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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Charles Olson
(1910 - 1970)

As poet, essayist, letter-writer, and teacher, Charles Olson was a seminal figure in the generation after Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. His first book, Call Me Ishmael, is an interpretation of Melville’s Moby-Dick that deserves a place beside D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Williams’s In the American Grain, and Edward Dahlberg’s Can These Bones Live. His long sequence, The Maximus Poems, is the major attempt at a “personal epic” after Pound’s Cantos and Williams’s Paterson. He increasingly thought of himself as a “mythographer” or “archaeologist of morning” who aimed to reconnect us with the natural process from which we have been alienated by the rationalist thought of the last 2,500 years.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Olson grew up there while spending summers in Gloucester, the city he later celebrated in The Maximus Poems. He attended Wesleyan University, from which he received a B.A. and an M.A. with a thesis on Melville. He then embarked on a search for Melville’s library and tracked down many of his books, including his personally annotated Hawthorne and Shakespeare. Olson taught English for two years at Clark University, took a summer job on the schooner Doris W. Hawkes, and entered Harvard’s American Civilization program, where he studied with the historian Frederick Merk and the literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen. After completing the course-work for the Ph.D., he returned to Gloucester to take up a Guggenheim Fellowship for studies in Melville. In 1940 he met Constance Wilcock, who became his common-law wife, and began working in New York for the American Civil Liberties Union and then for the Common Council for American Unity. From 1942 to 1944, he worked for the Office of War Information in Washington and then became director of the Foreign Nationalities Division, Democratic National Committee. In 1945, disenchanted with politics, he decided to commit himself to writing. During that year he wrote Call Me Ishmael (based on his earlier Melville research), several poems, and an essay in qualified defense of Ezra Pound, the boldly mimetic “This Is Yeats Speaking.”

Over the next three years, Olson met Pound and also the geographer Carl Sauer (an important influence on his thought), worked on a book about the American West, wrote a dance-play based on Moby-Dick, and began to lecture at Black Mountain College as a replacement for his friend and mentor, Edward Dahlberg. In 1949 he wrote his important postmodernist poem “The Kingfishers.” In 1950 he began corresponding with Robert Creeley, wrote the first Maximus poem, and published “Projective Verse,” in which he reasserted Creeley’s principle, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT,” and Dahlberg’s clue to poetic process, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” In 1951 he began his association with Cid Corman and the magazine Origin, traveled to the Yucatán to study Mayan culture, and wrote “Human Universe,” in which he argued that art “is the only twin life has” because it “does not seek to describe but to enact.”

That year he also joined Black Mountain full-time, where he remained (except for a leave in 1952 for further research on Mayan glyphs) as faculty member and then rector until the college closed in 1956. While there he separated from Constance and took as common-law wife Elizabeth Kaiser. Olson effectively turned Black Mountain into an arts center. Among his associates were the painters Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg, the dancer Merce Cunningham, and the musician John Cage. In 1957 Olson returned to Gloucester, from which he traveled to various colleges for lectures and readings. In 1963 he began to teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 1964 his wife, Elizabeth, was killed in an automobile accident—a tragedy from which Olson never recovered. He returned to Gloucester in 1965 and then accepted in 1969 a position at the University of Connecticut, where he taught for a few weeks before his death. During these years, he had continued to work on The Maximus Poems, which he never completed. The third book of that sequence was posthumously arranged from his notes by his former students Charles Boer and George F. Butterick.

Olson’s poetry is often elliptical and allusive, with a range that can include Sumerian myth, Heraclitus, Hesiod, the linguist B. L. Whorf, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the psychologist C. G. Jung, and the details of both ancient and modern history. His style tends to be meditative and didactic, but with frequent lyricism. It is often made difficult by incomplete syntax, heavy reliance upon abstract terms, brief notations, and a disjunctive or paratactic forward motion that piles up incremental meanings and produces an effect of continual self-revision. These traits are in accord with Olson’s understanding of art as “enactment.” His constantly twisting utterance seeks not to describe but to enact the movements of a speaker who is himself in “process” as he grapples with the matter in hand. As Olson said once at Goddard College, “I myself would wish that all who spoke and wrote, spoke always from a place that is new at that moment that they do speak....”

Thomas R. Whitaker
Yale University

In the Heath Anthology
The Kingfishers (1950)
For Sappho, Back (1951)
I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You (1953)
Maximus, to himself (1956)

Other Works
Call Me Ishmael (1947)
Poetry: Y & X (1949)
In Cold Hell, In Thicket (1953)
The Maximus Poems / 1-10, 11-22 (1953)
The Distances (1960)
A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn (1964)
Proprioception (1965)
Stocking Cap (1966)
Casual Mythology (1969)
Archaeologists of Morning (1973)

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Projective Verse, "Composition by Field," and Charles Olson
Includes an excerpt from Olson's Projective Verse.

Charles Olson
Reviews, criticism, selected poetry, and links.

Modern American Poetry
Offers criticism, a biography, and book jacket scans.

Secondary Sources

Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut, 1975

Emiko Bollobas, Charles Olson, 1992

George F. Butterick, A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, 1978

Ann Charters, Olson/ Melville: A Study in Affinity, 1968

Paul Christensen, Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael, 1979

Tom Clark, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life, 1991

Robert Creeley, The Collected Essays (pp 97-149), 1989

Martin Duberman, Black Mountain, An Exploration in Community, 1972

Edward Halsey Foster, Understanding the Black Mountain Poets, 1995

Stephen Fredman, The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition, 1993

Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art, 1978

Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Clack Mountain College, 1987

Ralph Maud, Poets, 1995

Ralph Maud, Charles Olson's Readings: A Biography, 1996

Ralph Maud, What Does Not Change: The Significance of Charles Olson's "The Kingfishers," 1998

Thomas F. Merrill, The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer, 1992

Sherman Paul, Olson's Push: Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American Poetry, 1978