The Maximus Poems is Charles Olson’s most significant work. Sections of The Maximus Poems, begun in 1950, were published as Olson produced complete parts. The first volume of the book, called simply The Maximus Poems, was published in 1960. A second volume, titled Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, was published in 1968. The Maximus Poems, Volume Three was published in 1975. Charles Boer, Olson’s executor, had the job of emending the text at the University of Connecticut, producing the final volume, published in 1983 by the University of California, Berkeley.
Only a half dozen or so legitimate long poems were published in the United States during the twentieth century, and Olson’s is certainly one of the more important. Some of the reason for this has to do with the poet, and some has to do with his teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and his other writing, in particular Mayan Letters (1953) and his famous essay “Projective Verse.” Both of these relate to the business of The Maximus Poems.
Olson was born near Gloucester, Massachusetts, the town he adopted as his through The Maximus Poems. He was an imposing figure, standing six feet, ten inches tall, with penetrating eyes and, during the last twenty years of his life, long white hair. He spent time in Washington, D.C., visiting Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital; time in the Yucatán Peninsula; and time at Harvard University, where he wrote a work on Herman Melville titled Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville (1947). Many of his ideas and discoveries are found in the correspondence he conducted with American poet Robert Creeley. The letters in Mayan Letters were all written to Creeley. Later, Olson became provost of the experimental Black Mountain College, offering his own classes in poetics, in which The Maximus Poems and their theories weighed heavily.
Olson conceived of the idea of writing a long poem with a central, larger-than-life figure at its center, a person to be called Maximus. The Maximus of the poems may have been meant to resemble Olson himself, being larger than life and living in Gloucester. Many of the poems are interpretations of events that occurred in Gloucester, from simple daily events, such as the fishing boats going out, to a murder that was never solved. The geography of the town was also important to Olson, as were even the smallest details of the place. Many of the poems discuss “the cut,” which is a channel between the fishing boats and an inland waterway. A movable bridge was built where Olson’s cut used to be.
A fair proportion of the population of Gloucester in Olson’s time consisted of Portuguese immigrant fishermen and their families. They are referred to in the poems, as are surrounding villages. This area, close to Cape Cod, later became very popular with tourists, but it was not so when Olson lived in a tiny apartment overlooking the ocean, an apartment crammed with books and his typing materials. He used to walk the streets at night, in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe, absorbing sounds and smells that would become part of his epic book.
What was Olson about with this book, with which he expressed dissatisfaction near his death? There is no easy answer, but clues can be gleaned from his other writing. In “Projective Verse,” he writes of a kind of poetry that would live on the page, that would be kinetic, that would utilize the entire page and whatever other materials the poet felt called upon to utilize. The result in his own poetry, including hundreds of pages of The Maximus Poems, is a poetry that looks chaotic on the page but that follows his own prescripts in his essay. Many of the poems are spread out across the page in what Olson referred to as “the field of the page,” utilizing open parentheticals, sometimes a complete lack of punctuation, and often decisions of how to read the poem that can be answered only by a reader.
Olson was also a student of history, back to the Greeks. One defining element in The Maximus Poems is the notion that a human...
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