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 the New American poets, a rubric which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance. Subsequently, many postmodern groups, such as the poets of the Language School, include Olson as a primary and precedent figure. He is credited as one of the thinkers who coined the term postmodern.


  • 1 Early life and politics
  • 2 Early writings
  • 3 The Maximus Poems
  • 4 Trivia
  • 5 Selected bibliography
  • 6 External links

Early life and politics

Olson was born and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts (where his father worked as a mailman) and spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was to become the focus of writing. Olson studied literature and American studies at Wesleyan University and Harvard University. In 1941, Olson moved to New York, married Constance Wilcock, and became the publicity director for 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, eventually rising to Assistant Chief of the division. (The chief of the division was future senator 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.

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, Fielding Dawson, Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, Stan Brakhage and many other members of the 1950s American avant garde.

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 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.


Charles Olson was a giant, literally as well as figuratively. He is believed to have been about 6 foot 6-7 inches, and large for his height. He therefore tended to physically dominate any room he entered, which often made him uncomfortable.

Olson wrote copious personal letters, and was very helpful and encouraging to 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.

He enjoyed hand-fishing for halibut in a small boat off Gloucester.

One of his artistic allies in Gloucester, novelist Jonathan Bayliss, modeled the character of "Ipsissimus Charlemagne" in his Gloucesterbook after Olson.

Selected bibliography

  • The Maximus Poems (Berkeley, Calif. and London, 1983)
  • The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley, 1987)
  • Collected Prose, eds. Donald Allen & 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. Butterick and Richard Blevins, 10 vols. (Berkeley, 1980-96)
  • Selected Letters, ed. Ralph Maud (Berkeley, 2001)
  • Olson at EPC
  • Read Olson's interview with The Paris Review
  • OlsonNow a blog on the poetry and poetics of Charles Olson, edited by Michael Kelleher and Ammiel Alcalay
  • A web guide to Charles Olson from
  • Projective Verse 1950 an on-line version of (arguably) Olson's most influential poetic "manifesto"
  • The Charles Olson Research Collection from Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries
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