The Battle of Gloucester: Vincent Ferrini Meets Charles Olson
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | November 29, 2010
Of the ancient Maximus “nothing more is known, than that he was by birth a Tyrian; that he lived under the Antonines and Commodus; that he for some time resided in Rome, but probably, for the most part in Greece; that he cultivated philosophy, and principally that of Plato.” Of Charles Olson, who cultivated “Projective Verse” and dubbed himself a Maximus in the genealogy of homo maximus, much the same could be repeated: that he was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1910; that he came of intellectual age under the four terms of FDR; that he early on resided in Worcester, but spent his boyhood summers, and probably, the most formative passages of his life, in Gloucester, the seaside Massachusetts city — site of “Tyrian Businesses” — that’d become his coronation place. Olson was privy to its entanglements and halibut, its salt airs and gull cries, and he set out to form the province in his image. But he encountered another poet, who had published in and of Gloucester shortly before him, and who presented Olson with a counter-image to his own: Vincent Ferrini.
Ferrini — who’d become Gloucester’s first Poet Laureate only after Olson, his friend and master, had passed away — wasn’t born in Gloucester either, he was born in Saugus in 1913, the son of Italian immigrants from the Rome and Abruzzo provinces; Ferrini’s Massachusetts was also Sacco and Vanzetti’s Massachusetts. Olson’s papa was of Swedish stock, a letter carrier who taught his son the value of knowing one’s streets by heart, by walking them, imprinting their cartography into the soles of your step. Ferrini’s old man was a hard-drinking, aria-singing, atheist shoemaker, who indirectly taught his son the art of appropriating images from brick yards and trash heaps, from the rich refuse of everydayness and proximity. The story of Olson and Ferrini can be read as the story of magnitude meeting locality. The largeness of Olson — all 6-foot, 8-inches of him, the kingliness, the mythos, the spaciousness — contrasted with Ferrini’s sleekness, his sensuality, his qualities of tight and small composition. Their story climaxes with a self-appointed king leaving his homeland, like Alexander, to wrestle with the histories of other nations, other landscapes, so as to return and know his own place thoroughly; and it ends with a humble but prolific frame-maker who inherited a throne late from having stayed local (and loyal) all his life.
Ferrini moved to Gloucester in 1948 after a fan of his poetry, a painter living there, had invited him over for a visit. Back in Lynn, Massachusetts, Ferrini, self-taught and public-library-educated, had initially fashioned himself a proletarian poet baptized in “the Church of Politics” and Communism; whose first book No Smoke had earned some considerable fame for him. His first five books of poetry (published before Olson had managed to put out his first one) established Ferrini as a voice of political unrest and the working class. Settled in Gloucester, however, Ferrini began to find a different rhythm, inwardly motivated by his daily contact with the Atlantic spray and the fishcutters and “the triumph of the Soothsaying Waters”; this new relationship compelled the inveterately anti-doctrinaire Ferrini to quit what appeared to him as the falsified dogma of Communism, whose “roots… are in Russia, and… have an alien smell.” Nor was that break enough: Ferrini eventually quit his 9-year stint at a GE factory in Lynn (to which he commuted from Gloucester), and later took up a new vocation as a self-employed maker of picture frames, with a married domestic life withal. Ferrini’s life wasn’t truly changed however (and in some respects his craft wouldn’t have sharpened) if he had never encountered Charles Olson. Besides publishing plays, Ferrini continued to write and publish poems, one of which showed up in a local poem mag, Imagi. Olson Maximus, self-crowned Poet King of Gloucester (but at this time fairly unknown to his subjects), happened to read that poem, which set his hairs on end. The piece was good, not only good, but it said enough of Gloucester as any woman-born man could speak of it, who was born there, ate there, and slept there. Olson paid Ferrini a visit; he had his intel, he knew the streets and addresses of that sea town by heart, and he found Ferrini easy. The latter explains:
A man’s whole lifetime is affected by another person, who enters the stream of his days and years and stays in these waters. That’s how Charles Olson visited me, stayed, and keeps flowing, as in life so in death… We were living on Liberty Street near St. Ann Church when coming home one night from the General Electric Company where I had been working for the last nine years, Peg told me about a Poet who had almost broken his head getting through, and I could not fathom who it might have been and I was curious and sorry to have missed him. He came back the next night, a Giant! to pay a ‘fan call’ to another poet because he was smitten by a poem I had written and which had appeared in IMAGI. I was pleased by the size of the man and the compliment.
The largeness of Olson was the immediate thing one learned of him. Olson’s largeness, his magnitude, was felt in speaking with him, in seeing him, and if lacking that, in reading him. Ferrini sought out what Olson had mentioned of his that was available: Call Me Ishmael. “He told me about this book he had written, Call Me Ishmael, which I found in Cairnie’s bookshop. It was the second time I felt the girth of the man, the first was HIMSELF… Charles being by nature big, just took up and spread himself all over the pages as he did in his kitchen, his sleepingroom, and the house of any guest he was with.”
Olson returned the favor: “Then he dug me up. He ransacked my background and the early writings, he scoured Lynn, like the Archaeologist he is. Everything was stored for its uses in that mindbin of his. He never forgot anything and his memory was sleepless… He read all my earlier works in the Library and the first book, No Smoke…” A correspondence was thereafter struck up; the two began as friends, and the first Maximus poems, framed as “Letters”, originated in this friendship:
Off-shore, by islands hidden in the bloodjewels & miracles, I, Maximusa metal hot from boiling water, tell youwhat is a lance, who obeys the figuresof the present dance
But their friendship turned combative quick, and Olson, often a man keen and to-the-point, who feared no one since all feared his whale-sized intellect, wrote “Letter 5,” addressed to Ferrini, in which he excoriated the latter for staying too local, too small-minded, too peevishly concerned with the politics of favor. Gloucester was either too small a place for two poets, or Olson too large a man to accommodate another. Robin Blaser relates how he once hinted to Olson he would look into Gloucester’s history as one of America’s first fishing towns, but was quickly turned off the scent by the other: “‘Oh don’t do that! This is my place. You go do it for yours.’” But Gloucester also happened to be Ferrini’s place, and Olson was resolute to test this other man’s will & erudition, disappointed as he was with Ferrini’s lack of vision for his own circumference:
Or take it as I know you have to take it,landwise. Making frames over East Main St,the wife tutoring, the two of youwith children to bring up, youare more like Gloucester now isthan I who hark back to an older polis,who has this tie to a time when the port
(I am not named Maximusfor no cause
(1) an experience of SPACE… the sense of immensity(2) a comprehension of PAST… marriage of spirit to source(3) a confirmation of FUTURE… the creative act of anticipation.
Space has a stubborn way of sticking to Americans, penetrating all the way in, accompanying them. It is the exterior fact. The basic exterior act is a BRIDGE. Take them in order as they came: caravel, prairie schooner, national road, railway, plane. Now in the Pacific THE CARRIER. Trajectory. We must go over space, or we wither.
Eyes,& polis,fishermen& poets
or in every human head I’ve known isbusy
both:the attention, andthe care
however much each of uschooses our ownkin andconcentration(…)
(where Ferrini, as so many,go wrong
so fewhave the polisin their eye…(from “Letter 6″)
I do not know that Four Winds has a placeor I a sight in itin a city where highliners breed,if it is not as good as fish is
as knowing as a halibut knows its grounds (as Olsen knowsthose grounds)…(from “Letter 5″)
could set his dories outas a landsman sows his fields
and reap such halibutit was to walk the streets of Gloucester differentto have a sight aboard the Raymonde
As you should walk it,had you done your job(…)
The mind, Ferrini,is as much of a laboras to lift an armflawlessly
or to read sand in the butter on the end of a lead,and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over
It’s no useThere is no place we can meet.You have left Gloucester.You are not there, you are anywherewhere there are little magazineswill publish you
…the memory of rapids and rough waters were to be the way we worked together as friends, he had one position, I another, he created a school, I none, his verse became loose and open, mine tight, narrow, and as sharp as the hook he used, none of us escape when we go fishing in the waters of living. But I melted and shared THE POEM, and verse. But I knew that it was a contest, he would every so often greet me as ‘the poet of Gloucester’ and I, ‘No, you are.’
I say thisso it sticks in the mind’s craw
eachin his ownweight& specificvalue
on his individual terms
to be hammeredout on theanvilofexperience
into his usable metal
so each onecounts(…)
love does notjudgehe
As the keel of aboat is submerged in waterso are we in death.(…)
O let go, forget,pull up anchor and take off –the harbor rusteth.…(Section “5″ from In the Arriving)
Charles Olson has manyfaceted each person who knew him, and each has his own private film of the man. He has sounded his own waters with them… and theirs with his. Yes… he who has rhythm possesses the world.