A Curriculum of the Soul
A Very Short Audio Introduction
Above is CHARLES OLSON’S “Plan for Curriculum of the Soul” (1968).
in Rothenberg & Joris, Poems for the Millennium Vol. 2
CLAYTON ESHLEMAN: On February 9, 1968, Olson sent his student George Butterick, a two-page “outline” that on the one hand was probably spontaneous (reflecting current preoccupations) and on the other the result of twenty years of research and writing. Such a “Plan” suggests a mysterious correspondence between terrestrial labyrinths, star maps, and the human mind.
Not only does this “Plan” fail to follow the steps of most outlines, it treats its “subjects” as if they were pick-up sticks that had suddenly been loosed from the poet’s grip, falling everywhichway on the page. The only “direction” is that indicated by the fact that the title, one third of the way down on the right-hand page, is under a phrase ending in the word “completion,” suggesting that the “Plan” is to be read as a kind of asymmetrical swirl, working down from the title on the right-hand page, crossing over to the left-hand page and following it upward, then crossing back to the right-hand page and ending with “completion”…
Another reading possibility is to disperse with direction entirely, and take the subjects and suggestions as “free bodies” brought together in a single double-page arena. If they are taken as a set of leads, the novice can follow them out himself. By coming to terms with “Alchemy – rather by plates [as connected to dreams]” or with what Olson might mean by “Bach’s belief,” he can (often by arguing with Olson) start to develop his own assembly of intersecting subjects or directions…..
… [this was] not a set of proposals or even an argument, but a tilting assembly of names, subjects and ideas that evokes the accesses and restrictions of the labyrinth itself.
From Clayton Eshleman, "Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship," in Companion Spider: Essays,(Wesleyan University Press, 2002).
Olson’s text was first published in Magazine of Further Studies #5. Its editor, Jack Clarke, selected 28 words from the total of 223. In consultation with two other students, Albert Glover and Fred Wah, each was assigned to a member of the Olson community, with the invitation to write a 20-50 page “fascicle” somehow relevant to that word. The "topics" thus selected were: The Mushroom; Dream; Woman; Mind; Language; Earth; Blake; Dante; Homer’s Art; Bach’s Belief; Novalis’ “Subjects”; The Norse; The Arabs; American Indians; Jazz Playing; Dance; Egyptian Hieroglyphs; Ismaeli Muslimism; Alchemy; Perspective; Vision; Messages; Analytic Psychology; Organism; Matter; Phenomenological; Sensation; Attention. Below are Jack Clarke's annotations to a copy of the "Curriculum" making the original assignments, sent to me by Ralph Maud. [Thanks to VerySmallKitchen, the source for much of this]. Albert Glover told me that as there were no women in the original list it was eventually emended - though even then the number of women is small, though their stature great: Lisa Jarnot, Joanne Kyger and Alice Notley.
Sometime after Charles Olson’s death in January 1970, I told Jack Clarke I wanted to publish some kind of tribute to Olson. He responded by sending me a copy of “A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul” which Olson had sent to us for publication in The Magazine of Further Studies no. 5. On the copy Jack had selected 28 terms as “subjects” and to each one he had written the name of a poet who might write a “fascicle” using the term as a title. We agreed that he would request the text and forward it to me and that I would publish and distribute it. I imagined that the project would take about two years, but in fact it took thirty. Many of the fascicles were printed mimeograph, texts and covers. But as the decades passed I began to employ commercial printers. The issues were sold by subscription or through book dealers. Press runs were usually close to 300 copies. After the final issue (“one’s own Language” by Lisa Jarnot) appeared in 2002, I began editing the whole toward a single volume limited edition of 51 copies designed and produced by Michael Russem at Kat Ran Press and bound in Japanese silk by Sarah Creighton. The book was released in 2010 at the Charles Olson Centennial celebration in Vancouver. In 2016 a two-volume trade edition was published by Spuyten Duyvil press.
— Albert Glover, Canton, New York, 2016