Writing within Rimbaud: Olson’s “Variations Done For Gerald Van De Wiele”

I have never read any of the Black Mountain poets, but I am glad I have now. It was all very enjoyable and rewarding for me to read. And while I think these poets may be more difficult to talk about compared to the Beats, maybe sticking to the techniques mentioned in the Osborne essay will helpat least it did for me when reading them.

In beginning with this close reading of Charles Olson’s “Variations Done For Gerald Van De Weile,” I would like to address a problem I have with some of the notes in the Nelson book for the poem. The note for Le Bonheur could be misleading for many readers. It says, ” Le Bonheur: (French) “Happiness,” title of a poem by French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), the last text of Rimbaud’s experimental sequence A Season in Hell (1873).” A reader unfamiliar with Rimbaud’s work could possibly assume that Olson is picking up where Rimbaud left off, but the poem which Olson is trying to echo and write within is not the last text within the collection. It should be worded that it is the last poem of the more experimental prose-verse part of “Delirium II” (which is noted later in the Olson poem), which still has a few more prose poems to follow until the end: “Adieu” (Farewell); also, I have read all the major English studies on Rimbaud (visited his grave in the Ardennes too) and none of them refer to the title of the poem as “Le Bonheur”—they prefer “O Saisons, O Chateaux”. I guess people assume this could be a title given the prose stanza before it, ” Happiness! Its tooth deadly sweet, warned me at the crowing of the cock,ad matutinum, at the christus venit,—in the darkest cities:”, but if we follow that logic, then another Rimbaud poem, referred to as “L’Eternite”, is given the title: “At Last.” I think it should also maintain the title of the first line because Rimbaud titles some of the other verse poems within that section.

After reading the poem, I went online to see if I could find any analysis or biographical information that might help with my post and found this http://maps-legacy.org/poets/m_r/olson/variations.htm

Tom Clark in the first article relates how Olsen had an interest in Rimbaud in the 40s, but how he hadn’t yet really dived deep into the poet’s work. Eventually at Black Mountain College, with the influence of a friend he slowly made his way through the French poet’s work in both French and English—and even incorporated Rimbaud in some of his classes. Soon Olsen felt a certain kinship with the enfant terrible, whose revolutionary poetics has often been a safe haven for the avante garde: a sort of monumental history that encourages those alike who wish for a pure poetics. Clark sees Olsen’s poem as a metaphorical reworking of Rimbaud’s alchemical idea of happiness. I do agree with this but I am not convinced that Olsen achieves anything near the effect of Rimbaud’s poem. 

In the second article Thomas F. Merill says, 

“Gerald Van de Wiele was a young art student at Black Mountain College and the “Variations” that Olson dedicates to him seem like responses to some kind of poetic challenge. It is as if Olson wished to demonstrate his virtuosity to skeptics by deliberately aping the poetic styles of others. Section I is clearly a prosodic retort to William Carlos Williams, which a cursory comparison to “Portrait of a Lady” will instantly reveal. Similarly, the pattern of the variations themselves echoes Wallace Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” Hints of Yeats and Pound might also be detected, but predictably, even in conscious imitation, Olson’s “blind obedience” to “personage” never quite permits him to sustain the integrity of each variation. Each section inevitably closes with an unmistakable Olson signature.” 

So while dealing with Rimbaud mainly throughout the poem it seems that Olsen prides himself on being able to incorporate other writers as aspects to these variations. I can certainly see the imagism of William Carlos Williams opening up the first two sections of the poem.

Now I am wary of any writers who say they are indebted to Rimbaud or that he is their favorite poet because often I have found there influence within their work to not show, or just amount to superficial allusions. I think Olsen crafted a good poem, but it feels like a deflation of what “O Seasons, O Castles” is in the context of Rimbaud’s work.https://www.lavenderink.org/baddog/ar.htm In that poem, it is Rimbaud sort of looking back upon the various times and places that fueled his short poetic career. He was a mercurial writer who could change the forms of his poems mid-sentence; he truly lived the lives of many. What he is looking back on, and perhaps is demanding, in that poem is all the seasons, all the places of beauty that he experienced whether real or hallucinatory. But in that beauty it is where Rimbaud realizes that happiness was his major flaw. How beautiful! Shouldn’t this be the flaw of all poets? Perhaps I should elaborate on “the magic study I’ve made/ of happiness none can evade.” Rimbaud (aged 16) in his early letters refers to a new kind of poet who seeks “to arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses.” Later he reworks this and says that it is ” a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.” There is a bright logic (to borrow from Hart Crane) that shows throughout much of Rimbaud, especially in Illuminations. It is this study of creating new poetic senses that Rimbaud is speaking of, and which he felt destined to discover. So when Olsen says, ” Nobody studies/ happiness,” I think he sounds a bit small when compared with all that lead Rimbaud to that very poem. It is much easier to tear a house down then to build one I suppose.

Robert Cohn in his study of Rimbaud, sees the poem as ” Not one season alone but all, vibrant together in one heavenly presence of the round-of-the-year. The seasons are like the holy ghostly ‘feminine’ totality of his soul; the chateaux are the more ‘male’—specific and individual—architecture of his inner being.” Olsen is lacking that “O” in “O seasons, O castles!” Perhaps the totality could be seen in lines where Olsen pins morning and night together: ” the morning/ stands up straight, the night/ is blue from the full of the April moon.” But instead of the totality of the seasons, he opts for the demands of one specific season: spring. And though while such a demanding season, whose roar rings of transmutations, Olsen’s use of Rimbaud just doesn’t pay off when paired with. The alchemical idea of happiness as this elixir was found within A SEASON IN HELL, not Spring. The poem lacks to me that merge between feminine and masculine, body and spirit, even though it pushes towards a unity: ” With spring no one knows today to see/ that in the morning each thing/ is separate but by noon/ they have melted into each other”; “the matutinal cock clangs/ and singleness: we salute you/ season of no bungling.” There is no sort of suffering or logical derangement of senses that justifies the use of Rimbaud, instead it is just the bloom of spring—and not even a sort of cruel spring like Eliot’s Waste land.     





One Response to Writing within Rimbaud: Olson’s “Variations Done For Gerald Van De Wiele”

  1. Isaac September 7, 2022 at 4:30 pm #

    Question for class: is this much of a variation or just simply taking Rimbaud out of context? It reminded me of the beats, in particular Burroughs, who said to make a poem all you had to do was cut-up a Rimbaud poem.

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