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Groundbreaking Book: The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson (1960)


Educated at Wesleyan and Harvard Universities and the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, Charles Olson had a distinguished career in academia and politics before becoming a serious poet. He began work on his opus, The Maximus Poems, in the mid-1940s, and continued to expand and revise them until his death in 1970. Formally similar to Ezra Pound's Cantos, the Maximus poems are, in Olson's words, "about a person and a place."

The person, Maximus, represents Olson's alter ego, and is named after the second-century Maximus of Tyre, as well as a fourth-century Phoenician mystic, and may also refer to Olson's impressive stature (he was six feet seven inches tall). The place is Gloucester, Massachusetts, or more accurately, the small town communal American life that Olson struggled to preserve. Taking up local issues such as preserving the wetlands and documenting the history of fishermen in the Northeast, Olson's poems are widely read as political, but like the Cantos, they also contain deeply lyrical and personal passages as well.

The Maximus Poems are divided into three volumes, meant to be read as a long, single poem--Olson refers to it as such. The collection includes "Maximus to Himself" and "Maximus to Gloucester," a series of poems to the town that were printed in the local newspaper. The most frequently anthologized pieces are the opening pages, a selection of the letters to Gloucester, and "Cole's Island," a poem from the last volume that describes his encounter with death.

As a teacher at the Black Mountain College, Olson was one of the three most influential members of the Black Mountain movement, alongside to Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. Creeley has joked that Olson was referred to as "Maximus" and he was called "Minimus," in reference to their teacher-apprentice relationship, a close friendship documented in their long, published correspondence.

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