Charles Olson Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Discuss the importance of the sense of place in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems?

What does Olson mean by “objectism”? What trends in poetry does it oppose?

What were the results of Olson’s application of his “projective” theory to the later Maximus poems?

Trace the development of Olson’s study of Herman Melville.

What were Olson’s principal achievements at Black Mountain College?

Olson taught his students to become expert in knowledge of one subject. What benefit, aside from the mastery of that subject, did he believe could thus be achieved?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Charles Olson was a prolific essayist, espousing the essay form to advance his poetic concerns to a wider audience. His prose style can present as many difficulties as his poetry; however, difficulties to a large extent were deliberately sought by Olson, who was concerned that his literary production not be consumed too easily in an era of speed-reading. With Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville, a book-length study of Herman Melville, published in 1947, Olson announced his intention to define the United States for his day, even as he believed that Melville had defined the nation for his day in Moby-Dick (1851). Key essays published within four years of Call Me Ishmael include “The Human Universe” and the celebrated “Projective Verse,” which, together with many others, may be found in one of several collections, namely Human Universe, and Other Essays (1965), Selected Writings of Charles Olson (1966), Pleistocene Man (1968), Causal Mythology (1969), The Special View of History (1970), Poetry and Truth: The Beloit Lectures and Poems (1971), and Additional Prose: A Bibliography on America, Proprioception, and Other Notes and Essays (1974).

Olson’s letters have also proved of much interest, and many are collected in Mayan Letters (1953), Letters for “Origin,” 1950-1956 (1969), and the series of volumes issuing from Black Sparrow Press of his correspondence with the poet Robert Creeley.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

With his first poems and essays, Charles Olson caught the attention of readers ready, like himself, for a profound renaming of a present grown extremely ambiguous with the destruction of traditional values during World War II. This audience continued to grow, and with the publication of Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 in 1960, a year that also saw the publication in one book of the first volume of The Maximus Poems and another book of poems, The Distances, he was widely hailed as a leader of a revolution in poetry. Olson’s section in the Allen anthology came first and was the largest; the poetry conference held at the University of British Columbia in 1963, and another, held at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965, were dominated by his presence. He remained center-stage until his death in 1970, and since then, his contribution has continued to receive attention from the scholarly community, and his influence is still evident in younger poets.

Olson spoke through his art to a historical moment that had come unhinged, and the cogency with which he advocated “screwing the hinges back on the door of civilization” inspired a fervor of response. Poets, editors, teachers, and lay readers formed a kind of “Olson underground,” a network that disseminated the kinds of information which Olson’s project favored, and these were various indeed: the founding and the decline of early civilizations (Sumer, Egypt, Greece, the Maya), the pre-Socratics, the Tarot, psychedelic drugs,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bollobás, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Olson. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Clark, Tom.Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. New York: Norton, 1991. The first biography of Charles Olson. Bibliography.

Cech, John. Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1982. Cech describes the relationship between these two longtime friends and writers. Provides background for students interested in literary movements of the time. Includes a bibliography.

Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. A narrative account of the life and work of Olson, focusing on the poet’s lifelong reading material as a basis for understanding his work.

Olson, Charles, and Cid Corman. Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964. Edited by George Evans. 2 vols. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987. Evans presents the 175 extant letters between the founder of Origin magazine and its contributing editor. They reveal that Olson was initially skeptical of Corman’s aims, fearing that Corman was starting a magazine with too broad a scope to serve the needs of the Objectivist poets.

Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. Argues that antiestablishment poets of the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Olson, were just as bent on building their careers, reputations, and audiences as were mainstream poets.