Olson, Toby

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Nationality: American. Born: Merle Theodore Olson, Berwyn, Illinois, 17 August 1937. Education: Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1962–64, B.A. 1964; Long Island University, Brooklyn, New York, 1964–66, M.A. 1966. Military Service: Surgical technician in the U.S. Navy, 1957–61. Family: Married 1) Ann Yeomans in 1963 (divorced 1965); 2) Miriam Meltzer in 1966. Career: Associate director, Aspen Writers Workshop, Colorado, 1964–67; assistant professor, Long Island University, 1966–74; member of the faculty, New School for Social Research, New York, 1967–75; professor of English, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1984. Poet-in-residence, State University of New York, Cortland, 1972, and Friends Seminary, New York, 1974–75. Awards: Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1975; P.E.N. Faulkner award, for fiction, 1983; Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship, 1983; Yaddo Colony fellowship, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1987. Address: 329 South Juniper Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107, U.S.A.



The Brand: A Five-Part Poem. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1969.

Worms into Nails. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1969.

The Hawk-Foot Poems. Madison, Wisconsin, Abraxas Press, 1969.

Maps. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1969.

Pig/s Book. New York, Doctor Generosity Press, 1970.

Cold House. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1970.

Poems. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1970 (?). Tools. New York, Doctor Generosity Press, 1971.

Shooting Pigeons. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1971.

Vectors. Milwaukee, Ziggurat-Membrane Press, 1972.

Home (broadsheet). Chicago, Wine Press, 1972.

Fishing. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1973.

The Wrestlers and Other Poems. New York, Barlenmir House, 1974.

City. Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1974.

A Kind of Psychology. Milwaukee, Lion head, 1974.

Changing Appearance: Poems 1965–1970. Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1975.

A Moral Proposition. New York, Aviator Press, 1975.

Priorities. Milwaukee, Lionhead, 1975.

Seeds. Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1975.

Standard-4. New York, Aviator Press, 1975.

Home. Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1976.

Three and One. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1976.

Doctor Miriam: Five Poems by Her Admiring Husband. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1977.

Aesthetics. Milwaukee, Perishable Press, 1978.

The Florence Poems. London, Permanent Press, 1978.

Birdsongs: Eleven New Poems. Milwaukee, Perishable Press, 1980.

Two Standards. Madison, Wisconsin, Salient Seeding Press, 1982.

Still/Quiet. Madison, Wisconsin, Landlocked Press, 1982.

Sitting in Gusevik. Madison, Wisconsin, Black Mesa Press, 1983.

We Are the Fire: A Selection of Poems. New York, New Directions, 1984.

Unfinished Building. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1993.

Human Nature: Poems. New York, New Directions, 2000.


The Life of Jesus. New York, New Directions, 1976.

Seaview. New York, New Directions, 1982; London, Boyars, 1985.

The Woman Who Escaped from Shame. New York, Random House, 1986.

Utah. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Dorit in Lesbos. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990.

At Sea. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1993.


Editor, Margins 1976. Milwaukee, Margins Press, 1976.

Editor, with Muffy E.A Siegel, Writing Talks: Views on Teaching Writing from across the Professions. Upper Montclair, New Jersey, Boynton/Cook, 1983.


Critical Study: By Robert Vas Dias, in Poetry Information (London), winter 1976–77; by Donald Barthelme, in the Toby Olson issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Naperville, Illinois), summer 1991; review by James Sallis, in Book World, 23(25), 20 June 1993.

Toby Olson comments:

I remember receiving the impression in school that poetry was a kind of crossword/jigsaw puzzle; the student was helped to figure out meanings and fittings, and in the end he could say he "understood" the poem. Often the result did not seem worth the effort that got him to it. School talk seldom moved beyond puzzle solving to the possibilities of appreciation. Though this kind of attitude may still prevail, I am no longer able to think of poetry, that which I write and read and value, in this puzzle-solving way.

For me poetry is no less than good talk about important things, and this good talk has as its end the telling and presentation of truth. I would like it if my poems were able to fix important talk, make it in some way permanent. I would like it if when my poems were difficult it was because the things I was trying to talk about were difficult things to say; there should be no other reason for them being hard to understand.

My poems are not often very difficult in the puzzle sense of it. I am not much interested in metaphor as comparison, symbolism, or myth; I am very interested in finding structures of good talk that can then become the fixed structures of particular poems. I feel that there is enough in the world around me and what it can recall to me from my own past to make any poem. I trust that the experience of the human tribe is enough in each of us so that if I speak out of attention and with care I will be heard by those who can give a little time for listening.

I suppose, then, that I feel that my poetry intends to be always both autobiographical and communal, that it is through writing about what I can see, hear, and feel that I can best touch the nature that I believe is common in all of us.

*  *  *

The title of Toby Olson's first major collection, Changing Appearance: Poems 1965–1970, should alert the reader to the poet's preoccupation with scenes of persons and objects immediately and literally given to him. In this preoccupation Olson is heir to an attitude of attention and to a certain tone—ironic but not unsympathetic—identified with Paul Blackburn. The influence of Blackburn on Olson can also be found in certain scenes, and through Blackburn he is heir to one aspect of William Carlos Williams (that there are "no ideas but in things") and, less directly, to the imagist phase of Ezra Pound. This is not an inconsiderable inheritance. Technically, it involves the sure handling of speech rhythms in varying line lengths and stanza formations and the reporting of exactly what is before one's eyes, along with a predilection for the urban, the unelevated, and the unsublime and for the ironies revealed by such reporting. Like Blackburn and Williams, Olson is also the writer of forthright, unconventional love poems.

Yet this inheritance, like any other, has its limitations. Its special appeal is that of the sharply focused but spontaneous snapshot; in a few words evocative images are constructed and entire scenes laid out. The snapshot, or—to use a phrase from Blackburn—the out-the-window poem, is limited by its very focus to the personal, the local. It has no horizon, and its emphasis on brevity allows for little if any complexity or sustained development of perception. Olson deals with the inherent limitations of his approach in a number of ways. In the early poetry of Changing Appearance, he most often uses thematic grouping; for example, the poems of the "Pig/s Book" section all involve the pig in relation to other animals. He later turned to the series, and in a published note on this mode of organization Olson has commented that he did so because it allows for the clarity of the individual poem and for "the a-rational quality of the poems' genesis extended over a period of time."

The most impressive treatments of series in Olson's work can be found in Home, a long poem of thirty-six parts that successfully enlarges upon its title's theme and that would at first appear to be the very embodiment of the restricted personal and local, and in Aesthetics, which seeks not simply a larger space but a constantly expanding and complex subject matter as well. As the opening lines of this latter book declare, "Paint what you see / is already a philosophical problem: / a blood-spot on the eye's membrane / absent in the still-life." In another book of the same year, The Florence Poems, Olson returns to thematic grouping for an entire volume. This time the theme is the early death of a friend. The book begins with reflections in "Graveside," and each poem of the group then remembers past incidents of shared experience and, in the book's progression, leads toward the final commending "into the perfect / community of our isolate lives." Olson's combination here of detailed, unsentimental recollection with mythic elements such as the trickster figure and Indian whale legends, along with the constant spiritual notion of "our secret names," is both masterful and moving.

Olson's collection Unfinished Building offers further evidence of a continuing affinity with his Blackburnian inheritance as well as his own unique extension of that inheritance. "Clouds," a poem dedicated to Blackburn, is representative. It begins with quotidian reality—"The cold cereal turns to mush in the bowl / and the rain comes again"—and proceeds to a direct evocation of a shared poetics: "A song is a game of Spell against Ideas … Values / are left to silence / unless they sing." Thereafter the poem becomes increasingly complex. The complexity is achieved by multiplying the identity of the speaker, who at times is Blackburn toward the end of his life and at other times is Olson's father in a similar position and Olson himself as the adolescent son. The multiplication is complexly musical rather than merely ambiguous. Perhaps most impressive is the poem's close, which unites all of the speaker's identities to address, collectively, "my dears," their wives (and perhaps the poem's readers). The close affirms nothing less than love between men and women even though "the sickness" of misunderstanding "always comes again." The poem thus affirms Olson's personal regard for Blackburn and love between persons generally, but it is not a sentimental poem. Using the simplest words and the most usual reality embodied by those words, the poem achieves a musical complexity that is resolved with humane generosity: "I could not die / until I died, / for living."

Since Unfinished Building Olson has published a further collection, Human Nature. Readers will find in it both continuity and change in relation to his previous work. Continuity is seen in the "standards" series, poems involving the popular American song (as treated in "In Jazz") and organized on the occasional basis of Robert Duncan's "Passages." And overall there continues to be close attention to landscape, both emotional and geographical. Change is present too, however, for these poems are more story based. They tell stories and use images as instigations for stories rather than as the climax or the "point" of each poem. They thus extend, not repudiate, the Blackburn model. The poems typically begin with immediate events in the Cape Cod locale, then branch off into the locale of memory. This branching motion is dreamlike, conjoining both past and present. "Cloud-Castle Blues" is a good example. The poem follows the progress of a baseball game, including the behavior of various members of the crowd, and recalls incidents of the speaker's own youth, and in between all of this "Larry and I talk about dying." This "harmonic extension" is comparable to the jazz pianist Bill Evans's way with a "standard" melody line: suspended, shaded, complicated, and finally returned to and restated "anew." Like Evans's music, these new poems attain moments of delicate beauty and serious emotional depth but always within the context of "everydayness." They have delicate and serious things to say about human nature even as those things are always found in the not so delicate or serious context of the everyday.

Olson also writes fiction and has published several novels. I will not attempt to summarize his fiction except to say that readers will find in it the same qualities that distinguish his poetry, although there is, of course, a significant difference in scale. Above all, the novels offer a denser, more richly musical texture. It may be that the most apt designation for this humanly attentive and technically innovative writer is prose poet.

—John Taggart