Charles Olson

Charles Olson (1910-1970). Photo by Jonathan Williams. Courtesy New Directions.

Charles Olson (27 December 1910 - 10 January 1970) was an American poet.



Olson was a 2nd generation modernist poet whose work is a link between that of earlier figures like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and the New American poets (which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance). Consequently, many postmodern groups, such as the poets of the Language School, include Olson as a primary and precedent figure. He described himself not so much as a poet or writer but as "an archeologist of morning."

Youth and educationEdit

Olson was born to Karl Joseph and Mary Hines Olson. and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where his father worked as a mailman. Olson spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was to become the focus of his writing. At high school he was a champion orator, winning a tour of Europe as a prize.[1]

He studied literature and American studies, earning a B.A. and M.A. at Wesleyan University.[2] For 2 years Olson taught English at Clark University, then in 1936 entered Harvard University, where he finished his coursework for a Ph.D. in American civilization but failed to complete his degree.[1] He then received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his studies of Herman Melville.[2]


His earliest poems were written in 1940.[3]

In 1941, Olson moved to New York, and joined Constance Wilcock in civil marriage; the couple had a child, Katherine. Olson became the publicity director for the American Civil Liberties Union. A year later, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C..He worked in the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information for the rest of the war years, eventually rising to assistant chief of the division.[2] (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, moving to Key West, Florida, in 1945.[1]

From 1946 to 1948 Olson visited poet Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital (sic) in Washington D.C., but was repelled by Pound's increasingly fascist tendencies.[3]

In 1951, Olson became a visiting professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, working and studying there beside artists such as John Cage and Robert Creeley.[2] At about this time, he married his 2nd wife, Betty Kaiser.

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, Cy Twombly, Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, Stan Brakhage and many other members of the 1950s American avant garde. Olson is listed as an influence on artists including Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney.[4] Olson's ideas came to deeply influence a generation of poets, including writers such as Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, and Robert Duncan.[2]

At 6'8" (204 cm), Olson was described as "a bear of a man", his stature possibly influencing the title of his Maximus work.[5] Olson wrote copious personal letters, and helped and encouraged 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.

When Black Mountain College closed in 1956, Olson settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Olson served as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo (1963-1965) and at the University of Connecticut (1969).[2]

The last years of his life were a mixture of extreme isolation and frenzied work.[3] Olson's life was marred by alcoholism, which contributed to his early death from liver cancer. He died in New York in 1970, 2 weeks past his 59th birthday, having completed The Maximus Poems a month earlier.[1]


Early writingsEdit

Olson's earliest book, Call Me Ishmael (1947), a study of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, was a continuation of his M.A. thesis from Wesleyan University.[6]

In Projective Verse (1950), Olson called for a poetic meter 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", originally published in 1949 and collected in his debut collection, In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953), is an application of the manifesto.

His 2nd collection, The Distances, was published in 1960.

Olson's reputation rests in the main on his complex, sometimes difficult poems such as "The Kingfishers", "In Cold Hell, in Thicket", and The Maximus Poems, work that tends to explore social, historical, and political concerns. His shorter verse, poems such as "Only The Red Fox, Only The Crow", "Other Than", "An Ode on Nativity", "Love", and "The Ring Of" are more immediately accessible and manifest a sincere, original, emotionally powerful voice. "Letter 27 [withheld]" from The Maximus Poems weds Olson's lyric, historic, and aesthetic concerns (a short film of Olson reading this poem in the kitchen of his house in Gloucester is available on You Tube). Olson coined the term "postmodern" in a letter of August 1951 to his friend and fellow poet, Robert Creeley.

The Maximus PoemsEdit

In 1950, inspired by the example of Pound's Cantos (though Olson denied any direct relation between the 2 epics), Olson began writing The Maximus Poems, a project that was completed shortly before 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. Dogtown, the wild, rock-strewn centre of Cape Ann, next to Gloucester, is an important place in The Maximus Poems. (Olson used to write outside on a tree stump in Dogtown.) The whole 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.



  • To Corrado Cagli. New York: Knoedler Gallery, 1947.
  • YM & X. Black Sun Press, 1948.
  • Letter for Melville. Melville Society, Williams College, 1951.
  • This (poem; design by Nicola Cernovich). Black Mountain College, 1952.
  • The Maximus Poems, 1-10. Jargon, 1953, 11-22; Jargon, 1956; Jargon/Corinth, 1960.
  • The Distances. Grove, 1961.
  • Maximus, From Dogtown I (with foreword by Michael McClure). Auerhahn, 1961.
  • The Maximus Poems IV, V, VI. Cape Goliard / Grossman, 1968.
  • Archaeologist of Morning (collected poems). Cape Goliard, 1970; Grossman, 1971
    • new edition, Grossman, 1973.
  • Poetry and Truth: Beloit letters and poems (edited by George F. Butterick). Four Seasons Foundation, 1971.
  • The Maximus Poems: Volume III. Grossman, 1974.
  • The Maximus Poems (edited by George F. Butterick). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.
  • Collected Poems (edited by George F. Butterick). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.
  • A Nation of Nothing but Poetry: Supplementary poems (with introduction by George F. Butterick). Black Sparrow, 1989.
  • Selected Poems (edited by Robert Creeley). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993.


  • The Fiery Hunt, and other plays (edited by George F. Butterick). Four Seasons Foundation, 1977.

Short fictionEdit

  • Stocking Cap (story). Four Seasons Foundation, 1966.


  • Call Me Ishmael. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947; Grove, 1958; Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Mayan Letters (edited by Robert Creeley). Divers Press, 1953.
  • In Cold Hell, In Thicket. Dorchester, MA: 1953; Four Seasons Foundation, 1967.
  • Anecdotes of the Late War (antiwar document). Jargon, [c. 1957].
  • O'Ryan White Rabbit Press, 1958.
  • Projective Verse (essay). Totem Press, 1959.
  • A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn. Four Seasons Foundation, 1964.
  • Human Universe, and other essays (edited by Donald Allen). Auerhahn, 1965.
  • Proprioception, Four Seasons Foundation, 1965.
  • O'Ryan 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,. White Rabbit Press, 1965.
  • Charles Olson Reading at Berkeley. Coyote, 1966.
  • West. Goliard Press, 1966.
  • Pleistocene Man. Buffalo, NY: Institute of Further Studies, 1968.
  • Causal Mythology. Four Seasons Foundation, 1969.
  • Letters for Origin, 1950-1956 (edited by Albert Glover). Cape Goliard, 1969; Grossman, 1970.
  • The Special View of History (edited by Ann Charters). Oyez, 1970.
  • Additional Prose (edited by George F. Butterick). Four Seasons Foundation, 1974.
  • In Adullam's Lair. To the Lighthouse Press, 1975.
  • The Post Office. Grey Fox, 1975.
  • Olson/Den Boer: A letter (with James Den Boer). Christophers Books, 1977.
  • Muthologos: The Collected lectures and interviews (edited by George F. Butterick). Four Seasons Foundation, 1978
  • Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An encounter at St. Elizabeth's (edited by Catherine Seelye). Paragon House, 1990.
  • Collected Prose (edited by Donald Allen & Benjamin Friedlander). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Selected Writings (edited by Robert Creeley). New York: New Directions, 1966.


  • Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The complete correspondence (With Robert Creeley; edited by George F. Butterick). (8 volumes), Black Sparrow, 1980-1987.
  • In Love, In Sorrow: The complete correspondence of Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg (edited with an introduction by Paul Christensen). Paragon House, 1990.
  • Maximus to Gloucester: The letters and poems of Charles Olson to The Gloucester Times, 1962-1969 (edited by Peter Anastas). Ten Pound Island Press, 1993.
  • Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A modern correspondence. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.
  • Selected Letters (edited by Ralph Maud). Berkeley, 2001.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[7]

Audio / videoEdit

Charles Olson reads 'The Librarian' (Mar 1966)

Charles Olson reads 'The Librarian' (Mar 1966)

Charles Olson reads 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 withheld ' (Mar 1966)

Charles Olson reads 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 withheld ' (Mar 1966)

5 Poems by Charles Olson

5 Poems by Charles Olson

  • Charles Olson: 2-21-1957 reading (cassette). San Francisco, CA: Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, 1957.
  • Denise Levertov and Charles Olson: A discussion of poetry and its forms as an extension of life (cassette). Center for Cassette Studies, [1971?]
  • Charles Olson reads from Maximus poems IV, V, VI. (cassette) New York: Folkways, 1975; (CD) Smithsonian Folkways Records, 2003.

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy WorldCat[8]

See alsoEdit


  • East, Elyssa Dogtown: Death and enchantment in a New England ghost town
  • Merrill, Thomas F. The Poetry of Charles Olson: A primer Delaware: 1982.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Charles Olson Biography (University of Connecticut Libraries)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Olson profile at Academy of American Poets.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Stringer, Jenny (1996) The Oxford companion to twentieth-century literature in English OUP p511 ISBN 0192122711
  5. Olson (1992) Maximus to Gloucester: the letters and poems of Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, 1962-1969 Ten Pound Island Book Co p29 ISBN 978-0938459071
  6. Olson, Charles, Donald M. Allen, and Benjamin Friedlander. "Editors' Notes," Collected Prose. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997: p. 379
  7. Charles Olson 1910-1970, Poetry Foundation, Web, Nov. 18, 2012.
  8. Search results = au:Charles Olson, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 20, 2018.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.