Toby Olson Essay - Critical Essays

Olson, Toby


Toby Olson 1937–

(Born Theodore Olson) American poet and novelist.

Olson writes simple, clear, and direct poetry. He gently yet relentlessly penetrates the "things" of his life to extract an ironic but sympathetic vision of the world. He claims that "it is through writing about what I can see, hear, and feel that I can best touch the nature that I believe is common in all of us." His attempt to do this produces work in which concrete observations are colored by meditative speculations. Many of the poems from his previous volumes have been collected in Changing Appearance: Poems 1965–70 (1975).

In addition to his poetry, Olson has published two novels, The Life of Jesus (1976) and Seaview (1982). Both novels are experimental in structure: realistically detailed descriptions merge with surreal manipulations of plot and poetic passages are interspersed with standard narrative techniques. The Life of Jesus uses the mystical symbolism of Catholicism to explore the psychology of the protagonist who views his life in terms of the life of Jesus.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9.)

Publishers Weekly

[Toby Olson's first novel "The Life of Jesus"] is a mystical mixture of autobiography and the religious legend shaped by his Catholic school upbringing. The author poetically fulfills his need to make the holy family his own, recounting his life as the life of Jesus—not pretentiously, but dreamfully…. A deeply symbolic work that explores at a most basic level the mind of Catholicism.

A review of "The Life of Jesus," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the October 4, 1976 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1976 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 210, No. 14, October 4, 1976, p. 71.

Philip Milner

The focus of [The Life of Jesus] is not on religious faith nor on Jesus, but on an unnamed California boy who identifies completely with the Jesus of his Catholic education. He works as a carpenter, tells parables in a spare prose that resembles that of the Gospels, heals the sick, offers communion, dies, and is resurrected. The miraculous dimension is always understated…. Since he is completely merged with Jesus, we learn little about him that does not have a parallel in the life of Jesus. The symbolic structure has more reality than the hero's experiences in 20th-Century America.

Philip Milner, in a review of "The Life of Jesus," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 15, 1976; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1976 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 101, No. 18, October 15, 1976, p. 2195.

Robert Vas Dias

Changing Appearance assembles the work of Toby Olson's five previous small-press books plus material unpublished in book form, from the period 1965–70…. (p. 50)

The means by which Olson gets at central concerns—and his poetry deals always with the essentials—is well-illustrated in Maps (1969), the first book in Changing Appearance. Taking as occasion various kinds of maps … he explores the difference between what is measured and represented graphically, and a state of being which cannot be measured. The analogue is to that which sets up tensions between formal attempts at representation—in art, in literature—and experience…. The "reading" of a map becomes a means toward establishing connections between events and objects and the makeup of the human psyche—a way of perceiving the self both as individual and as part of an organic process. Though the occasion may at first glance seem literary, the poetry is the poetry of experience and conveys always a strong sense of place and circumstance. In fact, this is the source of the poetry's power…. The language of the poems is also "natural"—not casual of sloppy, but the language of a man talking to you or thinking aloud, having paced himself and concentrating on particulars.

The movement of these poems, as in most of Olson's work, is most often inductive: he casts a line with a hook on it, and you are drawn immediately into the world of the poem. Starting with what can be described as the generative particular—the assertion or image expressed indicatively which requires illumination or extension—he builds the poem deftly out of the materials supplied by autobiographical reflection and the concrete, sensual image…. (pp. 50-1)

Making the conceptual statement which is realised perceptually involves the loss of innocence, a penetration at once carnal and imaginative. It is this process which gives the poem its momentum. The poems of Maps proceed by the collaging of one perception "instanter, on another," done rather carefully and formally in "The Globe," and with greater flexibility in the best poem in this section—and one of the best poems in the book—, the longer "The Mapping of the Currents."… The casual ingathering proceeds more from Whitman, the carefulness from the shorter poems of W. C. Williams and from Robert Creeley, the flexibility from Charles Olson (no relation) and Paul Blackburn, and the contemplative, philosophical rhetoric from William Bronk—diverse poets in a by now well-recognised American tradition. But almost from the beginning, Toby Olson has had his own voice—rigorous, familiar, tough and meditative by turns.

He is a poet for whom the language needs continual renewing: he takes it as he finds it. But our language is always more than we find it. The poem "Hair" in Worms into Nails, also published originally in 1969, is a good example of the way Olson deals with the inputs that make our language a living one. (p. 51)

Starting with a locution typical of the proverb, Olson sets up a range of expectations stemming from its rhythms and constructs, though making it new. The poetics of the proverb has to do with fulfilling its rhythms, with wit in the use of metaphor—to place the dissimilar in apposition with the similar, in such a way that the idiosyncratic quality instead of sounding strange, appears inevitable, and even in the best examples, worth committing to memory…. There is in Olson's work a clarity, a...

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[The Life of Jesus] is a daring and perceptive work of the imagination, which throws new light on the Gospel legends while offering witty and profound insights about growing up. The boy, for example, sees his mother as the Virgin, his father as an interloper, and himself as a divine and miraculous being. As the book progresses, it becomes less fairy tale and more autobiography, until one sees the point—learning from his trials that he is neither all-God or all-man, the protagonist can accept death and return to the hitherto alien father. An interesting, at times beautiful, book which says through surrealism and poetry what cannot be said directly.

A review of "The Life...

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Thomas Meyer

I couldn't describe [Toby Olson] nor do I know his age, even so he seems almost a brother, so moved am I this April morning reading and rereading The Florence Poems.

So what does one do? Praise, point out, explain? Jerome Rothenberg prefaces the poems saying they respond to "the death by sickness that a friend must live through." Festina lente, make haste slowly, a woman is dying. The urgency of address is part of the book's occasion, yet with courage and great honesty. Olson lets himself linger over moments like this:

And down the sandy path from the parking lot
a tall young woman in a large red hat

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Kirkus Reviews

Though certainly a failure—ponderous, unpaced, lurching, implausible—poet Olson's second work of fiction [Seaview] … nonetheless has about it an imagistic, visionary hunger that's striking, that sets it apart…. [Seaview, a Cape Cod golf course,] is built on Indian tribal land—and it's here that the book concludes on a note of apocalypse: Indians staging a siege of the course. Richard stalking Allen in revenge for being burned, a nude-beach protest, Melinda meanwhile dying. True, such ungainliness—if speeded up—would deliver comedy. But Olson slows it down instead. And though certain scenes are just awful—Allen and Melinda making love while the Laetrile drips intravenously into her arm, a...

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Jamie James

In Seaview, his second novel, Toby Olson has written half a good book. What is good about this novel is so good, so smart and so beautifully realized, that one instinctively resists the harsh judgment that the other half of the book deserves….

Seaview is the story of Allen, a golf player, and Melinda, his wife, who is dying of cancer. Accompanied by a sententious old Indian man named Bob White, they are driving across the United States, living out of motels and their automobile, making their way to Cape Cod, Melinda's home, where she wants to die….

It is Olson's sensitive portrayal of Allen and Melinda's relationship that makes the novel work as well as it does. He...

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