Charles Olson

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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 Olson to pursue further graduate studies at Harvard University, where he became one of the first three candidates for the newly formed Ph.D. program in American civilization.

After some intermittent sailing trips on a schooner and a hitchhiking trip across the United States, Olson took a variety of interdisciplinary courses at Harvard and started a dissertation comparing William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605) to Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), to be supervised by the renowned scholar of American literature F. O. Matthiessen.

For a variety of complex reasons, Olson decided not to finish his Ph.D. dissertation. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship and finished his book on Melville, which Edward Dahlberg advised him not to publish. Olson then worked in a variety of jobs in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and for the Democratic Party. He resigned after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, even though he had been offered the job of assistant secretary of the treasury and the position of postmaster general. He had become thoroughly disillusioned by his experience in politics and began a series of visits to his poetic mentor, American poet Ezra Pound, at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where Pound had been confined for mental incompetence.

It was during this transitional...

(This entire section contains 1070 words.)

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period that Olson began writing poems and publishing them in such journals asThe Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Harper’s Bazaar. It was with the help and encouragement of Pound that Olson published his first book, called Call Me Ishmael (1947), which had come out of a major re-visioning of his earlier work on Melville. After a trip to the West Coast, where he met the poet Robert Duncan and the geographer Carl Sauer, he was invited to Black Mountain College in North Carolina by its rector, Josef Albers, to lecture. Olson so impressed the faculty and staff there that he was invited to become its new rector; he remained until the school closed in 1956. He also began a friendship there with the poet Robert Creeley that continued throughout his life and was perhaps his most crucial poetic and spiritual contact.

Two major works were published in 1950 that eventually made Olson well known and led to him being considered the leader of a school of writers called the Black Mountain poets. They included a number of Black Mountain faculty and students: Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Denise Levertov, Joel Oppenheimer, and the fiction writers Fielding Dawson and Michael Rumaker. The first work for which Olson became famous was his revolutionary essay titled “Projective Verse” (1950), published in Poetry New York, and a poem called “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You.” This poem became the first of a long series of poems which would eventually become The Maximus Poems.

In 1952, Olson received a grant to study Mayan culture in the Yucatán peninsula, the results of which were later published as Mayan Letters (1953). In 1960, two other major publications emerged besides The Maximus Poems. Donald Allen edited and published an anthology that included Olson’s famous essay “Projective Verse” and several of his notable poems, such as “In Cold Hell, in Thicket,” “As the Dead Prey upon Us,” and his response to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), “The Kingfishers.” Olson’s first collection of shorter poems was also published, under the title The Distances (1960).

With the demise of Black Mountain College in 1956, Olson returned to Gloucester and worked steadily on the next major section of Maximus poems, called The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI (1968). Although he taught periodically at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Connecticut, he also lectured and gave poetry readings throughout the United States and Europe. He published a collection of his essays called Human Universe, and Other Essays in 1965. The title essay is the most comprehensive summary of his poetic and philosophical beliefs and is a vivid demonstration of his piercing intellectual insights. Olson’s career ended prematurely when he became terminally ill with cancer of the liver; he died in New York City on January 10, 1970.


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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.