Charles Olson (1910–1970) was a giant of a man in physical stature, critical and intellectual range, and imaginative power. His masterwork, The Maximus Poems, stands beside Ezra Pound’s The Cantos as one of the two great American long poems of the twentieth century – indeed, it can be seen as a democratic and relativist response to Pound’s absolutist manifesto. Olson’s boundless energy, penetrating curiosity, and limitless dedication to his craft made him and his work the syncretic centre of the evolving discourse of mid-twentieth century poetics in English.
Olson’s first two books, Call Me Ishmael (1947), a study of Melville’s Moby-Dick, and The Mayan Letters (1953), written to poet Robert Creeley from Mexico, cover a range of subjects – mythology, anthropology, language, and cultural history – and use the fervent informal style that were to distinguish all his discursive prose. Olson’s manifesto, Projective Verse, published in 1950, was quoted extensively in William Carlos Williams’s Autobiography (1951). Olson was a visiting lecturer and then rector at Black Mountain College in its last years, 1951–1956, and taught at the State University of New York, Buffalo, 1963–1965. Settling in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he devoted most of his time and energy until his death in 1970 to The Maximus Poems (1953–1975).