Charles Olson (Magill's Literary Annual 1992)
The most interesting subjects for biographical projects are often the most difficult to write about. Psychological complexity enriches the landscape while making it harder to navigate. If the life brought under scrutiny has been the source of some artistic achievement, the difficulty is compounded by the necessity for linking the subject’s work and his days. In the case of an artist whose work is elusive and unconventional, interpretation and clarification enter the equation as well. For Tom Clark, an accomplished poet, a former poetry editor of The Paris Review, and the author of volumes on the lives of Louis- Ferdinand Céline, Damon Runyon, Jack Kerouac, and Ted Berrigan, all these factors contributed to a challenge of unusual dimensions when he undertook a biography of Charles Olson.
The appeal of the project for Clark is obvious. He interviewed Olson during the mid-1960’s and, like many others, was left with an impression of an exceptional figure, a source of energy and fascination. He knew that Olson’s life was unusually diverse, his contacts with people in American social and artistic circles uniquely various. Many of these people were still alive and willing to discuss their encounters, while others had written accounts of their meetings, friendships, or confrontations with Olson. He knew that Olson kept a detailed, candid journal from his earliest years, and he recognized that the relationship between Olson’s life and his writing...
(The entire section is 2432 words.)
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Charles Olson (Magill Book Reviews)
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...
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