The Proper Sculpture: A Week with the Charles Olson Papers


The following guest post is by Stefanie Heine who was was awarded a Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Travel Grant in 2017 to conduct research in Archives and Special Collections. Dr. Heine studied English, Philosophy and Comparative Literature at the University of Zürich. She was a Research and Teaching Assistant at the Department of Comparative Literature in Zurich. After completing her PhD (cf. Visible Words and Chromatic Pulse. Virginia Woolf’s Writing, Impressionist Painting, Maurice Blanchot’s Image. Wien: Turia + Kant, 2014), she started working on a post-doc project on the poetics of breathing and she is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto (Centre for Comparative Literature).


“we are ourselves both the instrument of discovery and the instrument of definition”

“this instant, […] you on this instant, […] you, figuring it out, and acting, so”

– Charles Olson, Human Universe


Without my knowledge, the GPS of the car I rented at Boston Logan airport was set to “discovery route”. I drove for over three hours, red maple, black oak, sweet birch and white ash making me indifferent to the fact that map turned to maze.

I arrived at the University of Connecticut on the day of the solar eclipse. Caught in those first moments of archive fever, I probably would have forgotten about it, if my partner hadn’t texted me: “You should go out now.” When I did, I couldn’t see. Only for a few seconds the blaze yielded to a clear-cut sickle through the glasses a woman lent me in front of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

These two scenes composing the mood of my arrival at the Charles Olson Research Collection kept determining my exploration of the archive, and they turned out to be instances where Olson’s paths crossed mine. On the one hand, they were points where my own research met Olson’ methods. “methodos […] turns out to be meta hodos […] the principle of—PATH”, “the way the path is known”, Olson explicates in a letter to Robert Creeley in June 1952 (152). The way the path is known involves the person on it and for Olson, research is inextricably linked to the experience of the individual who conducts it, in the very moment it is conducted. On the other hand, there are more specific correlations between what I encountered on the way to and through the archive and Olson’s methodological and poetological approaches. The title of a section of the Maximus Poems, “Each Night is No Loss, It is a daily eclipse, / by the Earth, of the Sun” (448) can be read in line with these approaches. The phenomenon of eclipse could be considered as something that happens on a continual basis when we do research and write: instances of blindness and sudden illumination reoccur, again and again. In an unpublished essay I came across in the archive, Olson explicitly comments on the overlaps of “blindness” and “recognition” in the process of literary production, the creation of poetic form: “A form does only disclose itself if a man does go blind.” (Form, no more than means, is caused) With his emphasis on the writer’s or researcher’s sensation of blindness (literary writing and scientific discovery are inextricably linked for him), Olson counteracts what he considers as the most dominate way in which knowledge is achieved, the ‘Western logos’, in which the rational mind at clear daylight engages in classification and abstraction. This method is what for Olson prevents an immediate involvement of the writer or researcher with their objects of discovery and destroys the “kinetics of the thing” focused on (“Projective Verse” 16). In the archive, the proximity to the new material as such prevented any critical distance for me. The massive amount of writing held in the Charles Olson Research Collection offers too much input to process straightaway; most of the time, I was in a haze, reading and copying as much as I could, assembling material to be ‘investigated’ later. But maybe the point where I was closest to ‘knowledge-bringing event[s]’ in Olson’s sense (he borrows that term from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for example in A man’s life is a continual allegory) was in the archive itself.

One of these events particularly stands out: in one of Olson’s early notebooks from 1945, a passage on syntax caught my attention. Being aware that this must be one of Olson’s the very first written reflections on literary composition and one of the first attempts to formulate principles for his own writing, I was excited. But my enthusiasm was soon overshadowed by a banal fact: Olson’s handwriting, which needs some time to get used to in general, is specifically hard to decipher on these two pages of the tiny notebook covered densely with words in pencil. I was entering a domain where language becomes utterly private and is almost impenetrable because of its singularity. “Syntax is a key”, Olson writes – and it seemed to me at first sight that it would be denied to me to unlock the gate presented by Olson. “I have a hunch I allow too much of … into my syntax.” I was too curious about what he thought he allows too much of in his syntax to turn away from the passage. When I met Melissa Watterworth Batt on the next day, knowing her experience with Olson’s manuscripts, I asked her to help me with the passage. The collaborative effort turned out to be fruitful – in the process of thoroughly scrutinizing the text, one word after the other came to light. We turned the notebook around in our hands to change the angle so that a fresh perspective might change curves into letters and a magnifying glass helped to make visible what our eyes failed to see. We zoomed in and out digital images of the page on laptop and iPhone – lines turning into pixelated patches and then to a “b”, an “l”, an “o”. The last hitherto obscure word became legible when I was back in my hotel room in Vernon, and there it was:

I tend to think that I need to maintain a more natural syntax than the process of my thinking + feeling sometimes accomplishes. I have a hunch I allow too much of the complication of both to intrude into my syntax. Yet how to arrive at an objective language without changing the syntax? Nouns, verbs, and images are the answer (see Yeats or Pound for this). Actually, of course, all this is technical + the thing will come out of me as a poem. Otherwise, no. So I must continue + be led by my nose, willy-nilly. I have no choices. Hammer each step of the way. You have rid yourself of the orphic, a little. Continue to beat with the hammer to get the proper sculpture.

The proper sculpture – the image Olson uses to describe a poem in process ceased to be a metaphor when I had the deciphered passage in front of me. In fact, the whole process of deciphering echoed the activity of a stonecarver. Or, rather, the archeological experience with Mayan glyphs Olson describes in his letters to Robert Creeley in 1951. Tracking the shape of penciled lines was a sensual experience of words as things, graphite on paper, it was a physical engagement with Olson’s written material that may come close to what Olson perceived in Lerma while digging out the stones on which the glyphs are engraved, holding words in his hand as solid objects. The transformation of curves into letters and words I observed while deciphering allowed me to partake in a “kinetics of the thing”. I was involved in an act of paying attention to “what happens BETWEEN things”, which, according to Olson is one of the last “acts of liberation science has to offer” (“The Gate and the Center” 169). Between things: between the words on the page, between my eyes on the page and the digital image, between my eyes and Melissa’s.

Washington Fall 1945 I. Charles Olson Research Collection. No. 55. October 25, 1945 – December 19, 1945

The process of deciphering is not the only way in which I experienced the archival material in its physicality. A preoccupation with Olson’s papers does not only involve investigating the contents of his thought. The writings archived in Storrs do not only occupy the mind, they are things to be experienced with all senses. The material dimension of his texts does not only become perceptible through the resistance caused by Olson’s handwriting – when the words’ meaning is interrupted by their particular shape. It is primarily the things Olson used to write on that strike the eye: besides notebooks, notepads and sheets of different size, colour and texture, and objects he found in front of him like a paper placemat, he scribbled notes between the printed words of flyers and booklets, even his passport.

The principle extrications and new coordinates now called for. Charles Olson Research Collection. Prose No. 40. Holograph/typescript. 8p. ca. September – December 1951

Olson’s passport. Charles Olson Research Collection. Annotated. No. 64. 1957.

You can’t use words as ideas. Charles Olson Research Collection. Holograph. October 1964.

























After this personal account of my “discovery route” through the Olson archive, a few words on the research project that led me to Storrs: In the first chapter of my planned book titled “Poetics of Breathing” I investigate how breath is discussed as a compositional principle in the context of the Black Mountain School and the Beat Generation. The focus is on concrete attempts to establish an embodied poetics of breathing. In this context, I explore how Olson sketches compositional principles based on breath in essays, poetological manifestoes, notes and letters about his own writing practice. The unpublished material I found at the Charles Olson Research Collection gives me further insights in the development of Olson’s poetics of breathing and the Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Grant I was awarded enabled me to make important steps on the path towards my book.


 -Stefanie Heine


Works Cited

Archival Material

Olson, Charles. A man’s life is a continual allegory. Charles Olson Research Collection, University of Connecticut. Prose No. 136. Typescript. 4p. December 26-27, 1963.

Olson, Charles. Olson’s passport. Charles Olson Research Collection, University of Connecticut. Annotated. No. 64. 1957.

Olson, Charles. The principle extrications and new coordinates now called for. Charles Olson Research Collection, University of Connecticut. Prose No. 40. Holograph/typescript. 8p. ca. September – December 1951.

Olson, Charles. Washington Fall 1945 I. Charles Olson Research Collection, University of Connecticut. No. 55. October 25, 1945 – December 19, 1945.

Olson, Charles. You can’t use words as ideas. Charles Olson Research Collection, University of Connecticut. Holograph. October 1964.


Published Material

Olson, Charles and Robert Creeley. Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. Volume 10. Ed. Richard Blevins. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1996.

Olson, Charles. “Human Universe”. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997, 155-166.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse”. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.

Olson, Charles. The Gate and the Center. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997. 168-173.

Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.




On Charles Olson: poetics and / as pedagogy


Dr. Michael Kindellan is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Sheffield, UK. He has published research articles on several 19th and 20th century Anglo-American poets, and has recently completed a book on Ezra Pound’s late cantos (to be published in September by Bloomsbury). Made possible by a generous a Strochlitz Travel Grant, in January he travelled to the Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center to consult the Charles Olson Research Collection, along with other, related collections, such as the Ed Dorn, John Wieners, Michael Rumaker, Fielding Dawson and Ann Charters Papers. This trip marks the beginning of work on his new project, tentatively called “Present Knowledge: Charles Olson and the Poetics of Pedagogy”.

I have been meaning to begin this project since late 2011, when I was first awarded a Strochlitz Travel Grant. Sadly, I was forced to defer that in favour of a temporary lectureship position. One thing led to another, and two intervening post-docs later, I am thrilled to have been afforded the time and opportunity, both by Sheffield and by UConn, to properly get started.

Charles Olson [FIG. 1] was a poet and a pedagogue. He began his teaching career at Clark University in the mid-1930s. In 1938, he took up a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of research on Herman Melville, leading to the publication of Call Me Ishmael. During the 1940s Olson also worked in various positions for the US Government: as Associate Chief of the Foreign Languages Division for the Office of War Information and as Foreign Nationalities Division Director for the Democratic National Committee). In the late 1940s, partly on account of his poetic debut Y & X (in collaboration with the Italian artist Corrado Cagli) and partly after a strong recommendation from Edward Dahlberg, Josef Albers invited Olson to give a series of classes on writing at Black Mountain College,[1] where he eventually took up a permanent position before becoming its rector until its closure in 1957. [FIG. 2] These academic posts were followed by others in the 1960s, initially at SUNY Buffalo and then at the University of Connecticut. Olson’s reputation as poet/theorist was secured by his seminal 1950 essay “Projective Verse”; from that point on, he wrote poems until the day he died.

With that in mind, setting his poetics (the theory and practice of verse composition) in relation to his pedagogy (the theory and practice of teaching) seems an obvious thing to do. However, my project attempts something slightly more ambitious, namely to read Olson’s poetics and pedagogy as both complementary and also as coincident undertakings. Some of Olson’s comments in the minutes of BMC faculty meetings, where the subject of conversation is how best to go about teaching, often sound exactly like his ideas concerning good writing practice and procedure; similarly, his verse is frequently didactic in tone and instructional in form. Just how Olson’s prosody can be seen to issue the reader with “instructions” is the subject of an essay I published in Contemporary Olson (Manchester UP, 2015), a work that serves as a starting point the larger project at hand. Throughout, I mean to argue that Olson’s ideas and methods of writing are identical to his ideas and methods of teaching, and to explore the consequences of that.

As Eleanor Berry and Alan Golding have recently suggested, Olson sought to extend “his formal concerns into the epistemological realm in arguing that projective verse involves a ‘stance towards reality’ that he labels ‘objectism’”. Olson understood “objectism”, Berry and Golding rightly note, as the “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego”, which they describe as “an ethically anti-humanist move to take poetry beyond mere self-expression into more culturally capacious realms of statement”.[2] As a poet as well as a teacher, Olson might well have wanted to strip away all traces of the “individual as ego”, but it is not necessarily how he went about the actual business of either teaching or writing poems. Indeed, a good deal of archival material demonstrates that, in actual and historical fact, Olson’s methods are highly egoistic, often radically so (where by “egotistic” I do not mean “excessively conceited”, but rather interested in the “self” as a foundation for both practice and comportment).

Consider, as a case in point, the exam questions he set for students taking his 1964 “Literature and Myth” course at SUNY Buffalo. Question 4 in particular, which begins “My own belief is that…”, demonstrates the extent to which Olson exerted strong control over the parameters of whatever horizons of understanding his students operated within. [FIG. 3] By all accounts, Olson was, as his long-time correspondent J. H. Prynne recently put it, “an influential and powerful teacher”; but he and his “Black Mountain team”, Prynne goes on to contend, “practised ascendency over the students and dominated their development, and offered themselves as exemplary models to be followed, not as choices to be made”.[1]  This assessment is consistent with reports given by Olson’s actual students who never quite fell under his spell, such as Francine du Plessix (later Gray); likewise, Olson’s often bad tempered and downright condescending notes to Cid Corman in Letters for Origin portray an authoritative teacher who suffered dissent badly.[2] Charles Boer also reported, speaking to Olson in the second person, “your classrooms were for your ideas. If a student thought otherwise, he was soon set straight on the matter”.[3]

The question for me is, how to square this authoritarian streak with Olson’s anarchic, deeply anti-technocratic approaches to teaching and writing.[6] In regards to both he admonished students and burgeoning writers to practice “istorin’”, an activity he attributed to Herodotus’s historiography and defined as “finding out for yourself”. The implications of this are far too numerous to encapsulate here, but foremost amongst them is Olson’s total refusal of conventional curricula: Olson was profoundly skeptical about lesson plans and learning outcomes, all of which promised to curtail in advance any line of inquiry that organically emerged from the pedagogical process itself.[7] Several former students of Olson’s recount how he would habitually stay after class to study the chalk board, as though trying to make sense of what had happened, what was said. In “FIELD COMPOSITION”, or “projective verse” practice, the poet “puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself”.

The examinations Olson wrote for Clark University students reveal a key aspect of his pedagogical drive, namely the prioritisation of writing well over reading well. He was constantly interweaving questions of personal style, form and the like, into questions ostensibly about other texts. The idea here is that, for Olson, the most important texts were always one’s own. A headnote to a 22 January 1935 mid-year English II examination begins: “keep in mind that this is a course in writing. Clarity, accuracy, even beauty of expression is expected. No paper carelessly written will be considered satisfactory, in spite of content”.[8] [FIG. 4]

What exactly to make of all this I have yet to rightly determine, and giving a good answer will be the aim of my work over the next couple of years. But the plan is to conceptualise and then critique Olson’s pedagogy as poetics, and visa versa. What is clear, however, from the two weeks I was able to spend exploring and working in this extensive archive—a task made all the more challenging by Olson’s increasingly illegible handwriting and his tendency to write with dull pencils on acidic paper or the backs of dirty envelopes—have proven invaluable in terms of grounding a rather abstract idea in the hard facts of archival materials. For instance, the Charles Olson Research Collection holds large numbers of documents categorised as “prose”, which, upon inspection, are clearly notes for lectures or seminars given (mostly) at Black Mountain College. Though not a systematic thinker, not by a long shot, Olson, in many of these documents especially, is forever attempting to enumerate and order his thoughts on myth, on writing and on history. In others, such one that “begins” (if it can be said to begin anywhere) “You can’t use words as ideas”, Olson’s writing is (dis)organised spatially, composed quite literally “by field”, that is to say, in different intersected planes of the page space. [FIG. 5]

The archive also contains a great bulk of correspondence, written both by Olson, especially in his capacity as Rector of Black Mountain College, and by hundreds of correspondents, many of whom either taught with Olson (such as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley) or were taught by him (such as Dorn, Dawson and Wieners). These letters have an obvious historical importance, given the established reputations of Olson’s peers. Of equal if rather different interest are letters Olson wrote to and received from lesser known interlocutors: officers at funding bodies, benefactors, university administrators, invitees to BMC’s summer “institutes” programme and parents of students. I expect many of these to feature significantly in my completed work. Naturally the manuscripts and other pre-publication material of the poetry—those pertaining to The Maximus Poems particularly—will feature throughout my work as well. The first drafts of Olson’s poems, written mostly in longhand and sometimes to spectacular effect [FIG. 6], demand readers reassess the value and importance of the typewriter to this work. But it’s the less glamorous reaches of the archive that have thrown up the most interesting preliminary findings.



– Michael Kindellan
Sheffield, March 2017




  1. Fielding Dawson Drawing of Charles Olson (ink on paper), Fielding Dawson Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Black Mountain Ephemera, Fielding Dawson Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series III, Box 268. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series III, Box 259. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series I, Box 26. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series I, Box 5, Folder 273. “I have been an ability—a machine”. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.



[1] Josef Albers, 24 September 1948 Letter to Charles Olson, Series II Box 124, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

[2] Eleanor Berry and Alan Golding, “Projective Verse”, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene et al, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 1109.

[3] J. H. Prynne, “The Art of Poetry No. 101”, The Paris Review 218 (Fall 2016): 183.

[4] Charles Olson, Letters for Origin: 1950-1956, ed. Albert Glover (London: Cape Goliard, 1969).

[5] Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 54.

[6] As Martin Duberman reports, John Cage esteemed Olson’s Black Mountain College a truly anarchic community, in contradistinction to Josef Albers’s, where the “anarchic feeling… was only on the surface”. Martin Duberman, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 367.

[7] Cf. Olson’s statements on the matter in “Minutes of a Meeting of the Black Mountain College Faculty, 1951”, Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives 2 (Fall 1974): 16-24.

[8] Charles Olson, “Clark University English II Mid-Year Examination, Series III Box 258, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.