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Charles Olson

By George Butterick, University of Connecticut

BIRTH: Worcester, Massachusetts, 27 December 1910, to Karl Joseph and Mary Hines Olson.
EDUCATION: B.A., Wesleyan University, 1932; M.A., Wesleyan University, 1933; Harvard University, 1936-1938.
MARRIAGE: Common-law marriage to Constance Wilcock; children: Katherine. Common-law marriage to Elizabeth Kaiser; children: Charles Peter.
AWARDS: Guggenheim Fellowships, 1939, 1948; Wenner-Gren Foundation grant, 1952; Longview Foundation award for The Maximus Poems, 1961; Oscar Blumenthal Prize (Poetry magazine), 1965.
DEATH: New York, New York, 10 January 1970.

Charles Olson has come to be recognized in the few years since his death as a major shaper of a postmodern American poetry, the chief successor to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. He was a leading voice of the so-called Black Mountain Poets (which included Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, and Joel Oppenheimer among others), named for the experimental college with which all were at one time or another associated. His place in literary history seems assured by such achievements as his epic series, The Maximus Poems (1953-1975), the theoretical manifesto "Projective Verse" (1950), essays such as "Human Universe" (1951), his deeply felt study of Herman Melville, myth and America, Call Me Ishmael (1947), his energetic letters, as well as his acknowledged influence on an entire generation of poets. Indeed, one critic -- Warren Tallman in his preface to The Poetics of the New American Poetry (1973) -- speaks of "Olson's generation" the way Hugh Kenner has referred to "the Pound Era."

Olson's background reflects diverse interests and experience, and somewhat explains why he did not publish his first poem until his mid-thirties. Although born and raised in the central Massachusetts industrial city of Worcester, where his father was a mailman, he spent summers in Gloucester on the coast, which became the focus of his most important work, The Maximus Poems. He was a champion orator in high school, winning a tour of Europe as a prize. He chose Wesleyan over Harvard on the advice of his high-school debating coach, continuing there for an M.A., writing a thesis on Melville and tracking down Melville's personal library as part of his research. He eventually went to Harvard for further study in a newly begun American Studies program, completing all course work for the Ph.D.; but he left without the degree after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 for a book on Melville (the 400-page draft was abandoned but emerged after World War II in remarkably different form as Call Me Ishmael). During the war he was assistant chief of the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information, until resigning in protest against bureaucratic meddling and inefficiency. He served the Democratic Party's National Committee as adviser and strategist (for which service he was offered significant governmental posts), but he withdrew abruptly from partisan politics to become exclusively a writers (see his poem "The K"). It was the second time he turned his back on promising careers -- that of a traditional scholar-academic and that of national politics -- valuing more his independence. In 1948 he was convinced to take a temporary teaching position vacated by his friend Edward Dahlberg at Black Mountain College, returning there to teach regularly in 1951 and to serve as rector of the school until its closing in 1956. Thereafter he returned to Gloucester and preoccupation with the Maximus series, remaining by choice in relative isolation and poverty, until accepting a teaching post at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was a most effective teacher as he had been at Black Mountain. He taught again, briefly, at the University of Connecticut until overtaken by cancer. He died two weeks past his fifty-ninth birthday, having completed The Maximus Poems a month before. Writing autobiographically, he described himself not so much as a poet or writer but as "an archeologist of morning," and the phrase has stayed.

His first book was not poems but a remarkable study of Melville and the writing of Moby-Dick, Call Me Ishmael, for which he has been much praised. Published in 1947, it has been republished three times by different publishers. It has been seen as a continuation of the line of writings on American literature beginning with D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) and including Williams's In the American Grain (1925) and Dahlberg's Do These Bones Live (1941). Among the qualities it shares with Olson's poems, however, is the brisk, confident, efficient style, seen in its famous opening paragraph: "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy." There are also striking images, such as "a sun like a tomahawk... a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood," and other forms of compression, including the incorporation of live facts whole into the narrative, the condensing of information (for a book of less than one hundred printed pages, Olson investigated every book in the Library of Congress on the American whaling industry), the technique of montage or juxtaposition. And, thematically, there is the preoccupation with America ("we are the last 'first' people"), the delving into myth, and not least, the final chapter on the new, "prospective," post-Ahabian hero, directly anticipating Maximus.

Among his earliest poems, "The K" and "La Preface" most notably hint at the scope and concerns to come, while others of such balanced delicacy as "Pacific Lament" and "Lower Field -- Enniscorthy" already strain against tidiness and, although quite formal, take advantage of rhythm and rhyme to freely move against the "closed" universe Olson will reject in "Projective Verse." In "Pacific Lament," an elegy for an acquaintance drowned in wartime submarine service, within the strictness of narrow lines the syntax follows the spirals of the boy's descent, mimetic of the fall of a body lost at sea. (It was, in fact, later danced by one of the students at Black Mountain.) The effect is enhanced by careful curtailment of line, omission of punctuation, and occasional rhyme. Above all, the sense is of free invention within control. "Lower Field -- Enniscorthy," part of a larger "Enniscorthy Suite" written while Olson was on vacation at a friend's estate in Virginia, is similarly composed in free lines, but with advantageous placement of worlds for their ultimate effect:

A convocation of crows overheard
mucks
in their own mud and squawk
makes of the sky
a sty

Somewhat stiffly formal and not yet the "open field" of "Projective Verse," it nevertheless has interesting allowances, tolerances. The landscape is sharp-edged and nonromantic. Prevalent monosyllabic words contrast with occasional polysyllables, and attention is paid to sounds (in the subsequent line, "A bee is deceived"). It is a picture only, having no narrator, sharing Williams's nominalism and trust in the phenomenal world. It is a careful presentation of a natural world free from human presence and interference, a "peaceable kingdom" although with lurking dangers or unpleasantness (the sheep are like soldiers, an "ambush" is possible, the crows "muck" and make of the sky a "sty," a bee mistakes a rotten stump for honeycomb, the path is "undisciplined"). There is a trust in language to represent reality, even in the deliberate flatness of the end --

Report: over all
the sun

-- the staring camera's eye, the photorealism, tough-minded and unsentimental, the documentary impulse characteristic of the later poems.

"The K," appearing in Y & X (1948), a book of coordinates, is among Olson's very first poems, written in early 1945 when he was nearly thirty-five. It contains the same mixture of personal and cultural reference that will characterize almost all his poems. An early version, written while the (not yet declared) poet was on a working vacation with the Democratic National Committee at its winter headquarters in Key West, is entitled "Telegram" with significance. It was written in response to offers to keep Olson engaged in national politics through a position in the coming administration. The poem begins with his rejection of the offers by quoting another statesman in the words of another poet (Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) in order to reclaim his personal freedom:

Take, then, my answer:
there is a tide in a man
moves him to his moon and,
though it drop him back
he works through ebb to mount
the run again and swell
to be tumescent I.

And although this "tumescent I" is not yet a "Maximus," the poet suggests that finally the artist's concerns are more elemental than a Caesar's:

Our attention is simpler
The salts and minerals of the earth return
The night has a love for throwing its shadows around a man
a bridge, a horse, the gun, a grave

Such language is as symbolic as Olson's was ever to get.

 

 

 

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