Black Mountain Poets
The Black Mountain poets, sometimes called projectivist poets, were a group of mid 20th century American avant-garde or postmodern poets centered on Black Mountain College.
Although it lasted only twenty-three years (1933-1956) and enrolled fewer than 1,200 students, Black Mountain College was one of the most fabled experimental institutions in art education and practice. It launched a remarkable number of the artists who spearheaded the avant-garde in the America of the 1960s. It boasted an extraordinary curriculum in the visual, literary, and performing arts as evidenced by some of the artists and teachers listed here:
Its art teachers included Anni & Josef Albers, Eric Bentley, Ilya Bolotowsky, Willem & Elaine de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Lyonel Feininger, Franz Kline, Walter Gropius and Robert Motherwell. Among their students were John Chamberlain, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, and Cy Twombly.
The performing arts teachers included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Lou Harrison, Roger Sessions, David Tudor, and Stefan Wolpe. Among the literature teachers and students were Robert Creeley, Fielding Dawson, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Paul Goodman, Francine du Plessix Gray, Hilda Morley, Charles Olson, M. C. Richards, Ruth Asawa, Arthur Penn, Kenneth Snelson, Stan Vanderbeek, José Yglesias, and John Wieners. Guest lecturers included Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg, and William Carlos Williams.
Charles Olson (1910-1970)
and the Projective verse
Charles Olson was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a letter carrier and his wife, who spent summer vacations by the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, thirty miles from Boston. A gifted student at the Worcester Classical High School, Olson won a National Oratorical Contest that entitled him to spend ten weeks in Europe, where he met Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
After performing in several summer theaters and earning his A.B. and M.A. degrees from Wesleyan University, Olson taught English for two years at his hometown Clark University. In 1936 he began his study of civilizations at Harvard University. He left in 1939 and began work on a doctoral dissertation on Herman Melville. Joining the Roosevelt New Deal revolution, he first was briefly publicity director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and then, in 1942, became an assistant chief in the foreign section of the Office of War Information-working to protect minorities. While in Washington, he visited and painfully assisted controversial poet Ezra Pound, who was being held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. At this time he entered a common law marriage with Constance Wilcox. They had one child.
From 1948 to 1956 Olson joined the exceptional faculty circle of small, experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina: designer Buckminster Fuller, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, painter and art innovator Joseph Albers, and poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. As rector of the college, Olson initiated the Black Mountain poetry group. Here he also began his research on Mayan art and religion. When Black Mountain was closing in 1956, Olson ended his marriage and began a new common law marriage to Elizabeth Kaiser, a Black Mountain College music student. They had one child.
In 1957 they lived in Gloucester in a second-floor, cold water flat overlooking the harbor. Here he concentrated on extending his writing. Call Me Ishmael (1947) had presented Moby Dick as a new myth of the West. Projective Verse (1950) interpreted Creeley’s radical approach to poetry. The Mayan Letters (1953)-written from Mexico to Robert Creeley-included his earlier highly praised poem “The Kingfishers,” which exalted Aztec religion. Olson renounced our European heritage and embraced New World Indian cultures. Other books were In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953) and The Distances (1960). In 1964 his wife Elizabeth Kaiser was killed in in an auto crash in which he was injured, an event that long haunted him.
Olson spent his remaining decade in Gloucester writing The Maximus Poems, a long never-finished epic on the origin of America since Mesopotamia, as well as on the rise and fall of other civilizations. Olson was unable to teach at the University of Connecticut as planned, as he died of liver cancer two weeks before his fifty-ninth birthday.
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
Just to make clear
where they come from
lights up the day.
The April moon
flakes the night.
are a multitude
The flowers are ravined
by bees, the fruit blossoms
are thrown to the ground, the wind
the rain forces everything. Noise-
even the night is drummed
by whippoorwills, and we get
as busy, we plow, we move,
we break out, we love. The secret
which got lost neither hides
nor reveals itself, it shows forth
tokens. And we rush
to catch up. The body
whips the soul. In its great desire
it demands the elixir
In the roar of spring,
drags herself off. The fault of the body and the soul
-that they are not one-
the matutinal clock clangs
and singleness: we salute you
season of no bungling
THE MAXIMUS POEMS
sea (after a single year as worshipped
God floated out and sunk
in the Indian Ocean, from
target area as
St Sebastian-body as
shot full of holes for a
purpose the God punished each year done away with
the Solar King the Excess-Energy
transformed. Used. Excessive
anyway-in a society like America energy if it is not moral is
material. Which cannot be destroyed is never destroyed is
left all over the place. Junk.
into the Harbor cleared away
yearly, to revive the Abstract to make it possible for form
to be sought again. Each year form has expressed itself. Each
year it too
must be re-sought. There are 70 odd “forms”, there are 70
chances at revealing
the Real. The Real
renews itself each year, the Real
is solar, life is not, life is 13 months long each year. Minus
one day (the day the sun turns) The Sun
is in pursuit of itself. A year
is the possibility, the Real
goes on forever
In 1950, Charles Olson published his seminal essay, Projective Verse. In this, he called for a poetry of “open field” composition to replace traditional closed poetic forms with an improvised form that should reflect exactly the content of the poem. This form was to be based on the line, and each line was to be a unit of breath and of utterance. The content was to consist of “one perception immediately and directly (leading) to a further perception”. This essay was to become a kind of de facto manifesto for the Black Mountain poets. One of the effects of narrowing the unit of structure in the poem down to what could fit within an utterance was that the Black Mountain poets developed a distinctive style of poetic diction (e.g. “yr” for “your”).
Charles Olson reads ‘Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]’ (Mar 1966)
Charles Olson reads ‘Letter # 41 [broken off]’ (Mar 1966)
Charles Olson reads ‘The Librarian’ (Mar 1966)
The main Black Mountain poets
In addition to Olson, the poets most closely associated with Black Mountain include Larry Eigner, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Paul Blackburn, Hilda Morley, John Wieners, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov, Jonathan Williams and Robert Creeley. Creeley worked as a teacher and editor of the Black Mountain Review for two years, moving to San Francisco in 1957. There, he acted as a link between the Black Mountain poets and the Beats, many of whom he had published in the review. Also, the appearance in 1960 of Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which divides the poets included in its pages into various schools) was crucial: it established a legacy and promoted the influence of the Black Mountain poets worldwide.
Robert Duncan (1919-1988)
During the 1960s, Duncan achieved considerable artistic and critical success with three books; The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968). These are generally considered to be his most significant works. His poetry is modernist in its preference for the impersonal, mythic, and hieratic, but Romantic in its privileging of the organic, the irrational and primordial, the not-yet-articulate blindly making its way into language like salmon running upstream:
Neither our vices nor our virtues
further the poem. “They came up
just like they do every year
on the rocks.” The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.
The Opening of the Field comprised short lyric poems, a recurring sequence of prose poems called “The Structure of Rime,” and a long poem called “Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” which draws materials from Pindar, Francisco Goya, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and the myth of Persephone into an extended visionary and ecstatic fugue in the mode of Pound’s Pisan Cantos.
After Bending the Bow, he vowed to avoid the distraction of publication for fifteen years. Duncan’s friend and fellow poet, Michael Palmer, writes about this time in his essay “Ground Work: On Robert Duncan” : The story is well-known in poetry circles: around 1968, disgusted by his difficulties with publishers and by what he perceived as the careerist strategies of many poets, Duncan vowed not to publish a new collection for fifteen years. (There would be chapbooks along the way.) He felt that this decision would free him to listen to the demands of his (supremely demanding) poetics and would liberate the architecture of his work from all compromised considerations. …It was not until 1984 that Ground Work I: Before the War appeared, for which he won the National Poetry Award, to be followed in February 1988, the month of his death, by Ground Work II: In the Dark.
“Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow,” by Robert Duncan
Denise Levertov (1923-1997)
Both politics and war are major themes in Levertov’s poetry. Levertov was published in the Black Mountain Review during the 1950s, but denied any formal relations with the group. She began to develop her own lyrical style of poetry through those influences. She felt it was part of a poet’s calling to point out the injustice of the Vietnam War, and she also actively participated in rallies, reading poetry at some. Some of her war poetry was published in her 1971 book To Stay Alive, a collection of anti-Vietnam War letters, newscasts, diary entries, and conversations. Complementary themes in the book involve the tension of the individual vs. the group (or government) and the development of personal voice in mass culture. In her poetry, she promotes community and group change through the imagination of the individual and emphasizes the power of individuals as advocates of change. She also links personal experience to justice and social reform.
Suffering is another major theme in Levertov’s war poetry. The poems “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”, “Paradox and Equilibrium”, and “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” revolve around war, injustice, and prejudice. In her volume “Life at War”, Denise Levertov attempts to use imagery to express the disturbing violence of the Vietnam War. Throughout these poems, she addresses violence and savagery, yet tries to bring grace into the equation. She attempts to mix the beauty of language and the ugliness of the horrors of war. The themes of her poems, especially “Staying Alive”, focus on both the cost of war and the suffering of the Vietnamese. In her prose work, The Poet in the World, she writes that violence is an outlet. Levertov’s first successful Vietnam poetry was her book Freeing of the Dust. Some of the themes of this book of poems are the experience of the North Vietnamese, and distrust of people. She attacks the United States pilots in her poems for dropping bombs. Overall, her war poems incorporate suffering to show that violence has become an everyday occurrence. After years of writing such poetry, Levertov eventually came to the conclusion that beauty and poetry and politics can’t go together (Dewey). This opened the door wide for her religious-themed poetry in the later part of her life.
Denise Levertov reads six poems
Denise Levertov reads six poems from her later collections, three from EVENING TRAIN (1992) and three later included in her posthumously published collection SANDS OF THE WELL (1998). This is an extract from an hour-long reading she gave for the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles on 7 December 1993. The poems are: ‘Settling’, ‘Open Secret’, ‘Tragic Error’, ‘The Danger Moment’, ‘A Gift’ and ‘For Those Whom the Gods Love Less’, three of which were also included in her SELECTED POEMS (New Directions, 2002), which was published in Britain as NEW SELECTED POEMS (Bloodaxe Books, 2003)
Robert Creeley (1926-2005)
Robert Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1926. After graduating, Creeley attended Harvard University, but his stay there was interrupted by a year with the American Field Service in India and Burma (1944-1945). Returning to Harvard, Creeley published his first poems in Harvard’s Wake and in Cid Corman’s magazine, Origin. Soon after he married his first wife Ann and dropped out of Harvard without graduating. The couple moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and became friendly with the bohemian community of that city. The commute by ferry to Cambridge proved a distraction to the young poet, however, and the Creeleys soon moved to a farm in Littleton, New Hampshire, where he spent his time reading, writing, and breeding pigeons. There he also began a long correspondence with Charles Olson, which strengthened his resolve to see a literary career.
Seeking a less expensive existence, the Creeleys moved to Mallorca in 1951, and it was while in Europe that he published his first books of poems, Le Fou, The Immoral Proposition and The Kind of Act Of. One of these books and his collection of short stories, The Gold Diggers (1954) were published originally by his own press in Mallorca, Divers Press. Mallorca was also the setting for Creeley’s only novel, The Island, published in 1963. Creeley returned to the US to teach at Black Mountain College in 1954, and after a brief return to Mallorca, where he divorced Ann, he settled in 1955 at Black Mountain, editing The Black Mountain Review (1954-1957). Under the rectorship of Charles Olson, Black Mountain college had a teaching body of enormously creative individuals, including the artists Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, composer-poet John Cage, dancer Merce Cuningham, and writer Paul Goodman.
Soon after his return to the US Creeley also published two new books, All That Is Lovely in Men (1955) and If You (1956). Soon after he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he remarried and taught at a boy’s school until 1959, receiving an M.A. degree from the University of New Mexico in 1960. After working on a Guatemalan plantation in the early 1960s, Creeley returned to the American poetry world, teaching for brief periods of time at the University of British Columbia and living in Bolinas, California before becoming a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he would remain until his death.
His early poems, Poems 1950-1965, were collected in 1966, and his Collected Poems were published in 1982 by the University of California Press. Creeley received many of the major poetry awards, including the Levinson prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, and the Shelley Memorial Award and the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987, and received a Distinguished Fulbright Fellowship to serve as the Bicentennial chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki from 1989-1991. At the time of his death, on March 30, 2005, Creeley was attending a writing retreat in Texas.
A Form Of Women
I have come far enough
from where I was not before
to have seen the things
looking in at me from through the open doorand have walked tonight
to see the moonlight
and see it as trees
and shapes more fearful
because I feared
what I did not know
but have wanted to know.
My facd is my own, I thought.
But you have seen it
turn into a thousand years.
I watched you cry.
I could not touch you.
I wanted very much to
but could not.
If it is dark
when this is given to you,
have care for its content
when the moon shines.
My face is my own.
My hands are my own.
My mouth is my own
but I am not.
whn you leave me alone
all the darkness is
an utter blackness,
a pit of fear,
never to touch.
But I love you.
Do you love me.
What to say
when you see me.
He wants to be
a brutal old man,
an aggressive old man,
as dull, as brutal
as the emptiness around him,He doesn’t want compromise,
nor to be ever nice
to anyone. Just mean,
and final in his brutal,
his total, rejection of it all.
He tried the sweet,
the gentle, the “oh,
let’s hold hands together”
and it was awful,
dull, brutally inconsequential.
Now he’ll stand on
his own dwindling legs.
His arms, his skin,
shrink daily. And
he loves, but hates equally.
Inside My Head
Inside my head a common room,
a common place, a common tune,
a common wealth, a common doom
inside my head. I close my eyes.
The horses run. Vast are the skies,
and blue my passing thoughts’ surprise
inside my head. What is this space
here found to be, what is this place
if only me? Inside my head, whose face?
First there, it proves to be still here.
Distant as seen, it comes then to be near.
I found it here and there unclear.
What if my hand had only been
extension of an outside reaching in
to work with common means to change me then?
All things are matter, yet these seem
caught in the impatience of a dream,
locked in the awkwardness they mean.
Peculiar that swan should mean a sound?
I’d thought of gods and power, and wounds.
But here in the curious quiet this one has settled down.
All day the barking dogs were kept at bay.
Better than dogs, a single swan, they say,
will keep all such malignant force away
and so preserve a calm, make pond a swelling lake—
sound through the silent grove a shattering spate
of resonances, jarring the mind awake.
Into one’s self come in again,
here as if ever now to once again begin
with beauty’s old, old problem never-ending—
Go, lovely rose … So was that story told
in some extraordinary place then, once upon a time so old
it seems an echo now as it again unfolds.
I point to me to look out at the world.
I see the white, white petals of this rose unfold.
I know such beauty in the world grows cold.
“Come closer. Now there is nothing left
either inside or out to gainsay death,”
the skull that keeps its secrets saith.
The ways one went, the forms that were
empty as wind and yet they stirred
the heart to its passion, all is passed over.
Lighten the load. Close the eyes.
Let the mind loosen, the body die,
the bird fly off to the opening sky.
Such space it comes again to be,
a room of such vast possibility,
a depth so great, a way so free.
Life and its person, thinking to find
a company wherewith to keep the time
a peaceful passage, a constant rhyme,
stumble perforce, must lose their way,
know that they go too far to stay
stars in the sky, children at play.
Robert Creeley reading “Please”
A poem by Robert Creeley
Apart from their strong interconnections with the Beats, the Black Mountain poets influenced the course of later American poetry via their importance for the poets later identified with the Language School. They were also important for the development of innovative British poetry since the 1960s, as evidenced by such poets as Tom Raworth and J. H. Prynne. Modern projectivist poets include Charles Potts.
Dawson, Fielding The Black Mountain Book. Croton Press, Ltd., NY 1970
Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. MIT Press, 2002.
Katz, Vincent (editor). Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art. MIT Press, 2003.
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