Driving Olson’s Brain: A Dive Into the Maud/Olson Library
Ralph Maud was a colleague and friend of the great postmodernist poet Charles Olson when the two men taught at SUNY Buffalo in the 1960s. After Olson’s death in 1970 Maud became increasingly impressed by Olson’s genius and gradually shifted his studies from Dylan Thomas to become one of the world’s leading authorities on Olson’s life and work – much of which centered around his adopted home town of Gloucester Massachusetts. Olson was a man of boundless curiosity, and Maud naturally became interested in the sources of his poetry. Along with writing and publishing books about Olson, and editing the scholarly newsletter of Olson studies, Ralph Maud began the ambitious and admittedly Quixotic task of identifying and collecting a copy of every book Olson had ever owned, read, or referred to. Maud’s discovery of Olson’s sources, and his collection of duplicates of those books, kept growing until shortly before his death in 2014. Thanks to his good will and the generosity of his estate, the library was gifted to the Gloucester Writers Center, where it now resides.
There’s a story in those last few words. Someone had to pack up Maud’s 3800 books and drive them from Vancouver, Canada to Gloucester, USA, and I made sure that someone was me. I’m a book dealer and an Olson freak, so this sounded like the ideal gig. I was working a book fair in Seattle in October 2015, and from there I planned to rent a truck, drive to Vancouver, pick up the books, and drive solo across the country. Just me and every book my hero, Charles Olson, the great 20th century poet of American history and culture, had ever owned, read, or referred to, alone together in that truck, America sweeping past, my own thoughts mingling with Olson’s poetry. I was going to be driving Olson’s Brain across America. Brilliant!
That plan changed somewhat when documentary film maker and director of the Gloucester Writers Center, Henry Ferrini, decided to come along and record the whole adventure. Fine with me. Henry and I were old friends – when we were young and strong we’d run a housepainting company together – and I knew that traveling with him would be a joy. Henry, however, was worried, at least from a filmic point of view, about the dramatic structure of our journey.
“Where’s the conflict?” he asked me.
“WE’RE the conflict,” I told him.
It was a joke. Five days on the road, stuck together 24/7, went like a dream. Compared to painting houses, driving Olson’s Brain was a snap.
However, the transcontinental drive differed markedly, unexpectedly, from the great adventure we thought it would be. Sure, the scenery was marvelous – at least until we got to Chicago. America was her sprawling, gorgeous, deep, murderous, hilarious, inscrutable, self. The Cascade Mountains were breathtaking. The Columbia River was magnificent. The Great Plains were, well, great. But the roadside encounters, quirky characters and poignant moments one comes to expect of an American buddy movie were in short supply. The truly epic part of our journey didn’t begin until we got the books to Gloucester and began shelving and organizing them.
That was when we began to truly comprehend the sprawling, gorgeous, deep, murderous, hilarious, inscrutable quality of Olson’s Brain.
Shortly before his death, Olson published a seminal piece called “A Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul.” According to poet Joanne Kyger, this was “a distinctive map with 223 names, subjects, ideas, topics, strewed across the page at all angles.” We had studied this document and the works to which it referred, as well as the later works it spawned. We had some grounding in that strange, magnificent curriculum. But we were in no way prepared for what we experienced once Ralph Maud’s 3800 books were shelved. Entering the library, we realized we were surrounded by the raw materials from which Olson had created his “Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul.” We were no longer transporting Olson’s Brain, we were inside it.
That was when the real journey began.
Ralph Maud, the highly regarded academician and admirable Quixotean, didn’t stop at obtaining copies of Olson’s books. He tracked down every original he could find – about 1500 of them survive, scattered in institutions across America and Canada – and transcribed the notes Olson wrote in these originals (Olson was an enthusiastic book defacer. He treated any book he read as a working text of his own.) into the duplicate copies in his collection. Now the books in the Maud/Olson library bear tens of thousands of Olson’s annotations, exclamations and underlinings, transcribed verbatim by Maud from the Olson originals.
That task must have required thousands of man hours. How did he find the time? How did he push through the tedium? But even then Maud wasn’t finished. Inside the front cover of every one of the books in his collection, he pasted his Maud/Olson library bookplate. And on each bookplate he wrote a concise explanation of how Olson had used that particular book in his work – sometimes even citing the page numbers containing the material that Olson incorporated directly into one of his poems. Thousands more man hours, though probably not as tedious. Thank you, Ralph.
We enter that library now, and we are inside a poet’s brain, with this magnificent “Curriculum” for understanding him and ourselves arrayed around us like stars in the sky. We are curious, inspired. We interrogate Maud who interrogates Olson who interrogates the universe.