Charles Olson 1910–1970
American poet, essayist, and critic.
Olson is considered one of the major influences on American poetry after World War II. In the early 1950s, Olson taught at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. There he became the central figure of a group including poets Robert Creeley, Edward Dahlberg, and Robert Duncan, now known as the Black Mountain school of poetry. Olson presented the fundamental theory of the Black Mountain school in his essay "Projective Verse," a radical statement which proposes a philosophy of existence as well as a new poetics, both substantially based on the rejection of the rationalistic, ego-centered conventions that have dominated Western literature and society. Besides its direct effect on the Black Mountain poets, most critics consider this essay to be a powerful influence upon American poetry written in the 1960s, and its significance contributed greatly to Olson's stature as a literary cult figure.
Olson's first major piece of writing was a critical-theoretical study of Herman Melville. In this work, Call Me Ishmael (1947), there appear many of the concerns Olson later dealt with in his verse, including the destructiveness of the ego, exemplified by the character Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick, as well as the utilization of forceful speech and prose rhythms dependent on breath. In "Projective Verse," Olson developed the theories he contemplated in Call Me Ishmael to create a personal manifesto of poetic aims and techniques. His interest in humanity's physical and spiritual orientation expanded to include rules for the recreation of the world in a work of art. For poetry, Olson's basic principles of projectivism are as follows: (1) "the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy discharge …"; (2) "form is never more than an extension of content"; and (3) "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception."
The Maximus poems represent Olson's major artistic attempt to apply his poetic theory. They strongly illustrate his insistence on direct perception. The poems require the reader to experience the world through Maximus's senses as reflected by the spatial arrangement of words on a page. Thus, the Maximus text purposely appears fragmented and scattered to the eye in order to reinforce Olson's rejection of a linear perception of the world. Olson's desire for direct, comprehensive perception caused him to abandon many of Western civilization's conventional means of knowledge. Instead, he explored pre-Christian myth and attempted to trace the evolution of humanity through Maximus's experience. Maximus, Olson's wayfaring hero, is largely an Adam figure who experiences his place, Gloucester, in terms of the natural forces operating within that universe. Gloucester, a favorite haunt of Olson while he was growing up in Massachusetts, figures symbolically in his writing, particularly because one of his primary artistic considerations was the effect on an individual of the social evolution of place. Many critics and readers find the Maximus poems difficult to follow because of Olson's experiments with form and content. Olson began the Maximus series in 1950 and continued working on it until his death.
Critical assessment of the importance of Olson's projective verse theory varies depending on a given critic's enthusiasm for Olson as a phenomenon in American poetry. For example, the first principle of projective verse has been deemed, by unimpressed critics, a commonplace artistic truism, devoid of originality. The second and third principles have been attacked because their significance is obvious only for the poet as creator; the reader is logically isolated from the poet's creative process. Olson's dissenters further argue that his theory is wholly derived from those of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and that he did little to advance their attempts to move from subjective to objective artistic discourse. However, Olson's defenders maintain that his poetic theory, with its deemphasis on ego, did much to advance the aesthetic application and appreciation of an individual's natural relationship with the universe. Paul Christensen praises Olson's "philosophical regimen for overhauling humanity," his striving "to restore to human beings their own primal energies."
Although the Maximus sequence is widely regarded as an important contribution to modern American poetry, it is generally believed by critics and scholars that Olson's most significant contribution to literature was as a theorist and mentor. The range and eccentricities of his propositions have done much to generate controversy and inspire other writers.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1,2,5,6,9,11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 16.)