The nationally televised showing on PBS in April and May of Henry Ferrini’s award-winning documentary on Charles Olson, Polis is This, has sparked a renewed interest in the life and work of the late Gloucester poet. Just in time for those who would like to know more about Olson’s fascinating career, or how he came to write his masterwork about his adoptive city, The Maximus Poems, Ralph Maud’s new biography, Charles Olson at the Harbor, arrives, published by Talonbooks, in
This beautifully-illustrated and highly readable life of one of the 20th century’s most influential poets, serves as a perfect introduction to Olson’s ground-breaking poetry and prose. It comes further with the cachet of having been written by a distinguished scholar of Olson. Maud, who taught with Olson at SUNY Buffalo, and became close friends with the nearly seven-foot poet before his death, in 1970, has a masterly command of Olson and his work and he wears his learning lightly.
Along with telling Olson’s story and helping new readers to get started on the poetry, Maud’s book offers another benefit—and this one packs a wallop. Maud takes on the only other extant biography of Olson, Tom Clark’s controversial Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, first published in 1991. Riddled with errors of fact and interpretation,
I recommend Maud’s biography to readers, who will enjoy following Olson from Worcester (MA)
Unlike many other poets, Olson had lived a significant part of his life in the real world of politics. His understanding of human foible, carefully illustrated by Maud, animates the poetry. Olson was also an extraordinary scholar. Call Me Ishmael, his ground-breaking book on Herman Melville and the making of Moby-Dick, first published in 1947 and currently available in paperback from Johns Hopkins University Press is still one of the best studies of Melville.
All of these facets of Olson life and artistic career are addressed by Maud, who is respectful of Olson, though not uncritical. The result is a balanced and superbly rendered picture of one of American’s greatest poets. And just when you are asking the question, “Where can I find some of Olson’s poetry to read?” Maud comes forward with A Charles Olson Reader, published in
(This review first appeared in the June 19, 2009 issue of
WHAT DOES NOT CHANGE: The Significance of Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers.” By Ralph Maud.
If Charles Olson were alive today he’d be a happy man. Thanks to the
The availability of these significant American texts points not only to Olson’s continued importance as a poet. It also speaks to a renewed interest in Olson as a thinker, not only about verse but about a wide range of historical, philosophical and cultural matters.
Just as Olson’s own works remain in circulation, so do two books that are essential to an understanding of Olson’s poetic and cultural projects. One is “Charles Olson: A Biography,” Ralph Maud’s study of Olson’s life and work through the books that Olson read, already reviewed in these pages. The other is Maud’s new book, “What Does Not Change,” a critical reading of “The Kingfishers,” Olson’s first major poem, long considered a milestone in postwar American literature.
Ralph Maud is the leading Olson scholar and editor of the “Minutes of the Charles Olson Society,” published regularly from
It seems fitting, therefore, during the celebration of
Maud’s study serves yet another purpose. It focuses on five crucial years of the poet’s life, between 1945, when in Washington, D.C. at the age of thirty-five he began to write his first poems, and 1950, when Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” was published, changing the face of American poetry. With Maud as guide, the reader experiences Olson’s coming into his own as poet and thinker. Through his careful reading of “The Kingfishers,” we come to understand, in Maud’s words, the poem “as a thoughtful response to the problem of being a sensitive American.”
After World War Two and the revelations of the Holocaust, brought home to Olson by his friend, the Italian painter Corrado Cagli, who had accompanied Allied Units in the opening of
For Olson did not want to write another “
Ralph Maud, CHARLES OLSON’S READING: A BIOGRAPHY,
“Charles is just like I am,” Robert Duncan said of his fellow poet Olson. “He sits around and reads all day.”
From an early age, Olson read “to know,” as he wrote, “to learn!” But he also read to write, as he said of Herman Melville: “
Just as Olson once wrote that he came from “the last walking age of man,” it could also be said that he came from the last great reading age. For Olson hardly ever saw a serious book he couldn’t resist reading. He bought or borrowed books continually, sometimes reading them to shreds, marking them up, beginning letters in their margins, drafting poems on their fly-leaves or end-papers. Many he kept, even if he had checked them out of libraries; some he passed on physically. Always he urged them on friends, writing more about books, or referring to them, than any other source except perhaps his own direct perceptions of the world about him.
Taking as his premise Olson’s need to read, his hunger for books and what they contained, Ralph Maud, professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University, colleague of Olson’s at Buffalo between 1963 and 1965, and personal friend of the poet until Olson’s death, in 1970, attempts to tell the story of Olson’s life as a poet through his life in books.
As Maud, in this meticulously researched and written book, says of his subject, “We felt we were in the presence of the man for our time, almost complete in knowledge, and therefore a great resource for a general moving forward.” Maud goes on to explain: “The present work is an attempt to tell in outline—and in some detail as regards Olson’s reading—the story of his this accomplishment came about.
From his own direct experience of Olson Maud says, “I got a sense of what it was like when people left Olson alone to write, enough to sustain my conviction that to follow the evidence of Olson’s reading—the books he kept, the books he stored or gave away, the books that the poems, essays and letters reveal he used, the significant articles in magazines he was sent or read a the drugstore counter or whatever—to follow Olson’s movement within these source works, is the best way to get into the poems, which, as I witnessed, are often a direct extension of his reading.” Maud concludes: “The life of the poet was a life within books.”
Of course, Maud structures his account of the poet’s reading around a chronology of Charles Olson’s life, beginning with the books he read as a child growing up winters in Worcester, Massachusetts and summers “over the Cut,” at a cottage on Stage Fort Avenue in Gloucester. He goes on to describe Olson’s intellectual growth as a Phil Beta Kappa scholar at
After Olson left Harvard, Maud tracks him through the journal-like entries the poet made in his books to New York City, in the early 1940s, and then to Washington, D.C., where Olson pursued a career in government and politics until 1945. From Washington Olson moved to the experimental
One might think that a book based almost entirely on Olson’s reading might be somewhat dry. However, Maud is able to recreate the excitement that the poet experienced upon discovering new books or re-reading old ones. “There I was this morning,” writes Olson, in January 1967, “waiting to go to sleep reading Parkman’s Oregon Trail with eyes so open to it I felt like all I might have imagined to be—and that book I dare say I bought in
But Maud’s narrative isn’t, nor is the often dizzying pace of Olson’s pursuit of what he needs from books, as Maud tells it. This is a booklover’s book; and for those who don’t know Olson, it’s a wonderful plunge—direct, down, deep into the mind in action of a great American.