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Found: Charles Olson Gave a Legendary (& Pretty Drunk) Reading at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference

By Harriet Staff

It’s Monday. What better way to start off the week than with a drunken rant/best reading ever. Well, the good folks at PennSound Daily have unearthed just that: Charles Olson’s lecture/reading from the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. Jeff Boruszak writes:

[W]e’re proud to announce a new recording found in the collection of tapes sent to us by David Levi Strauss — the legendary reading given by Charles Olson at the Berkeley Poetry Conference on the night of July 23, 1965. A transcript of this reading was subsequently created by Zoe Brown, and published under the title “Charles Olson Reading at Berkeley” by Coyote Press in 1966. [Cf. image above.]

Fueled by a bottle of liquor given to him by audience member Lew Welch, Olson delivers an explosive reading over the course of three-plus hours. Part performance, part address, part conversation, part autobiography, and part drunken rant, this is without a doubt one of Olson’s great readings. Ostensibly, he reads from the following poems: “The Ring of” from In Cold Hell In Thicket; “An Ode on the Nativity” from In Cold Hell in Thicket (and as Olson notes, this is the first public reading of the poem — he previously hated it, but at Robert Creeley’s insistence re-read it that morning and changed his mind); parts of Letters 5, 2, 9, and 10 from The Maximus Poems; and finally “On first Looking out through Juan de la Cosa’s Eyes” from The Maximus Poems.

The recording also features a who’s who of poets at the time interacting with Olson — besides Welch, Olson is introduced by Robert Duncan (who leaves halfway through the lengthy reading), and talks to Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, and Robert Creeley, among others (most often responding to their repeated requests to continue reading poems). Olson talks about everything from his life in Worcester, Massachusetts, to his travels in Rome, presidents, politics, writing, publishing, performance, how many women he’s had in bed with him at one time, and the different terms for “cod” in Portuguese and Italian.

Despite his constant attempts to continue the reading, Olson is eventually told that the building the reading is held in will close in 20 minutes — the recording continues for another 30 minutes and cuts out after Olson has declared the reading over, but continues to read poems and tell stories.

As Duncan says at the beginning of his introduction, “The man I am introducing tonight is a visibly large man.”

Complete recording can be listened to here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, June 11th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.