1. The Tablet Of The 96 Hieroglyphs
  2. from A Book of the Maya
    (Dresden Codex)

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Ancient Mayan writing — now open to a reading across time — is its own unique mix of visualization and sound. The sense of that uniqueness was grasped, of course, before the system itself was decoded. Thus Charles Olson, back in 1951 or so:

"Christ, these hieroglyphs. Here is the most abstract & formal deal of all the things this people dealt out -- & yet, to my mind, it is precisely as intimate as verse is. Is, in fact, verse. And comes into existence, obeys the same laws that the coming into existence, the persistence of verse, does." (Mayan Letters)

Dennis Tedlock, writing after the fact of a now readable language, captures a fuller sense of the language particulars that underlie the classical Mayan inscriptions and form the basis of an actual poetics: "As it turns out the signs of Mayan writing do notate linguistic sounds, but they do not constitute an alphabet. And, though some signs do take their forms from objects in the world, they rarely mean what they look like. // Instead of notating consonants and vowels, Mayan signs go by syllables and whole words. And where an alphabet constitutes a closed code, fixed at a small number of signs that are (ideally) isomorphic with the sounds they notate, Mayan signs (like Egyptian and Chinese signs) are abundant, providing multiple ways of spelling any given syllable or word. This kind of script is reader-friendly in its own particular ways, permitting the annotation of a word sign with a syllabic hint as to its pronunciation, or permitting a reader to recall a forgotten sign or learn a new one by comparing two different spellings in places where the text would seem to demand the same word. It is also writer-friendly, presenting choices that are more than a matter of calligraphy or typography. Here we need a new term or two, perhaps polygraphy or diagraphism. Just as a Mayan poem reminds the hearer that different words can be used with reference to the same object, so a Mayan text reminds the reader that different signs can be used for the same syllables or sounds." (From Tedlocks’s "Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability," in Rothenberg and Clay, A Book of the Book)

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