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OLSON, TOBY (1937- ) Toby Olson's pacing, rhythms, and themes are evocative of Robert creeley. His conversational approach is reminiscent of David antin's talk poems. And, generally, he shares a poetic kinship with such innovators as John taggart and Jackson mac low. His work shows influences from romanticism's return to nature, modernism's revival of epic tropes, and the new york school's emphasis on speech patterns. Olson engages these traditions while transforming them into his own particular style courageous enough to stare down divorce, socioeconomic politics, carcinoma, immigration policies, and racism in his characteristically breathless cadences.
Merle Theodore olson was born in Berwyn, Illinois, but there is little evidence of this midwestern beginning in his writing. Perhaps Olson's early disposition toward places and pacing are more easily traced to his days in the United States Navy from 1957-61, during which time he served as a surgical technician. Taking to the sea and water are repeated undercurrents through much of Olsons work, but, even more, the simultaneous skills of diligent observer and precise craftsmanship demanded of surgeons define Olsons relationship to writing. After military duty Olson pursued a B.A. at Occidental College and subsequently a masters degree from Long Island University. He has served on numerous faculties and writer residencies, and he has dedicated his teaching career to Temple University, starting in 1975. He has received a number of fellowships, and his acclaimed novel, Seaview (1983), was recognized with the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.
Throughout his career, just as Robert duncan continuously wrote passages or John berryman endlessly wrote dream songs, Olson has composed "Standards." In these "Standard" poems, by employing jazz's technique of creating subtle differences through repetition, Olson reminds readers how words—through rhythm, tempo, and cadence—make music. "Standard-9, Just One (Some) Of Those Things" (1993) demonstrates how a single memory rolls into other memories, how a dream riffs on the original experience: "these strange conglomerates? . . . / how turn the body off from dreaming?" Since he is a renowned fiction writer as well as poet, it is not surprising that his writing operates fluidly, flowing back and forth across genre divisions, illustrating how memory ebbs between past and present. Olson's most acclaimed novels fall within the detective story genre, and so too his poems grapple with the mystery of memory. Much as a detective collects clues, Olson's speakers collect memories as snapshots which fuse into a collage of dizzying beauty.
As the titles of his most recent collections imply, Olson is interested in how Human Nature (2000) remains a process of Unfinished Building (1993). Similar to the way a building under construction, complete with external scaffolding, houses the internal hopes of what is to come, Olson's poems avoid enclosures, simple symmetries, and neat conclusions. His speakers set out in each poem to discover where the paths of memory will lead. The goal is not some hidden treasure chest of lyric "truth"; rather it is the search itself which keeps us fascinated. Olson's poems remain standards to be played over and over, each one perpetually building stories and making poetic music that will never be finished.
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