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, comes Ralph Maud’s new biography, Charles Olson at the Harbor, 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, knows more about Olson and his work than anyone else, and he wears his scholarship 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.