Friday, August 29, 2008

Charles Olson: “Do you mind if I excuse you?”

On Valentine's Day 1962 the following took place:

[Charles Olson gave] the Morris Gray lecture at Harvard College which meant so much to him even though it came, as he thought, twenty years too late. He had been denied reappointment at Harvard, and the rejection, I fear, forever rankled, since his friend and fellow at the time, Harry Levin, had gone on to a distinguished professorship and international recognition as a critic.

The day of the reading was in winter, blitzed by a storm. Charles was to tell me later, “Don’t think I wasn’t conscious of all the past history when I stood up there: I came running up like a kid — ready to go.”

He reached the hall with a bottle of Cutty Sark in his pocket — his favorite whisky, whether because of Bobby Burns or taste, I do not know. I learned afterward that before the lecture he had gotten involved in a rumble, his word, with someone named Keyes and “had to throw him out.” Olson’s eyeglasses were chipped in the fracas, and if the damage had been worse, he would have been unable to read.

Boylston Hall — the shallow hall he preferred — was filled. His wife, Bet, as he called her, his son, Charles Peter, some friends — Vincent Ferrini and Peter Anastas, among others, the Gloucester painters, Albert Alcalay and Mary Shore — were in attendance, along with some of the Harvard faculty, and the many students. He was introduced by Monroe Engel, took the stage, and began to read one of the Maximus poems; but suddenly he broke off and left the stage, leaving Engel in lonely grandeur. He was back in a minute and began to read, “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs,” but again he broke off, and this time walked to the side of the platform and leaned in a bow toward a man sitting in an aisle seat in the front row left, Harry Levin.

“Harry,” he said, clearly enough to be heard through most of the hall, “I’m busting up with you sitting there. I can’t read. May I excuse you?”

The man looked up startled, and obviously heard but hadn’t grasped the import of the last phrase. Olson then repeated it, softly but with emphasis.

“Do you mind if I excuse you?”

Levin rose hastily, stepped into the aisle, dropped some books, picked them up, dropped his scarf doing so, and finally clutching all his impedimenta, whisked up the aisle and out.

-- from "Charles Olson: a memoir," by Herbert Kenny
(reprinted from New Boston Review, Summer 1976)


In a post here from earlier in the week there's a link to what was, of all the poetry audio I digitized at Harvard, my favorite recording. Here, now, are links to more favorites: some Charles Olson recordings - including of the reading described above - that are unavailable at PennSound or anywhere else that I know of; they have not been "cleaned up," but are meant to be appreciated with the hermeneutical distance that comes from crackles and pops. Enjoy!

(Unedited audio:)


peN said...

Great post. Wish I could open the file. Perhaps they can be You Tubed or something easier to access.

Don Share said...

Dear peN,

I've added a note to the post that RealAudio is required to hear the audio (and a version that can handle - for you techies out there - SMIL files). I'll investigate further, however - if anyone else is having trouble, please let me know.

JS said...

Thanks for posting this, and for writing up the account. I have RealPlayer. When I tried to play the file, I got "invalid socket error."

Don Share said...

Some folks can play these files just fine, and some folks are having trouble. Wish I knew what to say! Keep trying, in case there's difficulty on the server end; otherwise, you might consider updating your Real Audio software to the newest version.