Monday, August 24, 2009

Charles Olson at the Harbor: A Review

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 Vancouver, B.C. (

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, Clark’s life has been the only version available and it has, in Maud’s words, “been at significant variance with truth.” In what he calls a “reactive biography,” Maud confronts Clark, for whom Maud’s superior scholarship and deeper understanding of the poet’s life and work are no match. Friends of Olson and his work, who came away from Clark’s book furious at his misrepresentations, will be pleased to see the record finally set straight.

Maud counters Clark at every stage of his mean-spirited attempt to demean Olson. He corrects Clark’s errors of biographical fact, shows the reader how Clark misquotes Olson to make a spurious point about his character, and he gives us a fuller, more compassionate and understanding portrait of Olson than Clark, who clearly had an animus against the great poet. In fact, one wonders why Clark ever decided to write about someone he clearly disliked, though there is no evidence he ever met Olson or visited Gloucester, where so much of Olson’s life was lived and where his major work was accomplished.

I recommend Maud’s biography to readers, who will enjoy following Olson from Worcester (MA) Classical High School, where he was an honor student and valedictorian, to Wesleyan and Harvard universities, where Olson began the study of American literature and history that would underpin his poetry. From Harvard, Olson moved to Washington, D. C. during WWII, where he worked first at the Office of War Information and then for the Democratic Party. Once Olson had committed himself to poetry after the war, he began teaching at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, later becoming the experimental school’s rector. When Black Mountain closed, in 1957, Olson returned to Gloucester, where he and his family had summered since the 1920s. It was during these important final years in Gloucester that Olson completed The Maximus Poems, which paid tribute to the “shining city’ he made his own and whose history he believed mirrored both the country’s and the world’s.

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 England by Carcanet Press. Maud’s collection contains a generous selection of Olson’s prose and poetry, enough not only to satisfy a reader’s need to get started, but to whet one’s appetite for more. The book also includes highly readable introductory material on Olson and a running commentary on the work that places each essay or poem in the context of the poet’s life and thought.

(This review first appeared in the June 19, 2009 issue of North Shore Art Throb, an internet magazine of the arts founded and edited by Dinah Cardin.)

WHAT DOES NOT CHANGE: The Significance of Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers.” By Ralph Maud. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998. $33.50

If Charles Olson were alive today he’d be a happy man. Thanks to the University of California Press, all of the late Gloucester poet’s books remain in print. Four separate volumes of Olson’s collected prose and poetry, including his masterwork, “The Maximus Poems,” are currently available from Berkeley in both cloth and paperback editions. In addition, Johns Hopkins University Press has reissued “Call Me Ishmael,” Olson’s study of the making of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” in an attractive paperback format with a new afterword by Melville scholar Merton M. Sealts, Jr. And both California and Wesleyan University presses will soon publish volumes of Olson’s selected correspondence.

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 Vancouver, BC. He taught with Olson at Buffalo in the early 1960s, maintaining a friendship with the poet until Olson’s death in 1970 from cancer of the liver. Since then, Maud, who is also known as an editor and bibliographer of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and an authority on British Colombian Native American traditions, has concentrated on documenting Olson’s life and the sources of his work. He has collected a replica of Olson’s library in anticipation of restoring Olson’s home at 28 Fort Square, in Gloucester, as a research center for Olson studies.

It seems fitting, therefore, during the celebration of Gloucester’s 375th anniversary, that Maud’s examination of an essential Olson poem be made available. Not only does Maud help the reader to understand one of Olson’s most enigmatic poems, his examination of the poem’s sources and methods serves equally as a basis for the reading of all of Olson’s subsequent work, especially “The Maximus Poems,” in which the history of Gloucester becomes the history of America and, by extension, that of the world.

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 Buchenwald, Olson like many writers, asked himself what the future of literature was, if not that of humanity. “The Kingfishers” attempts to answer those questions affirmatively, according to Maud.

For Olson did not want to write another “Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot’s bleak poem about post World War I alienation. He wanted to write about the possibility of connectedness, of belonging, and he wanted to do that not in exile in England, as Eliot had done, but in America, in American terms. That Olson succeeded Maud makes clear. And he is not the first to suggest that a new American poetry began with Olson.

(Gloucester Times, 7/18/98)


Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, $44.95.

“Charles is just like I am,” Robert Duncan said of his fellow poet Olson. “He sits around and reads all day.” Duncan got it right except for one thing: Olson sat around all night reading. For it was only after the residents of his beloved Gloucester had gone to bed each night that Charles Olson returned to the voracious reading that both fed his mind and fueled his epic of Gloucester’s past, present and future, The Maximus Poems.

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: Reading is a gauge of him at all points in his life. He was a skald (a bard, a historiographer), and knew how to appropriate the work of others.” These words, from Call Me Ishmael, Olson’s masterful study of the sources of Moby-Dick, describe its author as well.

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 Wesleyan University and later a graduate student in Harvard’s American Civilization program.

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 Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught a generation of artists, dancers and writers how to read. And then, in 1957, Olson returned to Gloucester to enter deeply into her history, as The Maximus Poems, begun away from the city, took on both a new immediacy, from the poet’s presence at 28 Fort Square, and an even greater particularity, due both to his observations of life around him and his study of local history. By the time Olson had described himself as being “physically...home,” he had, Maud writes, “decided not to be a professor, but only a reader and a writer.”

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 Cambridge 30+ years ago! Slow, sd Charles Olson, he is slow!”

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.

(Gloucester Times, 3/28/96)

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