Maximus Poems, The

by Charles Olson
(1983)
   These poems, composed between 1950 and 1970, rank as one of the profoundly brilliant epics of 20th-century American poetry, alongside William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. The focus of charles olson’s epic is the history of a New England fishing town—Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Olson’s family would spend their summers when the poet was a child and where he lived during the final decades of his life. Olson completed his important manifesto on poetics, “Projective Verse,” in 1950. In it he proposes a poetry that creates itself projectively through high energy grids of writing that draw the eye of the mind through its complexities. The first volume of The Maximus Poems was published in 1960. Other volumes followed in 1963, 1968, and posthumously in 1975. All of The Maximus Poems has been published as a single volume of more than 600 pages by the University of California Press. It remains in print.
   Olson had been trained as a scholar, with important research on Herman Melville behind him when he began his epic. This sense of scholarship suffuses The Maximus Poems, which are highly referential, but no more difficult than the verse of other top rank bards of his century, such as T. S. Eliot, Robert Duncan, Hart Crane, Rainer Maria Rilke, or Wallace Stevens.
   In its essence, The Maximus Poems narrates through the voice of Maximus the beginnings of a fishery off Cape Ann that became the Plymouth Bay Colony and then Massachusetts. Olson investigated the actual raw historical records to trace how the village of fishermen was co-opted by British investors, and thus America itself came under corporate control in its earliest decades. In his sometimes angry denunciation of the loss of local economy, Olson carried into epic writing the principles of social democracy that he learned while occupying a fairly high position in the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal administration of the early 1940s.
   The idea for the name Maximus came from Maximus from Tyre, a second-century a.d. philosopher, Platonist and moralist, whom Olson discovered when researching Sappho in the late 1940s. Ancient Tyre had similarities to Gloucester in that it was a main port of the Phoenicians, just as Gloucester was a leading location of the burgeoning fishing industry in the New England colonies. Tyre was forced to be connected to the mainland by a bridge, just as Gloucester became connected by a bridge and modern roadway. Another source for the name Maximus was Olson’s size—he was six feet eight inches tall, added to which was an intellectual intensity that made him seem even taller than that and which gave the voice of Maximus in his epic even greater force.
   Olson was deeply religious and felt a religious sacredness in the buildings and land forms of Gloucester and its churches. To the end of the poet’s life, his hunger for a United States with a just economy and brightness for all burned in his poems. robert creeley believes that ed dorn’s essay “What I See in The Maximus Poems” is still the gate through which one enters The Maximus Poems.
 Bibliography
■ Butterick, George F. A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
   Edward Sanders

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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