Olson’s Sonic Walls

Citizenship and Surveillance from the OWI to the Nixon Tapes

Vino la guerra y América toda cambió—las aldeas, las grandes ciudades, el norte y el oeste. El cambio más importante—los jóvenes fueron a pelear.

—Charles Olson, Spanish Speaking Americans in the War

Perhaps . . . the growth and development of historical consciousness, which is attended by a concomitant growth and development of narrative capability . . . has something to do with the extent to which the legal system functions as a subject of concern.

—Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”

The last two chapters have sought to enlarge the context of poets’ involvement with recording and broadcasting practices by situating these in relation to the state’s deployment of tape both in private surveillance and in commercial radio. Thus far, in other words, the state has operated mostly as a negative datum. Tracking poets’ audio research from the dramatic media critique proclaimed by Allen Ginsberg’s Fall of America project to the almost diametrically opposed undermining of the media event undertaken by Larry Eigner in Swampscott and Berkeley, I have listened to both poets against the state: the EC-121 and the Luce media have brought into relief Eigner’s countertemporality, just as the Bureau and Agency listeners have helped frame the recording interventions Ginsberg and Burroughs undertook. But the nation-scaled project of time and consciousness management during and after World War II was not only the work of journalists and politicians. It was, crucially, the work of poets like Charles Olson as well. And it is to this more complicated relation we now turn.

The unsettling political dimensions of Olson’s practice, his close relations to American empire, have organized a dissenting current within the poet’s reception—from Robert von Hallberg and Andrew Ross to Heriberto Yépez.1 But even for those critics who dispute the foundational story of how, after a brief political career in Washington, the frustrated Olson renounced the world of politics for poetry, the poet’s first book is generally regarded as the 1947 study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, which emerged out of his American studies education at Harvard.2 In fact, however, Olson’s first book was a twenty-four-page pamphlet titled Spanish Speaking Americans in the War, produced, with the help of photomontages by Ben Shahn, for the Office of War Information, where, at the time of its publication in 1943, Olson was assistant chief of the Foreign Language Division.3 Rather than understand the pamphlet either as irrelevant war work or as unformed juvenilia, I want to propose it as the first articulation of a kind of sonic fieldwork that will organize his writing from start to end. Nor does this writing move from the politics of Washington to the poetry of Black Mountain College and Gloucester, Massachusetts. It moves instead from one concept of fieldwork to another—from what I will call the sonic area studies of Spanish Speaking Americans in the War to a mode of archival filibustering, where it shares terrain with sound and conceptual art as much as with historiographic poetry epics. While the scale and trajectory of this movement might seem to involve a shift from the nation and its politics to the self and its sounds, the specification of audience and the reduction of scale do not in Olson constitute a turn away from politics. Olson certainly wanted his late cosmological work to be understood politically; that his younger readers within the New American poetry identified strongly with this work at the same time as they sought to exteriorize its personal cosmological dimensions into a series of New Left discourses provides a way to understand his politics that offers more nuance, I think, than readings organized around the question of whether or not Olson supported empire.4

But to frame the larger context in which Olson’s sonic fieldwork might be best understood, we must also put the cultural cosmos of his war work, and equally his epic, into contact with the state-sponsored programs of language learning and area studies—a project that involves characterizing the related research and methodological writing of a number of CIA and state operatives, especially William Yandell Elliott and Henry Kissinger. It is in this way that Spanish Speaking Americans in the War can lead an alternate path through the strange sonic world of Olson’s oeuvre. The pamphlet’s few commentators have sketched its context as that of building support for the war effort among Chicanos and Latinos, especially in light of the disproportionate number who had died during the Bataan death march (about which the pamphlet served as a public statement of grief). Daniel Belgrad in particular also suggests that it was “meant to counter Axis propaganda encouraging minorities to question their stake in an American victory,” to disaffiliate Spanish speakers from the Allied cause—both in the United States and throughout South and Central America.5 All of this is true. But the pamphlet was also about the sonic, linguistic dimensions of national identity—the possibility that hearing American daily life in 1943 through Spanish might sever subjects from the opinion-forming power of the closely controlled national media. If they could not understand the language of the Luce media, how could they receive the crucial message that they were living not merely in American space but in an American century as well? So Spanish-speaking Americans were addressed in the bilingual pamphlet not merely as one among any number of social groups that might have needed ideological conditioning geared to their specific interests; rather, their interests were seen as inextricably tied to the linguistic medium in which they were articulated.6 In Olson’s prose the US state spoke to Spanish speakers in Spanish, seeking to convince them that, despite some appearances to the contrary, such speakers were in fact already at home and that this home was worth defending: “Vino la guerra y América toda cambió—las aldeas, las grandes ciudades, el norte y el oeste. El cambio más importante—los jóvenes fueron a pelear” (WAR CAME, and all America changed—small town, big city, North and West. One change above all—young men went off to fight).

While we might recognize the telegraphic tone, with its suppressed verbs and clipped clauses, here, unlike in The Maximus Poems, history is not a revisionist metanarrative critiquing the mythic Puritan origins of American identity, including the more sophisticated version of that story told by Olson’s professor at Harvard, Perry Miller. In Spanish Speaking Americans history is inevitability: “WAR CAME,” and with that change, “young men went off to fight.” We simply cannot ask about which young men, from which countries, speaking which languages within which minority populations, affiliated with which sides. Instead, these lines are translated so that, for Spanish-speaking Americans whose affiliations to the United States might, for good reasons, remain weak, there can be no mistake about the universality of this experience: “Los hijos de todas aquellas razas, de todas aquellas naciones del mundo que vinieron a edificar esta nación en América, salieron a luchar por la libertad en todo el mundo” (The sons of all races and nations of the world, who came here to make this America, went off to fight for freedom the globe around). Evoking the totality of “this America,” these lines mark perhaps the widest social formation an Olsonian reader is ever conscripted to join, the broadest site or context imagined as operative for his address.

FIGURE 6. Cover of Charles Olson, Spanish Speaking Americans in the War (1943). Reproduced from the Charles Olson Archive, the Dodd Special Collections, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Over the course of The Maximus Poems the asserted intersocial context, the thematized polis, will consistently shrink: from the residue of New Deal America at war with “pejoracracy” (MP, 7) (Truman and Eisenhoweresque civic boosterism and the administered “mu-sick” [ibid.] that greases its constitutive petty business) down, gradually, to “Gloucester” (less the empirical town than a town-sized peerdom of interlocutors), to the late moment when even Gloucester must sail away from the United States, and eventually, the polis or site of the work can be only the single body of Maximus.7 Whereas we encounter multiple references to “my Portuguese” and “my people” in the early poems, for instance, the implied collectivity and the would-be representative speaker become far less central later in the work. One might map this transformation, however, not only in terms of the empirical size of the thematized audience but also according to the sonic negations necessary to bring this audience into focus. Olson’s listeners, in other words, must first be told what not to hear before they can hear him correctly. At the beginning of The Maximus Poems, it is “mu-sick” that plays this negative role, a kind of sickening sonic ambience generated from signage and, presumably, radio: “O my people, where shall you find it, how, where, where shall you listen / when all is become billboards” (MP, 6). The answer, of course, is right here, with the rather large book in one’s hands: one should listen carefully to these printed words of Charles Olson’s.8 No longer the kind of unified national story offered in Spanish Speaking Americans in the War, Maximus begins of course as a counterhistory. However, by its conclusion, what one is invited to hear in The Maximus Poems is less an alternative history per se than the sound of a single body at work researching—or so I propose. It is not exactly that the scale or ambition of the work as a whole simply shrinks as it continues. Instead, as the geographical and textual collapse onto the corporeal, so the entire project also seems to mushroom, now as an Imago Mundi, into a global-scale cosmology.

In the 1943 pamphlet, however, the question is not merely the scale of the address but the time as well: rather than say that soldiers are going off to fight for freedom (since their choice of whether or not to do so was happening in the present), Olson flashes forward to a near future from which he looks back at the present, rendering it as a scene of inevitability: they went. Olson then humanizes and specifies these “Spanish speaking sons” from the “Southwestern states” by focusing on Ricardo Noyola, twenty-six, from “a ranch ‘Los Potreras,’ in Texas near the Rio Grande,” who “like his father . . . could speak no English” because he “had had no schooling, working as a farm hand growing cotton and wheat since he was thirteen. It took war, and the new world America entered, to bring about a change for Noyola and his people, to give him his chance.” But what, exactly, is the “chance” offered to Noyola? Education, fluency in English, civil rights, or merely the opportunity to fight for the United States? The pamphlet seems to equivocate, as Olson must tacitly admit that the reason Noyola has not learned English or attended school is that he has been trapped in a pocket of medieval serfdom south of San Antonio. This rather embarrassing fact, however, merely becomes a foil for the army’s benevolence: “At Camp Robinson, Arkansas, where Noyola found himself, without English, awkward, confused, unhappy, the U.S. Army stepped in and did an unusual, important thing.” What the army did was take Noyola, “and 54 other Spanish speaking boys,” and form “a special platoon,” led by someone “who could teach them in their own language, share their troubles, advise and encourage,” turning them into a battalion that “received high commendation for stamina, enthusiasm, and ingenuity.” Training within a native tongue, in other words, lubricates parts of the war machine like Noyola (who is singled out for his daring work of “leading a night reconnaissance patrol”) that might otherwise rub, jam, or squeak.

This project of linguistic and sonic tuning was, of course, central to the foreign-language division of the OWI, where Olson worked. Anthropologists, linguists, poets, and musicians were all conscripted to fine-tune the sonic dimensions of war by expanding scales from various linguistic worlds to their attendant cultures and soundscapes. But while much war anthropology, sonic or otherwise, relied on direct fieldwork, it was also possible to contribute to the sonic war effort in other ways, as was the case with Harl McDonald’s Bataan (1943), which invited listeners to revisit the tragic events of the previous year through an eight-minute tone poem whose middle section seemed to evoke the death march. Here, as the music began to operate as the sound track to an imaginary film of the actual, recent event, listeners were presented a musical scaffolding for an affective relationship to the war in the Pacific. While McDonald’s is only one of many commissioned or self-commissioned nationalist musical compositions undertaken during the war, it’s of interest here because of the extreme specificity of its reference (a single event rather than, say, a national figure like Lincoln) and because that event was the very one that Olson himself was called in to clean up after through writing a pamphlet.

Language and music, then, were two key wings of wartime anthropology.9 Though here comparatively rudimentary, and located within the continental United States, such attention to the strategic importance of native languages and music (and the larger cultures in which they are embedded) can be understood as part of a much wider enlistment of anthropological practice toward the war effort. The OWI was at the heart of this weaponization of what had been seemingly benign earlier fieldwork, laying the groundwork for what would become the Cold War discipline of “area studies.”10 Examples of this process are, as one would expect, spread uniformly and neatly across the globe, but a dramatic one is the English anthropologist Tom Harrisson’s application of previous studies to the struggle with Japan in Borneo. “While preparing for the mission,” David Price tells us, “Harrisson pored over articles from the Sarawak Museum Journal describing explorations of Borneo’s interior region of the early 1900s and 1930s. With the Japanese occupation of Borneo, these peacetime writings by ethnographers, geographers, and biologists took on a military significance.” The eureka moment came when, in reviewing this fieldwork undertaken by the Welsh anthropologist Edward Banks, Harrisson noted “poorly understood . . . independent people [the Kelabits] living right inside Borneo.” Thus, “the obscure Sarawak Museum Journal articles persuaded the Z Special Unit to parachute to the interior . . . rather than attempt a submarine operation that held high risks of Japanese capture or landing failure.” And when these anthropological commandos landed in 1944 with the goal of training the Kelabits into a guerrilla army that could fight the Japanese, the warring scholars were sufficiently versed both in local traditions and in the history of contact that they could motivate earlier encounters to their own ends: “Harrisson and his comrades’ airborne arrival produced an awed respect, as the Kelabits making first contact wanted to know if the Z Unit members were humans or supernatural beings.” With Harrisson identifying “his commando team to the Kelabits as ‘relatives’ of the known explorers Edward Banks and R. O. Douglas,” the Kelabits were soon won over and “pledged their allegiance to Harrisson and the British Forces.”11

In this example, in which anthropologists “constructed a secret inland landing strip and undertook training exercises” of the Kelabits,12 the discipline was fully weaponized with only moderate attention to the sonic domain: knowledge and use of the native language and the staging of what must have been for the Kelabits an unprecedentedly loud arrival by airplane. But the anthropology of sound and music were, elsewhere, even more central to the war effort. Not only were a broad range of musicians (among them Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Jerome Kern) commissioned to write new works, but more basically, all musicians living in the United States were required—as Annegret Fauser tells us—to fill out questionnaires about their suitability for various modes of war work, including whether or not they could teach the instruments necessary to fill out a marching band.13 Arnold Schoenberg’s response—a slightly baffled “I guess”—seems to convey the gap he (and one imagines many others) would like to have maintained between the ambitious intellectual world of avant-garde practice and the coarse martial music of the armed services band.14 Yet the record of war participation by musicians and historians or anthropologists of music suggests the opposite.15 Beyond the enormous number that performed at USO and other military sites, many were employed as well in Olson’s OWI, including Copland, Alan Lomax, Elliott Carter, Charles Seeger, Henry Cowell, Samuel Barber, Marc Blitzstein, Roy Harris, Colin McPhee, Kurt Weill, and Harold Spivacke.16


1. “Olson had to argue himself out of Washington, and out of the terms of Western history too,” Robert von Hallberg suggests; “he wanted a clean slate, but needed an alibi for so broad an erasure—Truman sufficed.” Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 6–7. Ross takes on, among other things, the cartographic dimensions of Olson’s thought, claiming that what his “empiricist point of view ignores . . . is that it is just as surely the map itself, with its historically innovative representations of space, which makes the fact of space and the idea of expansionism possible. The map, then, creates our conventional space, which is why it is indeed the instrument of modern political internment.” The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 114. For Yépez, it is Olson’s trip to and writings about Mexico that encode his imperialism. While Yépez takes aim at a wide range of Olsonian ideas (in at times a scattershot way not entirely unlike Maximus’s own rantings), the baseline is the wry suggestion that “Olson’s speculations about the Maya are repeatedly crude or brutal, worthy of any surfer or marine visiting Mexico as a tourist.” The Empire of Neomemory, trans. Jen Hofer, Christian Nagler, and Brian Whitener (Oakland, CA: Chain Links, 2013), 125.

2. “As early as January of 1945,” George Butterick explains, “shortly before [Olson] would abandon party politics and declare his independence in the poem ‘The K,’ itself a ‘telegram’ announcing his decision (written in Key West in February 1945, it was originally titled ‘Telegram’), the groundwork for Maximus was laid.” A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), xx, xxi.

3. Alan Gilbert notes this in his “Charles Olson and Empire, or Charles Olson Flips the Wartime Script,”,1. Tom Clark calls the pamphlet “a sophisticated manipulation of patriotic feeling that managed to convert sadness over great loss of life into a rousing call to arms.” Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life (New York: Norton, 1991), 79.

4. See Shaw, Fieldworks, chaps. 2, 4.

5. Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 24.

6. Why Spanish speakers died in disproportionate numbers in Bataan was already a linguistic question. The army needed Spanish speakers to function in the Philippines: “Bataan was a National Guard tragedy. The first soldiers ready, they were the first to go. Unlike the regular army, the Guards were home town units, local soldiers, local leaders. The threat of war was too great to allow time to regroup them. They went to the Philippines as they were. The 200th and 515th Coast Artillery of New Mexico were sent because they could talk Spanish and above all because they were the crack anti-aircraft units the Filipino people needed. On April 9th, it was all over. The glory of Bataan is the nation’s but the grief is in the homes of the small towns of America—from Harrodsburg, Kentucky to Salinas, California, on the faces of this New Mexican mother, these Kentucky parents. . . . New Mexico gave the fullest measure of devotion—one quarter of the 9000 men from the mainland lost.” Charles Olson, Spanish Speaking Americans in the War (Washington, DC: Office of War Information, 1943), n.p.

7. On the history of Muzak and its inventor, Major General George Owen Squier, see Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), 22–30.

8. This strategy of describing a problem that only one’s own poetry can solve has a rather distinguished genealogy, including, among many others, the Wordsworth of “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree” and the Whitman of “American Vistas.”

9. As historians of the discipline note, the status of the recordings themselves remained an issue. Among those early anthropologists using wax cylinder recordings for the Bureau of American Ethnology, for instance, the “records themselves were,” as Erika Brady tells us, “valued only as a means to derive written transcriptions in phonetic orthography, English textual translations, or musical transcriptions in standard notation more easily from the collected material. It was these ‘derived texts,’ not the cylinders themselves, that represented the primary basis for descriptive and analytical work in folklore and anthropology.” A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 62. Brady’s account of the sound anthropology of the 1890s gets further developed in Jonathan Sterne’s now classic The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). Less studied has been the sonic poetics of the midcentury group of ethnopoetic- oriented anthropologists and poets (including Dennis Tedlock, Jerome Rothenberg, and Nathaniel Tarn) that formed in conscious dialogue with Charles Olson, on the one hand, and emergent linguistic anthropology associated with figures like Dell Hymes, on the other.

10. In his study of the formation of area studies, for instance, Zachary Lockman quotes the 1963 speech from Harvard professor and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy cited earlier: “It is a curious fact of academic history that the first great center of area studies in the United States [the School of Advanced International Studies, SAIS] was not located in any university, but in Washington, during the Second World War, in the Office of Strategic Services. In very large measure the area study programs developed in American universities in the years after the war were manned, directed, or stimulated by graduates of the OSS—a remarkable institution, half cops-and-robbers half faculty meeting.” Field Notes: The Making of Middle Eastern Studies in the United States (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), x. While Lockman grants, especially up to the late 1960s, the overlap between universities and intelligence-gathering agencies, he nonetheless suggests that it is “simplistic to depict area studies in the United States as in essence a product or servant of the national security state built during the Cold War” because, after the late 1960s, many academics in area studies departments became radicalized (ibid.).

11. David Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 55, 55–56, 56; see also Regna Darnell, Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

12. Price, Anthropological Intelligence, 56.

13. Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 54, 18.

14. There had, in fact, been occasional points of contact between marching bands and avant-garde music: the sound of two such bands moving in opposite directions had, Henry and Sidney Cowell tell us, provided “the germ of [Charles] Ives’ complicated concept of polyphony.” Charles Ives and His Music (1955; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 144. Despite Schoenberg’s explicit approval of Ives’s music, the former’s flustered “I guess” suggests that Ives’s resources were considered aberrant and that ambitious composers would do well not to offer their services to military bands.

15. Certainly this enlistment happened among Axis musicians as well. As Alex Ross tells us, there is the example of Hindemith “attempting to regain the trust of the authorities, promising to write a work in honor of the Luftwaffe.” The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: FSG, 2007), 319.

16. Fauser, Sounds of War, 15.