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The poet, the scholar, his journal, this anthology

by Peter Grant

Charles Olson and Robert Richman, Big Cranberry Island, Maine, August 1969 (Ralph Maud collection)

Charles Olson (1910-1970) was the American writer who led the postmodern advance in poetics. He demonstrated the art of  “composition by field” in the poem “The Kingfishers” (1949) and described it in the essay “Projective Verse” (1950). A poem is a “high energy-construct.” Writing is about getting energy across to the reader, one thought leading smartly to another. Eye and ear collaborate; the rhythms of breathing give the line. His poetic mentors were Williams and Pound, his closest associates Creeley and Duncan. Olson’s gnomic or oracular poetic voice is difficult; even the prose resists easy understanding. Transforming language was part of the project to transform consciousness, one reader at a time. Olson positioned himself at the portals of the age, styling himself a mythologist, his line of work archaeologist “of morning.” He traced his vocation through writers with transformative visions — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, D.H. Lawrence. His polymath intellect acknowledged sources as diverse as A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, C.G. Jung’s studies of transformative psychic processes and Carl O. Sauer’s human geography.

Olson’s chef-d’ouvre is The Maximus Poems, an open-ended epic of the here-and-now spanning two decades of the poet’s life. Maximus is both a chronicle of particular lives lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts and a sounding of the universals in Olson’s cosmology. The Collected Poems of Charles Olson is a volume of like heft. Olson published essays and manifestos, and a work of literary scholarship, Call Me Ishmael, that is exemplary, if eccentric. He was a great letter-writer — some 18 volumes published, but a fraction of his correspondence. A powerful, and inexhaustible, talker is evident in legend and recording from Olson’s years teaching at Black Mountain College (1948-56) and the State University of New York at Buffalo (1963-65) and the talks and readings he gave elsewhere.

Ralph Maud rubbed shoulders with Charles Olson in the English department at SUNY Buffalo. He made Olson central to his instruction at Simon Fraser University for 29 years. Since retiring, Ralph has become an Olson scholar, writing or editing six books, including the acclaimed Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography and, in 2005, A Charles Olson Reader. He has produced 60 issues of the literary journal Minutes of the Charles Olson Society.

Ralph produces Minutes of the Charles Olson Society with a manual typewriter, scissors and paste. Printed in a run of 200 at a photocopy center and stapled in one corner, Minutes is certainly not fancy — delightfully unpretentious, I would say. He takes justified pride in the scholarship it has generated.

Ralph Maud in his Vancouver office. He is reconstructing Charles Olson’s library. (Photograph by Tessa Maud)

This website is an Internet anthology of Minutes articles, conceived as a way of advancing knowledge of Charles Olson and defending his work against misinterpretation. Case in point: the 1991 biographyCharles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life by Tom Clark. In one of Ralph’s painstaking annotations of Allegory is this assessment:

Having just reread and been moved by the last few pages of Clark’s biography I would want to pay tribute to him for it, restrained only by the thought that he writes so well here because Olson really is down for the count, so that Clark’s necrologic tone finds its proper subject at last. But I cannot forgive Clark for beginning the countdown almost from the start, so that the allegory of the whole life is, in his presentation of it, a pathology. Did he not know how much of Olson’s life was laughter? Clark is always eager to quote Olson’s unhappy self-analysis from diaries; but, when all is said and done, Olson was the primary genius of our time, and that too was part of his self-knowledge, and infinitely rewarding it must have been to know it.

“Commentary,” Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #43, p. 23

“. . . the primary genius of our time”? Strong words. The reader is invited to look more closely. “Find out for yourself,” Olson said. He pointed; Maud holds a door open.

Charles Olson’s previously unpublished written and spoken words were reproduced in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries, holder of copyright for all such content. The terms of the holder’s copyright restricts reproduction of the contents of this site. Please respect those restrictions and the intellectual property rights of other authors whose work is reprinted in these pages.

The photograph on the home page is reproduced by kind permission of Ann Charters.

The quotation on the home page is from Letter 23 in The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), copyright 1983 by the Regents of the University of California.

Sample issue

Minutes #30: a Vancouver 1963 issue, guest-edited by Aaron Vidaver

“What is now known as the Vancouver Poetry Conference was a conglomeration of formal university-sponsored activities (12 panel discussions, three sets of workshops, and 9 public evening readings) and informal private readings, talks, and festive gatherings, over 24 days. Olson arrived via Seattle, two days late, on July 26th, but remained until the final sessions on August 14th and 16th, when he read the entire Maximus IV, V, VI in manuscript. Though dubbed an “Olsonfest” by Margaret Avison, Olson is not prominent during the majority of the panels, where the voices of Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Allen Ginsberg dominate. His influence was felt, instead, by students during the workshops and informal activities outside of the university . . .”

— from the preamble