cover image Collected Prose

Collected Prose

Charles Olson. University of California Press, $29.95 (382pp) ISBN 978-0-520-20873-5

While Ezra Pound was incarcerated and T.S. Eliot ruminated, Olson was taking action. A poet and Melville scholar, Olson (1910-1970) took it upon himself to express what he took to be the uniquely American spatial imagination, one formed as much by the land and sea's vast vistas as by Melville, whom he saw as emblematic of the nation's character and perhaps his own. His influence is a product of an enormous, partly assimilated body of poetry and of his tenure during the 1950s at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where poets like Robert Creeley (who introduces the volume) and Denise Levertov absorbed Olson's lessons in ""Projective Verse,"" which conceived of the page as a ""field"" for composition. Olson was a wide-ranging writer on writing: a prescient and energetic historicist study of Moby-Dick titled Call Me Ishmael is followed by many reviews of both Americanist criticism and emerging poets of the mid-century, and by incomplete, semi-formal sketches of systems that underpin the poems. But most of these will be of little interest to anyone except the already converted or those who wish an idiosyncratic, often almost contrarian entree into American literature. A key figure for poet-critics like Susan Howe, Olson densely lined his texts with allusions that editors Donald Allen (New American Poetry) and Benjamin Friedlander annotate usefully. While scattershot, Olson's hardheaded declarations are never boring: ""What I am kicking around is this notion: that KNOWLEDGE either goes for the CENTER or it's inevitably a State Whore."" (Dec.) Nonfiction Notes