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Charles Olson (1910-1970)

Charles Olson

Charles Olson

Charles Olson was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a letter carrier and his wife, who spent summer vacations by the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, thirty miles from Boston. A gifted student at the Worcester Classical High School, Olson won a National Oratorical Contest that entitled him to spend ten weeks in Europe, where he met Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

After performing in several summer theaters and earning his A.B. and M.A. degrees from Wesleyan University, Olson taught English for two years at his hometown Clark University. In 1936 he began his study of civilizations at Harvard University. He left in 1939 and began work on a doctoral dissertation on Herman Melville. Joining the Roosevelt New Deal revolution, he first was briefly publicity director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and then, in 1942, became an assistant chief in the foreign section of the Office of War Information-working to protect minorities. While in Washington, he visited and painfully assisted controversial poet Ezra Pound, who was being held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. At this time he entered a common law marriage with Constance Wilcox. They had one child.

From 1948 to 1956 Olson joined the exceptional faculty circle of small, experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina: designer Buckminster Fuller, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, painter and art innovator Joseph Albers, and poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. As rector of the college, Olson initiated the Black Mountain poetry group. Here he also began his research on Mayan art and religion. When Black Mountain was closing in 1956, Olson ended his marriage and began a new common law marriage to Elizabeth Kaiser, a Black Mountain College music student. They had one child.

In 1957 they lived in Gloucester in a second-floor, cold water flat overlooking the harbor. Here he concentrated on extending his writing. Call Me Ishmael (1947) had presented Moby Dick as a new myth of the West. Projective Verse (1950) interpreted Creeley’s radical approach to poetry. The Mayan Letters (1953)-written from Mexico to Robert Creeley-included his earlier highly praised poem “The Kingfishers,” which exalted Aztec religion. Olson renounced our European heritage and embraced New World Indian cultures. Other books were In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953) and The Distances (1960). In 1964 his wife Elizabeth Kaiser was killed in in an auto crash in which he was injured, an event that long haunted him.

Olson spent his remaining decade in Gloucester writing The Maximus Poems, a long never-finished epic on the origin of America since Mesopotamia, as well as on the rise and fall of other civilizations. Olson was unable to teach at the University of Connecticut as planned, as he died of liver cancer two weeks before his fifty-ninth birthday.

An American National Biography article concerning Charles Olson’s life concluded that, “American poetry would never be the same after him.”

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

III. Spring

The dogwood
lights up the day.

The April moon
flakes the night.

Birds, suddenly,
are a multitude

The flowers are ravined
by bees, the fruit blossoms

are thrown to the ground, the wind
the rain forces everything. Noise-

even the night is drummed
by whippoorwills, and we get

as busy, we plow, we move,
we break out, we love. The secret

which got lost neither hides
nor reveals itself, it shows forth
tokens. And we rush
to catch up. The body

whips the soul. In its great desire
it demands the elixir
In the roar of spring,
transmutations. Envy

drags herself off. The fault of the body and the soul
-that they are not one-

the matutinal clock clangs
and singleness: we salute you

season of no bungling

The Ocean




into the

sea (after a single year as worshipped

God floated out and sunk

in the Indian Ocean, from


target area as

St Sebastian-body as

shot full of holes for a

purpose the God punished each year done away with
knocked off

the Solar King the Excess-Energy

transformed. Used. Excessive


anyway-in a society like America energy if it is not moral is

material. Which cannot be destroyed is never destroyed is

left all over the place. Junk.

Gloucester is

sea-shore where


may be

dropped rubbish

into the Harbor cleared away

yearly, to revive the Abstract to make it possible for form

to be sought again. Each year form has expressed itself. Each
year it too

must be re-sought. There are 70 odd “forms”, there are 70
chances at revealing

the Real. The Real

renews itself each year, the Real

is solar, life is not, life is 13 months long each year. Minus

one day (the day the sun turns) The Sun

is in pursuit of itself. A year

is the possibility, the Real

goes on forever

Click here to view supplemental reading to Charles Olson on Amazon.

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Categories: Cambridge & Harvard, Poetry, Prayers & Visual Arts