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The Living Breath

Buffalo’s poetry roots run deep. Poet Ann Lauterbach once dubbed it “Poetry City,” a moniker that has not taken hold of our imaginations in the same way as have “City of No Illusions,” “City of Good Neighbors” or “Queen City.” But the claim is not without merit. Buffalo has been a hotbed of poetic experimentation for nearly half a century, and continues to attract a steady, if modestly proportioned, stream of young poets devoted to poetry as something more than a parlor game for the idle rich or a therapeutic outlet for the mildly insane.

One of these roots runs eastward across the state to a little graveyard in Gloucester, Massachussetts, where rests the oversized coffin of Charles Olson, poet, author of The Maximus Poems, Call Me Ishmael and the widely influential manifesto, “Projective Verse.” Almost every major movement in American avant-garde poetry since the Second World War, from the Beats to ecopoetics, from Language Poetry to Def Poetry, can find its roots in the poetics of Charles Olson.

The six-foot-eight Olson was recruited by the legendary architect of the UB English Department, Al Cook, to begin a teaching stint in the fall of 1963. He remained only briefly, returning to Gloucester for good in 1965 following the sudden, tragic death of his wife in a car accident. But his influence can still be felt in the spirit of do-it-yourself poetic production that continues to thrive here.

When American poetry, circa 1950, was turning inward with solipsistic self-regard and moribund poetic formalism, Olson offered a way out of the storied “gray flannel suit” that seemed to be suffocating much of the country within its tight, conformist threads. Instead of counting syllables and metrical feet, the practice that turns most people away from poetry at an early age, “Projective Verse” offered the idea of “the breath-line,” wherein each line in a poem represents a unit of breath to be spoken or sung. In so doing, he tried to connect the poem again to the human body, breathing life into it through the ritual of the live “reading,” and offering poets and listeners the collective experience of hearing the poem aloud together.

This idea was crucial to the poetry of the Beats, and especially Allen Ginsberg, who combined it with Whitman’s use of the long line to create a new kind of ecstatic expression akin to sexual and political liberation. And like Ginsberg, Olson did not shy away from wearing his politics on his sleeve. Having left a potentially successful career in the Democratic Party, Olson was unafraid to critique contemporary ills through his art, either those of the nation or those of Gloucester, the city he addresses in his lifelong work, The Maximus Poems.

Prior to his arrival in Poetry City, Olson’s primary experience in the academy had been as rector of Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Black Mountain was a short-lived progressive college where brilliant faculty in widely varied disciplines—such as R. Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline, Merce Cunningham, Albert Einstein and Robert Creeley—mingled with equally brilliant students, such as Fielding Dawson, Michael Rumaker, Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Weil, John Chamberlain, Jonathan Williams and Cy Twombly. Certainly Olson carried with him to Buffalo some of the anarchic, multi-disciplinary spirit of that place.

While his time here was not particularly happy or poetically productive, it was a very good time to be in Buffalo if you were a poet. Writing in the one and only issue of chloroform, Cynthia Kimball and Taylor Brady provide a timeline of poetry events that occurred during Olson’s tenure. In those two years, students were treated to readings by Olson himself, as well as by Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Gary Snyder and Anne Sexton. Summer programs in modern literature included courses taught by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Robert Kelly, Ed Dorn and Eric Mottram. This was accompanied by a flurry of local small press activity, and the founding of important literary magazines like Audit and the Niagara Frontier Review.

Stories abound of Olson’s classes continuing on after the bell rang, spilling out to local bars and all night long into people’s living rooms. The action never seemed to stop. What made this situation unique in comparison to the situation in other English departments, then and now, was its embrace of poetry (and literature in general) not as a cultural artifact to be exhumed again and again, nor as an example of the “highest achievement in human thought,” the study of which was necessary to the cultural education of a populace. Rather, it was the view of poetry as something happening as we speak. It is now, it is here. Let’s get something done.

His time in Buffalo was important in at least one other respect for Olson. Here he cultivated a circle of committed admirers whose devotion to his legacy has helped keep it alive. Students and colleagues such as Jack Clarke, Ralph Maud, and George Butterick all contributed to the ongoing study of Olson in the academy through their teaching, writing, archiving and editing of his work.

Perhaps Olson’s greatest legacy to Buffalo (and everywhere else, for that matter) is his insistence on poetry as a dynamic activity. If we’re not doing it now, it is not getting done. His vision of history is similar. History is not a steady progression of ideas, building one upon another toward the improvement of humankind. History for Olson is human activity. Received ideas might be useful, but only insofar as they can be put to use in the present.

When you live in Buffalo for a period of time, you come to realize that whatever you want to get done you are going to have to do yourself. It is this very fact that makes the name “Poetry City” apropos. There are no major publishing houses here waiting to discover Buffalo poets. Thus, we have: Blazevox Books, little scratch pad, Starcherone Books, WNY Book Arts Collaborative, Slope, the Poetry Page, the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, Earth’s Daughters, Just Buffalo, the Poetics Program and the Poetry Collection at UB, White Pine Press, House Press, Rust Belt and Talking Leaves Books, all of whose roots reach through the earth toward the spirit of Charles Olson.