Charles Olson Olson, Charles - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Y&X 1948

In Cold Hell, In Thicket 1953

O'Ryan 1959

The Distances 1960

The Maximus Poems 1960

O'Ryan 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 1965

Selected Writings (poetry and prose) 1965

'West' 1966

The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI 1968

Archaeologist of Morning 1970

The Maximus Poems, Volume Three 1975

The Collected Peoms of Charles Olson 1987

A Nation of Nothing but Poetry: Supplementary Poems 1989

Other Major Works

Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville (criticism) 1947

Mayan Letters (essays) 1953

Projective Verse (essay) 1959

A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn (prose) 1964

Human Universe and Other Essays (essays) 1965

Proprioception (essays) 1965

Letters for Origin 1950-1956 (essays) 1969

The Special View of History (essays) 1970

Additional Prose: A Bibliography on America, Proprioception, and Other Notes and Essays (essays and prose) 1974

Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews (interviews and lectures) 1978

Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence (letters) 1980

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anti-Poetic Fisher of Men," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3585, November 13, 1970, p. 1315.

[In the following review, the critic offers a negative assessment of The Maximus Poems.]

Whoever dislikes the poetry of Charles Olson should take note of the abundant testimony of his admirers. Not all of them can be dismissed as friends, pupils, and debtors. Young men who have never met him privately celebrate the magical effect of his public performances. Young women stammer out eulogies of his inspiring example. Yet the story lingers in one's mind of the professorial friend whom Olson saw cupping a hand to an ear while the poet was reading his work in a Harvard auditorium, and whom Olson asked to leave because his attentive presence made a proper delivery of the verses impossible.

Sympathetic attention is not what The Maximus Poems call for. The patient reader may suppress a fatigued sense of déjà vu as he glimpses Crane's The Bridge (or Waldo Frank's introduction to it) in some elements of Maximus, and Wil liams's Paterson in others. But his impression of the author as a devalued Pound must remain; for the doctrine and mannerisms of the Cantos pervade Olson's collection.

Suppose one forcibly ignores one's experience of the real thing and determines to treat the Maximus sequence as an independent design: what pleasures will reveal themselves? Readers who have no acquaintance with deep sea fishing and no knowledge of American colonial history may be entertained by the snatches of John Smith's prose or the anecdotes of disasters at sea. Connoisseurs of grammar may relish Olson's habit of omitting relative pronouns and the prepositions of time or place. Rhetoricians may study his addiction to aposiopesis. Puzzle-solvers will be happiest of all, tracing "mettle" on page 131 to Corinthian bronze on page 123, or connecting the "nasturtium" on page 93 with the "nose-twist" on page 36.

The unhappy few who listen for lines that engrave themselves on the tables of memory, for rhythmic subtlety or the undeniably right choice of words, for grace of sound or felicity of perception, for a...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Robert von Hallberg (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Olson's Relation to Pound and Williams," in Contemporary Literature, VOL. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 15-48.

[In the following essay, von Hallberg discusses the defining influence of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams on Olson's poetry.]

Charles Olson's name comes up often in discussions of the influence of Pound and Williams on younger poets, and rightly so. Shortly before Olson's death, Gerard Malanga asked him whether he could have written The Maximus Poems without having known Pound's and Williams' work. Olson answered: "That's like asking me how I could have written without having read." But there has been so little notice taken of the matters...

(The entire section is 10535 words.)

Sherman Paul (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "In and About the Maximus Poems," in Iowa Review, VOL. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 118-30.

[In the following excerpt, Paul presents a critical overview of the first volume of Maximus Poems.]

Chronological order is implicit in the practice of projective verse. As William Carlos Williams said of The Maximus Poems, "This is a story of the events of a man's experience and the particular events of a man's experience…." Williams, also indebted to Whitehead, perhaps appreciated the accuracy of "events"; a poem is an event, the actualization of its occasion. Set out chronologically, the poems tell that story, in this simple sequential way are narrative. We...

(The entire section is 5077 words.)

Paul Christensen (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Olson's 'Maximus': Gloucester as Dream and Reality," in The Texas Quarterly, VOL. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1977, pp. 20-9.

[In the following essay, Christensen discusses the major themes of The Maximus Poems.]

Charles Olson's distinguished long poem, the Maximus sequence, achieved final form with the publication of its closing book, The Maximus Poems: Volume Three in the early fall of 1975. Olson worked on the sequence for the last twenty years of his life; it is an intimate record not only of his passionate ideals but of the leaps and changes of his mind throughout that period. Like all works of high moral ambition, its appearance in final...

(The entire section is 4582 words.)

Geoffrey Thurley (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Black Mountain Academy: Charles Olson as Critic and Poet," in The Academic Moment, St. Martin's Press, 1977, pp. 126-38.

[In the following excerpt, Thurley faults Olson for what he perceives as superficial and erroneous elements in his poetics.]

A number of distinguished poets in the 1950s … received stimulus and direction from Black Mountain College. Although it's hardly possible to define a very clear Black Mountain style, it is possible to use the label to indicate a rough area of preoccupation in postwar American poetry. America has traditionally lacked—it still lacks—a literary centre on the scale of London or Paris, and it is interesting that at...

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Robert Creeley (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'An Image of Man …' Working Notes on Charles Olson's Concept of Person," in Iowa Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 29-43.

[In the following essay, Creeley discusses Olson's concepts of history and identity.]

Talking to a gathering of student writers (S.U.N.Y. College at Cortland, N.Y., October 20, 1967) Olson again tried to make clear that he was not involved in some self-aggrandizement and that The Maximus Poems were not therefore a backdrop for himself as quondam hero. He then read "Maximus of Gloucester" (The Maximus Poems, Volume Three)—the date for which he notes as "Friday November 5th/1965":

One might expect to...

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George F. Butterick (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Olson and the Postmodern Advance," in Iowa Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 4-27.

[In the following essay, Butterick examines how Olson attempted to break with traditional western rationalism.]

Charles Olson was always very pleased by the fact that the only time he was ever given a psychological test—when he was invited to participate along with twenty-three other poets, including William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and the like, as part of an examination of creativity conducted by a Harvard graduate student—the results of the test confirmed that he had a "high tolerance of disorder." The experiment was administered in 1950 by Robert N....

(The entire section is 9211 words.)

Thomas F. Merrill (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Grammar of Illiteracy," in The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer, Associated University Presses, 1982, pp. 38-63.

[In the following excerpt, Merrill examines the principles underlying Olson's unorthodox use of language.]

Once at a poetry reading at Brandeis Charles Olson "got so damned offended" that he screamed at his audience, "You people are so literate I don't want to read to you anymore." To underscore the seriousness of his point, he added, "It's very crucial today to be sure that you stay illiterate simply because literacy is wholly dangerous, so dangerous that I'm involved everytime I read poetry, in the fact that I'm reading to people who are...

(The entire section is 7705 words.)

David Kellogg (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Body Poetics, Body Politics: The Birth of Charles Olson's Dynamic," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 10, No. 3, Winter, 1991, pp. 63-82.

[In the following essay, Kellogg examines Olson's shorter poems in light of the poet's own principles of direct experiential knowledge.]

It's going to be somebody else's business to say, see, hear, eventually, what's been done.

-Charles Olson to Robert Creeley

Twenty years after his death, Charles Olson's 1950 statement to Robert Creeley still applies as much to the content of Olson's writing, a great deal of which remains unpublished or only narrowly available,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1972, 511 p.

Historical survey of the experimental college, including discussions of Olson's dominant presence and vital contributions as a teacher there.

Du Plessix Gray, Francine. "Charles Olson and an American Place." The Yale Review 76, No. 3 (Spring 1987): 341-52.

Recollections by a former student of Olson's at Black Mountain College.


Bertholf, Robert J. "Righting the Balance: Olson's The...

(The entire section is 359 words.)