Charles Olson Olson, Charles (Vol. 1) - Essay

Olson, Charles (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olson, Charles 1910–1970

An American poet, proponent of projective verse, Olson is best known for his Maximus poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[It] is pretty evident that Olson's contribution to the aesthetics of poetry is likely to be something less than epoch-making. All the things he says are in various ways true enough, but "projective verse" has no claim on them; most of them are true of any poetry, or at least of any that is worth reading. Certainly, organic form—the poem growing naturally from its own materials and creating its own best internal relations and overall shape—is the form that all good poems must have: do have. What Olson's notion of "open" verse does is simply to provide creative irresponsibility with the semblance of a rationale which may be defended in heated and cloudy terms by its supposed practitioners….

In presenting his material, Olson is both observant of the way his world, including its history, looks and feels, and determinedly bookish, with the cantankerous and pedantic bluster of his self-educated colleagues Rexroth and Edward Dahlberg. But with or without the help of his theories, he has managed to write a few moderately interesting sections [The Maximus Poems] of a long, unsuccessful poem which must have been the labor of years, and these are worth reading. The structure of the poem is only the structure of fortuitous association plus the more obvious devices and literary mannerisms of Pound and Williams, but his mind seems to me quite a capable one, and at all points is working hard to say what has been given it. That is enough, because it has to be.

James Dickey, "Charles Olson" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 136-39.

[According] to [Charles] Olson's precepts all verse, not just certain passages, conveys energy; and that energy is contained in all the features of the poem, the objects as he calls them—syllable, line, image, sound, and sense. And our response to the poem is not an intellectual one, modified by feelings, but what we must think of as felt energy, in the transmittal of which meaning plays a part but not an overbearing one.

A. Kingsley Weatherhead, in his The Edge of the Image: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Some Other Poets, University of Washington Press, 1967, p. 204.

Charles Olson was the poet who was earliest associated with Black Mountain College, and he was certainly one of the most influential members of its faculty…. His fame increased as his influence grew among those poets (Ginsberg among them) who have gradually brought poetry to its present state. At the time of his death, on January 1, 1970, Charles Olson was one of the most important figures in American poetry.

Next to his excellent, somewhat oracular poetry, Olson's great influence rests on his formulation of the process of "projective" or "open" verse. This provided a new and very usable system of prosody to a whole generation of poets, who may well have felt that a development of some sort was needed from the poetics of Pound and Williams, yet sought something in the same context of freedom. Some took projective verse directly as their own; many more shaped and adapted Olson's theories to their own ends. But what is remarkable is the number of poets—and eventually critics, as well—who were finally deeply affected by this enthusiastic and somewhat eccentric man. Charles Olson mattered greatly. He changed their minds.

Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971, p. 120.