“Give me half a bottle. Justice reigns” — Charles Olson in The Paris Review

Charles Olson’s interview with The Paris Review is one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Here’s a nice big chunk from the beginning:

CHARLES OLSON

Get a free chair and sit down. Don’t worry about anything. Especially this. We’re living beings and forming a society; we’re creating a total, social future. Don’t worry about it. The kitchen’s reasonably orderly. I crawled out of bed as sick as I was and threw a rug out the window.

INTERVIEWER

Now the first question I wanted to ask you. What fills your day?

OLSON

Nothing. But nothing, literally, except my friends.

INTERVIEWER

These are very straight questions.

OLSON

Ah, that’s what interviews are made of.

INTERVIEWER

Why have you chosen poetry as a medium of artistic creation?

OLSON

I think I made a hell of a mistake. That’s the first confidence I have. The other is that—I didn’t really have anything else to do. I mean I didn’t even have enough imagination to think of something else. I was supposed to go to Holy Cross because I wanted to play baseball. I did, too. That’s the only reason I wanted to go to Holy Cross. It had nothing to do with being a priest.

INTERVIEWER

Are you able to write poetry while remaining in the usual conditions of life—without renouncing or giving up anything?

OLSON

That’s the trouble. That’s what I’ve done. What I’ve caused and lost. That describes it perfectly. I’ve absolutely.

INTERVIEWER

Are the conditions of life at the beginning of a work . . .

OLSON

I’m afraid as well at the end. It’s like being sunk in a cockpit. I read the most beautiful story about how Will Rogers and Wiley Post were lost; they stomped onto a lake about ten miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to ask an Indian if Anchorage was in that direction and when they took off, they plunged back into the lake. The poor boy was not near enough to rescue them, so he ran ten miles to Anchorage to get the people to come out. He said one of the men had a sort of a cloth on his eye and the guy then knew Post and Rogers were lost. Wiley Post put down on pontoons; so he must have come up off this freshwater lake and went poomp. Isn’t that one of those great national treasures. I’ll deal you cards, man. I’ll make you a tarot.

INTERVIEWER

Does poetry constitute the aim of your existence?

OLSON

Of course I don’t live for poetry; I live far more than anybody else does. And forever and why not. Because it is the only thing. But what do you do meanwhile? So what do you do with the rest of the time? That’s all. I said I promised to witness. But I mean I can’t always.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that the more you understand what you are doing in your writing, the greater the results?

OLSON

Well, it’s just one of those things that you’re absolutely so bitterly uninterested in that you can’t even live. Somehow it is so interesting that you can’t imagine. It is nothing, but it breaks your heart. That’s all. It doesn’t mean a thing. Do you remember the eagle? Farmer Jones gets higher and higher and he is held in one of the eagle’s claws and he says you wouldn’t shit me would you? That’s one of the greatest moments in American poetry. In fact, it is the great moment in American poetry. What a blessing we got.

INTERVIEWER

Does Ezra Pound’s teaching bear any relevance to how your poems are formed on the page?

OLSON

My masters are pretty pertinent. Don’t cheat your own balloon. I mean—literally—like a trip around the moon—the Jules Verne—I read that trip . . . it is so completely applicable today. They don’t have any improvements yet.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write by hand or directly on the typewriter? Does either method indicate a specific way in which the poem falls on the page?

OLSON

Yeah. Robert Duncan is the first man to ask me the query. He discovered when he first came to see me that I wrote on the machine and never bothered to correct. There’s the stuff. Give me half a bottle. Justice reigns.

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3 comments

  1. ccllyyddee · June 10, 2012

    Very amusing. Quite poetic. One question: Is the interviewer made up?

    Like

  2. Rob · June 10, 2012

    Glad to see he considers the masters pertinent. They still are.

    Like

  3. Peter Galen Massey · June 10, 2012

    Reminds me of Don Pedro’s comment about about Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing”: “This learned constable is too cunning to be understood.”

    Like

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