Charles Olson

In the years that followed Olson published his prose study of Melville and his first poems began to appear - in such magazines as Harper's and Atlantic Monthly. He won a second Guggenheim Fellowship, began his visits to Pound, and in 1948 began lecturing at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In the same year he published his first collection of verse, Y & Z, and in 1949 he wrote one of his most important poems, "The Kingfishers." In 1950 he published the influential statement on "Projective Verse," and began an extensive correspondence with Robert Creeley, an exchange that over the years produced almost a thousand letters, some of which are included in Olson's Mayan Letters (1953); the two did not meet until 1954. In 1951 he took over as rector of Black Mountain College, a position he held until the college closed down in 1956. Olson turned the college into a writing and arts laboratory that focused on the poetics laid down in the work of Pound, Williams, and Olson himself. There were never more than 16-20 students at any one time, faculty were paid little if any salary, the college tried to be self-supporting as much as possible, growing its own food for example, and classes were held at erratic hours. Histories of the college recount stories of students descending on a local bar to bring a professor to class, and of Olson himself feeling most inspired to teach in the small hours of the morning, and then speaking for hours in an energetic roar. The legacy of Black Mountain College includes, along with later work of such students as Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and John Weiners, its journal The Black Mountain Review, which published the work of Creeley, Olson, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov among others, and in its final issue in 1957 a number of San Francisco and Greenwich Village Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder.

The absence of an imposed conventional structure on the educational project at Black Mountain has its equivalent in Olson's own poetic practice. He advocates in his poetry and critical statements a theory of "open" form or "composition by field," as he put it in "Projective Verse," as opposed to "inherited line, stanza, over-all form." Olson viewed the poem as a "high energy-construct," the energy coming from the poet's charged encounter with the outside world or "where the poet got it," and transferred via the poem to the reader. In Olson's poetry this concept of open form results in frequent dislocation of syllables, words, lines, and stanzas, their having no predetermined positions within the poem or on the page as the work unfolds. For Olson, the structure of a poem takes its shape from the content of the material itself. In "Projective Verse" he quoted as a central thesis of his work Creeley's "Form is never more than an extension of content." And time and history are also fluid and spatial for Olson. Thus, for example, his researches into Mayan culture at Yucatan in the late 1940s and early 1950s enter his poems as a series of active gestures in response to the living but hidden promise of a particular place, a search for true origins. Appropriately, "I hunt among stones" is the last line of "The Kingfishers," while his poem "At Yorktown" concludes: "time is a shine caught blue / from a martin's / back." In the latter poem, the phrase "At Yorktown" begins 11 of the poem's 35 lines, reflecting, as a further aspect of Olson's emphasis upon process, that the poem must recognize the immediacy of each of its discrete encounters. For Olson, the "energy" within such dislocation of conventional patterns of time and space breaks up potentially restrictive systems of thought and form - or any other patterns that may be rooted in unexamined convention. In addition to their formal strategies of disjunction, Olson's poems also shift between lyricism, vatic statement, historical, literary, and mythic allusion, and detailing such facts (for example topographical data) that are part of the archaeologist-poet's exploration of site and history.

Olson published volumes of poems regularly, mainly with small presses, from the late 1940s on, but he devoted much of his later career to his long sequence Maximus, dedicated to Creeley, which he began in 1950 as a series of "letters" to Vincent Ferrini about a proposed new journal. Sections 1-10 appeared in 1953, followed by 11-22 in 1956, a further volume in 1968, and a posthumous volume in 1975. Like Pound's Cantos, the poem accumulates meaning through juxtaposition of history, allusion, and autobiography, and, like Williams's Paterson, Maximus is an inclusive figure who represents, as well as place, a man composing, and the poem as process and discovery. It begins:

Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood jewels & miracles, I, Maximus a metal hot from boiling water, tell you what is a lance, who obeys the figures of the present dance

For Olson, The Cantos were often too restricted by the presence of Pound's own ego, while Williams's poem was too local in its focus and too sentimental in its vision. The Gloucester, Massachusetts, of Olson's poem is a community formerly rooted in the craft, history, and courage of its farmers and fishermen, but now being taken over by absentee proprietors, commercialism, and thoughtless redevelopment. The poet-historian searches for and seeks to revive and express the vital origins of the community (a vision of community that the poem terms "polis"), and in doing so to counter the "pejorocracy" (literally "worse-rule") of the present - a term borrowed from Pound's Pisan Cantos that Olson first used in "The Kingfishers." The later sections of the poem tend to move away from the detailed history and topography of Gloucester that characterize the earlier sections, and concern themselves more with myth - myth in Olson's work is always a potential source for rediscovering the origins of language, place, and history.

Olson lived in Gloucester following the closing of Black Mountain College, and lectured and read across the country as his work became more widely known. He taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo for two years from 1963, but returned to Gloucester in 1965 following the death of his wife in an automobile accident the previous year - a tragedy which affected him deeply for the rest of his life. He had begun teaching at the University of Connecticut in the fall of 1969, only weeks before his death in January 1970.

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