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Charles Olson Biography

(1910–70), American Renaissance, Call Me Ishmael, Studies in Classic American Literature, Stocking Cap, The Fiery Hunt

American poet, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, educated at Wesleyan University and Harvard. Olson obtained an MA in 1933 with a thesis on Herman Melville: his investigation of Melville's library was later acknowledged by F. O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance. His exploration of Melville's annotations of Shakespeare was of particular importance; entering Harvard in 1939 as a graduate student and teaching assistant, he published ‘Lear and Moby-Dick’ and finished a first draft of a book on Melville, a book whose prose was initially influenced by Edward Dahlberg. His first poems were written in 1940, but he spent most of the Second World War working first for the American Civil Liberties Union and then the Foreign Language Information Service, from which he resigned in protest in 1944. Call Me Ishmael (1947) was written in 1945, a classic study of American culture which rivals D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature in importance. From 1946 to 1948 he visited Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth's, finally breaking off contact when Pound's fascism grew too abhorrent. In 1948 he wrote Stocking Cap (1966) and The Fiery Hunt (1978) and also gave his first lectures at Black Mountain College; he returned to Black Mountain in 1949 and 1951, first as a faculty member, then rector, eventually closing the college in 1956. Y and X was published in 1949, initiating an intense period of productivity; the first Maximus poem, his long correspondence with Robert Creeley, and the publication of ‘Projective Verse’ all occurred in 1950. In 1951 he spent six months in Lerma, Campeche and helped to put together the first edition of Cid Corman's magazine Origin. In Cold Hell, In Thicket, and Maximus 1/10 (see Maximus Poems, The) were published in 1953, followed by Mayan Letters (1954) and Maximus 11/22 (1956). His lecture series, A Special View of History, was delivered in 1957. 1960 saw the publication of Donald Allen's The New American Poetry and of the first major book of the Maximus poems: Olson's revolution in poetry was clearly beginning to consolidate itself, a process which continued with the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963 and the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965, during which time Olson was a visiting Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Olson's last years were a mixture of extreme isolation and frenzied activity; his second wife was killed in an automobile accident in 1964 and Olson, lacking to some extent the collective focus of Black Mountain, led a somewhat dispersed life, despite commanding the respect and attention of a large number of students. Nevertheless, Human Universe was published in 1965, Selected Writings in 1967, Maximus IV, V, VI in 1968, and Letters for Origin in 1969, the year in which he was Visiting Professor at the University of Connecticut. He died in New York in 1970, declaring that he had finished the Maximus poems of which The Maximus Poems: Volume Three was published in 1975, then revised for a complete edition in 1983. The volume is his life's greatest achievement, extending as it does the tradition of the long American poem initiated by Whitman, Williams, and Ezra Pound.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Joseph O'Connor Biography to Cynthia Ozick Biography