Topics for Charles Olson studies

by Ralph Maud

Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #17 (November 1996).



1    Immigrant America — Charles Olson was born 1910 in Worcester, Massachusetts, of immigrant parents (father, Swedish; mother, Irish). The poet’s early life, therefore, can be studied from the point of view of the sociology of working-class America in the first decade of the century and the immigrant emphasis on education.

2   School and College Debating — At Worcester Classical High School, Olson distinguished himself as a speaker; he was first in the Northeastern regional finals of the 1928 national oratory championship, and third in the Washington finals. He was already equipped by his school debate experience to win practically every debate tournament he entered at Wesleyan University. A study could be made of the then current techniques of persuasion, and how Olson’s mastery of them stood him in good stead during his wartime employment at the Office of War Information.

3   Democratic Party Politics — The late Roosevelt and early Truman era was Olson’s active time in Democratic Party politics; one could follow him into the melee of conferences and elections, as he worked in the moderate left wing of the Party (supporting Pepper rather than Wallace), and as he found good reasons to drop direct political action.

4   Melville Studies — Poet and politician Wilbert Snow, professor at Wesleyan, steered Olson to Melville and supervised his M.A. thesis, a very thorough survey of Melville’s fiction. This was 1932, so Olson was in Melville research early. He gained the distinction of bringing to light surviving volumes of Melville’s library, particularly Melville’s Shakespeare volumes with marginal notations, on the basis of which he wrote “King Lear and Moby Dick” for Twice A Year. To study Olson is to study Melville. F.O. Matthiessen invited Olson to do graduate work at Harvard. The Ph.D. was not finished because of the war. Olson returned to Melville in 1945, and threw away any possibility of an academic career by publishing the highly original, provocative Call Me Ishmael (1947).

5    American Civilization — Olson was enrolled in the brand-new American Civilization Program at Harvard. Prof. Merk’s course on “Westward Expansion” was something Olson learnt from and used continually later, witness, for instance, the “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn,” which proposes a lifetime of study on the subject.

6   New Sciences of Man — Olson was invited to lecture at Black Mountain College, beginning in 1948, a dominant intellectual figure from the start because of his wide-ranging mind. His lectures for the “New Sciences of Man” colloquium are preserved; they dwell on palaeontology, mythology, psychology — a cosmology. The study of Charles Olson is interdisciplinary, to say the least.

7   The Post-modern — Olson was the first to use this word “post-modern”; but, given his clear and meaningful definition of it, he cannot be held responsible for the later careless and muddled application of the word in literary and art criticism. He pointed out (in letters to Robert Creeley at first) that to go ahead from the present stasis requires absorbing the lessons of the very different distant past — before Plato, who started what we now have. The post-modern, for Olson, would have a lot to do with Sumer and pre-Homeric Greek mythology. Olson was a “Professor of Mythology” at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the year 1964-65, or he claims that title as a reality, as a “myth.” In a word, the “post-modern,” for Olson, is the “archaic.”

8   Meso-America — One can get some access to the archaic through the still existing primitive societies. Olson could afford to get as far as the Yucatan in 1951. This is the kind of study of history where one finds out for one’s self. The journal of Olson the amateur archaeologist can be found in the Mayan Letters, Creeley’s selection of letters sent to him from Mexico, the chief subjects: Mayan astronomy, hieroglyphs as poetry, the stance of the people, their eyes, the way they “wear” their flesh, lessons for us from this when we want to know the “Human Universe” (this famous essay was written in the Yucatan). There is a bibliography provided by Olson for Mayan Letters, showing what one has to read to catch up.

9   Black Mountain College — The founding of Black Mountain College provides a lesson in the waywardness of American education; its crucial value in the late thirties is in some ways a reflection of the terror of Hitler’s Europe; and its demise in 1956 was as much a result of the increasing bureaucratization of American education as the Rector’s ineptitudes (Olson was the last Rector!). The several studies of Black Mountain College have not exhausted its multi-faceted significance.

10 The Black Mountain Poets — Don Allen’s anthology, New American Poetry, led off with Charles Olson and grouped with him Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley (as having taught at Black Mountain — though neither of them for long periods, Paul Blackburn, Paul Carroll, Larry Eigner, and Denise Levertov (as having published poetry in Origin and Black Mountain Review — though not a great deal), and Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, and Jonathan Williams (as having been students there). The concept of a “school of poets” was anathema to Olson, but his “Projective Verse” essay of 1950 was very liberating to younger poets, and his influence, willy nilly, is everywhere. Many of the student poets who were present at the University of British Columbia in the summer of 1963 will testify to his influence during those weeks. Fred Wah, George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Frank Davey, among others, would acknowledge a lasting influence. Olson had a similar effect at Buffalo during 1963-65, and at Berkeley for the Poets Conference of July 1965. In any case, “projective verse” has become part of twentieth century literary history, and is studied as such.

11 The Maximus Poems — Of course, Olson’s work is studied for its own sake, especially the poem of epic proportions, the three volumes of The Maximus Poems (published complete by the University of California). The themes include New England history, Gloucester fishing industry in particular, as the end result of the migration westward from the eastern Mediterranean. Religious thought enters the poem, and Alfred North Whitehead is an important figure, with Process and Reality as a “bible.” The cosmology acquired by Olson’s assiduousness over a period of many years comes through in poetic form in this most original poem, which has by no means received the attention it deserves.

12 Texts — Much work left behind at Olson’s premature death in 1970 has been published posthumously, mainly by George F. Butterick of the Olson Archive at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. There is much more still to be done, and this is exciting editorial work. The various correspondences are especially interesting, for in letters he pushed outward the boundaries. There is business here for the scholar for many years to come.


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