Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Charles Olson was born on December 27, 1910, in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father, Charles Joseph Olson, was a letter carrier of Swedish descent, and his mother, Mary Theresa Hines, came from an Irish American background. The family was poor and lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Worcester. Although the young Charles had the usual father-son conflicts during his youth, he greatly admired his father for the force of his personality and his fortitude in standing up to the high-handed political scheming of his supervisors in the postal service. Olson’s relationship with his mother was extremely close, and a number of his finest poems are laments and elegies over her death in 1950. Both Olson and his father stood more than 6 feet, 7 inches tall and towered over Mrs. Olson, as family photographs show.
Olson’s career as a student was earmarked by success at every step. He qualified for entrance into the Worcester Classical High School, where he earned the highest grades. He also began winning prestigious awards in oratorical contests, taking third place in a national oratory contest in Washington, D.C., in 1928. His prize was a ten-week tour of Europe, where he began his first personal contact with world history, especially Greek and Roman history. Returning from Europe, he entered Wesleyan University as a scholarship student, qualifying as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. During his years at Wesleyan, he participated in many theatrical productions, wrote for the school newspaper, played soccer (as a goalie), and became a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship. During his summers, he performed in little theater productions in and around Gloucester, Massachusetts, his family’s permanent summer residence during most of his younger years. Gloucester became the central subject matter and focus for Charles Olson’s major long poem, The Maximus Poems (1960), which he began writing in 1947.
After graduation from Wesleyan, Olson attended Yale University on an Olin Scholarship and began work on a master’s degree, but he decided to return to his undergraduate school instead. He earned his M.A. at Wesleyan in 1932 with a thesis on nineteenth century American novelist Herman Melville. After some intense research in the papers and books of Melville’s personal library, Olson began teaching at Clark University in Worcester. At this time he met a writer who became for him a mentor and close friend, Edward Dahlberg. Dahlberg’s commitment to scholarship and his standards of excellence influenced...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In many ways The Maximus Poems constitute the postmodern equivalent of Williams’s Paterson and Pound’s Cantos. Olson saw his own effort as an attempt to find a middle ground between Pound’s overinflated “EGO AS BEAK” and its disastrous results in the Cantos, and Williams’s inability to forge a mythic persona powerful enough to keep Paterson from collapsing under the weight of its own historical data. Olson’s “Maximus” is a hero of consciousness who recognizes the poem as the one area in which man may be totally himself. The poem as both art and historical document, which The Maximus Poems purports to synthesize, also makes the voice of the poet immortal. Olson combined the consciousness of the individual with the mythic energies of the local and became, as Maximus, a spokesman for the earth itself.
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Charles John Olson was born on December 27, 1910, in the central Massachusetts town of Worcester. His mother, Mary Hines, was of Irish immigrant stock; his father, also named Charles, was of Swedish origin. Olson’s giant proportions (fully grown, he was to stand six feet, nine inches) obviously came from his father’s side, the elder Olson having stood well over six feet tall himself, whereas the poet’s mother was barely above five feet tall. Olson’s father worked as a letter carrier, a career the poet was to take up at one point in his life. From 1915 until he left home, Olson spent part of each summer with his family in Gloucester, a small seaport of Massachusetts north of Boston; he would later live there and anchor his Maximus poems in this, to him, “root city.” In 1928, he entered Wesleyan University, being graduated in 1932 and receiving his M.A. there the following year; his thesis, “The Growth of Herman Melville, Prose Writer and Poetic Thinker,” led him to discover hitherto unknown portions of Melville’s library, and this, in turn, led to his paper “Lear and Moby-Dick,” written in the course of his doctoral studies at Harvard and published in Twice-a-Year in 1938. Between 1932 and 1939, Olson supported himself either by grants or by teaching: at Clark University from 1934 to 1936 and at Harvard from 1936 to 1939.
In 1939, awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, Olson lived with his widowed mother in Gloucester, laying the groundwork for what was to become Call Me Ishmael. In 1940, he moved to New York City, working first as publicity director for the American Civil Liberties Union and then as chief of the Foreign Language Information Service of the Common Council for American Unity. During this period, Olson met and married Constance Wilcock. From 1942 to 1944, Olson served as associate chief of the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information, in Washington, D.C., and during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign for a fourth term in 1944, he served on...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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.
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...
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