Charles Olson Olson, Charles (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Robert Creeley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Call Me Ishmael Olson] makes clear his relation to a responsiveness and decision in such writing to be found only in such comparable works as D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, W. C. Williams' In The American Grain, and Edward Dahlberg's Can These Bones Live. In this respect, criticism is not only a system of notation and categorization—it is an active and definitive engagement with what a text proposes. It is not merely a descriptive process. Call Me Ishmael begins:

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration….

(p. 2)

Olson's approach was thus … removed from the terms of any other critical intelligence of that period. He spoke of "geography" and that was clearly anti-literary. He proposed a sense of the literal nature of this country quite distinct from those critics influenced by European traditions.

It is relevant, then, that Olson's particular nature should lead him in Yucatan to just such exploration as he values in Parkman…. In "Mayan Letters" we have unequivocal evidence of a kind of intelligence which cannot propose the assumption of content prior to its experience of that content, which looks, out of its own eyes. This does not mean that conjecture is to be absent, insofar as jacio means "throw" and con, "together"—however simply this point may note the actual process. It is a consistent fact with Olson that he does use his legs, and does depend on what his own instincts and intelligence can discover for him. In this way he throws together all he has come to possess.

But humanism, as a system of thought or ordering of persons in their relations to other things in the world, is distinctly absent. Even the most sympathetic ordering of human effects and intelligence leads to unavoidable assumptions, and the test—which is the reality of one's quite literal being—denies any investment of reality prior to its fact. (pp. 3-4)

Camus despairs of his inability to fit experience to possible orders of language, whereas Olson would insist that language be returned to its place in...

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Martin L. Pops

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Call Me Ishmael (1947) is a book in name only. It is print rendered aural and haptic, a metaphor for manuscript and collage. That is why its sound and shape are so startling. As Charles Olson says of Billy Budd: "It all finally has to do with the throat, SPEECH." And therefore, with the breath….

Call Me Ishmael, a consummate instance of aurality and hapticity in modern literature, is a redramatization of language. For although it is (often brilliant) scholarship and criticism, it is also something much more ambitious, an extrapolation of Moby-Dick as a species of Projective Verse. (p. 189)

Henry James may have possessed Hawthorne but Olson was possessed by Melville as, in fact, Melville was possessed by Shakespeare. Yet Shakespeare's possession of Melville was not absolute because Melville saw (or claimed to see) the incompleteness of his master: "And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing." Melville's possession of Olson was not complete for the same reason and was expressed in similar words: "I had the feeling for what he [Melville] did do, and didn't do. And that's important—what he didn't do."… Moby-Dick is Olson's point of departure, Melville his accomplice, and Call Me Ishmael his prophecy of what Melville might have written a hundred years later. (pp. 189-90)

Olson set the typography for Call Me Ishmael himself … and, for the purpose of thickening and packing his text, juxtaposed many ingenious "devices of presentation." For example, the last lines of "What lies under" are printed like this:

Quote. The American Whaling era—in contrast to the Basque, French, Dutch and English—developed independently concentrated on different species of whale covered all seas including the Arctic yielded on a larger scale than in any other country or group of countries before.


(p. 190)

By merely subverting a typographical convention, Olson rescues into earshot two...

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George F. Butterick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The term ["postmodern"] was first used, apparently, by the historian Toynbee, although Olson—and this is not generally known—may have actually been the first to use it in its current application, and the first to use it repeatedly if not consistently….

As Olson uses it, the designation serves not merely to advance beyond an outmoded modernism, but it seeks an alternative to the entire disposition of mind that has dominated man's intellectual and political life since roughly 500 B.C. As early as Call Me Ishmael, published in 1947, Olson felt that logic and classification betrayed man…. Olson sought to restore man from his egocentric humanism to a proper relationship with the...

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Sherman Paul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olson's push, to use his own emphatic and often self-characterizing word, is important. This may be gauged by the fact that anyone wishing to understand recent poetry and writing—post modernism, literature since World War II—has sooner or later to come to him. He is a central figure, a "vortex," rightly compared with Ezra Pound, one of his masters in a preceding generation. (p. xv)

[Olson] was determined to recover beginnings, the origins of new possibilities. His push involved the double work of the great intellectual effort since romanticism—that of reconceiving the nature of the cosmos and the nature of man, to the end not only of overcoming our estrangement from the familiar world...

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Paul Christensen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Given the diversity of Olson's interests and preoccupations as a poet, we are confronted with the question: do the life and work of this poet have a design? And if they do, what premise could possibly draw all the relevant details together and make them meaningful, expressive of a single, absorbing concern? Olson's enthusiasms encompass such oddments as Hopi language, Mayan statuary, non-Euclidean geometry, Melville's fiction, the austere thought structures in Whitehead's philosophy, the fragmentary remains of the Sumerian and Hittite civilizations, Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology, numerology and the Tarot, the history of human migration, naval and economic history, the etymology of common words, pre-Socratic...

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Charles Altieri

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Olson was not a man to be content with fascinating images. Arrogant, confusing, paralyzed at times by perpetual struggle with the language of the tribe, Olson nonetheless is the prototype for those contemporaries who insist that "arguing a world which has value" forces one beyond imagination to direct perception, to the cutting edge where man and the world are in perpetual interchange…. Only by absolute attention to this experience can we "restate man" in such a way as "to repossess him of his dynamic," to face the failures of humanism and rationalism and to create a postmodern definition of reality answering Rimbaud's, "what is on the other side of despair."… (p. 93)

Any cosmology that...

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Paul Breslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Black Mountain theoretical program, which is mainly Olson's creation, I find profoundly confused, desperate, and pretentious. If it has given its adherents a sense of mission and the courage to go on with their work, it may have had some pragmatic value, but its self-indulgence and doubletalk have done visible damage to that work. As a serious contribution to esthetic theory, Olson's projectivism is bankrupt. But it is the theory, like it or not, that gives the Black Mountain poets a connection beyond that of historical accident.

Much of Olson's theorizing has a familiar ring to it. Like many other poets, he believed that there was something morally wrong with modern industrial society, and he...

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Roberta Berke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stated in its simplest form, Olson's Projective Verse theory has three main principles. The first is that a poem must be a high "energy discharge" from the poet to the reader. Second, the form of a poem is an extension of its content. And third, "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION." Olson's essay "Projective Verse" originally appeared in 1950; by 1960 the Projective Verse theory was widely acclaimed as the dominant new concept, and it had great prestige through the sixties and seventies. However, many objections to Projective Verse have been raised. Certainly it was not as new as its supporters claimed, but a patchwork of Pound's and Williams's ideas, as has been convincingly...

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Thomas F. Merrill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 literate—and they are not hearing. They may be listening with all their minds, but they don't hear." (p. 38)

Illiteracy, or to use its more respectable name, the "projective," is no mere peevish kicking of syntax in the teeth to spite Aristotle; it is a...

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