Charles Olson 1910–1970
(Full name Charles John Olson) American poet and essayist.
Olson was a major figure in the Black Mountain school of Post-modernist American poetry. Beginning his career as a poet in middle age, he developed considerable influence as a lecturer at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as well as through his poems and essays on literary theory. Deeply influenced by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he attempted to carry on their innovations while discovering his own radically new means of expression. Seeking to break from conventional poetics, he tried to make his work spontaneous, reflecting the rhythms of ordinary conversation. He rejected the traditional European-influenced system of symbols, images, and classical allusions in poetry, preferring to express a world view that was multicultural yet specifically rooted in the American of his time.
While growing up in Massachusetts, Olson spent his summers in the fishing village of Gloucester, which would later become the focus of what critics regard as his most important work, the three-volume epic cycle known as The Maximus Poems. An outstanding student, he received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Wesleyan University. By 1939, Olson had completed all requirements for a doctorate at Harvard except for his dissertation, but chose to accept a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a book on Herman Melville, which was eventually published as Call Me Ishmael (1947). After working in the Office of War Information during World War II, he built what seemed to be a promising career with the Democratic National Committee, but abandoned politics in his mid-thirties in order to concentrate on literature. In 1948 he assumed a temporary teaching post at Black Mountain College, and returned in 1951 to serve as a lecturer and as the school's rector. There he became the charismatic leader of what became known as the Black Mountain Poets, a group that included Robert Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, and Robert Duncan. When Black Mountain College closed in 1956, Olson returned to Gloucester, where, living among fishermen in very modest circumstances, he devoted himself to writing The Maximus Poems.
Olson's literary output was prolific, divided between poetry and prose works that expounded his theories about writing.
His essay "Projective Verse," first published in 1950, became a manifesto for the Post-modernist poetry movement in America. In his lectures and essays Olson argued that poetic language must be spontaneous, expressing what is actually seen and felt, rather than obeying conventional rules of logic and order. In his major poetic works "The Kingfishers" and The Maximus Poems, as well as the shorter poems contained in the collections Y & X (1948), In Cold Hell, In Thicket (1953), and The Distances (1960), Olson demonstrates ideas advocated in his essays on poetics, particularly the rejection of tradition-bound, Eurocentric ways of thinking and a striving towards less artificial, more direct methods of writing and experiencing life. The Maximus cycle is his most ambitious work, intended to follow in the tradition of major twentieth century verse epics such as Pound's Cantos, Williams' Paterson, and Hart Crane's The Bridge. The subject of the poem is Gloucester, both its historic past and present condition, from the point of view of Maximus, a character representing the poet himself. Among the themes treated in the Maximus cycle are the values and heroism of the working people of Gloucester, and how what might have been an idyllic community has been violated by modern American consumer culture.
During his lifetime, Olson inspired admiration within his circle of colleagues and students. He also attracted controversy with his radical challenges to traditional and Modernist literary conventions. Because his seemingly cryptic, often ungrammatical manner of writing can be difficult to read, contemporary reviewers expressed frustration with and skepticism about his methods. As Postmodernism became an established literary movement, critics focused on exploring Olson's characteristic themes and style, often comparing his theoretical writings with his own verse.