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Maximus Poems, The

The Maximus Poems, The Cantos, Paterson, Mayan Letters, Maximus 1/10, Maximus 11/12

an epic poem by Charles Olson. Conceived of in 1945, but not started until 1950, The Maximus Poems occupied the last twenty years of Olson's life. Ezra Pound's The Cantos and William Carlos Williams's Paterson were the most insistent contemporary influences, though Olson, in Mayan Letters (1954), objected to Pound's egotism and Williams's historical naïvety. He also felt that Pound had not gone back far enough in human history, stopping within a Western framework that essentially inhibited what Olson took to be the necessary growth of a modern epic. Olson's debt to Melville, to Sufism, to Alfred North Whitehead, and to Carl Jung also helped to distinguish his achievement from that of his forebears. Each of the first two volumes of Maximus consists of three books, some of which were published separately, such as Maximus 1/10 (1953) and Maximus 11/12 (1956). The Maximus Poems (1960) is the volume most explicitly concerned with the local history and politics of Olson's adopted city of Gloucester, Massachusetts (the focus also of T. S. Eliot's ‘Dry Salvages’ of the Four Quartets, though Olson characteristically railed against Eliot's use of symbolism which for him obliterated the actualities of the place). Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (1968) widens the scope of his epic: its saturation in myth and world history complements and extends the materials of the first volume. It constitutes the major rite of passage in the poem, a submersion into the problematics of self and world which has much in common with Melville's Moby-Dick. Ending with an allusion to Ishmael's fate in Melville's novel, the volume paves the way for the posthumously published The Maximus Poems: Volume Three (1975). This last volume, though tinged by sadness, has an air of spiritual acceptance and rootedness, parallel with Walt Whitman's later writings. Extensively edited and revised by George F. Butterick, the poem was published as a whole in 1983; Butterick's A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson remains an expert and invaluable guide to this great twentieth-century epic poem.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Harriet Martineau Biography to John McTaggart (John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart) Biography