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A big figure Charles Olson was a large man who wielded poetic clout

He was 6-foot-7 at age 16, according to his son.

What Charles Olson wound up, finally, varies depending on whom you read, from 6-foot-8 to 6-foot-10. His old student at the fabled experimental Black Mountain College, Jonathan Williams, is probably the definitive witness: he was 6-foot-9 and, in his prime, 245 pounds.

According to critic Hugh Kenner, he had to turn his shoulders sideways to get through ordinary doors. The persona of his longest and most important poem is named "Maximus."

In later years, we learn from Henry Ferrini's wonderful film "Polis Is This" that the car Olson drove had no reverse gear. What could be more perfectly appropriate than Charles Olson driving a car that quite literally couldn't go backward?

This was a poet who, after all, talked anthologist Donald Allen out of including the venerated likes of Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams in the landmark anthology "The New American Poetry 1945-1960." No "aunties and grandpas" advised Olson, even though his student Robert Creeley felt otherwise. Allen eventually agreed. The result made literary history, with poems by Creeley, Le Roi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Kenneth Koch, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn, etc.

Olson was, by unanimous assent, one of the most influential of all contemporary poets -- so much so, in fact, that he is always among the likely suspects who coined the word "postmodern."

What is either little known or too infrequently acknowledged is that he was one of the most influential figures in the last 50 years of Buffalo cultural history. He only taught at the University of Buffalo from 1963 to 1965, but his brief presence was the annunciation of a massive influx of poets -- including Creeley himself -- who completely transformed the nature of literary activity in this city. If it seems as if a hell of a lot of poets have made Buffalo home, Olson's coming here in 1963 was, no doubt, instrumental in all of that.

By the time the late visionary UB English department chairman Albert Cook would finish assembling one of the more fabled literary aggregates anywhere, it was altogether amazing. After Olson came Leslie Fiedler. Writers as wildly different as Jones, Basil Bunting, Anthony Burgess, Dwight Macdonald and Donald Barthelme have, at one time or another, passed through the department that Cook irrevocably altered.

Olson -- who called himself an "archaeologist of morning" -- was a harbinger of all that -- and more. His arrival was contemporary with that of Lukas Foss as well as the radical transformation of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery into the internationally known museum we've come to now.

Olson's presence in Buffalo and his enduring impact on the city will be celebrated all day Saturday in the third installment of the OlsonNow series in Hallwalls at the Church.

Highlighting Saturday's event -- which begins at 1 p.m. -- will be the 4 p.m. showing of Ferrini's film "Polis Is This," with Ferrini to discuss it, and, at 8 p.m., a poetry reading by Olsonite Anne Waldman and others.

Who was this man who quite literally seems to have transformed a goodly portion of everyone he ever met and every place he ever alit?

He was, according to poet and old Black Mountain student Jonathan Williams, classy at poker and always courteous to waitresses. He was also, in softball games, "a first baseman so vast that almost nobody could throw a softball past him."

"There is a lot to be learned from how a man plays poker or softball or treats waitresses in a restaurant."

On the other hand, Hugh Kenner says that the 1956 collapse of Black Mountain College -- "rogue academy" -- may have been hastened by school "rector" Olson alienating its Quaker sponsors.

His theory of poetry in "Projective Verse" is one of the most influential essays written by an American poet. Reading it -- or one of his poems for that matter -- is a little like Fielding Dawson's description to Kenner of the experience of an Olson lecture:

"[He was] completely absorbed in his talk; the white blackboard began to fill with blue diagrams, blue words and long blue sentences, his hands turned blue and he had blue smudges on his face and mustache from smoking his cigar with his chalk hand, on he went, and once with no place to write, he wrote towards the edge of the blackboard, wrote down the right margin, there was no right margin, but he went right on, crossing over and going through already written sentences until he came to the chalk tray and, bending over, went clean off the blackboard to the floor, laughing with us."

Wrote critic Guy Davenport: "His poetry is inarticulate. His lectures achieved depths of incoherence. His long poem 'Maxiums' was left unfinished, like most of his projects and practically all of his sentences."

Not only that, says Davenport -- an admirer: "He put food in his pockets at dinner parties" and "he was an addict as he grew older to both alcohol and drugs."

You can add cigarettes, too. Watching "Polis Is This," you marvel at the audibly labored smoker's breathing of this poet, who offered lung capacity and breathing as the basic formal unit of poetry. (It sure does explain a lot of his micro-sentences.)

Why do people still care so deeply 36 years after his death -- and celebrate him?

Because reading Olson turns everyone into an archaeologist wandering through a field and occasionally coming upon an artifact so electrically charged and amazing that it can alter your whole perspective.

At his funeral, wrote Davenport, Ginsberg, in the middle of chanting kaddish, accidentally stepped on the wrong pedal and jammed the mechanism that would have sent the "outsize coffin" into the ground.

Classic Olson. The man who had no reverse gear on his car was announcing from beyond that he was never really going to be dead and buried either.

As Saturday's event proves, he's still with us.




WHAT: OlsonNow 3: Charles Olson at Buffalo

WHEN: p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Hallwalls Cinema at the Church, 341 Delaware Ave.

TICKETS: $6 general, $4 members or students


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