Charles Olson’s Table
Sitting at the long, wide, wooden, cigarette-burn-spotted trestle table at the Gloucester Writers Center’s new Ralph Maud/Charles Olson Library at 108 E. Main Street, only steps from the Center itself, I couldn’t help thinking about the first time I saw that table in the back bedroom of Olson’s 28 Fort Square apartment that also served as the poet’s work room. It was during the early 1960s when Vincent Ferrini, Jonathan Bayliss and I would often visit Olson and his wife Betty for late night conversations before Olson excused himself to “go to work” at that table, labor that would often last until dawn.
You could not locate the surface of the table, it was so covered—truly piled high—with books and papers, at the head of which was Olson’s old Royal manual typewriter, where he composed his Gloucester poems that were informed by those books and papers: reports of the Essex County Quarterly Courts proceedings, yellowed newspaper clippings, old town histories, including Babson’s of Gloucester (“my daily bread,” according to Olson), drafts and revisions of the poems themselves, and the letters Olson sent and received from all over the world. On top of these piles teetered an old table lamp with a frayed cord that passed under the crossed plank legs of the table, connecting to a socket near a window through which Olson could observe the movements of the city’s working waterfront. The room was heated (often not) by a rusted kerosene stove, reminding one of what Olson had written about the stringencies of a life given to poetry: “In the midst of plenty, walk/as close to/bear. . .In the land of plenty, have/nothing to do with it…”
But Olson had plenty to do with Gloucester, its past and its present; and out of his midnight work at that table came a poetry that would preserve much of the city’s history as Olson came to discover it “looking for oneself for the evidence of what is said.”
Visitors to the Maud/Olson Library—writers, scholars, and those who want to feel and see and hear what Olson experienced—will be able to sit at the head of that table, as Olson did each night, or each morning. They will have access to the more than 3500 volumes of Olson’s working library that scholar Ralph Maud replicated, just as if they were sitting in Olson’s own home. They will also have an incredible view of Gloucester harbor from that desk, through windows that bring the outside in, just as Olson looked both inwardly and outwardly while doing the reading and research that made his immense achievement, The Maximus Poems, possible.