Editor’s Choice: Tracking Charles Olson and Jack Kerouac in ‘American Smoke’ - The Buffalo News
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Editor’s Choice: Tracking Charles Olson and Jack Kerouac in ‘American Smoke’

American Smoke by Iain Sinclair, Faber and Faber, 309 pages ($27). The word was, they say, writer Iain Sinclair’s coinage – “psychogeography.” In the “psychogeography” of literature in Buffalo, one of the most significant events of the past 70 years was the moment when Charles Olson joined chairman Albert Cook’s English department at the University at Buffalo.

He was part of a literary cluster that would eventually include Leslie Fiedler and John Barth, as well as Olson’s friend Robert Creeley, not to mention such then-younger poets as Irving Feldman, Charles Bernstein and Carl Dennis.

Sinclair is a countercultural poet, essayist and filmmaker originally from Dublin whom we are told likes to refer to himself as “a middle-class dropout with a gift for bull – etc.” and a traveler in search of the great countercultures, their settings, artifacts, texts and writers.

This book begins with Olson’s Gloucester, Mass., because back in his youthful prime, Sinclair in Dublin preferred Olson, his forebears Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis and poetic progeny like Ed Dorn to what was going on at home.

“We didn’t buy English anger, which seemed to be nothing more than a media-friendly staging post on the way to rural retirement, empty bottles on the porch, second wives in red fur nursing black eyes.”

Better, as 71-year-old Sinclair eventually did for this idiosyncratic book, to cross the ocean in geographical search for the legacy of Olson, Kerouac, Burroughs, Gary Snyder and Malcolm Lowry. “Hearing Olson talk,” Sinclair says of the film “Polis Is This,” “you get the excitement of the expanding moment; a rumbling voice thick with smoke, sweat dripping, black eyebrows … and the gleaming melon dome of that glistening skull.”

What emerges here is a brilliant, vehemently personal and outrageously well-written visit to an American countercultural tradition and the places from whence it came, all centered around Olson, its 6-foot, 7-inch master, along with Malcolm Lowry in Vancouver, William S. Burroughs in Kansas, Gary Snyder in Seattle, etc.

A deeply eccentric and quite marvelous book.

– Jeff Simon

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