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Charles Olson Portrait

Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a postal worker, Charles Olson was educated at Wesleyan, Harvard, and Yale Universities. As a child, he spent summers on the Massachusetts coast at Gloucester, the city that would be the setting for his major poem sequence, The Maximus Poems. Anticipating a scholarly career, he completed doctoral research for a project on Herman Melville. It was interrupted by work for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and for the Office of War Information in Washington. After resigning the latter job in protest against censorship, he proceeded to write Call Me Ishmael, a powerful, visionary study of Melville and the American obsession with space. Then he had the opportunity to fill in at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which would become his home until 1956. He ended up running the college and wrote many of his key early poems there, along with his widely read manifestos on poetics, "Projective Verse" and "Human Universe." One of the major practitioners of open form poetry, Olson often sought to record the mental process of composition in his poetry. The Maximus Poems in particular tracks ongoing perceptions while drawing in both classical allusions and references to modern science and philosophy. Often disjunctive, the poems can be lyrical at some moments, decidedly didactic at others.