Charles Olson

Charles Olson

Born: December 27, 1910
Died: January 10, 1970


One might look back on Charles Olson and say that he was a “poetic thinker.” He once applied this term to a writer he idolized, Herman Melville, and Olson himself was much more than just a poet. Not content to just sit still and write, Olson’s purpose was to go out into the world and give something back to it. He scrutinized peoples and cultures, he always wanted to know “why?” Why did people act in the manner that they did? What made a society? Much of his life was spent on this quest, and his response to the question was the writing of his epic work, The Maximus Poems.

He dabbled in politics, appreciated art, and taught for most of his life. Perhaps his most valuable contribution to poets of today was his involvement with the Black Mountain School, a progressive school based on the theory that a liberal arts education must take place both inside and outside the college. Olson devoted the last few years of his life to his Maximus Poems, in which he scrutinizes Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was his magnum opus, and he tragically died before he had fully completed it.

If Olson spent most of his life away from his hometown of Worcester, it was for good reason. After being born there in 1910, he spent his time between the city and the coastal fishing town of Gloucester, to which he grew emotionally attached. His childhood was positive, though he and his family were very poor. He fondly remembers skating on Elm Pond when he was seven years old in the poem “Ode on Nativitiy:”

All cries rise, & the three of us
observe how fast Orion
marks midnight
at the climax
of the sky
while the boat of the moon settles
as red as the southwest
as the orb of her was, for this boy, once
the first time he saw her whole halloween face northeast
across the skating pond as he came down to the ice, December
his seventh year

Later in life, while reading this poem at a poetry reading, Olson would comment, “I am celebrating the city of my birth... Worcester, Massachusetts... I'm just extrapolating an instance of childhood, when I came with my skates on to the ice of Elm Park one night just at the hour of the coming of the night, and the moon, a hot moon... Gee, I'm moved. Wow, I never wrote about Gloucester like this. Do you think I've been wrong all this time? I belong in- my subject is Worcester!” While Olson’s words cannot be taken completely seriously, as he remained in Gloucester and not Worcester following this comment, the possibility exists that as he grew older he may have started to forgive the city of his birth.

Olson’s hard feelings against Worcester had started with his father, who worked very hard as a postal worker, and his efforts were not always well rewarded. Because he fought for worker’s rights, his superiors made an example of him. The stress and mental anguish that was his father endured led to a string of bad health and his eventual death, which happened just as Charles had come home to Worcester to teach at Clark University. Charles was twenty-five and already had his Master’s Degree in English from Wesleyan University, having written as his thesis “The Growth of Herman Melville, Prose Writer and Poetic Thinker.” School had seemed to come easy to Charles; he was an honor student at Classical High School, captain of the debate team and class president. His undergraduate years at Wesleyan proved much the same; he was honored with membership into Phi Beta Kappa, and also was an editorial writer for the school newspaper, goalie on the soccer team, an actor and an orator.

Driven by the death of his father, Olson would eventually write the narrative “The Post Office,” which detailed the events leading up to the unfortunate death of his father. Many years later, he would be offered the position of Post Office General, which he turned down; he later wished that he might have accepted it, if only long enough to fire the men responsible for his father’s misery.

While the events in his father’s life caused him to see Worcester in an unfavorable light, he cherished the memories of his summers in Gloucester. Traditionally his family had occupied the “Oceanwood” cottage, and it was here that after the death of her husband Olson’s mother would remain for most of her life. They had begun their vacations north when Charles was approximately five years old. While throughout his life Olson tended to be extremely nomadic, never content to remain in one place for long, Gloucester was the only place where he really set down strong ties of home, and it was the one place to which he always returned.

After the death of his father, Charles enrolled in Harvard and also started teaching there. His nomadic ways sent him off hitchhiking to San Francisco, but he returned to Harvard for the fall semester. After graduating and completing all of the course work for his Ph.D., he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his studies in Melville and returned home to Gloucester to see his mother. While there he wrote his first poems and an essay on myth, and took off to live in New York the very next day.

It was in New York that his career in politics began to take shape. He became the publicity director for the American Civil Liberties Union, and then moved into a position as chief of the Foreign Language Information Service in the Common Council for American Unity. This allowed him, in 1942, to become the Associate Chief of the Foreign Language Division in the Office of War Information. He began living with Constance Wilcock in a common-law marriage, and quit his job two years after he started it in protest over an issue of censorship.

He bounced right into a new job as the director of the Foreign Nationalities Division Democratic National Committee, and within a year moved to Key West so that he could focus more on his writing. While there, he was offered the posts of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and the Post Office Generalship in Roosevelt’s administration, both of which he turned down.

He returned to Gloucester to write again. His book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael, was published in 1947, and it was shortly after this that the idea to write the Maximus Poems was conceived.

He didn’t act on this idea immediately, however, and instead vented about the troubles of his father in his three stories, “Stocking Cap,” “Mr. Meyer,” and “The Post Office.” He announced his intentions to write a book on the way the Indian, the white settler and the negro affected the American West, which he intended to call, “Red, White, & Black.” He received his second Guggenheim Fellowship for this project, though the book never came to pass. He then amused himself by writing a dance-play version of Moby Dick, called The Fiery Hunt.

In September 1948, Olson was invited to lecture at the Black Mountain College, an event that would forever change the course of his life. A college that boasted the likes of Albert Einstein on its board of directors, Black Mountain was a reaction to the traditional schools of the time. The school was informal and promoted communal living, but sought to provide a strong education focusing on liberal and fine arts.

1949 was an eventful year for Olson in that his first book of poetry “Y&X”, while very short, was published.

In 1950 he published his influential essay, “Projective Verse,” which promoted the theory that poetry should embody the rhythms of natural breath and thought. Olson claimed "A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. . . . the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet get in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away?” A perfect example of projective verse is Olson’s poem “The Kingfishers.”

At this time Olson became interested in some of the Mayan ruins and letters found in the Yucatan Peninsula, and not content to merely read the news, he spent six months there studying them and writing. After returning from Mexico, he took up more responsibilities at Black Mountain, and eventually was promoted to Rector.

In 1953 he published In Cold Hell, In Thicket and began reading drafts of his Maximus Poems at Black Mountain. His poem “The Twist” showed his close ties to Worcester still remaining. “Trolley-cars are my inland waters,” he says, comparing the trolley cars of Worcester to the rivers of Worcester that are now covered up.

The next year he also published Mayan Letters and married Elizabeth Kaiser, a student at Black Mountain. Within another year, his son was born. It was only one year later when the exodus of students and teachers from Black Mountain to San Francisco or New York forced the school to face the coming times and close its doors.

At this point in Olson’s life, he became dedicated to writing his Maximus Poems and to reading at poetry festivals, touring through the United States and Canada. He became a visiting professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and shortly after that move in 1964 his wife Elizabeth was killed in a car accident. He taught there for one more year and then moved back to Gloucester.

That year he attended a conference in Yugoslavia and enjoyed it so much he returned to Europe for several months the following year. While he was there, he participated in poetry readings and colloquias, and also researched the original settlers of Gloucester.

In 1968 he published Maximus IV, V, and VI in London. In October 1969 he accepted the post of Visiting Professor at the University of Connecticut, and by Thanksgiving he was admitted to Manchester Hospital and then transferred to New York Hospital. He died January 10th of the following year of liver cancer.

Olson’s contributions to the world were not just poetry. He truly believed it was every person’s duty to think and reflect about the actions in the world, and deeply contemplated the problems that the everyday person encountered. He wanted to think of ways that American society could improve as a whole, and he had faith in humanity. Though his Maximus Poems were never finished, enough of his work for the next installment was available to be published posthumously. Though he could not finish his dream on his own, it is still amazing to think of the marvelous contribution he was not only to poetry but to the liberal and fine arts community of the world.




a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it... by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader...
— Charles Olson