Authors: Charles Olson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Biography

Charles John Olson is a major figure in American poetry of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and spent his summers in the seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At Wesleyan University he earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees, and at Harvard University he began but never completed a Ph.D. program. In the 1940’s he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, and for the Office of War Information and the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., but after that he turned from politics to literature. His first book, Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville, is an eccentric but provocative reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), in which he traces many of that novel’s thematic concerns to Melville’s reading of William Shakespeare. Olson’s first important poem, “The Kingfishers,” blends fragments from sources as varied as the Encyclopædia Britannica, Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, and Mao Zedong in a meditation on history and political action.{$I[AN]9810001742}{$I[A]Olson, Charles}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Olson, Charles}{$I[tim]1910;Olson, Charles}

In 1950 Olson published his most influential essay, “Projective Verse.” In opposition to what he called the “closed verse” of modernism and New Criticism, Olson advocated an “open” form of irregular meter, line length, and stanza, in which the poem’s line is shaped by the actual breath of the poet and its form enacts the dynamic unfolding of the poet’s perceptions and thoughts, as if the reader were listening to the poet thinking out loud to himself. The essay became a rallying point for a number of poets working against the grain of formalist poetics, and William Carlos Williams quoted from it in his Autobiography (1951).

“Projective Verse” established Olson’s reputation as the chief theorist of open form and helped to earn him appointments first as instructor, and later as rector, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught from 1951 to 1956. There Olson influenced a group of poets, including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and Denise Levertov, who became known as the Black Mountain poets and gained national recognition in 1960 when many were featured in Donald Allen’s influential anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960.

In 1953 Olson published The Maximus Poems 1-10, the first ten poems of what was to become his most important work. This was followed in 1956 by The Maximus Poems 11-22, and finally in 1960 the two earlier volumes were collected, with newer poems, in The Maximus Poems. This volume begins as a series of “letters” written from a speaker, Maximus, to the citizens of Gloucester, and the poems are at once lyrical, didactic, autobiographical, and meditative. Maximus writes about specific persons, houses, streets, and sights. Although he is obviously deeply attached to the beauty of the place, he is also highly critical of what he sees as its growing decay: Urban renewal projects are destroying historic old homes, absentee owners are preying on the social fabric, and the fishing that is the town’s economic lifeblood is growing increasingly mechanical and industrial. Olson published a second volume, The Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, in 1968, and a posthumous third volume, The Maximus Poems, Volume 3, appeared in 1975.

Along with Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1917) and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1948), The Maximus Poems constitute the most ambitious and important American long poem of the twentieth century. In many ways Olson’s poem is clearly influenced by Pound and Williams: He borrows from Pound the polymathic, didactic tone, and from Williams the idea of grounding his poem in a particular place and using that place to unify his varied thematic concerns.

Despite the influence of Pound and Williams, however, Olson’s voice remains distinct. His style is disjunctive and spontaneous. Sentences are often grammatically incomplete, and the tone is often excited and energetic. His references to ancient myth, to details of his own life, to obscure persons and incidents in the history of colonial Gloucester, and to twentieth century thinkers such as Carl Gustav Jung are sometimes frustrating, but Olson’s emphasis on the importance of being in intimate contact with the world, of paying careful attention to immediate experience, along with his belief that myth and history can help people to reestablish a genuine community or “polis,” makes Maximus a powerful poetic achievement.

When Black Mountain College closed in 1957, Olson moved back to Gloucester, where he lived for most of the rest of his life, although he taught briefly at the State University of New York at Buffalo and at the University of Connecticut. During the 1960’s he came to be identified increasingly as one of the most important theorists and practitioners of postmodern American poetry (Olson was one of the first to use the term “postmodern”). The polemical Olson acquired a fiercely devoted group of followers, but he always remained on the margins of American poetry. He is a challenging and difficult poet but an important figure in postmodern American poetry.

BibliographyBollobás, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Olson. Includes bibliographical references and index.Clark, Tom.Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. New York: Norton, 1991. The first biography of Charles Olson. Bibliography.Cech, John. Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1982. Cech describes the relationship between these two longtime friends and writers. Provides background for students interested in literary movements of the time. Includes a bibliography.Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. A narrative account of the life and work of Olson, focusing on the poet’s lifelong reading material as a basis for understanding his work.Olson, Charles, and Cid Corman. Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964. Edited by George Evans. 2 vols. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987. Evans presents the 175 extant letters between the founder of Origin magazine and its contributing editor. They reveal that Olson was initially skeptical of Corman’s aims, fearing that Corman was starting a magazine with too broad a scope to serve the needs of the Objectivist poets.Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. Argues that antiestablishment poets of the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Olson, were just as bent on building their careers, reputations, and audiences as were mainstream poets.
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