“Which is the Black Mountain?”:
A Scholarly Introduction
The Black Mountain College Anthology of Poetry
by Alessandro Porco, UNC Wilmington
Editor’s Note: A team of BMC collaborators has been working the last four years on The Black Mountain College Anthology of Poetry, which will soon be published by Jargon Press and The Black Mountain College Museum+Arts Center. This volume of BMCS showcases two significant scholarly contributions that form part of the anthology’s introductory material.
In September of 1933, nineteen students and twelve faculty and staff members gathered in Western North Carolina for the opening of Black Mountain College (BMC). For twenty-four years (1933 to 1957), BMC exemplified the experimental spirit in American education, culture, and letters.
This experiment grew largely out of the vision, imagination, and efforts of John Andrew Rice, Jr. An Oxford graduate, Classics scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, and essayist promoting John Dewey’s progressive educational reforms, Rice followed a student-centered, hands-on approach to learning that emphasized method over content and process over product. Altering the course of higher education, he, Theodore Dreier, and other students and staff from Rollins College helped establish BMC. The chosen location lay just outside the town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, approximately fifteen miles east of Asheville. Rice served as the school’s official rector from 1934 to 1938. Although Rice is now seen as a great leader of a radical, experimental institution, in 1933, central Florida socialites and the leadership at Rollins College, a small liberal arts school in Winter Park, Florida, had deposed him. Dismissed as a rogue by the school’s President and Board of Trustees, Rice lost his tenured faculty position, learning first-hand the lack of understanding from which visionaries often suffer.
Rice objected to many Rollins administrative policies, taking a stand against a new regimented eight-hour school day, the presence of sororities and fraternities on campus, and the practice of competitive debate. Instead, he followed a Progressive teaching creed. Rice espoused intellectual autonomy over objective measurement of standards. He valued personal engagement over adherence to rigid instruction. Aiming to facilitate human capabilities, Rice insisted students pursue their own interests. What might have been seen as a curse at Rollins became a blessing at the newly founded BMC.
While at BMC, Rice followed four key principles and sought to:
- Make creative practices integral to the curriculum;
- Keep a low student-to-faculty ratio and ensure an intense, intimate learning environment. At BMC, professors offered partisan views on art, literature, and music while supporting and developing the particular interests of individual students;
- Divide and share labor, with both students (male and female) and faculty required to work together, sharing responsibility for the campus’ upkeep. Success meant acquiring the know-how to discuss Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and mend a sewage pipe;
- Distribute power equally among the faculty, avoiding an authoritative, external administrative force. Even students had representational rights in the form of officers on various committees, including the Board of Fellows.
Put simply, Rice’s liberal arts school in the mountains emphasized political as well as intellectual autonomy.
From 1933 to 1941, faculty, staff, and students congregated daily at Robert E. Lee Hall, a plantation-style building with three-story Doric columns and a sprawling portico. Part of the Blue Ridge Assembly (a group of buildings used by the local YMCA), Lee Hall served as the college’s epicenter, the locus of classes, performances, dorms, parties, and even housed the library. By decade’s end, the college demonstrated significant growth, with as many as seventy-five to eighty full-time students enrolled.
In 1941, BMC moved to Lake Eden, a 674-acre summer resort and camp originally purchased in 1937. A. Lawrence Kocher, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Virginia, designed the school’s buildings, including the iconic Studies Building, which looked more like a surreal glass-box flotilla than an antiseptic educational facility. Faculty and students worked together to build the Lake Eden campus.
Throughout the 1940s, Josef and Anni Albers assumed key leadership roles on campus, helping the college blossom in spite of the hardships and interruptions caused by the Second World War. The Bauhaus-trained émigrés (Josef was a painter, and Anni was a textile designer) first came to BMC from Germany fleeing political persecution and censorship under the Third Reich. In November 1933, after the hostile Nazi takeover of Germany on January 30, 1933 (often referred to as the Machtergreifung), Josef Albers and his wife fled to safety in North Carolina’s Swannanoa Valley. They had accepted an offer to develop the BMC art program from the ground up.
Like Rice, Josef Albers was a forward-thinking educator, and BMC experienced a golden age due, in part, to his championing of the college’s special summer sessions in the 1940s. These “institutes” provided an influx of visiting students and faculty who re-energized the campus with new ideas about art, music, literature, dance, and science. These summer institutes reached their apotheosis in 1948: Seventy-four students enrolled, and the now-legendary faculty included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, William de Kooning, and Isaac Rosenfeld. That summer, Fuller developed his prototype for the geodesic dome, and Cage curated a music festival dedicated to Erik Satie’s music.
In 1948, poet-visionary Charles Olson began teaching at BMC; he took over as the school’s last rector in 1954. Olson’s tenure signaled a major shift in emphasis at the college, with creative writing—especially poetry—displacing other artistic and intellectual disciplines. For example, at Olson’s invitation, poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan joined the faculty in 1954 and 1956, respectively. But as Olson and company attempted to transform the theory and practice of American poetry to reflect the condition of postmodernity, the college fell into disarray.
Personal reminiscences of this late period in the school’s history stress the psychological and economic strain of everyday life. “In anxiety and depression we felt trapped . . . and we let each other suffer, in secret keeping watch,” explains Fielding Dawson in his memoir (132; emphasis in original). Poet Hilda Morley similarly recalls how “it was good, at Black Mountain, to wake up to the quiet, the space, the sound of birds, though at times these might be interrupted by the noise of beer bottles rolling on the floor above us, or the scream of a new mother in the throes of a nervous breakdown” (“A Few Mixed Recollections” 317). One student attempted suicide while others threatened it. Alcohol and drugs freely circulated. As the campus’ physical conditions deteriorated, so did the emotional conditions of students, faculty, and their families. Enrollment steadily declined throughout the 1950s: in fall 1954, only nine students registered for classes. A significantly diminished student body contributed to the school’s increasing financial woes.
Olson faced the impossible fiscal task of salvaging the college. Throughout 1953 and 1954, he embarked on a number of fundraising campaigns that ultimately failed. For example, he created a symbolic Board of Advisors that included Albert Einstein, Franz Kline, Carl O. Sauer, Norbert Wiener, and William Carlos Williams. Olson hoped the board’s big names would generate donor interest and capital, thus keeping the school’s doors open and, at the same time, help to pay off the debt owed to its former faculty members. When nothing happened, Olson had no choice but to start selling and renting campus property. He even sold a herd of cows for $1,725.00 (Harris 168-181). BMC was forced to close its doors for good in 1957. In those final months, Olson “stayed on alone, to preside over the distribution of the physical remains, landlord of the detritus of his educational ideals” (Metcalf 24).
The Black Mountain Review (BMR) was a part of Olson’s plan. He envisioned BMR as a promotional tool, “an active advertisement for the nature and form of the college’s program” (Woods 974). To edit the magazine, he sought the help of Robert Creeley, who, in 1954, had set sail from Cadiz, Spain, to assume his new teaching position at BMC. Olson committed $2,000.00 per year to the magazine, and that was enough for Creeley to publish between 400-750 copies per issue. In 1954, Creeley edited the magazine’s first volume’s four issues; each issue was 64 pages. From 1955-57, he edited one issue per year, each issue 224 pages. Mossén Alcover Press, in Mallorca, Spain, printed the first six issues. Creeley had worked with Mossén Alcover while living in Mallorca in 1953. The low-cost press printed his Divers Press books, many of which are early publications by essential Black Mountain poets: Paul Blackburn’s The Dissolving Fabric, Robert Duncan’s Caesar’s Gate, and Larry Eigner’s From the Sustaining Air. Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society, in Highlands, North Carolina, printed the final issue.
A well-edited and provocative magazine had the potential to attract students to the college, increasing enrollment and, by extension, tuition revenue. But Olson and Creeley also envisioned BMR as a critical and creative intervention into the musty drawing room of mid-century American print culture: The Kenyon Review, The Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review, and Poetry. Creeley specifically looked to Cid Corman’s Origin as an inspiring alternative model of publishing. As Creeley explains, “More than any other magazine . . . [Origin] undertook to make [a] place for particular poets who later came to be called the ‘Black Mountain School’” (“The Black Mountain Review” 507). However, unlike Origin, Creeley insisted that BMR emphasize critical commentary, including essays, reviews, and manifestos, a key difference that allowed him to provide a context for the new American poetry.
In a letter from the period, Olson wanted BMR to “compete with Kenyon, Partison [sic], NMQ (what else is there, are Hudson, & Sewanee, still in existence?) Anyway, that sort of thing” (“To Cid Corman” 103). Socially, the magazine’s editors and contributors believed in self-reliance and autonomy: “a place wherein we might make evident what we, as writers, had found to be significant, both for ourselves and for that world—no doubt often vague to us indeed—we hoped our writing might enter” (Creeley, “The Black Mountain Review” 509). Formally, the writers affiliated with BMR galvanized around, and embodied the aesthetic ideals of, Olson’s projective poetics in their poetry, fiction, and criticism. They dared to disturb the universe and didn’t think twice about it. For example, Martin Seymour-Smith’s negative reviews of the extraordinarily popular Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke—mid-century poetry’s sacred cows (with heroically spotty livers)—caused Kenneth Rexroth to resign from his position on the editorial board in 1954. The magazine also adopted the college’s interdisciplinary spirit, featuring cover art by Katue Kitasono as well as John Altoon, Dan Rice, and Ed Corbet; photography by Peter Mitchum and Aaron Siskind (no. 3); and collage art by Jess Collins (no. 5). Thus, the seven issues of BMR form a rich historical archive of 1950s American poetry.
The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry includes poems that first appeared in the magazine: Olson’s “On First Looking Out through Juan de la Cosa’s Eyes,” Creeley’s “Old Song,” Duncan’s “For a Muse Meant,” and Denise Levertov’s “Everything that Acts is Actual”—poems from the “big four”—but also William Bronk’s “For an Early Italian Musician,” Irving Layton’s “Lacquered Westmount Doll,” Edward Marshall’s “Leave the Word Alone,” Hilda Morley’s “‘Seldom is a Gothic head more beautiful than when broken’,” and Gael Turnbull’s “Bjarni Spike-Helgi’s Son.” Layton, Levertov, and Turnbull represent the international reach of a modest magazine produced by and for a small liberal arts college in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Layton is Canadian, Levertov is English, and Turnbull is Scottish, although he lived and studied in the United States and Canada throughout the 1950s. In fact, no poet appeared with more frequency in BMR than Layton, who also served on the magazine’s editorial board in 1955.
BMR helped to connect a network of like-minded young poets in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Taos, as well as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver in Canada—and even extending to Tokyo, Japan, and Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, Germany. It compelled young writers to publish on their own in the late 1950s and early 1960s: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Yugen and Floating Bear (co-edited with Diane DiPrima); Irving Rosenthal’s Chicago Review; Paul Carroll’s Big Table; John Wieners’s Measure; Gilbert Sorrentino’s Neon; Ron Padgett’s White Dove Review; Daisy Alden’s Folder; Harry Matthews’s Locus Solus; Raymond Souster’s Contact; Louis Dudek’s CIV/n; TISH (started by a collective of Vancouver poets, including George Bowering and Frank Davey); Katue Kitasono’s Vou; Rainer Gerhardt’s Fragmente; and Gael Turnbull and Michael Shayer’s Migrant.
However, BMC poetry did not enter the “official” domain of American literature until 1960, the year Barney Rosset’s New York City-based Grove Press—dedicated to avant-garde, countercultural, pornographic, and overall misfit literature—published Donald Allen’s epoch-making The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (NAP). It included forty-four upstarts, braggarts, mystics, hipsters, homosexuals, and iconoclasts, many of whom—John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Koch, Gary Snyder, and Jack Spicer—are now taken for granted as commonplace figures in American literature (Perelman, “On Don Allen”).
NAP signaled a paradigm shift in American poetry comparable to, and contiguous with, bebop in African American jazz and abstract expressionism in the visual arts. By the early 1950s, Creeley was as likely to expound upon the rhythmic properties of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell solos as he was William Carlos Williams’s poetry. Similarly, it’s no coincidence that the Museum of Modern Art’s travelling exhibit of abstract expressionist paintings circa 1958 was titled The New American Painting.
In his “Preface” to NAP, Allen argues the new American poets were influenced by Ezra Pound (The Cantos), William Carlos Williams (Patterson), and H.D. (Helen in Egypt) rather than T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. The NAP poets adopted a resolutely anti-academic rhetoric. The material conditions of production, circulation, and reception at mid-century had imbricated aesthetic and social consequences for “the new younger poets,” too: “[They] have written a large body of work, but most of what has been published so far has appeared only in a few little magazines, as broadsheets, pamphlets, and limited editions, or circulated in manuscript” (xi). The performance of poetry at public and private readings became increasingly popular, compelling the new American poets to think about voice, lineation, and diction in relation to a live, attentive audience. By 1970, Jeanetta L. Jones established “The New American Poetry Circuit,” a Berkeley-based co-op involved in organizing readings and lectures across the country for poets associated with the NAP.
Olson’s “Projective Verse” is the defining poetics statement of NAP. In it, Olson theorizes “OPEN” verse or “COMPOSITION BY FIELD” (387). That is, a poem’s form is not “inherited” (e.g., repeated stanza structure or accentual-syllabic lineation) but intuited and discovered in media res (394). Prosody, imagery, and language are localized in the poet’s breath, physis, and energia: “get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast you can, citizen” (388). The spatialization of form (the “field”) is coordinated with a new temporality in which nothing “outside the unit of time local to the idea” enters the poem (394). This general desire for openness is echoed in unique ways by his fellow new American poets: Duncan’s vowels serve as audible passages through which the occult and mystical enter and disturb the rational limits of the poem—”a disturbance of words within words” (7). In “My Heart,” Frank O’Hara explains, “I want my face to be shaven, and my heart— / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open” (231). Likewise, Ginsberg’s “Howl” taps into and exposes the psychosocial trauma of exposes the psychosocial trauma of a generation “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” (182).
Allen organizes NAP into five grouped sections. Geography determines the first four groups: The Black Mountain Poets; The San Francisco Renaissance; The Beats, who oscillated between San Francisco and New York; and The New York School. The fifth grouping possesses “no geographical definition”: “It includes younger poets who have been associated with and in some cases influenced by the leading writers of the preceding groups” (xiii).
In order of appearance, Allen’s Black Mountain poets are Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Paul Carroll, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer. They satisfy at least one of Allen’s three criteria: they taught at the college (Olson, Creeley, and Duncan), studied at the college under Olson, Creeley, and Duncan (Dorn, Oppenheimer, and Williams), or published in either BMR or Origin (Blackburn, Carroll, Eigner, and Levertov).
Allen acknowledges that his organizational “divisions are somewhat arbitrary and cannot be taken as rigid categories”—though, unfortunately, they have since circulated as dogma (xii). Case in point, Duncan worked as an instructor at BMC briefly in 1956; and he contributed poetry and essays to BMR throughout the magazine’s run. But, along with Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, Duncan is one of the central figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, his poetry and poetics socially and sexually grounded in that city’s poetry community, institutions (e.g., San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center), and the museum-like home he shared with the collage artist Jess. Similarly, Allen places John Wieners in the anthology’s fifth group. As the Boston-born Wieners recalls, “I first met Charles Olson on the night of Hurricane Hazel, September 11, 1954, when I ‘accidentally’ heard him read his verse at the Charles St. Meeting House. They passed out complimentary copies of the Black Mountain Review #1, and I aint [sic] been able to forget” (“Biographical Note” 445). An inspired Wieners enrolled at the college for one full semester and one summer session, and he is now regarded without much controversy as a Black Mountain poet.
Alan Golding’s recent scholarship on the editorial history of NAP points to the fluidity of Donald Allen’s Black Mountain School. Allen started the editorial process in earnest in April 1958, shaping a provisional table of contents through table talk and correspondence—often at cross purposes and sometimes strained—with an advisory board that includes Olson, Creeley, and Duncan, as well as Blaser, O’Hara, Jones/Baraka, and James Schuyler (Allen, NAP 447-448). In letters, for example, Olson urges Allen to categorize Edward Marshall as a Black Mountain poet. BMR had published Marshall’s “Leave the Word Alone,” a poem that earned the admiration of Duncan, Creeley, Ginsberg, and Michael Rumaker. But Marshall suffered Wiener’s fate: Allen places him in the anthology’s fifth section due to his age. William Bronk provides another interesting case study. He regularly publishes his early poetry in BMR and Origin—thus satisfying one of Allen’s three criteria. Bronk’s Wallace Stevens-esque poetry did not impress Olson; however, Creeley, one of his ardent admirers, nonetheless recommends Bronk to Allen for inclusion. Unfortunately, Bronk is the very last poet cut from NAP in December 1959 (Clippinger 163-174). Fortunately, The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry includes Bronk’s poetry for both its aesthetic and historical significance.
Bronk is not alone. A number of poets satisfy one or more of Allen’s criteria yet do not make NAP’s final cut. Paul Goodman (faculty), Edward Dahlberg (faculty), and Michael Rumaker (student) each receive serious consideration. Likewise, there is support for Turnbull and Layton. In a letter to Olson, Allen writes, “Also think[ing] of throwing in a couple of poems by Layton & Gael Turnbull to round it out, taking American in the wider sense” (“To Charles Olson” 59). In the end, the nationalist purview of NAP—in contrast with the transnational scope of the college—takes precedent. However, The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry resists easy, stereotypical notions, including Goodman, Dahlberg, and Rumaker, as well as Turnbull and Layton.
The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry recognizes the historical importance of BMR and NAP but transcends their respective limits, providing a far more inclusive sense of the BMC experience. It emphasizes the “people who were there” (Dawson 7). For nearly twenty-five years, faculty, students, families, lovers, and visitors lived and learned together, though not necessarily in perfect harmony and not always under the easiest conditions. They hiked into the Smoky Mountains, seeking the Muse in nature’s form; they fertilized the soil, and they milked cows; they debated poems, plays, and novels; they enjoyed dancing on Saturday evenings, as well as the occasional romantic intrigue; they played baseball on Sunday afternoons (e.g., by all accounts, Fielding Dawson was an exceptional starting pitcher); they snuck out to Ma Peek’s Tavern for drinks; and they played poker after dark, listening to the latest bebop records. Somewhere along the way, the faculty and students also found time to produce some of the most exhilarating poetry of the twentieth century.
Poets “who were there” reflect on the meaningfulness of the BMC experience through their verses. Marie Tavroges Stilkind’s “To Fee Dawson,” for example, recalls the tradition of Sunday afternoon baseball games on campus: “Poetry that spring / was the crack of the ball / on wood” (41). It requires an outsider’s perspective—Stilkind is a native of Montreal, Canada—to point out the irony of countercultural misfits at an experimental college indulging in the quintessential American sport. In “The Black Mountain Blues,” John Wieners imbues “old black mountain” with the promise of pastoral simplicity, sexual freedom, and creative community: “I want to eat spaghetti every night / with the ladies who play gay guitars / and the boys who lie down” (311). In his “Advance-Guard Writing, 1900-1950,” Paul Goodman expressed a desire similar to Wieners but in more pointedly critical terms: “The essential present-day advance-guard is the physical reestablishment of community. This is to solve the crisis of alienation in the simple way: the persons are estranged from themselves, from one another, and from their artist; he takes the initiative precisely by putting his arms around them and drawing them together” (375). Published in 1951, Goodman’s essay is, in fact, written as a reflection on, and celebration of, his transformative experience at BMC in 1950.
Martha King’s “Black Mountain Landscape” presents an account of things from a woman’s perspective. Her poem begins with a description of the Western Carolina topography but ends with a harrowing “dream” that throws Wieners’s pastoral into sharp relief:
The valley rises and thins out
it’s up end curving like the handle of a spoon
Pancake clouds splotch across the valley floor
and rivers of light
spill past the sign for Stucky’s Pee cans
following the bent road
where farm boys park
and dream of beating city women (44)
King’s poem suggests an intersection of town-and-gown conflict—the school’s students and faculty spatially figured as interloping “city” people—and the omnipresent threat of violence against women who dared to get an education or, seemingly worse, to write poetry.
Thankfully, many women dared to write poetry at BMC. While Denise Levertov was the only woman included in Allen’s “Black Mountain” group from NAP, The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry includes works by sixteen women poets: Silvia Girsh Ashby, Peggy Bennett Cole, Ruth Herschberger, Cynthia Homire, Eva Schlein Jungermann, Martha King, Denise Levertov, Jane Mayhall, Caroline Ewing Michahelles, Hilda Morley, Barbara Rice, M.C. Richards, Janet Heling Roberts, Marie Tavroges Stilkind, Martha Rittenhouse Treichler, and Susan Weil.
M.C. Richards started teaching at BMC in 1945, and she quickly became a favorite among the students. They enjoyed her classes—she taught Joyce, Faulkner, and Melville—but also her unusual temperament: “Youthful, enthusiastic, formal, aloof authority” (Dawson 17). Richards shared her students’ enthusiasm for learning: she studied theater, dance, woodwork, and, most importantly, pottery. Richards went on to commit her post-BMC life to integrating poetry, pottery, and eastern philosophy holistically, resulting in the publication of Centering.
Richards’s imagist-inflected poetry emphasizes wu wei—”getting out of one’s own way” (“Poetry” 70)—in order to see the world and its hidden connections more clearly. Other poems from her Black Mountain days, such as “Organization is not interesting, why” and “The way a man eats is political,” are more avant-garde in orientation, adopting the rhetorical bombast and prosaic form of the manifesto.
Hilda Morley—one of the great (though largely unknown) BMC poets—composes poems that are more painterly and lush:
This darting swooping movement of the mind reflecting our world, a movement swift in its attack and at its most powerful, spherical or global in nature, is reflected in the spacing of words on a page of modern poetry, a movement full of stops, sudden coagulations and blockages, attempting to embody every turn of sensation or reflection in the way lines are broken to allow for ever-fresher emphases. A new kind of stillness can emerge from this use of space, for eye and ear at once, analogous, perhaps to the stillness of a crowded interior by Matisse. (“The Poet and Painting” xiii)
She imagines the page as a canvas. Each line is a brushstroke, tracing the mind’s activity. It will not come as surprise, then, to learn that Morley’s poetry reflects a sustained interest in ekphrasis (i.e., the verbal representation of visual art), as demonstrated by her poems “Japanese Print” and “For Piet Mondrian.” Whereas Olson emphasizes space and movement, Morley emphasizes space and stillness. Olson’s poetry projects outward, and Morley’s collapses inward. That interiority is most evident in the heartbreaking elegies she wrote—including “The Shutter Clangs”—for her husband, avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe, who taught music at BMC from 1952 to 1956: “I am rocked now by the silence,” writes Morley (179). “The Shutter Clangs” is an exquisite poem, a forgotten classic in the Black Mountain canon. It equals and perhaps even surpasses Caroll’s “Father,” Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” and Olson’s “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You.”
Peggy Bennett Cole, Jane Mayhall, and Ruth Herschberger attended the college prior to 1948—before Olson’s arrival. Cole writes light verse, using animals to communicate a clear moral lesson. “Plain Talk for a Pachyderm” playfully dresses down the shabby chic of the hipster Bowery elite. Mayhall is one of the very few social satirists associated with BMC. Her poem, “Re-Ejects,” critiques the abuses of literary power (e.g., sexism and ageism) through the conceit of magazine rejection letters. Finally, Herschberger—praised by both Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery—writes formal poetry that’s representative of a well-wrought, mid-century style, with metaphorical conceits that aspire to New Critical irony and ambiguity: “Eyebrows made / Of ships and shaped like islands cannot shade / The walnut hull of eyes” (1). Herschberger’s rhymed couplets belie her otherwise radical spirit: in 1948, she publishes Adam’s Rib, a feminist tract that—in its advocacy of clitoral stimulation—is years ahead of its time.
The purview of BMC poetry is further expanded by including poems by figures traditionally thought of as visual artists, musicians, or philosophers: Josef Albers, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Lou Harrison, Cynthia Homire, Ray Johnson, Basil King, John Urbain, and Susan Weil.
Albers, for example, proves to be adept at composing philosophical epigrams: “whatever happens / happens mostly / without you” (n.pag.). Fuller is widely recognized for his invention of the geodesic dome—an example of which was the centerpiece of the American Pavilion at Expo ’67. But he also composed a discursive poetry that earns the admiration of Charles Olson and Hugh Kenner and is cited as a forerunner to David Antin’s “talk” poetry. An award-winning composer and BMC music professor, Harrison experimented with non-Western instrumentation and tunings, and he was especially interested in the Indonesian gamelan, an ensemble-based musical style with its origins in eighth century Yogyakarta. Yet Harrison also writes moving verses in honor of fellow musicians, mentors, friends, and lovers, including Bill Colvig, his life partner, whom he met in 1967: “‘He is the best decision you have made / in twenty-three years’” (72). Poems like “Of Bill” are significant because they represent the queer legacy of BMC.
The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry demonstrates that Charles Olson’s projective verse is one composition method among many practiced at the college. Projective verse is correctly observed as a Copernican revolution in twentieth-century American poetry, and it informs much of the work included in these pages, but the breadth of other poetic forms, genres, and modes studied and practiced at BMC is equally remarkable. Readers will encounter the ballad (Edson “The Murder of Sylvia”), blues (Wieners, “The Black Mountain Blues”), and haiku (Blackburn “16 Sloppy Haiku”); the elegy (Kinnell, “Meditation Among the Tombs”), ode (Harrison, “Nines to John Cage on his 65th Birthday, 1977”), and sonnet (Borregaard, Sketches for 13 Sonnets); ekphrasis (King, “Pablo Picasso”), inventory (Johnson, “These are a few of my favorite things”), and mesostic (Cage, “Writing Through the Cantos”); and parable (Bennett Cole, “Parable”), parody (Rosenfeld, “Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok”), and satire (Mayhall, “For the Well-Dressed Woman Throwing Their Dirty Towels on the Rest Room Floor at the Metropolitan Museum”).
Paul Goodman’s “Kent State, May 4, 1970” is a sonnet that laments the murder of four Kent State students by Ohio National Guardsmen who opened fire on a campus protest in response to the continued U.S. presence in Vietnam and Cambodia. Nine students were wounded in the shooting: “See, the children that we massacre / are our own children. Call the soldiers back” (464). In that closing couplet, Goodman establishes a connection between the moral imperative of military operations abroad and the violence simultaneously suffered at home. Poems like Goodman’s “Kent State, May 4, 1970,” Charles Greenleaf Bell’s “Bikini (August 1948),” Duncan’s “Passages 25,” Levertov’s “Life at War,” and John Urbain’s “BLACK VIGIL/Vietnam ‘67” are important because they demonstrate a political line of poetics within the canon of BMC poetry. Furthermore, Goodman’s poem indicates that the sonnet—symbolic bugaboo of NAP—has a place in the history of BMC poetry.
John Cage, Susan Weil, and Jonathan Williams formally experiment with found materials. Cage’s mesostics are a variation on the acrostic and an example of his chance-based composition methods, also known as aleatory poetics. He identifies a key, typically a proper name, then “writes through” a predetermined source text using said key. In “Writing Though The Cantos,” for example, his key is “Ezra Pound”: “and thEn with bronZe lance heads beaRing yet Arm’s / sheeP slain Of plUto stroNg praiseD” (109). Weil’s collage poems flout the arbitrary boundaries between poetry and visual art. Using an archive of linguistic and visuals texts, Weil cuts and pastes found words, phrases, or sentences, as well as images, creating hybrid visual-verbal works. She continues to do this every day, an ethical exercise of the imagination. Finally, Williams presents documentary poetry. The native North Carolinian hiked the Southern Appalachian Trail with his notebook, transcribing folk wisdom—often mired in the darkest of humor—in the vernacular of its long-time residents. Isaac Rosenfeld and Paul Blackburn similarly emphasize the vernacular in “Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok” and “The Continuity,” respectively—the former to great comic effect, as Rosenfeld subjects T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Yiddish translation.
Finally, ekphrasis poems reflect the interdisciplinary ethos at BMC. Basil King’s “Paul Gauguin” responds to the French symbolist’s The Yellow Christ (1889). His poem gives collective voice to the peasant women of Brittany who pray for forgiveness at the feet of a crucified Jesus:
Powerful men thought him bad trouble
and framed it so he would be crucified.
We’re sorry. You know, we’ve
begun to realize what he tried to do
and we loved him. (40)
King’s poem is more interested in reinterpreting the painting’s religious narrative than addressing its cloisonnist style. In contrast, poets Jerrold Levy and Richard Negro compose a diptych, titled “Father Albers’s Notebook,” in which they attempt to translate Albers’s matière style into language (matière refers to the haptic rather than optical elements of a work of art):
Snow with bird prints
Saw marks on wood
Tire marks in mud
Surface textures of the compositional materials convey meaning—just as color, figuration, perspective, and space do.
During her first visit to BMC’s Lake Eden campus in July 1945, M.C. Richards, seated with faculty and students on the Dining Hall porch and staring up into the distance, asked, “Which is the Black Mountain?” (“A Personal View” 62). The pronominal certainty of the question betrayed Richards’s fish-out-of-water innocence—she had arrived from Chicago—and no doubt raised a chuckle or two. There is no such thing as the Black Mountain. The Black Mountains are a range, the southern contingent of the Appalachian Mountains, which run long and wide from Georgia to Maine and even up into parts of Canada. But Richards’s question, humorous as it is, provides a useful prompt for rethinking BMC poetry.
Some mornings, it is easy to imagine BMC poetry as sharply defined, clear, and warm as the violet light Hilda Morley once described as Cézanne-like, falling across the Swannanoa Valley at dawn. Some nights, however, it is as dark and smoky as the study room/poker den where students whiled away into late hours. The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry preserves these seemingly irreconcilable impressions for the historical record, opening our eyes to the school’s plenitude: an excess of visionary teachers, risk-taking students, and artistic friendships (and rivalries, too); vibrant material and print cultures; and, most importantly, inimitable poems that reward reading and rereading.
The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry serves as an essential guide to be studied, tested, and debated by new generations of students, researchers, and general readers. The poets associated with BMC share in the responsibility to make a better world. They place civil disobedience and aesthetic experimentation in the service of progressive ideals, including political and formal autonomy. They see change as a virtue to protect. They wed personal ethics with community-building initiatives. They insist that the self and language are grounded in the local. Finally, the poets in this anthology are suspicious of, and react against, consecrated forms of knowledge and power, using poetry as a means of inquiry and discovery, seeking out the unknown, explaining what is misunderstood or marginalized, and inventing new ways of being that exist beyond the ready-made. Thus, the BMC poets anthologized here, to quote Richards, bring “relevance to the human spirit / in its quest for creative freedom / and depth in learning” (“Untitled” 61).
*Editor’s note: You may download this list by clicking on “Works Cited” above, which will open a PDF file in a new page.
Albers, Josef. Poems and Drawings. 1958. New Haven, NJ: Yale UP, 2006. Print.
Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. 1960. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. Print.
—————. “To Charles Olson.” 9 Sept. 1959. Poet to Publisher: Charles Olson’s Correspondence with Donald Allen. Ed. Ralph Maud. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2003. 59. Print.
Cage, John. “Writing Through The Cantos.” X: Writings ’79-’82. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1983. 109-115. Print.
Clippinger, David. The Mind’s Landscape: William Bronk and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cranbury, NJ: U of Delaware P, 2006. Print.
Corkran, D.H. “With Eyes on the Ground: Black Mountain Years.” Lane 139-142. Print.
Creeley, Robert. “The Black Mountain Review.” The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. 505-514. Print.
Dawson, Fielding. The Black Mountain Book: A New Edition. 1970. Rocky Mount, NC: North Carolina Wesleyan College
P, 1991. Print.
Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York City: E.P. Dutton, 1972. Print.
Duncan, Robert. “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” The Opening of the Field. 1960. New York City: New Directions, 1973. 7. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl, Parts I and II.” The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, ed. Donald Allen. 1960. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 182-190. Print.
Golding, Alan. “The New American Poetry Revisited, Again.” Contemporary Literature 32.2 (1998):
Goodman, Paul. “Advance-Guard Writing, 1900-1950.” The Kenyon Review 13.3 (1951): 357-380. Print.
—————. “Kent State, May 4, 1970.” June 1970. The Paul Goodman Reader, ed. Taylor
Stoehr. Oakland: PM P, 2011. 464. Print.
Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge: The MIT P, 1987. Print.
Harrison, Lou. “Of Bill.” Joys and Perplexities: Selected Poems of Lou Harrison. Winston-Salem: Jargon
Society, 1992. 72. Print.
Herschberger, Ruth. “In Panelled Rooms.” Nature and Love: Poems. New York City: Eakins P, 1969. 1. Print.
King, Basil. “Paul Gauguin” 77 Beasts: Basil King’s Beastiary. New York City: Marsh Hawk P, 2007. 40. Print.
King, Martha. “Black Mountain Landscape.” Weather. Illustrated by Basil King. New York City: New Rivers P, 1978. 44. Print.
Lane, Mervin, ed. Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds— An Anthology of Personal Accounts. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990. Print.
Levy, Jerrold and Richard Negro. “Father Albers’s Notebook.” N.d. TS. Box 71, Folder 27j-Levy. North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, Donated Materials, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA. 7 Jan. 2015.
Metcalf, Paul. “Charles Olson: A Gesture Towards Reconstitution.” Collected Works, 1987-1997. Vol. 2. Minneapolis: Coffee House P, 1997. 18-46. Print.
Morley, Hilda. “A Few Mixed Recollections.” Lane 317-318. Print.
—————. “The Poet and Painting.” The Turning. Wakefield, RI: Asphodel P, 2003. xiii. Print.
To Hold in My Hand: Selected Poems, 1955-1983. New York City: The Sheep Meadow P, 1983. 174-184. Print.
O’Hara, Frank. “My Heart.” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. 231. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. Print.
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, ed. Donald Allen. 1960. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 386-397. Print.
Charles Olson and Cid Corman: The Complete Correspondence, 1950-1965. Ed. George Evans. Vol. 2. Orono: U of Maine P, 1989. 103. Print.
Perelman, Bob. “On Don Allen, The New American Poetry.” Jacket2. 29 April 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Richards, M.C. “Black Mountain College: A Personal View of Creativity.” Opening Our Moral Eye: Essays, Talks, and Poems Embracing Creativity and Community. Ed. Deborah J. Haynes. Aurora, CO: Lindisfarne P, 61-76. Print.
—————. “Poetry.” Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 1989. 57-95. Print.
—————. “Untitled.” Opening Our Moral Eye. Aurora, CO: Lindisfarne P, 61. Print.
Stilkind, Marie Tavroges. “To Fee Dawson.” The Shape of Imagination: Women of Black Mountain College. Asheville, NC: Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center, 2008. 41. Print.
Wieners, John. “Biographical Note.” The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. 1960. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 445. Print.
—————. “The Black Mountain Blues.” Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, ed. Vincent Katz. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2002. 311-313. Print.
Williams, Jonathan. “The Hermit Cackleberry Brown, on Human Vanity.” Blues and Roots/Rue and Bluets: A Garland for the Southern Appalachians. 1971. Durham: Duke UP, 1985. N.pag. Print.