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This report is taken from PN Review 148, Volume 29 Number 2, November - December 2002.

Letter from America Ralph Maud

Some time in the early 1970s, visiting Harvard Square, I ran into my old Chaucer professor, Jere Whiting, outside Grolier Bookshop, and asked him about the poet I had become deeply interested in, Charles Olson (I knew they had been in Harvard graduate school at the same time). 'Mad!' said Professor Whiting, with his glaring eye. 'Completely mad!' This was quite disconcerting... but fortunately I could stagger up the three steps into Grolier and sit for a while with the genial proprietor, Gordon Cairnie, who respected Olson as much as I did.

I didn't dare seek out another of Olson's contemporaries, Harry Levin. I had heard the story about the one time Olson was invited to be visiting reader in the poetry series, and in Harvard Hall (14 February 1962), after hesitations and false starts, he had leaned over the rostrum and addressed Levin directly and said, 'Harry, could you be excused?' It wasn't until much later that I got this precise wording in a letter from Professor Levin, who added: 'I am told that he gradually recovered his aplomb and built up to a rousing performance.' Ever generous, Levin continued his account: 'I'm not sure that even now I fully understand. I suspect that he was motivated by an extremely complicated set of memories and reactions against Harvard, which he hadn't seen for many years - and which I may have personified... At all events, when we met at the Engels' for cocktails afterward, he was ...


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