Archives Diary: The Simplest Things from the John Wieners Collection


Charles Olson (December 27, 1910 – January 10, 1970), was a second generation American modernist poet.

I have had to learn the simplest things

last.  Which made for difficulties.

These lines written by Charles Olson (1910-1970) have been fixed in my brain since the first time I read the poem “Maximus, to Himself,” and it being one hundred years from his birth, I thought that I might glimpse into his worlds of words by perusing the John Wieners Collection at the Burns Library.  But the simplest things first:  Olson was born in Worcester, MA, but his poetic imagination resided eighty miles away in Gloucester where he summered as a child and resided later in life.  He studied Melville and wrote a critical study of tremendous beauty and insight.  Call Me, Ishmael (1947) begins with a bold assertion:

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now.  I spell it large because it comes large here.  Large, and without mercy” (1).

Typed letter from Olson to Wieners, July 1957, Box 1, Folder 45, John Wieners Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Typed letter from Olson to Wieners, July 1957, Box 1, Folder 45, John Wieners Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

He developed a notion of projective verse and was associated with a generation of American modernist poets that followed in the tradition and shadow of Ezra Pound.  During the 1940s, Olson befriended Pound and frequently visited him during his incarceration at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C.  Olson was an instrumental part of the experimental Black Mountain College and helped to found the poetic movement associated with the school.  This is where Olson’s narrative meets that of B.C. graduate John Weiners ’54.  Desirous of a career in poetry, Weiners appealed to Olson for admission into Black Mountain in a letter held in the collection (Box 1, Folder 45- Wieners to Black Mountain College Registrar).  This initial contact began decades of friendship, collaboration, and personal turmoil.  Their correspondence, as well as numerous poems in manuscript from Olson and Weiners, is owned by the Burns library.  Olson died of liver cancer in 1970, but his poetic life remains in his Maximus poems where Olson creates a sort of literary persona tied to Gloucester and its history, inhabitants, geography, and myth.

The John Wieners Collection at the Burns Library is made up of over fifty manuscript items, including the aforementioned correspondence and poetry but also transcriptions of Olson’s lectures, legal documents, and a number of broadsides and books of poetry.  If you would like to learn more about the collection or see it for yourself, please read the finding aid for this collection or contact the reference desk at the Burns Library at or 617-552-4861 because…

It is undone business

I speak of, this morning

with the sea

stretching out

from my feet

  • Andrew Kuhn, Burns Library Reference Reading Room &                                         Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English                                                


Other sites of interest on Olson:

Charles Olson Research Collection at the University of Connecticut

2010 Charles Olson Centennial Celebration in Gloucester, MA

Recordings of Charles Olson reading his poetry, from PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania

Polis Is This, a 2007 documentary film made about Charles Olson, directed by Henry Ferrini

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
This entry was posted in Archives & Manuscripts, Featured Collections & Books, Student Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s