In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Olson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Archives
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

American Literature Charles Olson
Gary Grieve-Carlson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0045


Charles Olson (b. 1910–d. 1970) was born to working-class parents in Worcester, Massachusetts. From 1915 the family spent summers at a rented cottage in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small city that would become central to Olson’s later life and work. At Wesleyan University, Olson earned his BA in 1932 and his MA, with a thesis on Melville, in 1933. Between 1936 and 1939 Olson completed the coursework for a PhD in Harvard’s new program in American civilization, but not the dissertation. In 1938 Olson published his first important essay, “Lear and Moby Dick,” based on his discovery of Melville’s annotated copies of Shakespeare. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 for a book on Melville, but his interests shifted toward politics, and between 1941 and 1945 he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, the Common Council for American Unity, the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information, and the Democratic National Committee. Disenchanted with politics, Olson turned back to literature and in 1947, Call Me Ishmael, his study of Moby-Dick, was published, followed by three of his best-known pieces: the poem “The Kingfishers” (1950) and the essays “Projective Verse” (1950) and “Human Universe” (1951). Olson taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina between 1948 and the College’s closing in 1956, serving as rector from 1954 to 1956. This highly productive period of his life included the beginning of his epic The Maximus Poems, parts of which began to appear in 1953, as well as his five-month trip in 1951 to Lerma, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, where he wrote and conducted research on Mayan ruins and hieroglyphs. Olson gained wider recognition when he appeared as the opening author in Don Allen’s seminal anthology The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (New York: Grove Press, 1960). Allen’s anthology placed Olson among the leaders of the Pound-Williams tradition in American poetry, which runs outside the academic and publishing mainstream. Olson’s poetics have influenced such poets as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Susan Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop, Amiri Baraka, and Ed Dorn, and he is acknowledged as a central figure in postmodern American poetics. He died of cancer of the liver in New York on 10 January 1970.

General Overviews

The major book-length studies of Olson—Christensen 1975, Hallberg 1978, and Paul 1978—appeared within the decade following his death in 1970. Each of these is more appropriate for specialists than for beginners. For the general reader, Merrill 1982 and Bollobás 1992, as well as the documentary film Ferrini and Riaf 2007, offer good, clear introductions.

  • Bollobás, Enikö. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992.

    Good introduction for undergraduates and general readers which follows the template of Twayne’s United States Authors series: a brief biography, followed by chapters on Olson’s prose, the shorter poems, and The Maximus Poems.

  • Christensen, Paul. Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975.

    First book-length study of Olson and his work, arguing that Olson’s poems and essays reflect a new consciousness or mode of apprehending reality. Discusses both the shorter poems and Maximus, as well as Olson’s impact on the Black Mountain poets.

  • Ferrini, Henry, and Ken Riaf, dirs. Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place. DVD. Gloucester, MA: Ferrini Productions, 2007.

    Well-done documentary film which provides an accessible introduction to Olson’s life and work. Includes the actor John Malkovich reading Olson’s poetry. Running time: 56:48.

  • Hallberg, Robert von. Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

    Engages Olson seriously as both poet and thinker, though he is at points skeptical or unpersuaded by some of Olson’s claims. Argues that Olson’s is a didactic, expository poetics. Offers few close readings of particular poems, focusing instead on Olson’s poetics and theorizing.

  • Merrill, Thomas F. The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982.

    Introductory chapter offers an overview of Olson as “academic maverick” (p. 13); most of the book is devoted to close readings of particular poems. Concedes that “traditional methods of explication” may “violate” Olson’s poetics, but by acknowledging Olson’s difficulty, offers a helpful introduction to general readers (p. 12).

  • Paul, Sherman. Olson’s Push: Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

    Provides a good complement to von Hallberg. Pays more attention to individual poems than von Hallberg does, and is more generous and enthusiastic about Olson’s work, particularly that of the 1960s. Argues that “Olson’s essential stance is resistant” (p. 1) and iconoclastic, pushing against traditional assumptions across a range of disciplines.

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