Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Open Map: Letters

The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.
Black and white side-by-side image of the poets Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

The following selection of letters appears in An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson; a separate collection of lectures by Duncan on Olson will be available in Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan’s Lectures on Charles Olson (both volumes edited by the late Robert J. Bertholf and myself, and published by the University of New Mexico Press, December 2017).

Duncan opens this passage of letters from Majorca, where he and his life partner, the visual artist Jess Collins, lived for a year beginning in spring 1955. Duncan’s June 1955 conversation focuses on the dynamics of form and friendship (“kind and kin,” as he phrases it). Later in August, Olson draws on German naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) to make a formal distinction between individual creative transformation and cultural change. This is in response to Duncan’s comment (quoted in this selection by Olson) regarding “the sign as image not symbol.” Their conversation is grounded in a diverse 
creative nexus of historical imagery, Romantic poetics, and the 
morphological specificity of Olson’s interest in the history of forms.

These selections suggest the large range of ideas and reference points throughout the correspondence, and they show how the development of Black Mountain poetics took form not only within 
literary contexts, but in much wider frames of cultural reference.

Letters by Charles Olson and Robert Duncan are held at the University of Connecticut in the Charles Olson Research Collection in Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. I am grateful to Dodd Research Center archivist Melissa Watterworth Batt for her support in the preparation of the letters.

Mary Margaret Sloan and Christopher Wagstaff, the co-trustees of the Jess Collins Trust, offered kind support of this project and permission to publish Robert Duncan’s letters to Charles Olson. Thanks also go to Elise M. McHugh and James Ayers of the University of New Mexico Press for their aid in the preparation of this selection of the letters.

—Dale M. Smith

to charles olson

Banyalbufar, Majorca
June 19 and 21, 1955 

Dear Olson: We arrived this afternoon after two magnificent & miserable days in Barcelona—magnificent because of Gaudí and the Catalan museum, somehow I was unprepared for what the fact that all of Pedret and Tahull were there would mean—these churches aren’t the product of Medieval princely wealth, like the pure splendid gothic cathedral of Palma, but of native imagination—the frescos, fragments of which, or amazingly all there of which, rescued from country (and then pagan), mountain churches, from their ruins. Romanesque then, but pagan. Repeat the word and set the eye for what the world-contempt, terror, and giantism means. Faces hunger. Or where there are smiles, Madonnas that are idiots, with Child, face emptied into?; and on capitals, the starkest terror I have ever seen, in a sacrifice of Isaac and then as one changes, walking around the capital, a terrible jubilation. The Scapegoat! But the animal is in the first tableau, innocent, before the idea of sacrificing him. Isaac lives, because his innocence is sacrificed. Give up the innocent animal, and save the man! And then out of that what We all are. And in Gaudí again, which is 19th century neo-gothic, this time not pagan but the other outlander, ourselves—or in the sense that we might be like Mallarmé, and Darwin, and Bergson, outlanders. And I’ve begun to get some notes done on Gaudí from that trip. Oh yes, and “miserable,” that was the fact that to do even this we have to budget it, count it out, allow for it, and then exceed visible what we can afford; and then we had open deck passage and it raind the day, and turnd just at evening so that relieved we could make it.—The Creeleys are here for this week, and then, too soon, he will be gone.


                                                                                                                                                                                                           How does this business of kind and kin go? I write for a muse meant as a letter to Denny [Levertov] because it was through her work that I was seeing that the mastery of walking lay in the mastery of stumbling and then how to fall! upon which it was all built (as only a dancer, thru an art, learns to fall): and receive a wounded cry that I am ridiculing her work. Then, out there, Corman writing to you that the poem was ridiculing your work, or a satire, or a parody; and your letter to Creeley with me there biting at the heels. It’s how this business of kind and kin goes that dogging my own heels (who else is it that includes H.D., Stein, Zukofsky, and dada in the pot—a reading of the text might have cleard up who the particular was); but of the kin that Denny or you were unprepared for it. As Addenda Denny’s letter to me, my reply to her, and your letter to R. Creeley illuminate the poem, and poem illuminates them. It would be this that would make it all clear. And back to kind and kin that the work gets under the skin, bites, demands no easy realization. So, my reading notes of Maximus are propositions for the poet, and from this, for me and then you write “it is made for the poet himself!” and the particular is then you. But a poem, like a map, or the record of a science (read, Harvey’s Circulation of the Blood), or the witness of a religious man (the accuracies of St John de la Cruz) are written for the man who is concernd. The hot air of “the critical era” as the critics call it, is that these Schnorers and So Fharts suck up to everything that doesnt concern them. Men pawing over Lawrence and Blake, professors Pound — that breed! — who have no regard for the process. What can they verify? They see the pome like the real estate dealers see a map. By what analogy can they read at all.

Let’s set against that, and then to see it, your record of discovery thru Melville, or Lawrence’s American Literature. Then back to these letters, as I take sights on Creeley’s prose, or you and Denny take sights on “For a Muse Meant” ... it’s not our understandings, or discriminations that makes it: but the adherence.

Well, then here is our goddamnd language, or the Anglo-Saxon way of hiding his concern with it, keeping it “unsaid,” or surrounded by words pointing without distinguishing: “kin.” But we are left with “love” and “in love” to say it out with. What is the verb of “eros”? Only the way of talking shows it, then by mimesis not by naming, and no verb, the language must move as the passion of it does. The word “love” is anyway demagogy of the Xtians. And it is in service to Love that loving is realized—a virtu, not a virtue; just as it is in service of the Poem, the Conception, that making or conceiving is realized. Your poem love relates to poem — the sense of the appropriate, create and/or avoid, is of measure.

                            The joy for me of Charles Olson, or Robert Creeley, or Denise Levertov is the joy of the work and its visibility, which we also call the work. Old Whitman wld call us companions. Here’s where we will re-see the Christians, that there was the idea that “The Church” was a commune (those who communed??). What is shared is voluntary, a voluntary.

                  But there it is — a kind of “love.” Or the friendship of the Friends. The “thee” belongs to it; the “thee” which the English, and then the Americans, hide away, or tremble before. (I feel even here, trying to keep my distance, that to speak of it is to trample all over it.) But without this kinship a man’s life is hell. The particular hell that Lawrence’s life was, he who wrought all friendship not to the test of work shared but to the test of sexual coherence, to the touch. But how the hell was his “self” to be touchd without those paroxysms of outrage, those “noli me tangere”s, that necessity, that must go on to exceed this line of tensions to oblivion. To overcome the nervous irritations and convulsions of “knowing.” Consider the difference between the sufferings of Melville as it comes to us as we love him thru The Work, they flower in the being embodied, in The Work ((And it seems to me that the love between man and woman is likewise when it is embodied in the Child—the companionship there in which the pleasure or pain is not all redeems. As Lawrence who wanted the Coming to redeem — who does not conceive of the Child—suffers the intensest sense of the Otherness of the woman. Unintelligible emotional pain takes the place of the intelligible pains of labor. Give birth to me! give birth to me! he cries to Frieda. Thou shalt give birth to no other.

But this Child I am talking about is, like the Poem or the Love, a desire, a vision, of whom the child is the persona. “The Love,” “The Love,” “The Love” it is all the dramatic embodyment for celibates, homosexuals, and for lovers, who live for themselves or for each other; or for world sufferers who live for others. What can they address? for the Second Coming.))

Well, then the differences between the Melville in his work; and the Melville as he tried to tell Hawthorne about him Self, or as he sufferd his domestic scene. (How did I circumnavigate that parenthesis.)

A man pleading to be understood, or proud to be recognized, or guarding his secret. And so covering his sexual organs that sex might be his secret. And thus must speak of love.

The whole process is a lie, Williams sez, unless, crowned by excess, it breaks forcefully, one way or another, from its confinement.

What goes with Creeley you ask? I see it anyway like that—that it’s got to do with Ann, and with, is it a process or a confinement.



                      Well, old continent straddler, I’m trying to get at something. And no matter how I goes about it it sounds like I’m putting someone down or setting someone up. But I means these, Melville, Lawrence as exempla. Of what it was like. And when Creeley comes in, it’s because it was his story as he told it to me that, or as he has told it clearly in The Gold Diggers, or the poems, that brings What Is This Thing Calld Love, as the song goes, into mind. And there it goes chugging away at it. It needs a novelist to put this sort of thing straight out, complete, clear. Poetry, or short story, tackle another thing about it.

Old Man Mose you are with your stone tablets.

For me, the desired extreme is that the form be made in the air, or delivered up to a forgetting ear, or written, at best, on paper on its way to the fire. I mean, if I went mad, this might be my madness. A lucid sense of what the word is made actual.

This after an evening arriba at the Creeley house in which talk of what’s up went in circles. There is only one established factor = Ann is going to America in October or November in order to settle into more of her estate. And there is a dual variable factor: she wants a separation, or maybe she won’t. In case of Creeley solo he has no money to make it here; and he faces the problem of where and how to get a job and take hold. In case of Creeley familia, it must go as she allows or as she wills. A snarled yarn of economic, domestic, amorous, erotic, sexual, ego, aesthetic, etc. etc. motives and conflicts of motive. And dont ask this tired old psycollegeizer to turn on his wisdom as such. Smother a sphinx in goodwill butter? Cut the life-line lest it be an umbilical cord? Drag the rich man thru the eye of his needhole? Me? R. Bovary Duncan, fix the old foot with instructions from home?


And yrself about ready to, if only etc., get up from out under the old Black Mt. Vulture, Mr. Prometheus, lineman?

to robert duncan

Black Mountain, NC
August 21, 1955

        ON DUNCAN ON

ego sum lux mundi


a city is a sign of that
the many have it too

polis is a happening
to be together to avert

(1a) Sticks/ and against which sprays
from the myrtle bough:
And produce. These
are the injunctions, the hand
held up.
                    The cornucopia,
the great bodied spirit I

She eats the young
by preference

and the riddle is late.
The first thing is,

there isn’t any answer.
The trouble with a sheep

                                                        (1b) “This goddess crownd with the walld imperishable city clutches in one hand to her breast a miniature lamb—in time we see her again holding the miniature child-lamb. What have any of us who aint shepherds got to do with this thing? Something, some insistent thing, because the images bring back ?out of memory? the sheep”

is that we aint allowed to be

                                                        (1c) “as the lion, bear, hyena, horse and elephant rise up into feeling from their jawbones”

She has a sister.

The sister went down into hell.

She was stripped of her garments piece by piece, stage by stage of her passage. When she was admitted to the last hall, seven old men looked at her naked. And her sister

sneered. She packed her off back to earth with all diseases after her. Woman is two.



es fuerza

there is measurably
no good other than
that we would

(2a) “ ......... the throne
the book the light”

grit keres bacilli fistula:

the pipe or reed from which
the infection comes

                          what terms?
what terms?
“great wingd many-eyed seraphim”?


I believe

in the distraction. The meanings
have not changed — the strength
of all / the polis / the light.

The things have.

                                   In the fistula
is the music, is where I stand
on the seventh sphere, look

(look! she is there!

                                  At the Pillars,
Mendes hidden in the thigh
like a fish-hook,

and the proud



(3) No book.

We have no book.
We can sit as he does,
and spread our knees.
But there’s nothing on it.

A word is a speed
which fuerza hath,
happen the great bodied spirit is

The book

is what we make


                                     (3a) “a like wise complex iconography”

                         That is: (1) animals (surely you are right that sheep are not for us non-shepherds; and I’d guess that what the images bring back is not the Lamb for you but 

                                        (2) earlier sizes of oneself, exactly, bambino: that you put the sheep & the City Madam together is where giantism first asserted itself literally on any one of us ((it is of course very boring, once one knows that another discrepancy of size is more interesting: Troilus, on the 7th sphere—or those fat thin long stupid swelling retina images which overcome one before sleep once in a while, that vertigo

                                        (((A Note at this point: why animals? I don’t much take phylogeny here, except in the sense that in the psychic you move the whole system of Haeckel’s law forward, that is, the phylogeny is the history of the individual as his own limited species; and ontogeny is the present stage of the movement of sd individual (in the sense that each new instant is a form of birth or development of the further organism: Whitehead’s “actual occasion,” to reinforce the point, that the past-future-present is no more than the matter & total of, at the outside, 1/10th of a second.)

Animals, like flowers, are the only possible companions size-wise when one is small. I had a guy Cabbage (of Mephisto Freud!). Etc. Anyone fill in their “companion.”

But that don’t end it. That’s the recalled picture. The action. Think of it! The owl howls in the night. The dog bites. The automobile drives you into the gutter. A red flower. The sour-grass you eat. What a population is being bred for the city....

               And ma (and pa?) govern, sd city. Are kings and queens. Are Pantokrators!

               You will note I avoid or evade all later transformation. Again, I suppose, the reductive process: find out what the objects are on which the words run to place a name, and to which experience runs to set the place, to see here is where he she it (each man gives his noun, until he knows the proper noun!)

I take it we cannot miss the proper noun (the likewise complex iconography) once the world (mundi) (urbe) is re-inhabited, is constantly (permanently) inhabited: no distraction. Experience is not distraction it is the amassment of the materials of recognition: one does not know a new thing one knows what one knows. This is very difficult.

                                                           (((I am cribbing, here, from yr wonderful statement in yr letter to Creeley this week on having it all, not as ego, but as man, having it as wide and handsome as you damn well can:

to recognize, I dare say.

                                               I am struck (or stuck) by the cluster: that all later experience goes home, is centripetal in the sense that it bombards these hidden clutched earlier animals & selves
                                   to release them
                                                         And that size (later permanent formal size, the pressure—of the eyes, in Giotto, of the sitting, in yr Pantokrators (the “terror & majesty”) which no “piety or luxury” can throw down, can dethrone)

                                                                                      comes when those creatures are

named & placed.

                         Ok. I begin to repeat myself. It is stupid. You and I have no argument. You reduce, willy-nilly. And produce, what is more. It’s wonderful.

My love & admiration,

to robert duncan

Black Mountain, NC
August 24, 1955

Robt (Sunday)—thinking more abt yr letter, & the partiality of my answer as poem.

                              That is: was able last night to confront the poem with a psychological examination of it (and, incidentally, as a result, though I didn’t look back at the text, the Against Wisdom thing, especially the speech is fire stuff).

                              And tho I value such an examination as no more nor less than any other technical aspect of a done thing, I was led to see that again I was pressing on you (as I had in the Wisdom letter & piece) the reductive process as one to be held to so that a “like wise complex iconography” may come to all of us ((such as certainly you marvelously achieve in the Venice Poem — St William Shakespeare!)).

                              What struck me in yr letter, was the way the prose sentences on the two interlapping waves of the Barcelona things (the City Madam and the graffiti of the animals as the object of the hunt, whether paleolithic or 12th century scratchings of knights & horses) was, in fact, reductive: that is, that what invoked you was those energies (fuerza) which you at that moment are.

                                                            And that the lovely lines pivoting on the two churches (La Bons and Tahull), and the Pantokrator, are productive, by displaced rhythmic activity as well as displaced iconography (using displaced in both instances in no pejorative sense at all, au contraire, as transformations.

                                                           But my question persists: when is a transformation possible to the reductive materials???? 

                              Ok. Just to say it that flatly, to further the investigation (mine perhaps, not necessarily yours at all, but we are such damn brothers, or at least i know you are brother of mine, so vividly and surely do you so often invoke me, and, by resistance, a person stands up inside me like the eidolon of Patroclus over Patroclus himself, his chariot and his grave!

                                                         And to see this image (idol).... have you noticed, by the way, the crazy etymology of yr word icon and this one idol? That they are both the thing seen, the sign (“you will see a sign”).

                   And the sign as image not symbol (I again battle that modern word, and cry that symbology is when the form has stiffened, and that only image-icon-idol is intensive, only when the things seen are presented in that first vividness does one have form, that asymmetrical classical thing.

                              Ok. Excuse, please, the last aestheticism. Not at all interesting. I come back to that damned word reductive. Makes sense. Break it down. Get the pieces. Work from them. Have no intention but oneself as the possible source of the transformation: that if one honestly (wow!) tries to make the picture, the picture will be iconographic — will be whatever is the polarity of reductive: (productive? reproductive?

                                                   You will now see (as I do! why I make as much of eidos as you do of eikon:
                                   it’s crazy, because it comes out the exact opposite of what you are so exact that 12th century had, giantism.

I guess I am arguing that the little, parvo, eidolon (the brother) is what we are made up of: that is, that the person has size (the Pantokrator) as any one of us is an assemblage of the essential little persons we are made up of. — (It is apposite to a sense of kin or tribes you may have seen me also refer to. I take it, of course, that what Ortega y Gasset called life as no more than preoccupation with itself is a fucking intellectual statement which leaves out its activeness: that preoccupation must lead to the dynamic of recognitions

                                                (naming, like the poet sd 
                                                                           (& locus, or placing, as I
keep adding:
                                        & where?
                                                            ubi, et

And I need not labor to you of all, that these places & persons as things & spots are all inside any one of us, that the whole world & all experience is, no matter how real, only a system of metaphor for the allegory (Keats called it) a man’s life is.

What I don’t think is sufficiently known (as anciently it appears certainly to have been) is how limited (& thus how big) is what we have to recognize. (Why I speak of kin: that the circle of the bee-hive or omphalos of any one of us is a closed circle which opens solely when the inhabitants are known, that there is no out until the in is done.

                              And that the practice (I use it in the religious sense) is permanent (both as to duration & to intensity, that is, that the very persons & places sought, are permanents too, that the matter & the means are one, and are in both time and space.

                                                                                I dare say that is why I no longer fear the static: that stasis is not the lack of movement, it is on the contrary the recognition of movement as it is molecular or atomic (to speak as in the 20th century) in the comparable sense to which an agricultural people spoke of the Year, and divided it into two, the Pankarpia was it and the Panspermia or something, the spring & the fall:

(((I have the urge to tell Robt, in the pile-on of his troublings over Ann etc., it takes a year, Robt, it takes a year at least! &! Imagine!)))) Such agri-

                                                                                                                                                                .... culturalism!

“a standing still”: “To stand.”

                              There is a Pantokrator (Byzantium?) in which a huge giottesque Christ as father holds a Christ as son-baby (also giottesque) on his lap (no book, I think)—and on this chest is an amulet (3rd dimension) of the Holy Ghost (as dove, I remember): an exact displacement of the feminine. And size (gained? at least got.

                                        And you know what I think of the Omaha, and the practice of the signature animal from the adolescent dream (yr lion, hyena, elephant, horse.

                                        I am puzzled as to how much I take it the psychic is also recapitulatory. I think i take it very much, if the 20th century’s revision of Haeckel’s law is let in: that ontogeny can just as well create phylogeny.

Works by Charles Olson published during his lifetime are held in copyright by the Estate of Charles Olson. Previously unpublished works by Charles Olson are the copyright of the University of Connecticut Libraries. Used with permission.

Originally Published: September 1st, 2017

Described by Kenneth Rexroth as “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets, Robert Duncan was an important part of both the Black Mountain school of poetry, led by Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose other members included poets Jack Spicer...

Charles Olson was an innovative poet and essayist whose work influenced numerous other writers during the 1950s and 1960s. In his influential essay on projective (or open) verse, Olson asserts that "a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way...

Dale M. Smith is a poet, critic, and editor who lives in Toronto, Ontario. Slow Poetry in America (Cuneiform Press, 2014) and Poets Beyond the Barricade (University of Alabama Press, 2012) are his most recent publications.

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