"...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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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Notes on Mysticism in 20th Century American Poetry

I have no intention of pretending to be an historian - but I am trying to nail down some facts about the early reception of Corbin in America. I have been somewhat hampered by a lack of knowledge of the landscape of 20th century poetry. Few know that terrain any better than Ron Silliman and it finally occurred to me to ask this fine and helpful man for some advice. He responded with characteristic enthusiasm and a long and detailed letter giving me suggestions for reading and names of people to contact - which I will act upon immediately.  One of his general points about the recent history of poetry in America can be summarized by this excerpt from his letter:

"...the death of [Charles] Olson really signaled the end of an ardent interest by many poets in all matters of the occult [and the "mystical" in general], including say historical investigations of earlier religious models. As it was, it had been pretty much the purview of just one group within the New American poets, those most often called Black Mountain or Projectivist. So Olson dies [1970] and [Robert] Duncan has just begun his announced 15-year hiatus from publishing...  What filled this space was theory, French theory & western-Marxist theory. It very much takes over that range of theoretical discussion among younger poets... There is one real exception to this history worth noting -- Sulfur, Clayton Eshleman's journal, and the interest he & Jerry Rothenberg have had, which is both different from Olson & from one another."

He is quick to point out that this account is hardly complete and goes on to mention several other poets in this "camp" as it were - so the story is of course a continuing saga. Silliman points us to a post from his superb and useful blog from June 2006 which is essential reading on this topic.


  1. Another useful one-stop source here would be the late and greatly lamented dom sylvester houedard aka dsh -- monk of Prinknash Abbey, Glos., concrete poet, and writer on Ibn Arabi as I recall.

    Sylvester kept up an amazing correspondence with hundreds of poets around the world:

  2. It may well be true that with the death of Olson a certain stance toward mysticism is no longer so prevalent, but figures such as Nathaniel Tarn, Robert Kelley, Gerret Lansing, Jay Wright,Denise Levertov, Allen Grossman, Phillip Lamantia, Beverly Dahlen, and no doubt many others pursue their own engagements with mystical traditions. And even within the post- Olson moment that Ron describes,where the curriculum of the soul becomes the curriculum of critical theory, an engagement with mystical thought can be discerned in say Michael Palmer or Tom Mandel or David Shapiro, and most emphatically in Alice Notley.

  3. Thanks Joseph - yes these are mostly names that Ron did mention but you have added a few to my list - & I am wondering who among these all may have read Corbin - that would interest me.