Charles Olson Additional Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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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