The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Charles Olson's 101st

Charles Olson
Today is the 101st birthday of Charles Olson. Fans of experimental, tantalizing, abstruse, marvel-filled, American poetry might know him from his magnum opus, The Maximus Poems.

His first book, however, was Call Me Ishmael (1947). It is the culmination of his research on Melville, begun while working on his Master's degree (thesis: The Growth of Herman Melville, Prose Writer and Poetic Thinker), and continued at Harvard (where his paper Lear and Moby-Dick helped earn him his first of two Guggenheim fellowships).

Olson was one of the first scholars to consider the importance of Melville's reading and marginalia. Part of his work involved hunting down books from Melville's library that had since been passed to family members and collectors. When Olson located a book, he made detailed notes of his interviews with family members, and meticulous transcriptions of Melville's marginalia — all on 5x7 index cards. After the publication of Call Me Ishmael, Olson stored those cards in a trunk in a friend's cellar. Over the years, the cards were damaged by water and mildew.

Olson died in 1970 and is buried in Beechbrook Cemetery, Gloucester, Massachusetts. (His Colonial-style slate headstone is proving problematic.)

In 1973, the University of Connecticut purchased Olson's papers. In 2000, a project to conserve his note cards was initiated. The current state of the project (card images and transcriptions) is viewable at the site: Charles Olson's Melville Project.

But back to Call Me Ishmael. It's definitely worth a read, although you may find it "unusual" in its presentation. It is literary criticism as written by a nascent poet — freewheeling and condensed. For example:
To MAGNIFY is the mark of Moby-Dick. As with workers, castaways, so with the scope and space of the sea, the prose, the Whale, the Ship and, OVER ALL, the Captain. It is the technical act compelled by the American fact. Cubits of tragic stature. Put it this way. Three forces operated to bring about the dimensions of Moby-Dick: Melville, a man of MYTH, antemosaic; an experience of SPACE, its power and price, America; and ancient magnitudes of TRAGEDY, Shakespeare. 
A "Maximus-style" feature film about Olson's connection to Gloucester is viewable on the Web:

Parts 2 - 6 are viewable at

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