"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Henry Corbin and American Poetry - Part 1

The American poet Charles Olson (1910-1970) is known to have been influenced by the work of Henry Corbin though little has been written on the connection. I offer these notes as a guide for the interested reader.

This from Dr. Donald Wellman at Daniel Webster College:

"The key text for Olson seems to have been an article, "Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism." [this is in Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, Trans. R. Manheim, J. Morris, London: Kegan Paul International, 1983. The essay was delivered at Eranos in 1951 and published in 1952 in the Eranos Jahrbuch]. Olson shared his thoughts on Ismaili philosophy with Leroy Jones (later Amiri Baraka) who published an essay on the topic in his literary journal Floating Bear [originally edited with Diane Di Prima who took over in 1963]. Ralph Maud has published a complete inventory of Olson's readings including his markings in the margins of different texts. He produces a Minutes of the Olson Society with fascinating detail. [See The Charles Olson Society]. Most who have commented on Olson and Corbin refer to the book on Avicenna. See also Tom Clark's book Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life. New York: Norton, 1991, pp. 282-3."

Clark writes as follows:

"In late 1960 Olson found a new spiritual guide to the ritual work of verse, a French scholar of medieval Arabic thought, Henry Corbin, whose essay 'Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism' he discovered in a Jungian yearbook. Corbin's formulation of medieval Muslim mystical belief offered a fresh response to 'that question of a poet's images and his coming into possession of them leading to ...cosmology,' increasingly the central question of poetics for Olson. In Corbin's description of the Ismaili angelology of person, each personified angel or spiritual adept, observing a particularized 'total time of his own measure,' rode the cyclic homing-beams of a cosmic 'thought that is thought through him' back into soul origins in a timeless paradise of genesis. The process of spiritual exegesis or perpetual return, called by the medievel Ismaili philosophers ta'wil, was identified by Olson - as hinted in his largely baffling essay "Gramar - 'a book,'" published in LeRoi Jones' Floating Bear in 1961 - with his own idea of a poetic 'middle voice,' syntax of autonomic measure. The concept of ta'wil also provided him a talisman of the personal meaning of eternity: on the page margins of Corbin's definition of the term he scrawled an exultant "WOW," and beneath it the underscored summary comment "history." Like Corbin's Arabs, he had himself long stubbornly construed history not as a linear progression but as an endless circling back to an "obdurate, or ...archaic time or condition." To see, and experience, history as cyclic return allowed one to simultaneously escape its power "as a 'fate,'" in these years as much a motive in Olson's poetry as (he now learned from Jung) it had once been in archaic mystery rites designed to "break the 'compulsion of the stars' by magic power." The cosmological imagery derived from Corbin entered Olson's epic in 1961, with "Maximus at the Harbor." Written during a dramatic early-winter storm on Cape Ann, it was an anthem of the "progressive rise" of self and soul through the chaotic whirl of natural process: "Paradise is a person. Come into this world. / The soul is a magnificent Angel, / And the thought of its thought is the rage / of Ocean...." " (Clark, 282-3.)

Olson also refers to the Ismailis in "A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul" (1968) which can be found in Rothenberg & Joris, Poems for the Millennium Volume 2, 410-11.

I have recently been alerted to this very interesting essay, "Divining Word" by Dale Smith on Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Edward Dorn and their relation to Corbin.

In Charles Olson's Reading: A Biography, by Ralph Maud we find that Corbin's Avicenna and the Visionary Recital was also an important text for Olson. He listed it, along with a diverse array of other books, including Jung's Psychology & Alchemy as an essential text for a proposed graduate seminar. It also served as a reference for the Maximus poem of 11 Feb 1966 which begins "the Mountain of no difference" (p. 501 in the Maximus Poems). It is also a source for a late addition to "The Animate versus the Mechanical, and Thought" (30 April 1969) p. 368 in Olson's Collected Prose.

NOTE: I find no mention of Corbin in the indexes to any of ten volumes of the Olson - Creeley Correspondence: Olson, Charles, Robert Creeley, George F. Butterick, and Richard Blevins. Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980-1996.


  1. It's been a while, but I believe I first heard of Corbin via something Creeley wrote ...

  2. I would be very grateful to anyone who can give me a reference on this. - Tom Cheetham

  3. In my "chest of goodies" is /are both volumes 1 and 2 of the letters between Cid Corman and Charles Olson

    Letters of Origin (or from Origin)

    this is the original 2 volumes not the 1 volume edtion..
    will pull them out and see what if anything the two mention and if they do Corbin

    too late now to ask Cid.

  4. will skim through my Corman/Olson letters (Letters from Origin

    the 2 volume complete letters

    and see if they mention Corbin..

    about 5 years now too late to ask Cid