Charles Olson

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Charles Olson (27 December 1910 - 10 January 1970) was an important 2nd generation American modernist poet who was a crucial link between earlier figures like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and such later avant garde groups as the Beats and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. He was also one of the coiners of the term postmodern.


Early Life and Politics

Olson was born and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and studied at Wesleyan University and Harvard. Attracted by the social and political ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he joined the American Civil Liberties Union in 1941. He worked in the Office of War Information until 1944, when he left because of censorship of his news releases. Olson then decided to dedicate himself to writing.

Early Writings

Olson's first book was Call Me Ishmael (1947), a study of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick which was based on his unsubmitted Harvard Ph.D. thesis. In Projective Verse, Olson called for a poetic metre based on the breath of the poet 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 outstanding 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 and many other members of the 1950s American avant garde.

The Maximus Poems

In 1950, inspired by the example of Pound's Cantos, Olson began writing The Maximus Poems, a project that was to remain unfinished at the time of 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. The 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.

Selected bibliography

  • The Maximus Poems (Berkeley, Calif. and London, 1983)
  • The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley, 1987)
  • Collected Prose, eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley, 1997)
  • Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley, 1965)
  • Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, ed. George F. Buttrick and Richard Blevins, 9 vols. (Berkeley, 1980-90)

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