A Letter from Margaret Avison (99/08/02)

Dear Aaron Vidaver,

Since your April Minutes of the Charles Olson Society (about the 1963 lectures and readings at ubc), there has been a precipitate in my mind that I would like to report before I reread the Minutes.

To clear the chance things first; your pages vividly restored two of the social evenings. One was towards the end of my time there, a party evening for everybody in a ubc hospitality mansion near the entrance. I wandered outside and was leaning on a wall overlooking a cliff and the night water of the bay away down down there, and Ginsberg, whom I knew only from his poems, wandered out too and joined me. He knew that to me Spirit meant the Spirit of Jesus—after my night on stage, everybody knew. And he gently acknowledged that, responding too to the quiet, and mentioning his own Buddhist sense of a spiritual life.

The second encounter was when Olson astonished me with an invitation to have dinner before my evening presentation. When I said I’d be too nervous, he guaranteed he knew how to attend to that and I would see it would work out best. It was strange to think of the person we had all been crowding into classrooms to hear lecture, who electrified us every time, whose reading of his own poems keeps resonating to this day, a scholar, an explorer among ideas and structures—that such a one would not make me more rather than less nervous. The dinner conversation I do not remember. I think it was in a university dining-room. I know he did put me at ease in no time, eliciting a few facts about my life, and then letting exchanges or silences be as they would. His only pressure was a gentle insistence that I have brandy with the after-dinner coffee. He had timed things precisely, ushered me the short distance to the auditorium, and left me to it. What courtesy!

There were ubc distractions. Above all, the rumour which Layton had reported beforehand, repeated to me out there, that Warren Tallman had been opposed in this project by Roy Daniells. Professor Daniells was the person at ubc I had most looked forward to meeting again. He had taught me Renaissance Literature in my first and his only year at the U. of T. (he was then kidnapped by the University of Manitoba). Because I so appreciated Tallman, to my shame I avoided seeing Daniells, [ ] probably the person who suggested my name to him. He did not put in an appearance so far as I know, and the only time I ran into him, he and his wife were walking their dog and we passed with a brief friendly salute. Gouging to the spirit, now that I know it was all untrue, and he has died.

The setting. Since early childhood I had not been in Vancouver, and all I remembered from then was English Bay, paddling there, and poking about a yard with a couple of hens in ferny, golden sunlight, while my parents visited with an elderly aunt. It was a homey place. This time Vancouver was the campus, the cliff and slithering down it for a swim. The busy schedule closed off the hours. There must have been a trip from and to the airport, but I do not remember it.

Enough of my memories. Impressions of the Conference? There was an odd sense of being out of sync in such a dominantly us context, humanly speaking. There were West Coast poets in attendance. I had read and still read some of them, but we did not meet (perhaps because my father’s death snatched me home early). Of course the whole project was to introduce “these new voices” from south of the border. Would that Roethke had been included too! Naturally the visiting teachers and discussion leaders had met and talked ideas together often before. I remember one pre-class occasion in somebody’s house, Tallman’s I think, where I was delighted to see Denise Levertov, but she and Duncan were absorbed in continuing an earlier conversation. Everybody had to get put together for their evening duties. It gave me a strange observer/outsider sense. As your Minutes say, “... it may come down to one Canadian as a concession to whatever national pride?” (8). O you Americans!

This interpolation leads me into the “influences” part of your topic. Canadian poets are regionally separated, published in small periodicals only accessible by subscription or through large libraries. As a result there have been “groups”. Maritimers do their own thing. Two publications grew up in Montreal. Toronto poets may be grouped around Raymond Souster’s Contact Reading Series, although that included some poets from other parts of Canada. Before 1963 we had already had readings by Olson, twice, by Levertov, Corman, Leroi Jones, Zukofsky, Enslin, Creeley, and Leonard Cohen who has become international. You will understand that these prior contacts make it difficult to disentangle the specific influences of the Conference.

In Canada the “hippie” era changed everything. Before the sixties academia would hardly have allowed fourth year English students to choose their topic for a final seminar. In the second and last year that I taught, my seminar proposed the focus “What is a poem?” For a full two semesters they met, one proposing his idea, the others eagerly producing a poem that did not quite fit. They built one on another, and at the final class defined a poem as: “An art form in words which requires the same energy from the reader as from the writer.” Isn’t this like something that might have come out of the Conference? But the students had barely entered high school in 1963.

As for myself: the Conference discussions widened the scope of means for arriving at a text, ie. doing as Sir Philip Sidney counselled, “ ‘Fool!’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in your heart and write’.” And Olson’s Homeric Hymns lost me in academic vistas awhile—a Homer thesis, fortunately abandoned. I leared a lot from Creeley’s clenched-teeth diction, the way Duncan’s thought was expressed in terms of feeling, and Levertov’s return to the English Romantic voice, perhaps her convalescence from Vietnam. I write by ear too.

Margaret Avison.

[Minutes of the Charles Olson Society 30 (1999) in pdf]