On December 11, 2014, Cascadia lost one of its most important scholars when Ralph Maud died a couple of weeks short of his 86th birthday. He was three days older than my Dad who also died this year, but it was his interest in Charles Olson that connected us and his work is that of a true scholar, wanting to get to the truth, not one of these folks who twist the facts around to justify their standing in the literary community.
When I was first interested in Olson’s seminal essay Projective Verse, around 1995 or so, I learned of Maud’s work, as head of the Charles Olson Society. That it was in nearby Vancouver, BC, gave me a good reason to visit and I caught him on a day that he was entertaining the wonderful BC poet Sharon Thesen. He actually got the book out and we read over Projective Verse together and it was a help at the time, but that he would assist a stranger in the effort of better understanding Charles Olson’s work was an example of his generosity and I’ll never forget that.
The excellent obituary in BC BookLook sums his work up quite well:
Ralph Maud, one of the founding English professors at Simon Fraser University in 1965, became an authority on the work of Dylan Thomas, Charles Olson and the ethnographers of the Pacific Northwest.
While that note, linked above, gives you a full sense of Maud’s accomplishments, it is as the main scholar of Olson in Cascadia that makes me want to write about him while his passing is still recent. His work never became so important to me until the book: Charles Olson at the Harbor (Talonbooks, 2008). In it he takes down Tom Clark and Marjorie Perloff, scholars who felt the need to take shots at Olson, or paint a picture of him that was less than positive. Clark can easily be dismissed because it’s evident to anyone that he set out to do a hatchet job on Olson with his book The Allegory of a Poet’s Life (Norton 1991). But the takedown of Perloff’s arguments in Charles Olson at the Harbor is especially sweet because it exposes that type of scholar I referred to earlier who is interested in self-building at the expense of truth. Here’s how Maud systematically takes her down.
On pages 168 through 172 of the book he shows Perloff’s quotes of Olson using the phrase “Inferior Predecessors.” She depicts that as Olson referring to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, in that he considered them to be inferior to himself. In truth, Olson in the quote she cuts off, was referring to letters he wrote. The inferior predecessors are not people by actually letters to Cid Corman in 1953. That Williams would publish a huge section of Projective Verse in his autobiography shows you the respect with which he accorded Olson’s ideas.
Perloff also tries to make the claim that Olson’s simply re-packaging notions by Williams and Pound and by showing he’s plagiarized them by setting Olson statements side by side with the “source.” What Maud points out (among other things) is that sources he was allegedly cribbing from were NOT AVAILABLE TO HIM when he wrote Projective Verse. One of the books was published in 1957, seven years after Projective Verse came out! You have to read the four pages to full get the beauty of this defense, and I read this book with great gusto in late 2008. As for Perloff, it is understandable that someone who would not get the depth of Olson’s ideas would think something like Conceptual Poetry would be the way of the future in the North American Avant Garde, “poems” that even their creators say, you don’t need to actually read once you get the concept, like typing an edition of the New York Times and calling it a poem, as Kenneth Goldsmith did, (or had an intern do!) earning Kenny G a great deal of attention. Olson’s process is one that values something beyond intellect, as indicated by his use of phrases like “the boss of all” and “the Single Intelligence” where others in 1950 (and 2014) might use the word God. Olson knew that one had to be humble enough to realize there is an intelligence much larger than one’s self that was the source of all poetry. Ralph Maud knew it too and did the dirty work of going to original sources to shoot down attempts at changing the historical record for reasons that can only be described as being attached to ambition.
Ralph Maud has now merged with that Single Intelligence and we in Cascadia are grateful for his lifetime of work guided by something beyond mind and ego. Maud’s life shows that Olson’s ideas found a receptive audience in this bioregion and will continue to resonate here for years to come.