Olson, Charles 1910–1970
Olson, a major American poet and scholar, was the mentor of the Black Mountain poets and a proponent of objective verse. He is best known for the Maximus poems and for his study of Melville, Call me Ishmael. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1; obituary, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
For Olson the line becomes a way to a movement beyond the single impact of the words which go to make it up, and brings to their logic a force of its own. Instead of the simple wagon which carries the load, he makes it that which drives too, to the common logic, the sense of the poem….
Olson is a good deal more than a competent technician…. [He exhibits] a range of subject and a depth of perception that mark him exceptional. His language is exact, hangs tight to the move of his thought.
Robert Creeley, "Charles Olson: Y&X," in Montevallo Review, Summer, 1951.
[Olson's] The Maximus Poems are, or seem first to me, the modulation of a man's attentions, by which I mean the whole wonder of perception. They are truth because their form is that issue of what is out there, and what part of it can come into a man's own body. That much is not sentimental, nor can anything be sentimental if we make it that engagement. The local is not a place but a place in a given man—what part of it he has been compelled or else brought by love to give witness to in his own mind. And that is the form, that is, the whole thing, as whole as it can get. (p. 157)
Robert Creeley, "Charles Olson: 'The Maximus Poems, 1-10'" (1953), in his A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays, edited by Donald Allen (copyright © 1970 by Robert Creeley), Four Seasons, 1970, pp. 157-58.
As a "post-modern" philosopher, Olson has little patience with the nineteenth century transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau, but his methodology is often similar to theirs. Like them, he writes as a dogmatist, lecturing in the manner of a Yankee original, theorizing independent of the academy. He is a bookish man, with a wildly diverse taste for books (his writing often seems an immediate, direct response to something he has just read), but he remains at heart an enthusiast, a poet-preacher rather than a professor. In scientific matters, Olson is a self-educated man, as much an amateur mathematician and physicist as Thoreau was a gentleman botanist and zoologist. Olson's friend Robert Duncan once recalled affectionately, "Charles is just like I am. He sits around and reads all day." Like Melville, Olson reads to write.
Like Emerson and Thoreau, Olson is fiercely involved in the uniqueness of the American experience. He has stated in Proprioception that America is the inheritor of "a secularization which not only loses nothing of the divine but by seeing process in reality redeems all idealism from theocracy or mobocracy, whether it is rational or superstitious, whether it is democratic or socialism." But while he can be rhapsodic over the promise of the democratic experiment, he is also disillusioned over the exploitation of natural resources and the prevalence of human greed. (pp. 17-18)
Olson theorizes about the universe without quite the total comprehensiveness necessary to account for the complexity of life with God in the street, the result of the secularization of His part in the world of things. (p. 20)
Olson's philosophy of projective space, that quantity is the basic principle of the universe and that process is its most interesting fact, brings him directly to his method in Call me Ishmael. As Robert Creeley has pointed out in his introduction to Olson's Selected Writings, the theory of projective space eschews criticism as a descriptive process. Attacking Plato and Aristotle's systems of logical notation and categorization, Olson insists instead on criticism as an "active and definitive engagement with what a text proposes." This engagement strikes cautious readers as a mishmash if they expect a book like Ishmael (subtitled "A Study of Melville") to be organized according to some perceivable system of developing logical relationships. The organization of Ishmael is perceivable, but only to the inquiring, intuitive eye. (pp. 20-1)
If man chooses to treat external reality any differently than as part of his own process, his own inner life, then he is mistreating external reality for his own arbitrary willful purposes. To Olson, academic criticism destroys "the energy implicit in any high work of the past" because such criticism uses the methods of description, generalization, and logic—all inimical to the creative process since they blur or destroy the outlines of external reality…. [Ishmael] is constructed like the acts of experience themselves, "on several more planes than the arbitrary and discursive which we inherit can declare."
To comprehend fully how Olson conceived Ishmael, the reader must keep in mind that what really matters for him is not generalization or logic or a coherent intellectual framework, but the Thing Itself. (pp. 21-2)
Call me Ishmael is Olson's study of Melville as prophet—the first American writer to realize the principle of projective space. But Ishmael is also Olson's own emergence as prophet. If his first birth was his entrance into life, his second was his appearance as philosopher and poet in his first book: "Art is the only twin life has." (p. 22)
From Melville, Olson first realized what he later came to understand was known by Lawrence and Pound, that the past was usable…. The philosopher in Olson was ready long before the poet took courage, but with Melville as spiritual mentor, Olson found his voice.
This voice was Ishmael's, the philosopher, the witness. (p. 23)
Olson's Ishmael is Olson. With his philosophy he places himself in an unpopular camp; for insisting upon God's place in the street, he is as much an infidel as Mohammed, who claimed descent from Ishmael the son of Abraham and thus brought the name into disrepute.
Through the mask of Ishmael and while in the guise of a Melville biographer and scholar, Olson speaks as a philosopher of projective space and an interpreter of the American experience. The drama of Olson's book, its becoming in its own way as extended a prose-poem as Moby-Dick, lies in its structure. Ishmael may be felt as a re-creation of Moby-Dick according to the theory of projective space, with Olson as Ishmael and Melville as Ahab. The re-creation is intuitive, not rigorously schematic. It is the record of Olson's response to Melville offered in the terms of quantity as intensive…. Olson's Ishmael is witness to the triumph and tragedy of Herman Melville, like Ahab finally defeated—according to Olson—in his effort to master space. (pp. 24-5)
Although Olson's concerns are those of a philosopher, his prose is that of a poet…. Typography, the image of the word, the thing-ness of physical perception are in Olson's concept the basic materials of poetry. His underlying philosophic concern with continuous space leads him to history, geography, economics—facts rather than imagination. Unlikely materials for a poet, but as Ishmael, Olson animates them for his interpretation of Melville. (p. 30)
Melville is fascinated by the philosophic state of mind and leaves Ishmael's perceptions soon after the Pequod's voyage gets under way. The essential difference is that Olson has committed himself to a particular philosophy, whereas Melville holds no single belief. For Melville, dogma of any kind is impossible….
Establishing a close parallel between Ishmael and Moby-Dick was less important to Olson than animating his thoughts about Melville. (p. 31)
The three forces acting on Melville "to bring about the dimensions of Moby-Dick" were tragedy (Shakespeare), myth (Noah and Moses), and space (lordship over nature). Ishmael's Part I is the force of space on Melville. Part II is source, Shakespeare. Part III is Moses, Part V is Noah—myth…. This is what Call me Ishmael is explicitly about…. Olson organizes his book like a poet. The process of simply getting through the text is a major part of the reader's experience, and probably for most readers the act of reading the book generates in itself a more vivid impression than what the book is specifically about. (pp. 32-3)
With its structure a brilliant dramatization of Olson's philosophical theories, the contents of the book—Olson's demonstration that Melville was the first American "poet of space"—next requires careful scrutiny. In everything Olson writes, his meanings are complex, never mere description or logical argument. Over a hundred years ago, Emerson said, "Let us answer a book on ink with a book of flesh and blood" [Perry, The Heart of Emerson's Journals, p. 162]. As a literary and biographical study of Melville, Call me Ishmael is no academic book of ink. It is Olson's personal vision of what Melville is: Melville's experience interpreted by an eyewitness. (p. 38)
If Olson's idea about Melville's involvement in space is meant to be taken on faith alone, as a religious belief, then Call me Ishmael has the power of myth. Melville's experience becomes archetypal, prophetic of the experience of "Pacific man"—including Charles Olson himself. The reader who decides to continue the experience of Ishmael beyond the first fifteen pages must take on faith (or be willing to suspend unbelief) Olson's view of Melville as the first American poet of space. (p. 50)
It suited Olson's purpose to stress the inspiration he sensed Melville getting from Shakespeare, since what Olson himself had found in Melville paralleled the relationship he saw working nearly a century before between the two writers. When Olson refers to what Melville saw as an "American advantage" over Shakespeare [Ishmael, p. 41], for example, it is to find a similar "advantage" for himself over Melville…. The advantage is, as Olson wrote in his Bibliography for Ed Dorn, that "You is an American (no patriotism intended: sign reads, 'Leave All Flags Outside—Park Yr Karkassone')." There is no flag waving in Ishmael, but there is a strong cry of political idealism. The chapter titled "Shakespeare, concluded" is Olson's most extended discussion of the American advantage, the golden promise and the bitter reality of the "strongest social force," democracy…. Ahab is "the American Timon," assailing through his extra-human hate "all the hidden forces that terrorize man," and dragging his crew and himself to violent death through his solipsism. (pp. 54-5)
Olson is writing as a social philosopher, not as a literary critic, using Moby-Dick to project a description of what he sees as the myth of America. He interprets Melville's experience of being witness to the failure—the tragedy—of the American experiment through greed, "solipsism," the lust to possess space. This is as explicit as Olson gets on the subject of what exactly Melville was as a "poete d'espace." (p. 55)
[Olson's] book may be read as either philosophy or poetry, for it is both. What it is not is conventional literary criticism—Olson turned back to this only after the "original, aboriginal" creative expression of Call me Ishmael. (p. 64)
Ann Charters, in her Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity (© copyright 1968 Ann Charters), Oyez, 1968.
Writing under the shadow of Pound's Cantos and Williams' Paterson, Olson has tried [in Maximus Poems IV, V, VI] to delve back further than Pound into pre-history and to create a more sharply defined image than Williams of a modern city.
There are passages where Olson succeeds very well in evoking and satirising the realities of urban living…. Gobbets of local history are lovingly dredged up and patiently reassembled. Modern wit sometimes flashes brightly through the historical material but the poem as a whole is maddeningly uneven. His method prevents him from providing linkages. The material must be allowed to speak for itself without any explanation of its relevance, and he incorporates long stretches of (apparently) verbatim quotation from documents which have a bearing on local history, assuming that his placing of them inside his structure will suffice to make them meaningful. It doesn't. At its best, though, his writing has a vitality in common with [Robert] Duncan's. He is often very successful in making the movement of the verse imitate the movement he is describing. (pp. 85-6)
What should not have been inevitable is the variation in the amount of pressure behind the lines. There are passages where historical, geographical, geological, and archeological elements are all fused and illuminated in the same flash of awareness and where the versification contributes its full share to the statement Olson is making. But there are also long passages where he bogs himself down in obscure incidents from the past which have no apparent relevance to the present and where the poetic line is loose and sprawling. Sometimes he seems to think that each genuine piece of local history possesses its own alembic to distil itself into poetry. (p. 86)
Ronald Hayman, in Encounter (© 1970 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1970.
Charles Olson died in January, 1970, after 24 years of publishing poems. One of the driving forces behind the Black Mountain educational experiment, Olson influenced the college's poets in ways as large as the man himself. Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan in particular claim loving debts to the poet Duncan calls a "Big Fire Source. One of the ones we have to study." But if these poets and many others know Olson's importance in American poetry, critics too often ignore him, finding his poems difficult, obscure, and sometimes cranky (when they find them at all). The major work, the Maximus Poems sequence, which takes Gloucester, Massachusetts for America as W. C. Williams claims Paterson, is published separately. [Archaeologist of Morning] contains all other poems Olson authorized for publication in his lifetime, including previously uncollected works from journals and magazines. Now, with such magical pieces as "The Kingfishers" and "The Librarian," among others, readily available, surely attention will be paid where it must, to a poet who searched valiantly for the breath of verse beyond and before the received forms of the schoolmen he despised and loved. (p. 284)
The Antioch Review (copyright © 1971 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXI, No. 2, 1971.
I have never been happy with the waffly tone of In Cold Hell, elliptically allusive and aggressively folksy, a teaching machine with its sleeves rolled up. (p. 296)
[A] cheap way to tell a lot about a reader would be whether he'd rather read good Olson or good Stevens. Olson is more immediately social, at least in the drinking-bout sense, and there are more people in his poems. If he hasn't solved the artist/public split, he tries, a great many ways. He wants to write poems a sailor could read, rather than fodder for scholars. What kills him is a taste for 30's experiment and a gluey wish for certainties of the sort he thinks he finds in traditional European culture. Unlike Joyce he seems a bit embarrassed by being a writer, and will put in a strange word because he is ashamed of it. Which is why the sailors I know go around quoting Masefield. For a writer so clever at seeing why so much professional literature is deadly, he is oddly crippled by the self-conscious man's love of the awkward, which is his obverse fear of the formal. It gives him one advantage over Fifties Slick—not even Creeley is better at struggling to be graceful (compare Creeley's "Dancing" to Olson's "how to dance/sitting down"), and they both love the tristely minimal assertion, the content for which that figure was invented. Creeley hasn't Olson's need to play with Big Ideas, like Henry Miller's abortive book on Lawrence; by being born later (and a genius), it is enough if he can sort out his feelings. Olson's generation were covert Shelleyans, their writing something magical if not mythical, that might (if you looked the other way) even make things happen. He really does want an audience of human people, even when he writes as if the final judge were Maxwell Bodenheim…. [The] Olson his students discovered and loved (as he discovered them) is … in Archaeologist [of Morning]. The O'Ryan series is nothing much, Chandleresque tough, but the last little ones on color are something he should have done more with. (pp. 296-97)
Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1971 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1971.
"Archaeologist of Morning" [contains] all the poems Olson published in his lifetime, apart from the "Maximus" sequence…. Undoubtedly many poems exist in manuscript that have yet to appear, so this collection is incomplete against the larger effort of his lifetime; nonetheless, we are grateful for it. It is a beautiful and impressive tribute to Olson….
Olson is unique, and probably the most difficult of recent American poets. No other poet requires such an effort, equivalent to learning a new language, or rather to adjusting the sense we have of the old one, so that we hear the precision of his, and learn to experience a world through it. There are Olson poems I doubt anyone will ever understand except in their general aspect. Others are line and sunlight clear. The best of them hover between formal clarity and the larger obscurity of the man's mind, a mind so rich that hosts of poets not of his school have paid him the tribute of a Socrates.
His shifts are subtle though major. It is as though in his hands the American language is once again in touch with its roots. He is not quite archaic though he is full of archaisms. His syntax is too alive to be archaic. His focus stops in the noticing of something where you least expect it, and the sudden concentration that is felt brings about a rearrangement of all that has gone before….
To view the collected poems as this volume forces us to do is to get a confused sense of subject. There are poems that weave classical images through contemporary instances; that create Piero di Cosimo effects, luxurious yet deft. Poems that burst upon the tide of an established myth and seem to vivify it, as the beautiful ode to Aphrodite, "The Ring Of." Poems written in the heat of Olson's dig among the Maya, unfolding his theories of body (and eye), against his enmity for modern civilization, and its usury of spirit. Poems that try to place everything in a happy parataxis of Sumerian drift, that root out beginnings to beginnings, pre-logic, pre-liminary. Broadsides directed to The Gloucester Times against the dismantling of old houses to make way for the plastic and the new. Poems on what America was, meant, like his "West" series.
Olson on the subject of America (in the glory of its possibilities) is beautiful. Confronting America, as it radiates out of Gloucester and environs, his poetry often breaks step into a kind of Whitmanesque prose, a paradox of immense bulk and grace that fits the subject exactly. The tempo is right, the sense of space. The arrogance and the humility.
The best poems are delicate conjectures of the self caught in the thicket of its own awarenesses.
Olson has a Whiteheadian sweep to his imagination that connects one shimmer of brightness with the first spark, the first spring, "the shoot, the thrust of what you are." Process is all, is the message of many of his investigations. His ability to link one detail with another is startling and often gives the feeling your eye has erred until then. (p. 6)
Olson is the most articulate theorist of the move toward "composition by field": the idea that the poem becomes the configuration ("the glyph") of its own instant of creation. That, together with his work in getting language back on its feet, make him one of the most interesting figures in recent American poetry. Though he may not be its most lucid practitioner there is this peculiar beauty to his work which balances the strength of his cerebral reach with the grace of his imagination to convey a genuine dance. When the lesson of his person has faded, this no doubt will suffice. (p. 25)
Matthew Corrigan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1971.
It is difficult—awkward—to make this kind of evaluation, but Charles Olson, I think, has to be considered one of the strongest influences, one of the most decisive forces, on an entire area of modern American poetry. No one seems to quite measure up his size, despite the brilliance and the uniqueness of much of the writing around him. It's a sense of size and in some ways even more important a sense of place, a sense of being placed. American poetry comes out of a society that is uncertain and uneasy and the poetry has always had some of this uneasiness—not even developing traditions or any strong sense of direction. It always seems to be beginning, and every poet seems to be the beginning of a new American poetry. Olson, with his sense of having found a place, has the range and the strength to be a force—in his own way to be this kind of beginning, this kind of new American poet.
I think the feeling of place has to go beyond a personal focus. The first place a poet has to find is the ground he stands on—then he has to go out and find the distances to the places where other poets have decided to stand—to the place where they stand in the culture, and the place they stand in the society. Many contemporary poets have gotten to the first step. It's the larger vision of a place in the culture and the society that's beyond them. Olson got this far very early—partly by borrowing much of his early poetic stance and technique from Ezra Pound. There are early poems, important early writing, that could almost be unnumbered Cantos—"The Kingfishers" or "The Praises."… Olson found in Pound a feeling for the sweep of a culture and an angry alienation from some of the worst aspects of the American experience, and for him it was a beginning. Olson began writing late—in his middle thirties—so Pound was of considerable use to him. There is still, in almost all of Olson's poetry, a suggestion of Pound's technical devices and his artistic concerns. Pound opened him out and set him going and the feeling for Pound and his grasp of the poem will always be with Olson.
But with this strong connection there are still strong feelings of difference between the two men, especially as Olson's work has matured. There is no strong sense of place in Pound's work…. He has an intellectual sense of identity with his materials, but there is often no sense of a significant emotional involvement. With Olson his identity with the place, with Gloucester, gives his major work, The Maximus Letters, a deep emotional center…. Olson, in one of the Letters' most persistent themes, uses Gloucester as a poetic expression of the realities of history. Sometimes he has used materials similar to Thoreau's, and drawn some of the same inferences from similar documents, but in Thoreau there was always a sharp moral concern with the implications of his materials and he used them in the book to give an immediate clarity to his ideas. Olson, working in a larger concept that includes a whole new structure of the poem and of literature, is more ambiguous, but in some of the suggestions of his materials still as powerful. By not clearly forcing them into a place in the poem he has left them with their own interior force as document and history, instead of with the smaller place as example or illustration of some point. The structure and even some of the language of The Maximus Letters has been strongly influenced by William Carlos Williams' Paterson, but Williams' poem is an extended allegory involving the man and the city. In some of the early Letters there is an extending of the figure of Maximus into an allegorical framework, but it's left as an ambiguous suggestion, and in the rest of the poem Maximus—Olson—stays at a distance from this kind of self-identification with Gloucester.
The sense of place in the Letters is—in a final sense—so compelling because what Olson is trying to hold on to is the sense of place in time, as well as the sense of the immediate place of Gloucester. In geometric terms he is developing place in vertical as well as horizontal planes. This gives the Letters a complex pattern of movement, as well as giving them some of their importance to contemporary poetry. It also gives them some of their difficulty. Sometimes the poetry has the clarity and the vividness—the loose, unconcerned line of the kind of American discourse that he so strongly defends and insists on…. The Letters become less of the poet's expression and more the historian's as they go on, even though the history is handled as poetic material. In any of the single Letters the history is almost without meaning—odd facts, lists of provisions, inserted paragraphs on the fishing industry—but with the growth of the poem as a whole it is clear that something else is involved. The same facts return again and again. He goes back again and again to look at Gloucester from every view point that the town's history gives him. The impetus—he would call it "thrust"—is moral—a New England transcendental morality concerned with the destruction of the early American ideal by commercial growth. (pp. 21-5)
Sometimes I find myself thinking of Olson as an artisan, a worker with his hands, a carpenter, a New England journeyman. The woodworkers who did the carvings, flutings, ceilings; ship carpenters who did the bowsprit figures, as well as the trim, railings, hatch covers, and hand gear. The sense of the work being finished, of being placed. It is difficult to be both a historian and a poet, but by using some of his materials as an artisan would he is usually able to keep the two together within the poem. His history, like the carpenter's plank, still has its own grain and smell when he gets through with it. And he uses more than history. There is a strong set of personal responses that also have become part of the Letters. In the earlier Letters there is a more open, more direct feel of language and image—even the simple, beautiful set of "The Songs Of Maximus." In the earlier sections it it much more Olson as artist that I feel—more poet than historian—the matter of the poetry coming out of someplace inside his own Gloucester experience. And the whole of the poem does seem to open out from the centering of himself in Gloucester, and from the feeling of himself within this place. In the earlier poems most of the themes that dominate the later have already been outlined, even if they have only been loosely threaded on the line of his own memories of the town's fishing fleet and the men of the boats. (p. 26)
I've never decided whether or not Olson considers his poems difficult to follow—or if he cares, but he is difficult, one of the most difficult of the modern poets to follow. Sometimes, as in the inner references of Letter 7, it's because he doesn't give enough away—at other times, as in the overall structure of the Letters, because he includes a maze of only distantly related material. Probably, since he knows the inference of everything he's saying he doesn't see the difficulty at all. (p. 27)
Olson's poetry has never been difficult in its imaginative image, only in its elisions and references. So difficult in these, that he could have been—often—uncomfortably trying to conceal the ordinariness of his materials by making the form of their presentation unnecessarily obscure. There is another implication, in the rejection of the imagination, that he makes more clearly in … Letter . It is the vague feeling that there is a weakness, a softness, in the loose drift of the imagination…. His uneasiness with the imaginative vision has some of the gruffness of the New England countryman. As a poet he is also still the Charles Olson who was a fisherman, a carpenter, and postman. In this aspect of Olson is some of the poetry's brilliance, difficulty, insistence, and uniqueness. (pp. 32-3)
Samuel Charters, "Charles Olson," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1971 by Samuel Charters), Oyez, 1971, pp. 21-35.