The most interesting subjects for biographical projects are often the most difficult to write about. Psychological complexity enriches the landscape while making it harder to navigate. If the life brought under scrutiny has been the source of some artistic achievement, the difficulty is compounded by the necessity for linking the subject’s work and his days. In the case of an artist whose work is elusive and unconventional, interpretation and clarification enter the equation as well. For Tom Clark, an accomplished poet, a former poetry editor of The Paris Review, and the author of volumes on the lives of Louis- Ferdinand Céline, Damon Runyon, Jack Kerouac, and Ted Berrigan, all these factors contributed to a challenge of unusual dimensions when he undertook a biography of Charles Olson.
The appeal of the project for Clark is obvious. He interviewed Olson during the mid-1960’s and, like many others, was left with an impression of an exceptional figure, a source of energy and fascination. He knew that Olson’s life was unusually diverse, his contacts with people in American social and artistic circles uniquely various. Many of these people were still alive and willing to discuss their encounters, while others had written accounts of their meetings, friendships, or confrontations with Olson. He knew that Olson kept a detailed, candid journal from his earliest years, and he recognized that the relationship between Olson’s life and his writing would shed light on both if he could find a method to draw all the letters, essays, and poetry into a suitable frame of meaning.
Clark realized that a conventional treatment would be unsatisfactory. The mass-of-facts approach was pointless; fragments of factual material were already responsible for the contradictory claims of Olson’s supporters and revilers that clouded his life and work. In addition, Olson’s writing similarly captivated or repelled students and critics, while his personal intensity made his every relationship a study in tension, even torment, as well as inspiration akin to awe and love. Once swept into his magnetic presence, a person seemed either charmed or dismayed—sometimes alternately (or simultaneously) being driven to both polarities.
Clark decided that his study would be an act of “creative criticism” (as Ezra Pound put it) in which the interpenetration of mind and art would be revealed by what John Keats called “continual allegory.” Acknowledging that the mystery of any life can never be totally explained, Clark felt that the strands of the linkage between “inner and outer myth” might be presented so as to produce “a magic resonance” that clarified and reanimated both realms. In this fashion, all the material he had gathered could be shaped so as to provide a direction toward (if not a definitive reading of) the poet’s major work.
Realizing how esoteric such an approach might become, Clark applies his skills as a storyteller to the events of Olson’s life. To balance the demands on the reader and on himself as he ranges through the processes of poetic composition, Clark organizes the circumstances of Olson’s life into a brisk, lively, and engaging narration, using the propelling power of action and incident to maintain a level of fascination with his subject. Intending to reach the literate reader who is not a literary professional, Clark effectively highlights crucial information, overcoming the obstacle of huge blocks of facts that congeal into brain-numbing clumps of data in many biographies. Beginning with a quick history of the New England coast, which sustained the fishing trade that dominated Olson’s dreams in the poet’s youth, Clark establishes the motif of paternal influence that became a primary element in Olson’s development as a man and a writer. From the start, Clark is unafraid to offer psychoanalytic interpretation, realizing that any other approach would betray his allegorical system. Without resorting to the jargon of the psychologist, Clark depends on the lucidity and logic of his argument to establish his authority. To support his speculation, he introduces relevant excerpts from Olson’s poems as well as recollections of important events as they appear in the journals, scrupulously citing his sources in extensive notes.
Following a succinct accounting of Olson’s early years, Clark shows how the complex processes of Olson’s mind initiated in a series of educational experiences, including his brief but tarnished glory as a champion orator at Worcester Classical School, where his already impressive stature combined with a voice he could use as an instrument or weapon enabled him to overcome (temporarily) a permanent fear of performance. The contrasting qualities of an imposing physical presence (Olson eventually stood six feet eight inches tall, was proportionally broad of chest and shoulder, and moved, as the dancer Merce Cunningham said, like a “light walrus”) and a desire to “show ’em” were mixed with a deep sense of reserve and an inclination toward inward reflection; this is the first of several central paradoxes that Clark uses to build his thematic formulation of Olson’s life as allegory—the meaning of everything doubled and coded beyond its immediate appearance. Olson demonstrated his gifts for literature and language from the start of his collegiate career, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors at Wesleyan University and then planning an M.A. thesis on Herman Melville at Wesleyan’s Graduate School. Olson intended to reach an original conclusion by avoiding all prior Melville criticism. This characteristic push toward the original often left him so far outside familiar parameters that observers were either intrigued enough to follow his brilliant leaps or so put off by his lack of conventional patterns of thought that they tended to disparage everything he said.
Even if he had not become a major figure in mid-twentieth century American...
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