At a glance:
- Author: Tom Clark
- First Published: 1991
- Type of Work: Biography
- Genres: Criticism, Nonfiction, Biography
- Subjects: Culture, Politics, Twentieth century, Literature, Human rights, New England, Criticism, Allegory, Fishing or fishermen, Avant-garde
- Locales: New York, NY, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Buffalo, NY, Gloucester, MA
Charles Olson was born on December 27, 1910, in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father, Karl, was a Swedish immigrant (he’d been brought to America by his parents as infant), an itinerant steelworker who took a more secure job at the Worcester post office when he was ready to start a family. Olson’s mother, Mary, ten years older than Karl, was a first-generation Irish American, devoutly Catholic.
An excellent student, especially talented at public speaking, Olson won a scholarship to Wesleyan University and later did graduate work at Harvard University. By that time he’d grown to a height of six feet, eight inches; in later years he added girth sufficient to fill most doorways.
Despite his evident gifts, Olson drifted in his twenties and thirties. He did some independent research on Melville but failed to follow it up until many years later. During World War II he found a job under Alan Cranston in the Office of War Information and began to nourish serious political ambitions. (By the end of the decade, he would be thoroughly disillusioned with American realpolitik.) In 1940, he had begun a common-law marriage with a twenty-year-old woman named Connie Wilcock, whose love and support he deeply relied on and eventually came to take for granted.
The story at the heart of CHARLES OLSON: THE ALLEGORY OF A POET’S LIFE is how this unlikely figure, nearing forty and having hardly written a poem (though he’d long had literary aspirations, and had struggled to find a form for what he had to say), transformed himself or was transformed into the commanding persona of THE MAXIMUS POEMS, the author of groundbreaking poetic manifestos.
Tom Clark, himself a poet as well as a biographer (previous subjects include Jack Kerouac, Ted Berrigan, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine), is well-positioned to tell this story. He is no hagiographer; at times, he can’t resist a dig or a sneer at Olson, though often enough a mere recitation of the facts is damning. Still, if falls short of the ideal combination of objectivity and sympathy, Clark has written a book that is for the time being indispensable.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVII, April 15, 1991, p. 1614.
Choice. XXIX, September, 1991, p. 90.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, March 15, 1991, p. 370.
Library Journal. CXVI, March 15, 1991, p. 89.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 28, 1991, p. 4.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, February 15, 1991, p. 82.
The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XI, Fall, 1991, p. 296.
San Francisco Chronicle. April 14, 1991, p. REV9.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, April 14, 1991, p. 4.
Did this raise a question for you?