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Charles Olson's Life and Career

Nicholas Everett

Olson, Charles (1910-70), was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Wesleyan University and Harvard, where he studied American civilization. During the Second World War he worked for the Democratic Party and for the Office of War information as assistant chief of the Foreign Language Division. His first two books, Call Me Ishmael (1947), a study of Mellville's Moby-Dick, and The Mayan Letters (1953), written to Robert Creeley from Mexico where he was studying Mayan hieroglyphics, cover a range of subjects--mythology, anthropology, language, and cultural history--and use the fervent informal style that were to distinguish all his discursive prose. Olson's influential manifesto, Projective Verse, was published in pamphlet form in 1950 and then quoted generously in William Carlos Willams's Autobiography (1951). In the "projective," or "open," verse it recommends, which aims to transfer energy from the world to the reader without artificial interference, syntax is shaped by sound, not sense; sense is conveyed by direct movement from one perception to another, not rational argument; and the reader's rendition directed by freely varied spacing between words and lines on the page. Olson himself had started writing poetry in the late 1940s, and "The Kingfishers," the longest poem in his first collection, In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953), remains his most striking demonstration of projective verse. The Distances (1960), his second collection, is less formally innovative but more ambitious in treating personal dreams and universal myths. In 1951 Olson succeeded the artist Josef Albers as rector of Black Mountain College, North Carolina, and remained there until it closed in 1956. He taught again--at the State University of New York, Buffalo (1963-5)--but, settling in Gloucester, Massachusetts, devoted most of his time and energy in subsequent years to The Maximus Poems, his most substantial work.

Begun in 1950 as a sequence of verse letters to his friend Vincent Ferrini, and modelled formally on Pound's Cantos, The Maximus Poems is, in Olson's words, "a poem of a person and a place." In the first volume, The Maximus Poems (1960), Maximus (named after an itinerant Phoenician mystic of the fourth century, but referring also to Olson, who was six feet eight inches tall), dismayed by the culture of contemporary Gloucester, examines its origins in the European settlement of America. In the second volume, The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI (1968), his interest widens to embrace ancient myths and religious texts, and narrows to scrutinize certain documentary details of Gloucester's past. The unfinished final volume, The Maximus Poems, Volume Three (1975), imagines a new Gloucester in which material and commercial values have been abandoned and spiritual and communal values restored. The complete work, The Maximus Poems (Berkeley, Calif. and London, 1983), and the rest of Olson's verse, The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley, 1987), have both been edited by George F. Butterick. Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley, 1965), is the most generous selection of his prose. See also Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, ed. George F. Buttrick and Richard Blevins, 9 vols. (Berkeley, 1980-90), and The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer, by Thomas F. Merrill (Delaware, 1982).

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Robert von Hallberg

The didactic poetic that emerged from the Black Mountain writers had two often contradictory aspects. On the one hand, poets agreed with Zukofsky (who was quoting Wittgenstein) that all adequate literature "must communicate a new sense with old words" -- the exact reverse of the Popian formula. The example of Parker radically revising such worn melodies as "Cherokee" and "Embraceable You" made this point musically; to the bebop aesthetic, innovation was a matter of style, not theme. Edward Dahlberg, Olson's predecessor at the College, wrote of the poet as sage, but Olson claimed that wisdom was never anything so stable as a "new sense," but rather the expression of an engaged person in the moment of engagement. Wisdom for Olson was tied less to ideas than to acts and even performance.

Olson's poems mix rhetorical directness with an enigmatic generality. Many of his best poems, like "La Préface," are oratorical, Whitmanesque. It is American, to speak with a clear objective in view. The opening of "The Kingfishers" -- "What does not change / is the will to change" -- is a regular thesis statement no academic could miss. The directness of this approach to poetry must have seemed refreshing when the poem first appeared in 1950, for then the prevailing literary taste was tuned to the delicate obliqueness of Wilbur, Merrill and other young poets who were influenced by Stevens and Marianne Moore, as well as Auden. Although Olson took up the didactic office from Pound, whom he calls his "next of kin" in "The Kingfishers," the opening of the "The Kingfishers" alludes to Stevens's Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, and when Olson refers in "In Cold Hell" to "the necessary goddess," he must have meant to invoke Stevens's necessary angel. Stevens and Olson wrote poems given over more to thinking than feeling. Neither had a great deal to say of particular experiences or powerful emotions. The second line of the poem: "He woke, fully clothed, in his bed." Who is he? He is named Fernand, but he could as well be Crispin or Canon Aspirin -- a cipher. There are other unidentified "he"s and "she"s throughout Olson's poetry -- and even in this poem. Their identity matters less than what they say and what can be done with what they say. At the end of the poem one of them (actually Pound, in Guide to Kulchur) asserts: "I commit myself, and, / given my freedom, I'd be a cad / If I didn't." "Which is most true," Olson says: the truth or falsehood of a statement establishes its authority, not its source. Unlike Pound, Olson obscured most of his source, because his ideas, like those of Stevens, were more general than specific.

To be in different states without a change
is not a possibility

We can be precise. The factors are
in the animal and/or the machine the factors are
communication and/or control, both involve
the message. And what is the message? The message is
a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events
                    distributed in time
is the birth of air, is
the birth of water, is
a state between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest
is change.

These lines from "The Kingfishers" read like a radical condensation of several paragraphs of an essay. Olson wanted a truncated ratiocination in his poems, without whimsicality, facetiousness, or anything sufficiently artful to be called precious. The differences between Olson and Stevens, Creeley's two masters in the early 1950s, were many and great, but they both conceived of poems as tools for putting together and taking apart general ideas about what constitutes the life of the mind.

From The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 8, Poetry and Criticism, 1940-1955. Gen. Ed. Sacvan Berchovitch. Copyright © 1996 by Cambridge University Press.

Paul Christensen

Olson, Charles John (27 Dec. 1910-10 Jan. 1970), poet and essayist, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Karl Joseph Olson, a postman, and Mary Hines. A gifted student, Olson distinguished himself early at Classical High School in Worcester; in his senior year he took third place in the National Oratorical Contest, winning a ten-week trip to Europe, where he met the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, from 1928 to 1932, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and completed an M.A. in English there a year later. For two years he was an English instructor at Clark University in Worcester. In 1936 he entered the graduate program in American studies in its inaugural year at Harvard University but left in the spring of 1939 without finishing doctoral work on a study of Herman Melville. A year later he received the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships (a second followed in 1948) to write a book about Melville, a draft of which he completed in his mother's house in Worcester.

Like other bright youths of the depression years, Olson was drawn to politics and the Franklin D. Roosevelt revolution. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union in New York in 1941 and worked his way up the ranks of the Democratic party to become assistant chief of the foreign language section of the Office of War Information (OWI), an agency set up to monitor and protect U.S. minorities as ethnic tensions built during World War II. In August 1941 he began living with Constance Wilcock in a common-law marriage; they had one child.

A promising political career was cut short in 1944 because of Olson's dispute over the censorship of his news releases at the OWI, the forerunner of the U.S. Information Agency. Olson lingered briefly in other offices of the Democratic party until 1945, when Roosevelt died and an era of liberalism in Washington came to an end. Olson declared himself a "post-liberal" soon after and retreated briefly to Key West, Florida, to dedicate himself to poetry.

Olson brought wide learning in the sciences and history to the writing of poetry; he challenged old assumptions about form and lyric content and widened the boundaries of verse discourse to include mythology, psychohistory, geography, comparative culture, and the methodical analysis of social events gleaned from his years at Harvard. After 1950, when his work became better known, the experimental tradition had a new master to whom many younger poets were attracted.

Olson first drew attention to himself with the publication in 1947 of his study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael, which had evolved from his master's thesis at Wesleyan into a wide-ranging critique of American culture. Olson perceived Melville's central work, Moby-Dick, as a new myth of the West narrating the long era of planetary wanderings begun in Sumeria and ending with the death of the whaling captain, Ahab. The narrator, Ishmael, the lone survivor of the tale whom Olson hails as post-individual man, serves as the counter to the egocentric and imperial Ahab. The title of the study declares Olson's identification with Ishmael.

Ishmael was Olson's ideal observer, a figure more interested in the life around him than in himself. Olson is at pains to demonstrate Ishmael's close scrutiny of life, achieved through disinterested curiosity. The body of work following Call Me Ishmael was Olson's attempt to apply Ishmael's selfless attention to poetry, essays, a few plays, and his long poem, The Maximus Poems, on which he spent the better part of his writing life.

In 1949 Olson published one of his finest poems, "The Kingfishers," which weaves themes relating to Aztec religion, modern Mexico, archaeology, and world events and in which the poet renounces his European heritage and embraces the Indian cultures of the New World. The poem ushered postmodernism into being, a radical new mode of poetic expression that embraced the tenets of modernism, objectivism, and related movements stemming from Whitman's poetry, and which hailed the return of native cultures at the end of European colonialism.

To explain his method of writing "The Kingfishers," Olson published a manifesto titled Projective Verse in 1950; in this statement he set forth the main principles of his projective mode. In brief, it reorients meter to the breathing of the poet in the act of composition and places sound before sense in the construction of the phrase. The projective poem took on a sprawling appearance on the page as it attempted to transpose (project) the flow and mingling of words in the poet's mind onto paper. Olson praised the typewriter as a tool for registering the process by which language formed in the imagination.

A second part of the essay explored the attitude, which he called "objectism," or the role of poet as mere object among other objects in nature, required for writing such poetry. Olson rejected humanism's tendencies to privilege the human observer and to demote surrounding nature as resources and implements. Objectism was Olson's term for Ishmael's selfless scrutiny of life, which he now found in Aztec and Mayan art, where human subjects are cast among the flowers and animals of everyday life.

Soon after publication of Projective Verse, Olson made his pilgrimage to the Yucatan Peninsula to study Mayan temples and artifacts. Letters to the poet Robert Creeley, collected in Mayan Letters (1953), report Olson's researches into Mayan hieroglyphs, which he began to translate, and his conviction that objectism rested on sound aesthetic principles.

Olson's speculations about Mayan thought follow Ezra Pound's arguments regarding the Chinese written character, and both poets concluded that pictographic languages stand closer to nature than do the more abstract, and egocentric, languages of the modern West. Western humanism ignores the interplay of nature, reducing consciousness to logic. "If man is active, it is exactly here where experience comes in that it is delivered back, and if he stays fresh at the coming in he will be fresh at his going out. If he does not, all that he does inside his house is stale, more and more stale as he is less acute at the door" (Human Universe and Other Essays, p. 10).

Indeed, for Pound, William Carlos Williams, the lesser poets of the objectivist movement of the 1930s, and Olson and postmodern writers of the 1950s, nature was an active field of events expressing a plurality of souls in matter. Pound's ideogram was the shorthand verse recognition of spiritual forms in nature; Olson's projective poem was a similar expression of the poet's perceptions of living matter. The reanimation of nature as ensouled and self-cohering was the motive of experimental poetry from the beginning of modernism to Olson's time.

Many short poems followed the publication of Projective Verse, variously collected in In Cold Hell (1953), The Distances (1960), Archaeologist of Morning (1970), and The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (1987). Not all were cast in the projective mode, however, which worked best with large subjects like war, death, and the nature of history, where the poet introduces many separate themes and draws them together through a chain of connecting perceptions. Smaller subjects inspired fresh language but little experiment in form.

Human Universe and Other Essays, published in 1965, brought together most of Olson's reviews, essays, and speculations on objectism and its animistic roots in non-Western thought. "Human Universe," the title essay, comments at length on Mayan myth and its relevance to contemporary poetry; in "The Gate and the Center," Olson gives more shape to his argument in Call Me Ishmael that human migration formed a stage of human history where Western alienation from nature formed and gave rise to the individual.

In 1948 Olson replaced Edward Dahlberg on the faculty of Black Mountain College, an innovative arts school in rural North Carolina, where he joined such illustrious artists and thinkers as Buckminster Fuller, choreographer Merce Cunningham, painters Franz Kline and Josef Albers, and poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. From 1951 to the school's demise in 1956, Olson was rector. During those years he set in motion the literary movement known as Black Mountain poetry. At Black Mountain his verse experiments, researches into Mayan art and religion, and his theories on history and myth drew admiring students and gained wide recognition among fellow poets. In 1956 he separated from Connie Wilcock and began a new common-law relationship with a Black Mountain music student, Augusta Elizabeth "Betty" Kaiser; they had one child.

From the mid-1940s on, Olson was preoccupied with writing a long poem to be called The Maximus Poems on the origins of America and its long cultural background reaching back to Mesopotamia. He chose as his speaker the itinerant mystic and writer Maximus, who had lived on the Phoenician coast in the fourth century A.D. and thus occupied a geographical locus parallel to Olson's on the Gloucester coast of North America. Like many long works of the twentieth century, Olson's engaged the present and informed it by means of ancient cultural paradigms: myths, cultural morphologies, and the archetypal events underlying the civilizations of the Western descent.

The project was slow in forming, but by 1953 much of the first volume of the work had been written, and part of it, The Maximus Poems 1-10, was published. Another installment, Maximus 11-22, followed in 1956, with the complete first volume appearing in 1960 as The Maximus Poems. The second volume, Maximus IV, V, VI was issued in 1968, but the final volume, The Maximus Poems: Volume Three, appeared posthumously in 1975, reconstructed from among Olson's working drafts by a former student, George F. Butterick, and by Charles Boer, a colleague at the University of Connecticut. Like its predecessors, Pound's The Cantos and Williams's Paterson, Olson's epic remained unfinished at the poet's death, with various drafts pointing to an ongoing text.

The overall structure of the poem is complete, however, and shows a poem growing out of the work of its forebears and steadily evolving its own unique, if sometimes chaotic, structure. The Maximus Poems narrates the beginnings of a fishery off Cape Ann that became the Plymouth Bay colony and then Massachusetts. Olson dissects the historical records to show how a small community of fishermen was taken over by British investors, and thus America itself came under corporate control at its inception.

In the next volume, Maximus IV, V, VI, Olson employs "field composition," the use of the page as a landscape on which to represent the play of forces in nature. He called his method "reenactment," and the cascade of words, numbers, and documents maps phases of Western migration, the origins of Gloucester, and the growth and decay of American culture. The shape of history is organic. The upside-down lotus representing the spread of the cosmos in Hindu mythology appears in the poem as a motif of the organicity of all events.

The Maximus Poems, Volume Three, though edited by other hands, follows the logic of the preceding books to close the epic. Maximus explores modern Gloucester through eyes that have witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations elsewhere. The poems, or "letters" as they are sometimes called in the text, are by turns elegiac and contentious, but elegant in their grasp of myth in everyday life. The grand cosmic design is partly revealed in the minutiae of the town, and Maximus, like T. S. Eliot's Tiresias, bears a memory that is the "history of time."

Olson left Black Mountain College in 1957 to write in Gloucester, and from 1963 to 1965 he taught modern literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In January 1964 Olson's second wife was killed in a car crash, which stunned him and haunted his poetry toward the end. Work on the Maximus cycle slowed in the final years of his life, but his reputation as an innovator and thinker was secure despite the critical controversies raging around him. American poetry would never be the same after him. In 1969 he was invited to teach at the University of Connecticut, but after several sessions he was stricken with liver cancer and was forced to withdraw. He died in New York.


Olson's papers are housed in two major depositories, the Olson Archive of the University of Connecticut and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Other works by Olson are Causal Mythology (1969), The Fiery Hunt and Other Plays (1977), and The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father (1974). Olson's reading list for poets is in A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn (1964). Selected Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (1966), and Additional Prose, ed. George F. Butterick (1974), reprint short works. The Special View of History, ed. Ann Charters (1970), and Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews, ed. Butterick, contain his work on history. Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths (1975) reprints his notes on Pound.

Biographies include Tom Clark, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life (1991) and Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut (1975), on the last days. Studies include Ed Dorn, What I See in the Maximus Poems (1960), Sherman Paul, Olson's Push (1978), Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art (1978), Paul Christensen, Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael (1979), and Don Byrd, Charles Olson's Maximus (1980).

Olson's correspondence is in Letters for Origin, ed. Albert Glover (1969); Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, ed. Butterick (1980- ); and In Love, in Sorrow: The Complete Correspondence of Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg, ed. Christensen (1990).

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 15:44:56 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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