Here's the preface:
Preface to Mayan Letters
by Charles Olson
Sometime toward the end of 1950, it was in December I think, but the letter isn't dated, I heard that Charles Olson was off to Yucatan. A sudden "fluke"—the availability of some retirement money owed him from past work as a mail carrier—gave him enough for the trip, "not much but a couple of hundred, sufficient, to GO, be, THERE. . . ." By February I had got another letter, "have just this minute opened this machine in this house lerma. . . ." From that time on I heard from him regularly, and so was witness to one of the most incisive experiences ever recorded. Obviously it is very simple to call it that, that is, what then happened, and what Olson made of his surroundings and himself. Otherwise, it is necessary to remember that Olson had already been moving in this direction, back to a point of origin which would be capable of extending "history" in a new and more usable sense. In his book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael , he had made the statement, "we are the last first people . . ."; and in his poetry, most clearly in "The Kingfishers," there was constant emphasis on the need to break with the too simple westernisms of a 'greek culture.'
Yucatan made the occasion present in a way that it had not been before. The alternative to a generalizing humanism was locked, quite literally, in the people immediately around him, and the conception, that there had been and could be a civilization anterior to that which he had come from, was no longer conjecture, it was fact. He wrote me, then, "I have no doubt, say, that the American will
Charles Olson, Mayan Letters (Bañalbufar, Mallorca: Divers Press, 1953).
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more and more repossess himself of the Indian past. . . . If you and I see the old deal as dead (including Confucius, say), at the same time that we admit the new is of the making of our own lives & references, yet, there is bound to be a tremendous pick-up from history other than that which has been usable as reference, the moment either that history is restored (Sumer, or, more done, Chichen or Uaxactun) or rising people (these Indians, as camposinos ripe for Communist play—as ripe as were the Chinese, date 1921, June 30). . . ." The problem was, to give form, again, to what the Maya had been—to restore the "history" which they were. For in the Maya was the looked-for content: a reality which is "wholly formal without loss of intimate spaces, with the ball still snarled, yet, with a light (and not stars) and a heat (not androgyne) which declares, the persistence of both organism and will (human). . . ."
In editing the present selection, I have tried to maintain a continuity in spite of the limits of space and the loss of some letters which it has meant. I have indicated excisions with dots ( . . .), whenever such were necessary.