Reading Charles Olson
The experience of reading Olson can best be described as a "slow burn" in that you read the words and get a geneal idea of what's going on and then a few days later you realise that a much bigger idea has been planted in your head.
Some poets mark their major themes with big flashing lights and work really hard to force their ideas across. This is not the case with Olson who makes this seem effortless, almost casual. You find yourself returning to the poem or the passage just to try and work out how this slow burn is achieved. Other poets have this skill (John Matthias in particular) but few manage to express such depth and complexity with Olson's degree of ease.
Readers new to Olson should start with 'The Maximus Poems' which is his finest achievement. This is a long sequence (over 600 pages) about the town of Gloucester in Massechusetts (and much more). 'Maximus' can be read on several levels: as a history and geography of Gloucester; as a description of the poet's relationship with the landscape of and around Gloucester; and as a working through of philosophical ideas about time and space. All of these levels are compelling and gently interwoven so that the reader never feels hit over the head with 'difficult'ideas.
Because Olson is writing about space and time in the widest sense, he isn't afraid to put elements of is personal story into the poem and this has the effect of bringing a sense of humanity to the work.
Olson's shorter poems are written with enormous intelligence- 'The Kingfishers', 'La Preface' and 'Letter for Melville, 1951' are good examples of his output but it is 'Maximus' that is the most important and rewarding.
Olson did write his own manifesto (Projective Verse) and this attracted a following in the next generation of poets but seems to have floundered since. He was rector at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and taught many students who were to go on to produce important work. One of these was Cy Twombly and Olson's 'For Cy Twombly faced with His First Chigago and NY Shows' is a wonderful example of a teacher giving encouragement and advice. Incidentally, Olson undertood what Twombly was doing with the line before anyone else.