Charles Olson (27 December 1910 – 10 January 1970), was a second generation American modernist poet who was a link between earlier figures such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and the New American poets, which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance. Consequently, many postmodern groups, such as the poets of a language school, include Olson as a primary and precedent figure. He described himself not so much as a poet or writer but as "an archeologist of morning.
Watch Charles Olson read 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]', via YouTube.
Olson was born to Karl Joseph and Mary Hines Olson. and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where his father worked as a mailman. Olson spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was to become the focus of his writing. At high school he was a champion orator, winning a tour of Europe as a prize. He studied literature and American studies, gaining a B.A and M.A at Wesleyan University. For two years Olson taught English at Clark University then entered Harvard University in 1936 where he finished his coursework for a Ph.D. in American civilization but failed to complete his degree. He then received a Guggenheim fellowship for his studies of Herman Melville. His first poems were written in 1940.
In 1941, Olson moved to New York and joined Constance Wilcock in civil marriage, together having one child, Katherine. Olson became the publicity director for the American Civil Liberties Union. One year later, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked in the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information, where he spent the rest of the war years, eventually rising to Assistant Chief of the division. (The chief of the division was future senator from California, Alan Cranston.) In 1944, Olson went to work for the Foreign Languages Division of the Democratic National Committee. He also participated in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaign, organizing a large campaign rally at New York's Madison Square Garden called "Everyone for Roosevelt". After Roosevelt's death, upset over both the ascendancy of Harry Truman and the increasing censorship of his news releases, Olson left politics and dedicated himself to writing, moving to Key West, Florida, in 1945. From 1946 to 1948 Olson visited poet Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C., but was repelled by Pound's increasingly fascist tendencies.
In 1951, Olson became a visiting professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, working and studying here beside artists such as John Cage and Robert Creeley. At about this time, he married his second wife, Betty Kaiser. Olson's ideas came to deeply influence a generation of poets, including writers such as Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, and Robert Duncan. At 6'8 (204 cm), Olson was described as "a bear of a man", his stature possibly influencing the title of his Maximus work. Olson wrote copious personal letters, and helped and encouraged many young writers. He was fascinated with Mayan writing. Shortly before his death, he examined the possibility that Chinese and Indo-European languages derived from a common source. When Black Mountain College closed in 1956, Olson settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He served as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo (1963-1965) and at the University of Connecticut (1969). The last years of his life were a mixture of extreme isolation and frenzied work. Olson's life was marred by alcoholism, which contributed to his early death from liver cancer. He died in New York in 1970, two weeks past his fifty-ninth birthday, having completed The Maximus Poems a month earlier.
Olson's first book, Call Me Ishmael (1947), a study of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, was a continuation of his M.A. thesis from Wesleyan University. In Projective Verse (1950), Olson called for a poetic meter based on the poet's breathing and an open construction based on sound and the linking of perceptions rather than syntax and logic. The poem "The Kingfishers", first published in 1949 and collected in his first book of poetry, In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953), is an application of the manifesto.
His second collection, The Distances, was published in 1960. Olson served as rector of the Black Mountain College from 1951 to 1956. During this period, the college supported work by John Cage, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Fielding Dawson, Cy Twombly, Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, Stan Brakhage and many other members of the 1950s American avant garde. Olson is listed as an influence on artists including Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney.
Olson's reputation rests in the main on his complex, sometimes difficult poems such as "The Kingfishers", "In Cold Hell, in Thicket", and The Maximus Poems, work that tends to explore social, historical, and political concerns. His shorter verse, poems such as "Only The Red Fox, Only The Crow", "Other Than", "An Ode on Nativity", "Love", and "The Ring Of" are more immediately accessible and manifest a sincere, original, emotionally powerful voice. "Letter 27 [withheld]" from The Maximus Poems weds Olson's lyric, historic, and aesthetic concerns (a short film of Olson reading this poem in the kitchen of his house in Gloucester is available on You Tube). Olson coined the term postmodern in a letter of August 1951 to his friend and fellow poet, Robert Creeley.
The Maximus Poems
In 1950, inspired by the example of Pound's Cantos (though Olson denied any direct relation between the two epics), Olson began writing The Maximus Poems, a project that was completed shortly before his death. An exploration of American history in the broadest sense, Maximus is also an epic of place, Massachusetts and specifically the city of Gloucester where Olson had settled. Dogtown, the wild, rock-strewn centre of Cape Ann, next to Gloucester, is an important place in The Maximus Poems. (Olson used to write outside on a tree stump in Dogtown.) The whole work is also mediated through the voice of Maximus, based partly on Maximus of Tyre, an itinerant Greek philosopher, and partly on Olson himself. The final, unfinished volume imagines an ideal Gloucester in which communal values have replaced commercial ones.