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A major figure in the Black Mountain school of postmodernist American poetry, Charles Olson has also written influential essays on literary theory. Seeking to break from conventional poetics, he tried to make his work spontaneous, reflecting the rhythms of ordinary conversations. He rejected the traditional European-influenced system of symbols, images, and classical allusions in poetry, prefer ring to express a world view that was multicultural, yet specifically rooted in the America of his time. Among his best known works is The Maximus Poems (1960) and its two subsequent volumes, which form a significant epic verse cycle of three hundred poems.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Charles John Olson on December 27, 1910, in Worcester, Massachusetts, he was the son of Karl Joseph and Mary (Hines) Olson. His father was a letter carrier, who raised his family in Massachusetts. Young Olson spent his summers in the fishing village of Gloucester, which would later become the focus of what critics consider his most important work, the three-volume epic cycle that began with The Maximus Poems (1960). During the school year, Olson proved himself to be a gifted student from an early age and graduated from Classical High School in 1928.
Olson attended Wesleyan University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1932 and master’s degree in 1933. He was a Phi Beta Kappa and a candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship while a student at Wesleyan. Olson then entered Harvard University where, by 1939, he completed all the requirements for a doctorate in the school’s new American Civilization program, except for his dissertation. Instead of finishing his thesis, Olson chose to accept a Guggenheim fellowship to write about Herman Melville. His book on Melville was eventually published as Call Me Ishmael (1947) and established his literary reputation. This book was a study of the influence of William Shakespeare and other authors on Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.
Quits Promising Political Career
During World War II, Olson worked in the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., as the assistant chief of the Foreign Language Division. World War II began in Europe when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939 and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead. Olson eventually resigned in protest against bureaucratic meddling and inefficiency.
After the war’s end, Olson remained in Washington and built a promising political career with the Democratic National Committee as an adviser and strategist. He had previously served on several committees for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected to the presidency four times before his death in 1945. By the time Olson was in his mid-thirties, he abandoned politics to concentrate on literature, publishing his first poetry collection To Corrado Cagli in 1947, as well as his critical nonfiction work Call me Ishmael. In 1948, Olson took a temporary teaching post at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He also published his second collection of poetry, Y&X (1948). Two years later, Olson published the influential essay ”Projective Verse” in Poetry New York, which became a manifesto for the postmodernist poetry movement in America.
Black Mountain Poet
Olson returned to Black Mountain in 1951 to serve as a lecturer as well as the school’s rector. Olson soon became the charismatic leader of what came to be known as the Black Mountain poets. He also published his second collection of poetry In Cold Hell, In Thicket (1953), and a collection of essays, Mayan Letters (1953). When Black Mountain College closed in 1956 because of financial difficulties, Olson returned to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he lived in modest circumstances among fishermen. There, he devoted himself to writing The Maximus Poems and other poetry collections. In 1959, Olson published O’Ryan 18.104.22.168.10, followed by The Distances in 1960.
Olson’s most important poetry collection, The Maximus Poems, came next. These epic poems were published in two volumes, The Maximus Poems in 1960 and The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI in 1968. The subject of the poems is Gloucester—both its historic past and present condition— from the point of view of Maximus, a character representing the poet himself.
While Gloucester remained his home base, Olson took several visiting professorships at the State University of New York from 1963 to 1965, and the University of Connecticut in 1969. He also continued to put out both poetry and prose works. Olson published two more poetry volumes in addition to the two Maximus volumes: O’Ryan 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 (1965) and West (1966). His nonfiction works of this time period included the essay collections Human Universe and Other Essays (1965) and Proprioception (1965).
Olson died on January 10, 1970, in New York City from liver cancer. After his death, several more volumes of his poetry were published, including the comprehensive edition of his short poems Archaeologist of Morning (1970) and The Maximus Poems, Volume Three, as well as a volume of criticism, The Special View of History (1970). Olson also received several posthumous awards, including the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1988 for the The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (1987).
Works in Literary Context
In his essays, Olson argues that poetic language must be spontaneous, expressing what is actually seen and felt, rather than obeying conventional rules of logic and order. The poet followed these ideas in his own major poetic works, particularly the rejection of tradition-bound European ways of thinking and a striving towards less artificial, more direct methods of writing and experiencing life. Olson believed that his ”projective”—open—verse transmitted energy from the poet’s inspiration to the reader. As a poet and theorist, Olson was greatly influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Edward Dahlberg, while his theories also reflect the inspiration of Alfred North Whitehead and Carl Jung. He attempted to carry on their innovations while discovering his own radically new means of expression. Olson was also inspired by his childhood summer home of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the fishermen who lived there, as well as the depth and breadth of his intellectual reading.
In his influential essay, ”Projective Verse,” Olson defined poetry in terms of the dynamic world his contemporaries were discovering while he redefined the possibilities of language. The essay became the fundamental theory of the Black Mountain school, as well as a powerful influence on American poetry written in the 1960s. In the essay, he wrote ”A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself . . . to the reader.” The poet’s own energy as he or she writes is among that which is embodied in the poem. The syllable, Olson argued, reveals the poet’s act of exploring the possibilities of sound in order to create an oral beauty. The line reveals the poet’s breathing, where it begins and ends as he works. Conventional syntax, meter, and rhyme must be abandoned, Olson argued, if their structural requirements slow the swift currents of the poet’s thought. The predictable left-hand margin falsifies the spontaneous nature of experience. Poems such as ”The Kingfishers” (1949) and The Maximus Poems demonstrate his sustained effort to practice his poetic theories. The latter poems require the reader to experience the world through Maximus’s senses as reflected by the spatial arrangement of words on a page.
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. The several volumes of The Maximus Poems especially employ Gloucester as a major symbol. The books are dense with antiquarian knowledge about Gloucester, beginning with the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to modern Gloucester as an emblem of contemporary society and its travails. Among the themes treated in the Maximus cycle are the values and heroism of the working people of Gloucester, and how what might have been an idyllic community was violated by modern American consumer culture. Olson is also viewed as having restored the use of myth to contemporary poetry; his account of Gloucester as a community in conflict with mass society is regarded as a timeless paradigm of order versus tyranny in a world mythology.
Works in Critical Context
During his lifetime, Olson inspired admiration within his circle of colleagues and students. He also attracted controversy with his radical challenges to traditional and modernist literary conventions. Because his seemingly cryptic, often ungrammatical, manner of writing can be difficult to read, contemporary reviewers expressed frustration with, and skepticism about, his methods. As postmodernism became an established literary movement, critics focused on exploring Olson’s characteristic themes and style, often comparing his theoretical writings with his own verse. Still, critical assessment of the importance of Olson’s projective verse theory varies depending on a given critic’s enthusiasm for Olson as phenomenon in American poetry.
The Maximus Poems
Many critics, as well as readers, find The Maximus Poems, as well as the Maximus poems in the two subsequent volumes, difficult to follow because of Olson’s experiments with form and content. Some contemporary reviewers have judged it to be a failure in terms of its epic intentions, though others found the verse quite challenging. Later critics came to regard the work as an important testament of the second half of the century. In a contemporary review of the first ten Maximus poems, Robert Creeley—whose review was published in his A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays—noted ”They are truth because their form is that issue of what is out there, and what is part of it can come into a man’s own body.” Critics and scholars discussed and debated many aspects of the poems, with individuals offering their own interpretation. Referring to Olson’s vision, for example, Robert von Hallberg in Contemporary Literature noted ”Olson defines for Gloucester (an always, by extension, for America) its heritage of values and conflicts; he cautions a firm grip on those values and a sharpened understanding of those conflicts in the present time of national slide and decadence.” In Modern Poetry, Phillip E. Smith II concluded, ”The unity of humanism in place as well as person is the great accomplishment of The Maximus Poems.”
Published in 1997, Collected Prose included much of Olson’s nonfiction writing, including essays, criticism, and reviews. Critics acknowledged his widespread influence as well as his contrarian nature. In Publishers Weekly, the reviewer commented, ”While scattershot, Olson’s hardheaded declarations are never boring.” Other critics found his style challenging. David Kirby, in Library Journal, said that ”Olson wrote in a muscular style, one as individualistic as it is exasperating.” Janet St. John, in Booklist, acknowledged that ”In a Pound-like manner, Olson brought to literature a modern sensibility.” She added, ”To readers and thinkers, one of Olson’s most obvious gifts is to urge understanding by drawing connections where we might not have thought to draw them.” Writing in America, Fidel Fajardo-Acosta concluded, ”His quest for personal truth and freedom, the product of a humane and generous spirit, is accompanied by a truly Whitmanian acceptance of, and search for, unity with the individual and the collective other.”
- Butterick, George. A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978.
- Christensen, Paul. Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.
- Clark, Tom. Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. New York: Norton, 1991.
- Creeley, Robert. ”Charles Olson: ‘The Maximus Poems, 1-10’.” In A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays, edited by Donald Allen. San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1970, pp. 157-58.
- Maud, Ralph. What Does Not Change: The Significance of Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers.” Cranbury, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.
- Paul, Sherman. Olson’s Push: Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
- Merrill, Thomas. The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982.
- Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel. Review of Collected Prose. America (November 28, 1998): 21.
- Kirby, David. Review of Collected Prose. Library Journal (January 1998): 100.
- Review of Collected Prose. Publishers Weekly (November 17, 1997): 50.
- Smith, Phillip E. II. ”Descent into Polis: Charles Olson’s Search for Community.” Modern Poetry Studies (Spring 1977): 13-22.
- John, Janet. Review of Collected Prose. Booklist (December 15, 1997): 680.
- Von Hallberg, Robert. ”Olson’s Relation to Pound and Williams.” Contemporary Literature (Winter 1974):15-48.
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