated edition. Both Brown and Caplan felt that Pearson was holding back the book for reasons of his own, and that the only way to force his hand was to go ahead and get it in print. In any case, there was a great clamour among poets to have the poems made available so that they could work with them. From the point of view of many poets, the prestige of the publisher was less important than having the poems to work with, and that was the position that Brown took. He illegally published the text, beautifully designed by Ron Caplan, in 1971, and continued to distribute it free until he died. Within a year of the Frontier publications of Spring and All and Hermetic Definition, both books had been copyrighted and published by New Directions in trade editions and have been in print ever since.

Frontier Press was also well known for publishing contemporary poetry and fiction in beautiful editions designed by Graham Macintosh, Ron Caplan, and Philip Trussell. The writing was extremely diverse, including work by Edward Dorn, Edward Sanders, Michael McClure, Stan Brakhage, Albert Glover, and Robert Kelly. As different as all of those writers are, most of them had been in Buffalo during this period, and had participated in the energetic exchanges that took place there. Not that they constituted in that sense a unity, or held some common “theory.” Only that the energies unleashed arose out of a common provocation, and are, in that very general sense, part of a community, both the more general community that the Allen anthology registers, as well as the community specific to Buffalo at that moment.

Some of the work—Sanders’ Peace Eye, for instance—is specifically political in its address. But even the work that isn’t—Dorn’s love poems, McClure’s mammalian cosmological body poem, Kelly’s visionary investigations—are radical departures from the then (and largely still) dominant notion of the well-made poem as literary construct. That departure for parts unknown to the “literary” imagination constitutes, even more than any explicit content otherwise would, the nature of the “political” as it in turn constituted this antithetical community.

One of the criticisms of Frontier Press that eventually arose from within that community was that, however valuable the work being done, the high quality of the production standards themselves were interfering with, or slowing down, the circulation of the work. Not that Brown’s work wasn’t deeply admired. But some people wanted to be able to get things in print faster. “Some of us wanted to move more quickly than Harvey,” Fred Wah writes[6]. Wah had come to Buffalo from Vancouver via New Mexico, drawn by Al Cook’s active solicitation of poets to join the new program at Buffalo. He had become involved on the editorial board of Niagara Frontier Review at Olson’s suggestion. At the time he was a graduate student in linguistics taking Olson’s seminars. Sharing Wah’s desire for more speed were John Clarke, a new Assistant Professor in the English Department, and Albert Glover, a graduate student in Olson’s seminars.

Clarke had met Olson in the spring of 1964. Al Cook had directed Clarke’s dissertation on William Blake and was trying to hire him away from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana. Clarke came to the interview knowing nothing of Olson, and with several reservations about the possible move to Buffalo. After the interview, there was a party at Cook’s house. Clarke recalls:

Text Box: ____

Later that night Charles came down to the party. I was sitting on a straight chair by the fireplace and he sat down on the couch, like so               and the connection was instaneous—maybe that’s a new word, I meant instantaneous, but like that one better, it accents the sta etymon . . .. Olson’s report of the meeting, as someone later told me, was that he dug my pants, the material they were made of, and the way I was sitting with my legs crossed. Upshot of course was that all other considerations were blown away: I was coming to Buffalo.[7]

Al Glover had come to Buffalo in the fall of 1964 from McGill University. He was following his teacher, Irving Massey, whom Cook had also hired. Knowing nothing of Olson, but being deeply interested in contemporary poetry (he had won a poetry prize at McGill the year after Leonard Cohen had won the same prize) Glover enrolled in Olson’s two graduate seminars (Poetry and Myth and Contemporary Poetry). The fourth person involved in the move toward more speed was George Butterick, later to be Olson’s editor and literary executor.

The issue these four were addressing with their collective desire for more speed was the “projective” and the community founded on it. The projective method relies on speed—speed of production and speed of circulation—in order to reach a kind of escape velocity needed to break free from the inertial pull of the “literary.” Before Olson left Buffalo in the fall of 1965, he had proposed founding an Institute along the lines of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies, with which he’d been connected through Black Mountain College. When he left, and Al Cook was unsuccessful in getting the new University at Buffalo to support the project, Clarke, Wah, Glover, and Butterick decided to go ahead on their own.

They immediately began publishing The Magazine of Further Studies, the first issue of which appeared in the fall of 1965. “I think it was Glover’s IBM Selectric we used,” Fred Wah writes. “And we got a big roll of corrugated stuff for covers . . . and us and our wives wld set up in one of our basements and cut covers and paint chicken blood (George wanted the thing to decay in the readers’ hands) and glue fur.” Butterick’s desire for decay emphasized the projective nature of the magazine, the fact that as you held it, it disintegrated, leaving you with nothing to hold to but what was further. Butterick was successful in that the various objects and substances applied to the covers of the magazine have by and large either faded over time or fallen off.

Between 1965 and 1969 IFS published 6 issues (see appendix B, item 8). Al Glover describes the first issue as “awkward” beside the professionalism of the Niagara Frontier Review: “this homemade thing that did put most people off. The lucky part was that Charles (and then Robert Duncan shortly) were interested in finding a means of production outside the establishment, even the ‘small press’ one.”[8] Olson joins the conversation in the second issue, Duncan in the sixth.

The magazine was unique for its time for a couple of reasons, both of which had to do with the rejection of the showcase model of the poetry magazine, already prevalent even then among small press magazines. The showcase magazine typically presents poems completely isolated and decontextualized. They appear as beautiful (or ugly) objects on the page. This mode of presentation reinforces the culture of the literary by stripping the poem from the intellectual matrix it is part of, and then emphasizing its object status as a pure literary event.

The Magazine of Further Studies refused, first of all, to isolate the poem. It included, in the body of the magazine, letters, prose exchanges, and bibliographies (most from the Poetry/Myth class John Clarke took over when Olson left), so that the poems that were also presented there were clearly proposed as simply one kind of event in a larger discourse that included many different kinds of events. They were not proposed as products with implicit value in and of themselves. On the contrary, the larger discourse was emphasized.

As the magazine developed, it increasingly embodied an active conversation, further undermining the product-status of the “poetry” it included. Rather than including poems intended as finished and self-sufficient literary products, the magazine increasingly published fragments, challenges, responses, broken utterances that provoked other broken, incomplete utterances, so that by the final issue, the magazine has become a kind of clamor, a convocation of a conversation, in action. The result is that even within a single issue, there is nothing to hold on to, not even a poem, which can be proposed as “literature.” There is rather an event that is constantly pushing beyond itself.

The Institute of Further Studies went on to publish a number of items that reinforce this sense of an antithetical dynamic. In 1968, there was a burst of small publications, designed as “letters”. The goal, according to Al Glover, “was to be fastest, and Charles did, in fact, love the speed.”[9] Olson would send poems he’d just written from Gloucester and they’d be printed and distributed within a week (see Appendix B, items 3,4,5,7). Again, the push here was to move the poem into the realm of discourse, communication, provocation, and conversation, and away from the object-status that turned it into a commodity and founded the culture of the “literary.”

Other publications pushed toward the same goal. John Clarke pushed the Institute to publish plate 25 from William Blake’s Milton. His plan, though it wasn’t finally realized, was to mail the “letter” to the delegates to the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. The Olson note, item 4, was another provocation printed as a postcard for immediate dissemination.

Perhaps the most lasting accomplishment of the Institute of Further Studies has been the ongoing publication of The Curriculum of the Soul. Olson’s “poem,” “A Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul,” first appeared in The Magazine of Further Studies 5. After Olson’s death, the Institute decided to break up the curriculum into discrete topics and get different writers to take them on. 29 fascicles (including one numbered 0—Charles Olson’s “Pleistocene Man”), initially imagined as akin to the Cambridge Ancient History Project, were assigned to various poets with relationships to Olson’s work. Al Glover has called it both “a collaborative epic,”[10] and “a bouquet on the grave:”[11]

Original “vision” was of a large book written by “Olson”—and I would still, someday, hope to publish it as such. It is that sense of “Homer” and would make only the second one (this one, of course, somewhat different in its concept of “history” and “narrative”) in “the tradition.”  You see it in “The Mushroom” (“as if we were all one voice / of various sounds”— since revised: “we are all one voice / of various sounds”.[12]

The reference to “Homer” here is to Milman Perry’s famous proposal that in fact, rather than being an individual, Homer was the name given to a collective of bards who had invented and assembled the Iliad and the Odyssey over hundreds of years. The notion of “epic” as it’s deployed here, and as it always was used by Olson, is not what is now proposed as a monomaniacal drive toward a singular representation of the world. Olson always saw epic in that sense as a late, literary derivation, something he hated.[13] The pre-literary “epic,” as he proposed it, was a communal invention of culturally shared narrative meanings, the invention of a cohesion of diversities within the otherness of language. The problem for Olson was how get to a procedure, a method that would make possible a similar mode of knowing/speaking as/for community.

The Curriculum of the Soul certainly addresses that issue in its own way. Whether it is truly an epic is in a sense beside the point. Perhaps more important is its conscious invocation of a specific notion of community. The community revealed here in relation to Olson’s provocation and the call and response of the participants is anything but uniform, anything then but a communion with and within, say, a “theory,” the unobstructed visibility of what John Clarke called the MONO. It is rather a register of the immensity and incommensurability of the relations of authoritative finitudes circulating within and beyond the space of the thought Olson’s work provokes.

Both this sense of community and of epic are central to understanding the work of John Clarke which always moved, as he proposed in his seminal work on poetics, From Feathers to Iron, “to [constellate] the epiphany in a communal place.”[14] Perhaps more than anyone else to emerge from “Olson’s Buffalo,” Clarke worked with unwavering dedication to further the understanding of the complex implications of the notions that haunt this essay, and to realize them in his life and work. Never given to the kinds of self-promotion required for literary success, he was largely unknown outside a small group of dedicated readers when he died in 1992. “I personally enjoy the ultimate freedom of being unknown,” he wrote to his friend, Albert Glover.[15]

Clarke’s work culminated in three interrelated efforts: the editing of intent.: letter of talk thinking & document, From Feathers to Iron: A Concourse of World Poetics, and In the Analogy, which is made up of six books, each consisting of a sequence of 40 sonnets, and a seventh incomplete book. In many ways, the newsletter, intent., was a furthering of the work begun in the Magazine of Further Studies. By the time of its publication (11 issues between 1989-91) small press magazines had generally opted for the showcase model, though some exceptions existed. Exquisite Corpse, Sulfur, and Rolling Stock, for instance, embedded poetry in a context of reviews, polemical articles, and letters. By and large, though, even those magazines that thus contextualized poetry, still presented the poems themselves as literary productions.

Clarke’s goal in intent. was to provide an alternative to that state of affairs. In a letter to Tom Clark, for instance, he discussed using the poems Clark sent as reviews, situating them a larger discussion of films that themselves are embedded in the thematic discourse of each specific issue of the newsletter. Clarke’s insistence that all submissions, including poems, adhere to the particular theme of a given issue was a way of establishing each issue, not as a showcase, but as a space within which a community was revealed at work in language.[16]

Each issue embodied that community in conversation by including a wide range of work that was transgenerational and trans-genre-ational. The lead article was always from the ancestors, establishing the continuity of the conversation. Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Eric Gill, Dora Marsden, Robert McAlmon, Simone Weil, and H.D. were featured in various issues. Art work, poems, reviews, essays, and letters were collected from sources as diverse as the Fugger Newsletter, contemporary writers, both known and relatively unknown, musicians, and children of various ages, some as young as 7 or 8. The operative center of each issue was “The Mail,” an encapsulation of the enormous correspondence Clarke carried out with myriad writers around the world, as well as what he came to call “The Editor’s Quotron.” The Quotron was a collection of quotes from diverse sources relevant to the particular theme at hand. It extended the conversation taking place in the newsletter beyond the bounds of the particular moment, or perhaps more accurately, situated that moment in its further complexity. This use of quotation as a way of locating the work in a world of thinking and talk became crucial to the practice of the epic that Clarke developed in his own poetry.

The two places where, in his final years, he worked that out were From Feathers to Iron and In the Analogy. These two books can be seen as embodying the theory and practice of Clarke’s projective art—though such a distinction finally won’t hold up. Feathers, the book of “poetics,” is not only a “poetic” text—a text where language is constantly pushed toward what Roman Jackobson called the “poetic function”—it literally incorporates poetry in its body. Clarke’s earlier book of poems, The End of This Side, is reprinted within the text as part of an elaborate complicating counterstructure of footnotes that amplify, develop, and sometimes overtake the thinking of the text. In the same way, In the Analogy develops a complex argument within the structure of the sonnet sequences, while also incorporating chunks of “theoretical” thinking in the numerous quotations which precede each of the sonnets. In this way Clarke confronts and demolishes the still dominant Platonic notion that poetry and thought are distinct, even at odds with one another. He creates an interdependence of texts that enacts a complex passionate thinking.

This work was not meant to demolish or escape genre. Rather it’s meant to call our attention to the inadequacies of our thinking of it, and comes out of Clarke’s reading of Romanticism as an unfinished project. Blake, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and Coleridge were all active in his thinking here. The title of From Feathers to Iron is taken from a letter by John Keats. At the heart of the writing is Clarke’s ongoing struggle to further Olson’s work with the epic. As Clarke thinks the issue through in Feathers, it becomes evident that the issue is not a literary problem. If anything, it might be called a political problem, as long as politics is kept located within the visionary. His push is always toward the reconstitution, or re-cognition, of the elsewhere here, something he argues we lost with the collapse of Minoan civilization. This is one of the ways in which he continued to address Olson’s proposal about the archaic/ordinary. From Feathers to Iron, a complex and difficult book that defies summary, proposes the problem as a loss of order and sees the epic as the form of what it calls the strengthening method of world completion. Within this framework, poetry plays a role that has nothing to do with the literary.

By the late 1980’s, Clarke had been writing sonnets for a number of years. More than 1,000 of them remain unpublished in his notebooks. For someone so thoroughly focussed on the importance of the epic, it was always curious to him that he had been given to write so extensively in what was the quintessential lyric form. During the last 5 years of his life he came to see how he could push that form beyond its limits toward the scope necessary for the epic. The result was an enormous outpouring of work that he called In the Analogy[17]. In the Analogy consists of 6 completed books and a fragmentary seventh. Clarke’s plan, as Cass Clarke has transcribed it in the opening pages of In the Analogy, was to write twelve books, pushing it toward the classic epic form. The fact that it remains fragmentary itself is significant.

Of all the recent criticism that has been leveled against the epic, the most serious has focussed on the inherent totalitarianism of the form as handed down in the literary tradition from Virgil to Pound. As John Thorpe has pointed out in the introduction of From Feathers to Iron, however, “Clarke doesn’t envision the epic as a literary genre so much as an inherent human narrative comprehension, wherever there’s an interplay of story with its telling.” In In the Analogy, Clarke made that archaic comprehension a continuing projective event of community, the voice not of a single person (or even mythic persona), but of a world, itself revealed in a clamor of relations.

One of the ways he accomplished this was to embed each sonnet, as well as each sequence of sonnets, deeply within a world of thought. He did this by preceding each poem and each sequence of poems with a number of quotations. The quotes are myriad and diverse, and they provide a universe within which the poems are actively located in conversation. Some quotes mirror the poem, others contradict it, some seem to be its inspiration, while others raise questions about the issues it addresses, and still others develop thinking tangential to it. The overall result is to push the reader into the world of thought out of which the poems arise. The very notion, “Clarke’s poems,” is called actively into question at every moment, even as the poems proceed to address the questions crucial to the epic impulse as it asserts itself here, now[18]. This is what Clarke calls a non-central position, as opposed to a non-ordering intervention. That this epic finally is fragmentary is a fact itself as rich and full of complexity as every other aspect of this truly extraordinary work.

The influence of Olson’s Buffalo—and finally it must be seen, I think, in those collective terms rather than singularly—is not easy to measure, precisely because of the resistance to the literary that is central to its thought of itself. Movements come and go. Theories are hot one day and cold the next, mirroring the dynamics of the consumer culture that gives rise to them and the controlling conceit of “modernization” that has seized hold of “reality” in this century. But the sense of “work” that this community of circulating, authoritative finitudes has consistently embodied continues to percolate quietly and invisibly in diverse corners of the world. What it will give rise to, what it has already given rise to, is a remains to be seen. Donald Byrd has proposed that the work “of Olson and Clarke demand our attention as few others because they occasionally find means to make and to think at once. That is, they bring evidence that there are means of preoccupation with life that is sufficient to life.”[19] This is perhaps as accurate and concise a sense of the various threads winding through this all too brief history of Olson’s Buffalo as anything I’ve managed to say so far. To make and to think at once. What’s at stake in such a gesture will always exceed itself as it pushes to shake off the stupor of the literary and realize poetry’s possible vocation.



Special thanks to Albert Glover, Ron Caplan, and Fred Wah for their invaluable assistance in putting this history together. All errors and inaccuracies are my own. Also, thanks to B. Cass Clarke for generously allowing me access to John Clarke’s papers.


[1]  Daniel Belgrad, in The Culture of Spontaneity (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998) usefully locates Olson in this regard within a community of writers, artists and musicians, arguing that Olson’s poetics are inherently political, having largely been formulated in response to his experience of the liberal/corporate takeover of the Office of War Information and the Office of Facts and Figures (which had been led by Archibald MacLeish) in 1942 and 1943. As a result of the takeover advertising techniques and content replaced reasoned argument for democratic principles.

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1991. 11.

[3]  Nancy, 19.

[4]  Writing of the modern critical passion, Octavio Paz says: “In love with itself and at war with itself, it cannot affirm anything permanent or take any principle as base, it’s sole principle being the negation of all principles, perpetual change.” Children of the Mire, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974. 5.

[5]  Caplan to Boughn, July 15, 1998.

[6]  Wah to Boughn, August 7, 1998.

[7]  Clarke to Clark, October 23, 1986.

[8]  Glover to Boughn, August 28, 1998.

[9]  Glover to Boughn, May 22, 1998.

[10]  Albert Glover, review of In the Analogy, Poetry Project Newsletter, 1998.

[11]  Glover to Boughn, August 28, 1998.

[12]  Glover to Boughn, September 2, 1998.

[13]  “WHY I HATE | Greeks & Italians | [The Vatican since | Dante | [Grecian since | the earliest Renaissance | —including in fact Thomas Aquinas at least] | is | the ClassicalRepresentational, either one | THE STATE———COLORED TELEVISION”. Pleistocene Man. Canton, NY: IFS, 1968. 17.

[14]  John Clarke, From Feathers to Iron: A Concourse of World Poetics, (Bolinas: Timbouctou, 1987): 152. Octavio Paz, Clarke points out, calls this the “convocation and gravitation of the world in a magnetic here.”

[15]  Quoted by Glover in his review of In the Analogy.

[16]  Themes included Plants & Animals, For the Sexes, Alphabetics, UFOs, Heaven, Trust, and Embryons.

[17]  In the Analogy, (Buffalo/Toronto: shuffaloff press, 1997).

[18]  Here is Clarke, for instance, on the issue of the hero:


Devil's Triangle


“How should the hero now speak? Who is after all—a vision?”

            —Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

“Texas has a lot on its head.”

            —Edward Dorn, “The Degeneration of the Greeks”

“Power can stage its own murder to rediscover the glimmer of existence

and legitimacy.”

            —Baudrillard, “Precession of the Simulacra”

“Happiness is not based on oneself, it does not consist of a small

home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle,

where there is no borderline between one's own personal world, and the

world in general.”

            —Lee Harvey Oswald, Letter to his brother


If we are the seminal fluidity, then we contain already,

as Whitman knew, everything, “diddling” (Poe) as well as

the Good, however forced sometimes the dilation as seen

from old heroic organization before the shit rolled like

termite droppings into the load-bearing bridges for everyone

to cross into Dealy Plaza, Dallas “takes us” November

22, 1963, and not only Oswald and Ruby, but Guy Bannister,

Shaw, Ferrie, Bloomfield and Permindex, now Roscoe White

and more aliens up from the South, Watergate's Sturgis,

Union survivors up North, all those insane in Honolulu

since the birth of the Nation/Hail to the Chief shot

American Transcendentalism out of the feudal individual

and delivered into the hands of Walt's “unprecedented

average,” thank you Abe, thanks Jack, now it's up to us.


[19]  Byrd to an informal internet discussion group, April 14, 1997.