The Battle of Gloucester: Vincent Ferrini Meets Charles Olson

The story of the friendship and rivalry of Vincent Ferrini and Charles Olson, and of the city that brought them together: Gloucester, Massachusetts.  

— By | 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.

Charles Olson

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.

Vincent Ferrini

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 blood
jewels & miracles, I, Maximus
a metal hot from boiling water, tell you
what is a lance, who obeys the figures
of the present dance
This “metal hot from boiling water” that was Olson’s harpoon struck Ferrini deeply and irrevocably, in the way an old god’s torso tells the poet that “you must change your life“; something had to be reformed, reshaped, readjusted in Ferrini, something proximate to the movement (an arrowhead too fast to catch) and to the form (a space too vast to contain) that Olson pondered and played with, almost physiologically, in his projective girth. “How had he affected me as a working poet? By the way he used his harpoon, ACCURACY.” Most accurate when one has archived the radial immensities of space, of pure irresistible forwardness, in which all targets are hit because all targets are every compass point swollen to a cosmic fineness. One has only to study the constellations to know what their shapes are capable of, to make them lunge out of their shells; so also a city’s range, its depths and distances, to know what eternity should mean in the present case, on a map of spatial geometries, real centripetal forms; on one side the city and its hard, true-to-life projections, and on the other end the ocean (and lush oblivion). Gloucester was all this, for the two adoptees, a land at once splendidly physical, historical, walkable, the first phrase in a magnetic backward clause stretching out to the West and even further, toward the Pacific; but also a purview (the lighthouse!) of the farsighted mystic potentialities mariners and Ahabs know firsthand, sometimes tragically but always by their own lights. A division in space (land & land’s end) which could be called uniquely American. Olson:  ”I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.”


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 you
with children to bring up, you
are more like Gloucester now is
than I who hark back to an older polis,
who has this tie to a time when the port
(I am not named Maximus
for no cause
Olson’s “older polis” is the historical Gloucester, the first settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded at Cape Ann by the Dorchester Company (chartered by James I in 1623), which predated both the Salem and Boston settlements; Olson was, as he dubbed himself, an “archaeologist of morning” who, in order to possess a place, had to exhume all its corpses, its buried scrolls, its archives and artifacts, and remark fully on the geologic striations layered in the ruins and constructions of the polis as they stand in fresh unvitiated light (the absolute dawn of the present).

Gloucester, circa 1915

But this polis is also the timeless polis, a mythic city equally of the future-past as it is spatially of the present; in this timelessness, which partakes of the sea’s protean nature, Olson insisted upon mariner-wisdom, sea-knowledge, boat-craft, all of which Ferrini lacked (“Or take it as I know you have to take it, / landwise) and which Olson repeatedly dwelled upon as his competitor’s chief weakness. To build a solid vessel (or a mobile “city” in the form of a whale-ship, for instance, in Moby-Dick) that is capable of floating on and enduring the sea’s unstable and merciless moods (correspondent to history’s cyclic fickleness), is to build in oneself a permanence resembling “the origin of things, the first day, the first man, the unknown sea, Betelgeuse, the buried continent.” Speaking of Melville’s comprehension of the Pacific Ocean (in Call Me Ishmael), Olson conjectured that three essential traits of the American Mind were sourced in sea-faring:
(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.
The Pacific Ocean is incidental to Melville, who knew her intimately and dated his genuine “birth” when he returned from his voyage over her; but oceanic knowledge is extensible to the Atlantic as well, since space is constitutive of the immensity sharable by all formidable bodies of water (even down to the Nile River, of a different kind of vastness, stretched, whence “Osiris of the mysteries…springs from the returning waters”). Whether Pacific or Atlantic (or even the vast landmass of America that mirrors these two), space makes up the “exterior fact,” over which a “carrier” must be designed and built and put to use, to relay man toward origin/death, toward a wisdom of craft:
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.
The polis too moves, it is a “conflux of eternities,” in which humankind like a ship moves over space and composes it as she treads over its mass. Through the mobile eyes of its citizens, and especially in the shifting angles of its assorted histories, the polis is obscured/made clear again by the constant positioning and destruction and reconstruction of its buildings and streets; it is a gyrating sphere where actual people live, and where history breathes and looks out from their tangled eyes and windows:
polis is
& polis,
& poets
or in every human head I’ve known is
the attention, and
the care
however much each of us
chooses our own
kin and
(where Ferrini, as so many,
go wrong
so few
have the polis
in their eye
(from “Letter 6″)
Ferrini, whose little magazine, Four Winds, represented Gloucester’s local scene, angered Olson for lack of “the polis / in their eye”; and Ferrini, editor of said magazine, took the brunt of Olson’s Maximus rage, a rancor aggravated by the significantly downscaled and trivialized version his realm had taken to befit the narrowness of the small press’ scope, something undignified for the universality Olson was aiming for. Paradoxically, for Olson, the present case of Gloucester could not too cheaply be held as a purely localized phenomenon, because he foresaw that such community-driven powers would potentially etiolate beyond the specialized margins of their purport and audience. Olson envisioned a Gloucester that was of its people but also of all time, a glorious polis sumptuously local and infinitely tangential, a design that Ferrini’s Four Winds project (to Olson’s mind) failed to take into account:
I do not know that Four Winds has a place
or I a sight in it
in a city where highliners breed,
if it is not as good as fish is
as knowing as a halibut knows its grounds (as Olsen knows
those grounds)
(from “Letter 5″)
Not only does Olson refer to his patrimony, as a man born of men quicksighted enough to catch fish with their bare hands — (because he knows to tread the grounds that the halibut knows) — but he also references the external fact of Gloucester as “a city where highliners breed,” where fishing and ship-making and marine navigation are integral to the city’s historical ontology and to the (factual, spiritual) watery vastness that wraps round the city at Cape Ann. Gloucester is a harbor, a location that provides protection from winds, waves, and currents, and a place to where ships come home and where fishermen live and mariners settle down; but it is also, and just as importantly, a port from which ships head out to sea, a platform that makes it possible to travel and know other localities, to come into intimacy with the projective space of the ocean:
(…) Olsen
could set his dories out
as a landsman sows his fields
and reap such halibut
it was to walk the streets of Gloucester different
to have a sight aboard the Raymonde
As you should walk it,
had you done your job
The mind, Ferrini,
is as much of a labor
as to lift an arm
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
Inevitably, “Letter 5″ ends on a harsh note which haunted Ferrini’s mind because “it had the finality of the irreversible”:
It’s no use
There is no place we can meet.
You have left Gloucester.
You are not there, you are anywhere
where there are little magazines
will publish you
But Ferrini was fortunately of an empathetic and resilient class, who took slights only slightly, and respected the “Maximus” in Olson as much as he venerated the “Polis” in Gloucester. “Letter 5″ was a harsh jolt to his pride, but Ferrini responded as only a man of some humility — as one who knows his limits — can: with an outpouring of love. Ferrini’s “response” was titled In the Arriving, a 32-page “love poem” that contains some of his very best work, a different strain from the “working class” poet of the 40s who wrote on smokestacks and union bosses and shoe-workers. This was a Ferrini who suddenly, like a man washed in a clear spring whose eyes are cleansed of smog-motes, starts seeing the recumbent forms etched on the x and y axes of the city; a new Ferrini, formally speaking, born from contact with a man considerably larger than himself, whose “maps followed him everywhere like budding poets wanting that water of his nourishment.” Rather than compete with a poet qualitatively different than himself, Ferrini foresaw that THE POEM was not what was at stake but perception itself; the Gloucester which Maximus had erected was just as much Ferrini’s as Olson’s property, because “There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only / eyes in all heads, / to be looked out of” (Letter 6). Ferrini had only to reposition his stance, adjust his lens, refocus the principles of his craft:
…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.’
The irony of course is that Ferrini eventually became the official Poet Laureate of Gloucester because he stayed local and civic-involved, firmly residing in that port city as its incumbent senator (if he was never its monarch and legislator). Olson, on the other hand, had incarnated Maximus, an international personage who traveled as far abroad to the Yucatan Peninsula (The Mayan Letters) in search of America’s origins and its ties to the refracted histories of Mesopotamia, India, Phoenicia, and the Ancient Mysteries; a persona sharp and focused enough for the scripting of his materialized polis, but a mind large enough to encompass entire chronologies and perform his duties as the heir of the Pound and Williams tradition, from whom an entire train of poets ran onward, into the “postmodern” of the modernist age; verily the poet who had even invented the term. Olson’s departure from Gloucester was not a departure from its gates but an expansion of its scale, a replenishment of its industries; and from this crucial example Ferrini learned how to “let go, forget, pull up anchor and take off”:
I say this
so it sticks in the mind’s craw
in his own
& specific
on his individual terms
to be hammered
out on the
into his usable metal
from his
so each one
love does not
too busy
As the keel of a
boat is submerged in water
so are we in death.
O let go, forget,
pull up anchor and take off –
the harbor rusteth.
(Section “5″ from In the Arriving)
During Olson’s final six years spent in Gloucester, after the death of his dear wife Betty, Ferrini remained his loyal friend, visiting him frequently to ease the big man’s loneliness. However brusque he had been to Ferrini, Olson didn’t lose an opportunity to tell him how much he valued their friendship: “Pulpit / bowsprit / powerhouse of poetry / & comfort station /…You are one of my two lanterns.” Ferrini came to see himself and Olson as the “Poles of the axis running through Gloucester”; they were both integral to the formation of the polis, initially as contraries, eventually as collaborators in the project of defending Gloucester from the rampant modernizing projects that slowly effaced the city’s ancestral heritage. It was Ferrini’s station which had electrified, which had made necessary, Olson’s projective vitality, and it was Ferrini too who had orchestrated the beginning of that other great relationship Olson would benefit from in his life: his friendship with Robert Creeley. In the chapter of his autobiography (Hermit in the Clouds) devoted to his fraternity with Charles Olson, Ferrini closes it thus:
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.
Henry Ferrini, Vincent’s nephew and a documentary filmmaker, directed a 2007 documentary on Charles Olson’s relationship to Gloucester, titled Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place. You can watch the entire film here.


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