In this narrative account of the life and work of Charles Olson, Ralph Maud focuses on what the poet read as a basis for understanding the work he produced.
To an extraordinary degree, Olson’s reading and life were coextensive, according to Maud, who notes that Olson saw his written output over his lifetime as a total cosmology. An individual who rarely traveled, this major American poet explored the world and its history as well as the furthest reaches of the thought of his day through books.
Maud builds upon George Butterick’s annotated listing of Olson’s library, bought by the University of Connecticut after the poet’s death in 1970. The present volume, however, adds categories of books Butterick deliberately omitted: Olson’s childhood books and poetry by his own contemporaries.
Linking Olson’s books to his intellectual and poetic development at each stage of his career, Maud reveals such little-known but important connections as the contracted book project "Operation Red, White and Black" and Olson’s plan for the long poem "West"—two unrealized projects much later shaped into The Maximus Poems.
Maud also outlines the surprisingly multiple role of the painter Corrado Cagli, who brought home to Olson the significance of the Holocaust and introduced him both to the Tarot and to the theories of non-Euclidean geometry that Olson variously incorporated into his poems and essays. In discussing Olson’s relationship to Ezra Pound, Maud defines in some detail what Olson gained from Pound and what he repudiated.
Maud refutes the notion that Olson’s intellectual and creative powers declined during the last years of his life, demonstrating that during these years Olson developed his Jungian interest, his attention to early Greek thought, and a new concern for Northern mythology.
This chronicle of Olson’s reading from childhood to deathbed constitutes a critical biography of the larger-than-life author of Call Me Ishmael and The Maximus Poems. No modern poet is more revealed in his sources than Olson. Maud’s comprehensive and complete study provides a basis for new and fresh modes of thinking about Olson’s great achievement.