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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
lights up the day.
The April moon
flakes the night.
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,
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 MAXIMUS POEMS
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
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.
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