Like Melville on the Leaf of Shakespeare? Olson's Annotations to Ace of Pentacles, by John Wieners
This article is on the textuality of handwritten marginal inscriptions, and the often acute difficulty of interpreting them. No poet was more profoundly influenced by the agonistics of this interpretative work than Charles Olson (1910–1970). One way to tell the story of his authorship would be to draw a categorical distinction between his life as a scholar of Herman Melville, and his life as a poet associated with the legacy of modernism and with Black Mountain College. However, the marginalia
... er, the marginalia that Olson wrote in his copy of Ace of Pentacles (one of two he owned), by his former student and protégé, John Wieners, tell another story. At one point Olson seems to compare his marginalia in "John's book" (as he calls it) to those Melville wrote "on the leaf of Shakespeare". The annotated "leaf" he has in mind figures in Call Me Ishmael as decisively formative in the making of Moby-Dick. Evidence indicates that Olson used his copy of Ace of Pentacles to devise strategies of writing his way through a major tragedy—the loss of his wife in a car accident in March, 1964. It is amid his annotations that we find the probable starting place of several poems that he wrote to her memory, all controversially excluded from the posthumously published third volume of The Maximus Poems. Yet the marginalia are every bit as resistant to interpretation as those he had himself confronted in the marked pages of Melville's books, and we will need to think carefully about this analogy and its implications. I argue that his marked-up copy of Ace of Pentacles is part of a textual continuum of uncertain extent, raising questions about how we should read the last volume of The Maximus Poems.