re: Jacket #31: Letter To The Editor

Dear John Tranter,

I was quite upset by two pieces which appeared in #31.

(1) The essay by my old friend Rachel DuPlessis, whose work I always read with pleasure, accepts without question sources which claim Charles Olson made sexist remarks in Buffalo, 1963-'64. She quotes from the Tom Clark biography, which does not name its sources, attributing comments to Olson he did not make. I was a young postgraduate student at Buffalo in Olson's Modern Poetry course, and the only confrontational queries he ever addressed to a woman (to the best of my knowledge) in that context were made to my dear friend, now deceased, the wonderful poet, Shreela Ray, who was born and raised in Orissa (near Calcutta). Olson asked her where she was coming from. Shreela knew quite well that Olson was questioning her in a manner cosmological as well as specific, and she was not prepared to deal with it, and told him she was coming from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and, before that, Webster College, St. Louis. Olson was rather taken aback by this, but in no way attacked her or said what Rachel, using Clark, says he said. She did not leave the class in a huff as alleged. She just decided she had other priorities as a student, and in fact she was working with George Starbuck and also with John Logan at the time and she simply decided not to continue with the class. Rachel also quotes Nancy Armstrong, now a distinguished professor, as to how she was put off by comments to the effect that it was "men's poetry" would be the subject of the course. I do not know Dr. Armstrong, but from her biography on the internet, it is clear that she was no more than a sophomore (or junior) student at the time, and the Modern Poetry course was open only to postgraduates. In the event that comment was made, it was not made by Olson, and Rachel does not claim it was. There was one other course which Olson was teaching before the death of his wife that Spring, and that was his Myth and Literature course, which was open only to senior English majors. Perhaps it was that class Dr. Armstrong had wanted to attend, but poetry was not "taught" in that class as far as I know, and although it now seems the predominant thing to say: that Olson was anti-woman, there is really no evidence for this except hearsay at one remove, which seems, sadly, to be universally accepted. Both Ralph Maud and the late Jack Clarke wrote detailed negative reviews of the Clark book, Maud noting that for some reason Tom Clark wanted to make Olson seem pathetic, calling him "Charlie" in his biography and pulling unsubstantiated quotes from nowhere, unworthy of as fine a writer as Clark is. Rachel also notes that Susan Howe had compiled a list of quotes from Olson's poetry she regards as misognystic. But then she does not produce any of these excerpts (though she gives a footnote source), and I would like to dispute them. Well, this was all 45 years ago now that Olson was teaching at Buffalo, but I don't think it fair that he has been so adamantly attacked and misrepresented, and the attacks so accepted. Rachel also notes that comments on Olson by Charles Bernstein are "witty and transgressive" and here I must disagree totally, since I find the comments silly and superficial, like the essays written on Olson by Bernstein and Barrett Watten many years ago, clear examples of sophomoric misprision.

(I should add here that Rachel and I have since had an e-mail back-and-forth and she understands my (perhaps) petulance and further knows that I regard the other major thrusts of her essay regarding poetry and male sexuality in the 1950's to be perceptive and well-argued.)

(2) In the same issue, there is what I consider to be a completely intellectually dishonest piece by Robert Sheppard, which makes nasty comments about another dear friend, also deceased, Eric Mottram. I was appalled at what Sheppard said. Sheppard's dissertation on Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood was, as Eric told me at the time (yes, I know this is hearsay) simply the worst Ph.D. dissertation he had ever read, and that he really thought the advanced degree should not be awarded without much rewriting and rethinking, but he agreed to pass Sheppard finally since he was one of the first in the UK to submit a dissertation on the evolving contemporary and so could justify a multi-standard approach, and Roy Fisher and Lee were friends of Eric's and were pleased that Sheppard had written of them, and that at the time there was a job at stake at some point and serious thinkers in poetics, Mottram believed, should not be opposed so rigorously by the Academy.... Sheppard notes that Eric "snorted" in some sort of ungainly fashion when Sheppard said there was more than one set of facts regarding the UK Poetry Society Wars, and goes on to say that Mottram's take on this was opinionated and incorrect. This is nonsense, unless you believe, say, that there is more than one set of facts regarding the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/ et. al., decision to invade Iraq. (Perhaps there are I suppose: Bush wanting to prove that he is a bigger man than his father, or that what is good for American oil companies is good for the world, or that War is the Way.) Most of the people involved, the major players, from Bob Cobbing to Barry MacSweeney, et. al., are no longer with us, but it is impossible for me to believe that if they were alive they would agree with Sheppard in any way as to what the "facts" were. Sheppard ends his surly schoolboy piece by saying that the innovative poets in the UK in the 1970's "fucked it up for the rest of us." By which he implies he has not enough outlets of an "establishment" nature for his own writing? Which of course was not the point of the coup d'etat engineered at the Poetry Society. Who "fucked it up" - Allen Fisher? Elaine Randell? The previously mentioned MacSweeney or Cobbing? Bunting? MacDiarmid? Both of whom took turns as President of the Society during those exciting years when Eric's intellect and passion and energy served as a vortex for the British Poetry Renaissance. Or does he refer to the Americans living in the UK who were involved: Asa Benveniste? Paige Mitchell? Myself? But I said the review was dishonest intellectually. The objective evidence for this if more evidence is needed is that he again attacks Eric Mottram for not paying attention to the American L=A=N=G poets until near "the end of his life" which is just not true. Eric never reckoned their theoretical work highly, it is true, finding it, as I do, to have been juvenile and academic and without depth, and much of the early poetry vapid and uninteresting. However, Eric arranged for Charles Bernstein's first major reading in the UK at King's College, feeling that he should be given a fair launch. That was in the 1970's, 20 years before Eric died. And 15 years before Eric died, he presented in great detail the work of many of the "lang gang" (to quote Cid Corman) to a larger audience by including them in his "Sites And Sounds Of The Contemporary In Current American Poetry" conference, giving all of them a wider hearing for the first time in Britain. Eric was always on the side of the young, and those whose outlets were blocked or not yet formed. He was a tireless and dedicated socialist educator and critic, and "the best unknown poet in Britain" as both Clive Bush and Will Rowe had noted. Sheppard would never have received his Ph.D. driving license if it weren't for Eric's deep good will. But Sheppard knows nothing of this; all he does is grind his axe of resentment (spiritual poverty) against someone who, unbeknownst to him, gave him (and so many others) his start. As Oscar Wilde said: "No good deed goes unpunished.