Friday, March 16, 2012

Charles Olson, "Project (1951): 'The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs'"

Both the scope and the significance of what I am doing here in the Mayan area---and petition for aid to continue to do---are so involved with (1) the state which Mayan studies as a whole have reached and (2) with advantages I take to lie in approaching the same material from another methodological base, that there will be gain if I am permitted to describe these things at the same time that I outline my plan of work, time required, and publication prospects.

My own study is centered on hieroglyphic writing. The prime material for such study are the carved inscriptions, chiefly on stone, with a very few examples on wood, at the sites of the ancient Maya cities in Mexico, Guatemala, the Republic of, & British Honduras. There are two other primary sources: living Maya speech, especially the Yucatec and Chol dialects which appear to be closest to the spoken language in use at the time the hieroglyphic system of the writing was invented; and what "books" of that writing have survived---the three Codices, Paris, Dresden, Madrid, and the several Books of Chilam Balam. (The Codices "written" in actual glyphs, that is, they are "painted" by brush on a lime coating over a paper made of wild fig; the Books of Chilam Balam are in modern Maya, written by an alphabet derived from Spanish, but are pretty definitely post-Conquest redactions of earlier hieroglyphic books like the Codices, at least uses the materials of same.) It is therefore clear that I am here to study the stone inscriptions and, coincident with residence in the Mayan area, to continue learning and using Mayan speech.

What has been done with this material up to now had to be concentrated on what now constitutes the great secondary source: the long work of the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphic system. For until the denotation of enough of the sings was known to declare the nature of the texts, little else could be done. And, aided at every point by seventy-five years of scientific archaeology (I am taking Sir Alfred P. Maudslay's work as the first such to follow on John L. Stephens' discovery of the ruins of Maya civilization in 1839-41), the work of decipherment has gone steadily ahead, by way of the clues of the mathematics, astronomy and calendar system of the Maya, until today the denotations of one-third of the signs are known, and that an important third covering as it does what seems to have been the chief calendrical function of the stones---the recording of the movements of time and the planets.

The publication last year of J. Eric S. Thompson's "Maya Hieroglyphic Writing" by the Carnegie Institution marks the change. For he who is himself the climax of the great decipherers (Forstemann, Goodman, Bowditch, Beyer, Gates, Long and Teeple) argues, and demonstrates, the advantages to be got from opening up new paths, now that the paths to denotation, by way of calendrical decipherment, have begun to run out. In fact, he has forced forward, as a second huge secondary source, the whole panoply of beliefs, behaviours, objects, personages and stories which we are in the habit of loosely calling the "mythology" of a people. Thompson includes the mythology of the neighbors of the Maya, to the north and south, as well.

My own purpose is to examine Mayan hieroglyphic writing without losing these gains but also without losing sight for an instantof another dominating control factor which has up to now, it is my impression, been obscured by the pressing necessities summarized above. It is this: Mayan "writing," just because it is a hieroglyphic system in between the pictographic and the abstract (neighter was it any longer merely representational nor had it yet become phonetic) is peculiarly intricated to the plastic arts, is inextricable from the arts of its own recording (sculpture primarily, and brush-painting), in fact, because of the very special use the Maya made of their written stones (the religious purpose their recording of the movements of time and the planets seems to have served), writing, in this very important instance (important not only historically but also dynamically in terms of its use in cultures today), can rightly be comprehended only, in its full purport, as a plastic art.

So it has been the point of departure for my own researches that if Mayan hieroglyphic writing was examined exactly in its plastic relationships, was studied of, and for them (in other words was studied as close as it is now possible to how the Maya themselves brought it into being in the first place as well as to how they "published" the texts they "wrote" in it---even to the point of making the carved standing stones called stelae a focal element in the architectural plan of their cities) the laws of its nature, its making and its use should like more open before us.

I confess I remain quite puzzled why this has not already been done. But then, it is only part of a greater puzzle, why Mayan art as a whole has not been engaged with anything like the vigor and intelligence the decipherers have brought to bear on the glyphs. For it is exactly the works of the major arts of sculpture, writing, architecture and painting which constitute the body of the material the Maya left behind them and that archaeology has made available. And it is in these arts that the Maya have been considered supreme (by contrast, for example, to their neighbors who are usually taken to be superior in such other things as masonry and road-building, metals, ceramics, feather-work, plus, it is sometimes said, governmental and social organization.)

It is curious discrepancy, and one I am much confronted by in what I am doing, for what studies have been done of sculpture, architecture and painting are largely of a descriptive or historical nature, and almost the only studies of the writing---certainly the only valuable ones---have been done in the light thrown, not by the other arts, but from the chronology complex by way (again) of the great decipherers. Perhaps it is just that decipherment took up all the best energies, and that there was no real time or chance for an equal investigation of the arts. I don't know. But I should judge, from observation of the state of studies on other ancient civilizations, that it also has something to do with the important fact that only recently have men of art and language become capable of scholarship like that of the Mayan decipherers, and that only now can we expect to get a methodology at once creative and morhpological, thus able to produce studies of Maya art at least of equal validity to the work of said decipherers. In any case, in Mayan studies the decipherers have made themselves the measure, and my aim is to try to study exact enough to give the arts (and I include writing) the sort of attention I take it they deserve, admittedly dominating as they do the culture as it has survived to our use.

With these things in mind I have called the study, and the book I plan to be the sum of the work here, "The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs." The "art" is a matter of the fact that a glyph is a design or composition which stands in its own space and exists---whether cut in stone or written by brush---both by the act of the plastic imagination which led to its invention in the first place and by the act of its presentation in any given case since. Both involved---I shall try to show---a graphic disciplining of the highest order.

Simultaneously, the art is "language" because each of these glyphs has meanings arbitrarily assigned to it, denotations and connotations (it is the latter which have, up to now, proved so hard to come by), and because they are put together, are "written" over a whole stone (stela, altar, lintel, zoomorph, whatever) to make the kind of sense we speak of as language, however one must be on constant guard not to be "linguistic" about this language, not to confuse whatever "syntax" is here with what we are used to in the writing of phonetic language, in fact to stay as "plastic" throughout the examination as the Maya were in its making and to let this language itself---not even any other hieroglyphic system---declare what, for itself, are its own laws. I take it that such an examination ought to be of some considerable use to the scholarship of glyphs as well as of some certain use as a study of Mayan art.

My qualifications to do such a thing would seem to lie in a particular sort of scholarship and a particular sort of writing which, in their practice, have been one. They are what brought me to the methodology, and to Mayan hieroglyphs in particular. The scholarship was concentrated from the first on American civilization, with an increasing emphasis on the American Indian until, in 1948, I was granted my second Guggenheim fellowship precisely on the basis of research which was largely into Indian life---in that instance, how the coming of the whites impinged on it. The value of the writing to my work here would seem to be a matter of the insights which follow from the practice of it as a profession, particularly such graphic verse as a contemporary American poet, due to the work of his immediate and distinguished predecessors, does write. Two recent publications document the point of such practice, particularly as it applies to such things as Mayan glyphs: the essay on "Projective Verse" in Poetry New York No. 3, Fall, 1950, and the study of language in relation to culture, "The Gate and the Center," in Origin No. 1, Boston, Spring 1951. But I can state it here most quickly by using the words of John Milton which Mr. Thompson has had the insight to use as the epigraph to his glossary of Mayan glyphs. In his "A Tractate on Education" Milton puts what I have elsewhere called "the objectism of language" in these sharp words: he says, that though a linguist have all the tongues of the world, he would not be as wise as a yeoman or a tradesman if he did not have what they have from their dialects, the use of the "solid things" in speech "as well as the Words & Lexicon!"

It is these solid things which the Maya kept extraordinarily clear, and it is as my study is designed to get at them, at the way the Maya kept them alive in their writing and at the profound reasons in their life and make-up as a people why they did, that is distinguishes itself from what has preceded it, the way of the decipherers who gave us so much of the "lexicon" of glyphs. My emphasis is on the live stone, for all the value of its "relief" (it is this emphasis which makes the field work I am shortly to describe so essential) and, within any given stone, the analysis of two parts: not only the individual glyph and its elements (with the emphasis shifted from too close an attention to its denotation as "word" toward more understanding of its connotations, from its force as carved thing) but also that unit which dominates a stone visually and has heretofore received too little attention, the glyph-block, that "square" which can include up to 4 glyphs and which sets itself off an area usually about 6 x 6 inches. The mechanics of the glyph-block (the way it organizes its glyphs and the way the glyph-blocks are organized to make up the "passage" of the whole stone) is the clue, my studies so far suggest, of the other important element of this art, time, as the Maya, great masters of time elsewhere, managed it here in their language. For the demand on my technique is a double one, the double nature of this unusual writing: it is at once object in space (the glyph) and motion on stone in time (the glyph-blocks).

But I am already getting inside the field work in progress, with an emphasis on plastic analysis, and I better, first, describe on further training I have had for it and for my collaboration with the Campeche artist, Hipolito Sanchez. I describe our collaboration in some detail below, but the curious thing is, that all my joint work has been done with creative artists. It started with the Italian, and now American painter, Corrado Cagli (our last joint publication was the book y & x, Black Sun Press, Paris, with drawing by Cagli and designed by him). With Ben Shahn, during World War II, when we were both employees of the government, he in the Division of Graphics of the OWI, and I in charge of graphics for the Foreign Language Division, I did the pamphlet "The Spanish-Speaking Americans of the Southwest and the War," published by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. And it was Joseph Alber, of the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and now Yale, who led me, two years ago, back to education as a member of the faculty at Black Mountain.

With that said we can square away at the plan of work. Let me preface it with what I was just saying about the results of the analyses Sanchez and I have so far made of the glyphs and glyph-blocks. The more we have examined and worked out devices to continue (1) to correlate the objects that the Maya levyed of nature with the designs of the glyphs and their parts and (2) to graph the way these designs are moved from glyph to block to stone, the more it is borne home that his people's vaunted brilliance about time and its recordin (their invention of the concept of zero, their observations of the movements of Venus, the moon, the sun, their calendar) is not to be divided from their exactness about all the solid things which nature offered them and which, seized as they seized them and transposed them into their language, gives that language its exceptional subtelties and exactitudes. And it just might be the most important issue of the work (it has been so far) that by such reasoning from the stones alone, by staying inside the content of this sculptured writing and letting its achieved form solely dictate the conclusions, the precise specifics of the Mayan concept of nature and of time, can, for the first time, be defined. For what has so far come clear is, that in obedience to the phenomenal world, the Mayan imagination did very exactly maintain in the hieroglyphic writing the two things which the art of it seems to have demanded of them: the face and the proportion of nature in the glyph, resistant time in the composition of the glyph, the block and the stone.

The plan of work ahead divides itself naturally into two parts: (1) the site examination of the hieroglyphic stones both for themselves and as they are a part of the art complex, both of any given site and of the Mayan area as a whole; and (2), the publication of the results, or, in this case, because of the materials, the nature of the analysis and the necessity for illustration, what can better be called the "projection" of the results.


The presentation of a project in this area is complicated just by one of its pleasures, the collaborations called for. And in my case they are more than the usual ones which follow from the expeditions it takes to get into some, at least, of these sites. For the sites are more to me than ruins to be visited or excavated or reconstructed: they are quite literally "libraries" and "museums," and they are the first such I didn't just walk to, and in! On top of that, though---once in---the sculptures and paintings and buildings can['t?] be looked at like any others elsewhere, the other things, these stubborn carved stones, my "books" and "manuscripts"--they are not just read, like that, either! So if I have had to give space in this petition to the decipherers and to my man Sanchez, they deserve it for the great help they are. As well as this: the dependence of my own work on theirs, on the precision of Sanchez's lines, on the decipherments, leads me to think that the real reason why the house of Mayan art has not been entered is, that the only entrance is hieroglyphic writing, that only from these exactitudes and not from any assumed or traditional "aesthetic" considerations, that only by way of the freshness of the content of this sculptured writing can the forms be understood and presented, the forms that this art of language achieved inside itself and the forms that the other Mayan arts achieved along with it.


  1. Alcheringa editors (No. 5, Spring-Summer 1973):

    Here ends the "essay" part of Olson's projected contribution to the history and poetry of early American civilization. But the impulse goes clearly beyond the language of grant applications -- however transmuted by Olson's own voice -- and remains central to much of the poetry and prose that follows. For which those coming fresh to Olson should get at the Mayan Letters, the seminal "Human Universe" essay, the various editions of letters and lectures, and the achieved poetry of the Maximus Poems and Archaeologist of Morning, whereing the vision finds its form...

    "Christ, these hieroglyphs. 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." (20 March 1951, Mayan Letters) Thus Olson to Robert Creeley some months after arrival in Campeche, Mex. Which would develop among other things into a project -- never completed -- to get at the glyphs first hand; or, as stated in the "title of project" he submitted, also 1951, to the Viking Fund & Wenner-Gren Foundation: "site investigations of Mayan glyphs (chiefly Copan, Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras and Palenque, with a formal expedition to Yaxchilan in collaboration with the Mexican artist Hipolito Sanchez and the epigraphist, Raul Pavon Abreu, both of the Campeche museum)as part of the field work in preparation for a book to be called 'The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs.'" What [is presented here] is the meat of the small essay Olson wrote for them, descriptive of the project & of the poetics behind it. --J.R./D.T.

  2. Birgit Brander Rasmussen, "Writing and Colonial Conflict," Queequeg's Coffin: Indigenous Literacies & Early American Literature:

    While pictography hails from many parts of the world, it was particularly widespread and varied in the American hemisphere. What about the indigenous American world made it such a fertile ground for pictography---or what about pictography was so particularly well suited to this context? The confluence of immense linguistic diversity and intense social interaction across geographic distances brought about by a well-developed network of trade across the hemisphere provide one answer. Elizabeth Hill Boone has theorized that pictographic scripts suited the American context because they can function without recourse to spoken language and can move across linguistic barriers. Anyone literate in the conventions of a given script can sound it out in a variety of languages, as is the case with pictographic signs such as those for "restroom" and "telephone," which we find today in international contexts like airports. Hill Boone focuses on Mesoamerica, an area which has generated much analytic insight. While my focus will be on North America, it is useful to consider what we can learn from Mesoamerican pictographic scripts, such as those produced by the Mixtec and Aztec. Such texts best conform to terms like "picture-writing" or "semasiography" in that images are the central elements that communicate meaning and narrative. Despite varying degrees of phoneticism, Hill Boone argues that glyphs are "fundamentally a part of the pictorial presentation. It is the relationship of the disparate pictorial elements that carries the meaning. Hence, phonetic glyphs play a relatively minor role in the construction of narrative, which is able to traverse linguistic barriers precisely because sings represent meaning and idea complexes rather than sounds. While meaning is communicated fairly precisely by these signs and their relative placement, wording remains somewhat flexible. Thus, a narrative produced by Aztec scribes in central Mexico could be read and sounded out in a different language by Mixtec readers in southern Oaxaca as long as they were familiar with the conventions of the text and the culture that informed it. This point is crucial. The images are not simply pictures which communicate meaning transparently, as in the example of an eyeball representing an eye. Rather, they are part of a system of writing which requires its readers to be literate in the meaning of each sign, the way in which the relative placement of signs determines meaning, and the cultural context out of which this meaning emerges.

  3. Francisco X. Alarcon, trans. William Everson:

    from the moment I met you on the road,
    no more am I the same, no more am I the blind one,
    that trips on his shadow,
    no more am I the deaf one in the landscape

    to follow you lightly I have thrown away
    my cross, I have dismissed the violins
    that always play me melodramas
    now I don't walk, I run on naked feet

    from the moment I heard the sound of your voice,
    all the other words turn hollow on me,
    useless, contorted, spent.

    so I no longer want to write poems
    but to live them with you, that they may be
    arms of a fire far from language