Wednesday, November 13, 2013

the equivalent proportion | Charles Olson's Mayan Letters

As the activating presence behind The Mayan Letters (Divers Press, 1953), Robert Creeley comes readily to mind as the person most intimately involved in the working life of Charles Olson during the nearly six months that Olson lived on the Yucatán Peninsula in 1951. Olson's correspondence with Creeley and others, along with his other writing of the time, reveal, however, a much more complex network of association and assistance. Or collaboration, as Olson terms it with regard to the graphic artist Hipolito Sanchez in a proposal he wrote that May in hopes of securing funds to continue fieldwork toward a study of the Mayan glyphs.1

Olson had met Sanchez in February, about a month after his arrival. Sanchez, working at the time at the museum in Campeche, had recently produced, as Olson relates in the proposal, "a collection of 115 pen-and-ink drawings completely and brilliantly recording all the stone inscriptions" (98) at the archaeological site of Copán, in Honduras. Olson meant to conduct his own field study at a number of sites and publish the results, complete with illustrations by Sanchez, as a book to be titled "The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs."

While the project never materialized, the effect of the drawings on Olson is palpable. In the proposal he praises them for how "they preserve the very quality of the carving of the stone," restoring the design of the glyphs, otherwise long since "weathered and broken" (98). He portrays Sanchez's work as a "perfect fit" for his own, and Sanchez as

a man of great plastic feeling and skill who was already at a great work, recording the glyphs in so sharp a way that one could feel and read them as freshly as they must been the day the came from the sculptors' hands. (98)

To work with the same disposition as those sculptors was certainly Olson's ambition, to live like the ancient Mayans who were, as he wrote to Creeley in late March, "worth remembering because they were hot for the world they lived in & hot to get it down by way of language" (56-57).2

If Sanchez presented the original face of the glyphs, it became Cid Corman's responsibility to accurately portray Olson's own poems. Beginning in October 1950 Corman and Olson were in correspondence about the publication of the first issue of Corman's new magazine Origin.3 Corman had initially granted him the first forty, extended later to fifty, pages of the issue for his own work. As revealed in his letters to Corman, Olson was extremely anxious to see proofs of the poems. In a letter dated "March 22?" (he seems not to have been sure himself), he writes:

you haven't sd anything abt proofs—and it begins to get close to April 15.   Is it hopeless?   If so, please, go over all olson with someone, will you?   that is, watch carefully for (1) the spacing, that, it keeps the same proportions I get fr this machine (print or varitype space is different, and it is the feeling of the equivalent proportion that i am after) (39-40)

"The feeling of the equivalent proportion": this is very close to the language Olson uses to characterize the design of the glyphs. As on April 1, he writes Creeley:

What continues to hold me, is, the tremendous levy on all objects as they present themselves to human sense, in this glyph-world. And the proportion, the distribution of weight given same parts of all, seems, exceptionally, distributed & accurate ... (66)

The typewriter here takes the place of the sculptors' tools, making Corman's proofs equivalent in Olson's mind to Sanchez's drawings.

And he wanted them to be published, the poems and the glyphs, side by side, or least one after the other. In Olson's previous letter to Corman, dated March 12, after asking after the proofs he immediately raises "another idea, for future no.," explaining how he met Sanchez and the significance of his drawings:

... Now I don't know how you are
going to be set up for repros, ahead.   But keep in mind
that, if any such thing becomes possible, no more
beautiful and interesting presentation of the force of
this language-design which is called Maya can be gotten
than Sanchez's unpublished drawings. (38)

Later that month, in a letter dated March 28, as Corman was preparing the first issue of Origin and Olson continued to look over the drawings with Sanchez, it all seemed to coordinate into one system in Olson's mind:

The more it unfolds under hand, the more I think you have the hottest of hot ideas for an auxiliary dramatization of ORIGIN's force in contemporary culture:   and to dramatize it by way of GLYPHS, fr the oldest and purest origin on this continent, this hemisphere!   WOW.... (41)

Olson would take, or levy, exact—breathe in, almost—or touch, what he could of the glyphs as they existed in stone, and on paper, and from, as he wrote Creeley the day before, on March 27, "being here where that life was that i pick up on same" (56-57).

All of which altered his verse. As perhaps he had hoped it would. And it is to his own poems in June that he returned after the "straight suffering" of the proposal.4 He seems to have been after some other equivalent for poetry, and it is in the content (or really the form, as he doesn't seem to have actually understood the content) of the glyphs that he found it. As he wrote Creeley on March 15, "it's hieroglyphs, which are the real pay-off, the inside stuff, for me ... the intimate art" (50). And again, later that month, on the 20th:

Here is the most abstract and formal deal of all the things this people dealt out—and yet, to my taste, it is precisely as intimate as verse is. Is, in fact, verse. Is their verse. And comes into existence, obeys the same laws that, the coming into existence, the persisting of verse, does. (43)

A different equivalent for poetry, and along with it a different proportion for the human in relation to all other "objects" of existence, each with its own place in the larger ecological field.

image: from The Complete Correspondence of Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, Vol. 4
ed. George F. Butterick (Black Sparrow Press, 1982).

1 Excerpts from the proposal were first published in Alcheringa 5, spring-summer 1973, as "Proposal (1951): 'The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs'."[available here]

2 All page numbers for letters to Creeley refer to the later, English edition of the Mayan Letters (Jonathan Cape, 1968).

3 The letters are collected in Letters for Origin: 1950-1960, ed. Albert Glover (Paragon House, 1969).

4 This from a letter to Corman, dated May 28, once Olson had finished the proposal:

truth is, though it has been straight suffering, because it is both too early & too late to do it, yet, in the doing, I have straightened out several problems of glyph procedure, & of application of my aesthetic generally (55).

As this passage suggests, Olson was deeply ambivalent about writing the proposal. It helped him clarify matters of procedure and application, as he states, but he also felt something vital was also being kept at bay in the straightening confines of the discursive style. Earlier in the month, in a letter to Corman dated May 18, he writes:

... god help me there is nothing harder in this life for me to do than to make such statements—and now, the problem is even greater than it ever was, simply because my own prose ways (say, G & C) have to be broken back to the universe of discourse, and that, is unbearable // —so night & day i try and try to state the thing, and it boggles, is not // what i want ... (54).

It's curious that to be there, or really, to return to, later that fall, the place where he meant to "dispose of argument" and logic, to get "far beyond them" and return to an experience of "direct perception," he had to spend nearly a month writing such a proposal (54). Even at the time of these two letters, not long before he would leave for the summer session at Black Mountain College, he writes to Corman that "to this very day I have not broken beyond to anything like a sustained life in the universe beyond the universe of discourse" (54). From the energy that still carries through the Mayan Letters (a selection from which, not without coincidence, the month of May is entirely absent), it's rather hard to believe.

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