Friday, February 3, 2017

Poetry at Buffalo, and other things

As regular readers of New Savanna know, I got my PhD at SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s. Here and there I've written about what the place was like (and here, the section "A felicitous research group"). From my point of view, it was a place that was willing to give me a degree even though the department didn't really understand what I was up to. And that was a tremendous gift.

While I was aware that there was a lot of poetry going on at Buffalo. I didn't realize until an hour or so ago how important Buffalo has been to poetry in America over the past several decades. The occasion is a recent essay by Michael Anania, When Buffalo Became Buffalo. Here's a passage about Robert Olsen:
In the course of the hour, he read from The Distances and The Maximus Poems. From uncollected work, he read “The Gulf of Maine,” which had appeared in the anniversary issue of Poetry. He was fond of it and of its ending, “and mostly well-dressed persons frequent it,” an example, for him, of how a poem could simply exhaust its occasion and its speech with a single breath. At one point he announced that he would read “The Death of Europe/for Rainer Gerhardt.” And he began reading it, out of The Distances. He managed a few lines, stopped, then started again. He explained that he was not reading it well, and gave us the sense in successive starts and stops that his voice was trying to catch up with a pace that was moving in his mind, moving even in his tapping foot, like a dancer trying to catch the music, which somehow, in its first moves, the body had irretrievably failed. Setting the book aside, he said that he had read the poem well that summer in Vancouver and that he would, rather than read it badly, play a tape of that reading, so the tape recorder was turned on, and Olson pulled a chair up next to it and with us sat listening to “The Death of Europe.” He was so tall that when he sat in the chair, his legs rose in long angles up from the seat. He smoked a cigarette and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and tapped his foot to the rhythm of his recorded voice reading his poem. In the center of all those angles of arms and legs, his great round face smiled and nodded. Somehow, it didn’t occur to me until later that something very strange had happened. While it was going on, I was too focused to notice that Olson had turned the whole ritual of the poetry reading upside down, that the familiar drama of those occasions had been at once radically altered and marvelously parodied. I had just begun to know him so I was just becoming accustomed to the way he would, without apparent effort, move things into another order of occurrence. The voice on the tape recorder read the poem brilliantly. Olson listened, and we listened and watched him listening, tapping our feet with his, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Here's a somewhat different passage about Olson, from a 1999 essay Bruce Jackson wrote about the department as a whole:
Charles Olson was the magister – a poet and scholar who had followers. I knew him from Call me Ishmael and The Maximus Poems. People had described him as a huge figure of a man, six-foot-six and big on the frame, a man who filled a room. I'd heard Olson stories the whole time I'd been at Harvard.

Olson was mythic before I got here and so he remained. I never set eyes on him. When I came for my interview he was on leave, "But he'll be back next year," they said. I got a fourth year on my grant at Harvard so the next year I only visited Buffalo once on a house-hunting expedition. Olson was still away at his place north of Boston they said, "But he'll be back next year." Then he died.

His friend Jack Clarke, another UB English department poet and visionary, told me, "But he knew it was coming for a year. He finished what he could, filed what he wanted to, got rid of the loose ends." Someone else told me that Jack was with Olson at the end and that Olson came out of a deep sleep or a coma, sat up, pointed with his right index finger, said, "So THAT'S it!" And died. I always meant to ask Jack if that was really what happened but I didn't and now it's too late because Jack died too.
But here, this is what particularly caught my attention in Anania's recent essay, a passage about Olsen's seminars:
Each afternoon’s progress was in the best sense improvisational, inventions at once scholarly and transgressive. The best measure of Olson’s seriousness about these excursions and their originality is that he would stay after class and copy down what he had written and drawn on the blackboard. The board was the register for what emerged from the discussion. He would move around the room, sit sometimes, but always go back to the board where words and figures were connected by arrows, spirals and brackets.
David Hays was the same way. But Hays, as you know, wasn't a poet. He was a computational linguist and polymath. And I was in his working group. The blackboard was important. We all copied the diagrams drawn there. I remember one particular session, it had taken place on the lawn of Hays's house on the shore of Lake Erie. The upshot had been a particularly elegant and satisfying diagram, a relatively simple one, tetrahedral in form and in three colors of chalk. It summarized, say, two years of work. Even when the serious discussion was over and we were just talking, perhaps over a bit of scotch, Hays would look at that diagram.


  1. Bill, do you every write poetry? I have often wished that I had the talent/skill to write poetry. I have tired ever so slightly to write poetry but I just don't hear the meter in my head. I just don't seem to get poetry.

    This post made me think of the many wonderful professors I had both as a undergraduate and a gradate student. I think perhaps because I was more just absorbing information as undergrad rather than pursing a career as a graduate student I actually learned more as an undergrad.

    1. I have written a poem or two, but never worked at it. Music is my art form, and, these days, photography.