“To these mournful narratives I am about to add the "Life of Richard Savage," a man whose writings entitle him to an eminent rank in the classes of learning, and whose misfortunes claim a degree of compassion not always due to the unhappy, as they were often the consequences of the crimes of others rather than his own.” Edward Trelawny’s Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron is another exemplar. A somewhat ramshackle account of his brief associations with both poets, it has the gift of the gab. It entrances, even if much of it is made up out of whole cloth.
We could all make a list of our favorites, but the two that I’ve returned to most over the years have been Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth and Charles Boer’s Charles Olson in Connecticut. I must have read each of them three or four times.
Poets in Their Youth is sustained by a tone of consistent faith in youth's ardent aspirations and finely undercut by the melancholy of the failure and madness that often accompanies such Icarian passions. It's sensitively and lovingly written, a compulsively readable recollection by John Berryman’s first wife, the lovely and eloquent Eileen Simpson. Simpson is a sympathetic witness. She praises the beauty of these dashing young men, even while bemoaning their obsessive drive, their egotism, and their infidelities. Her account of young male poetic ambition at mid-century, when Eliot had become the unobtainable apex of cultural authority and everyone who mattered read The Nation, is exhilarating, but also cautionary. In the end, the totalizing ambition of these poets proves to be deranging; it pushes them all headlong into excess, betrayal, alcoholism and dementia. Still, it sparkles with the droll, mischievous wit that ran like an infection through these poets and critics. To give just one of many examples: "Out of the blue at a very proper dinner with people we didn't know very well, he'd [R.P. Blackmur] say in full voice [to Berryman] -- 'John, have you ever noticed that while many women have bottoms like cellos Eileen's is like a viola?'" And then these puckish "lads" would be off and running. Simpson was largely amused by such antics. But the narrative grows darker as Berryman sinks deeper into depression and booze, all of it leading up to his first masterpiece -- and their divorce -- "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet."
Charles Olson in Connecticut, by his former student, Charles Boer (notable, among other things, for his glorious Projectivist translations of The Homeric Hymns) paints a similar picture. This warm, vivid portrait of the utterly alive and charismatic Olson in his final year of life also shows how completely tyrannical and manipulative he was (or had become). He is the house guest from Hell, yet poor Boer, to his infinite credit, cannot at first bring himself to dislodge this friendly, all-consuming overbearing ogre. Olson had an insatiable appetite for conversation. Which generally meant, his holding forth on a wide array of esoteric topics until all hours of the night while the hapless Boer lay prostrate with exhaustion. The memoir uses a device that is notably effective. It's addressed to Olson himself, usually referenced as "you," as in "It was so hard for you to go bed before four or five in the morning..." This gives the book a vivid immediacy, as though we were overhearing a dialogue between author and subject. Olson drives Boer to despair, yet throughout it all he continues to love and revere this great preposterous bear of a man who wants nothing less than a total resurrection of the human spirit, here and now.
There are many priceless and touching moments of Olson being Olson in this book, but one that immensely amuses me, I don't even know why, is of Olson's queer nocturnal habits. As Boer tells it:
"That night, and for many nights to come, you took large amounts of the refrigerator's contents to bed with you -- everything from a jug of orange juice, a quart of ginger ale, candy, a head of lettuce to a box of crackers, cheese and hard-boiled eggs ... you dumped everything on the bed. I remember well ... hearing you in the next room furiously turning the pages of the books, munching vigorously on the lettuce ... it went on all night."
This stuff is priceless -- and heartbreaking.
Boer manages, finally, to get Olson installed in a local motel, where he immediately charms the entire staff in his best Lord of the Manor mode. It ends, all too soon, in death. Olson, stricken with liver cancer, aghast, yet valiantly struggling to the end to pierce the veil, to come to grips with the essence of myth, as recorded in his last piece of writing, the fascinating and almost incoherent “Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum.” Charles Stein has devoted an entire book to decrypting this esoteric text, written, as it were, from beyond the grave. Olson’s folly, I suppose, was that he tried to embody the archetypal truths of myth in his own psyche. But that way lies madness. One cannot traffic so openly with such dangerous godly energies.
This memoir of a poetic genius is still the most moving I have ever read. It shows how his extraordinary magnanimity of spirit is complexly bound up with a certain kind of self-delusion. Olson was a mixture of PT Barnum and Homer. A showman/barker decrying the real spiritual shipwreck and urging us to look outside the bounds of the quotidian for the mythic reality of real renewal. He was a grand and noble soul and at the same time, a bit of a bullshit artist. Maybe that’s what was needed – and still needed. The prophet speaks in tongues. It is up to us to decode it.