The Black Mountain Muse
The Black Mountain College Anthology of Poetry
by Joseph Bathanti, Appalachian State University
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 1972, Arthur Craft, one of my writing teachers (the most personally influential writing teacher I would ever encounter) at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was then matriculating, and secretly burning to be a writer, opened the hatch of his silver Chevy Vega to reveal a haphazard trove of books he was discarding.
I scooped up a number of them, and I’m sure I still own them. But the only one I remember among them, that I indeed cherish, lo, these unfathomably-impossible-to-believe 42 years later, is The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen, an Evergreen Original, from Grove Press, with a 1960 copyright and a price tag of $2.95. A plain stolid paperback of 454 pages, in its fifteenth printing, its title, editor and 44 contributors queue unceremoniously down the front of it.
Skirmished horizontally across the cover is what can only be the furling red and white stripes of the American flag—no stars, just five red stripes, disembodied from the greater field. I’ve pored over the acknowledgments in attempt to discover the origin of the cover art, but to no avail. The cover design, however, is de rigeur, completely appropriate, it seems, for a volume called The New American Poetry—a riff on poetry, a riff on the flag, a riff on America, and more than anything—a riff on new.
In 1960, the year Allen’s book appeared, Black Mountain College had closed its fabled doors a mere three years earlier. I was seven years old. John Kennedy, our newly elected president, invited the great poet, Robert Frost, to ring in his presidency by reading a poem at the 1961 inauguration—an elegant flourish no other American president had insisted upon before, and, sadly, only two others since. How prescient of JFK to herald The New Frontier with a poem. Out of his presidency, a new America and a new American poetry would indeed spring. Frost was charming, inimitably irascible, the era’s iconic stand-in for Whitman, as he recited, in a gale, bareheaded, “The Gift Outright,” that begins with the iambic near-admonition, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”
The 60s had, if nothing else, nominally signed into office, as well, though its official parturition had begun much earlier—certainly in part at Black Mountain College, from 1933-1957, in its obscure mountain valley in Buncombe County, North Carolina.
The autumn afternoon in 1972 that I peered into Craft’s Vega, the 60s still theoretically roiling—and, in all ignorance and good intention, plucked from it a book that I would carry all my life, that would indeed, like so many books, change my life—I had never heard of Black Mountain College. It was also that very same year, 1972, that Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, auspiciously, and also unbeknownst to me, had recently been published—another book, like Allen’s, handed to me by someone who has profoundly influenced me, that changed my life and launched me deeply, pathologically, into the fascinating never-ending weir of Black Mountain College.
In 1972, I cast my first presidential ballot as an American citizen. The incumbent, Richard Nixon, defeated my candidate, George McGovern, in a landslide, nullifying McGovern’s promise to end the Vietnam War. While American troop strength in Vietnam was at an all-time low, the Paris Peace Talks nevertheless remain stalled. Watergate had entered the National lexicon. My draft status was 1A.
I suppose I was drawn to Allen’s anthology because I was fooling around with writing poems and had begun, in my classes at Pitt, to seriously read poetry. The book was already beat up the day I grabbed it. The cover was near torn off; the spine cracked; pages foxed, yellowing and water-marked. Today it’s worse for the wear, and every so often I Scotch-tape it in strategic places to keep it from literally falling apart.
In 1972, the writers I would have recognized from the table of contents were Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and, perhaps, Gary Snyder. I had somehow latched onto the Beats, but in the most osmotic fashion imaginable. I am certain I had never read anything by them, but I was aware that I needed to. Interestingly enough, I was reading in one of my literature class William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, the prophets of the Beats and Black Mountaineers, though at the time the conduit tithing them all together was, for me, ocean-wide and way beyond my ken.
Then, in 1987, I met and became fast friends with Ronald H. Bayes, then and now a giant of North Carolina poetry, and long-time Writer-in-Residence at Saint Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, where I had just accepted a teaching job. It was Ron who laid in my hands Duberman’s spectacular history of Black Mountain College. In short, Black Mountain College sunk a syringe into me and I was instantly hooked. Enchanted is a better word – as if a spell had been wrought. And I was a little embarrassed. How in the world had I, a college professor, a well-educated fellow, who had just published his first chapbook of poems, escaped knowing about the most astonishing, fire-breathing experiment in the annals of American education?
Ron and Saint Andrews were repositories of Black Mountain scholarship and lore, specifically the literary arts that prospered under Charles Olson’s leadership from 1951-1957. What’s more, Ron certainly qualifies for honorary membership among the ranks of the Black Mountain writers. His disposition and aesthetic as a writer closely parallels theirs.
Intimates with Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson, and a very close friend of Robert Creeley (a frequent visitor to Saint Andrews) until Creeley’s death, Ron hosted a number of them over the years at Saint Andrews. In 1974, he inspired a Black Mountain Festival on campus that featured all of the writers above, minus Olson and Dawson, along with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and Duberman. In 1975, however, Dawson and M.C. Richards showed up on campus, and Oppenheimer returned for the entire month of January in 1977.
Duberman’s history of Black Mountain, via Ron, returned me to my book shelves. I whipped out my tattered The New American Poetry, and finally got around to really reading not only Donald Allen’s crucial preface, but also the poets and poems in question that I hadn’t looked over with any practiced industry for the better part of fifteen years.
Allen’s preface boldly and somewhat narrowly laid down the strictures for what constituted the School of Black Mountain Poetry – at least back in 1960. Again, it’s important to note that Black Mountain College had closed but three years earlier and a legitimate accounting of its reach and importance was clearly impossible back then. It remains today a fairly well-kept secret, thus in 1960 it was a thorough anomaly. Allen, though dogmatic, deserves his due for instigating the discussion and, in truth, dubbing the Black Mountain Poets, according them the status of a realized literary movement. What’s more, he situates them in the hierarchy of what he calls “these new younger poets” in four other schools or movements: the San Francisco Poets, The Beat Generation, The New York Poets, and an uncategorized amorphous collective comprised of poets who defy category and float among the other schools.
The ten poets canonized by Allen as the Black Mountain School of Poets in The New American Poetry – and I’ve preserved the order in which they are listed by him – are: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Paul Carroll, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer. Four of these poets—Levertov, Blackburn, Carroll, and Eigner—never actually set foot on the Black Mountain campus, but were associated with the college for having published in affiliated magazines, Origin and The Black Mountain Review.
It struck me then, though never more so than now, that the rubric, Black Mountain Poets, required radical expansion to accommodate Mary Caroline Richards, Fielding Dawson, Russell Edson, Paul Goodman, Jane Mayhall, Paul Metcalf, Hilda Morley, John Wieners, and Michael Rumaker, all of whom were keenly associated with the College.
But, thankfully, all that’s been remedied by An Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry, the long overdue volume that follows, in which a goodly number of other worthy poets, now represented in this new hopefully exhaustive anthology, rightfully take their places and complete this pantheon.
I also discovered through Allen’s anthology and Duberman’s history Charles Olson, who remains for me the most fascinating, the most maddening, of the lavish cast of Black Mountaineers. During Olson’s tenure as Black Mountain College’s last rector, from 1953-1957, the literary arts, notably poetry, exploded, took center stage, and launched, of course, The Black Mountain School of Poetry.
After a part-time stint at Black Mountain College in the 1940s, Olson showed up at Black Mountain for good the summer of 1951, fresh from several months in the Yucatan where he had been studying Mayan glyphs. Foremost a poet, Olson was also a mystic, visionary, theologian, historian, and philosopher. At 6’7”, 250 pounds—assessments of his dimensions vary, but always lean toward the hyperbolic—his mere presence was astonishing. A dervish of boundless energy and verbal pyrotechnics, it tended to be Olson, the man, the mountainous charismatic, who impacted upon people, who in truth swept them off their feet for better or worse – not his writing, though the relationship between the man and his work is seamless, albeit megalomaniacal.
One of Olson’s chief contributions to the world of poetry remains his famous essay, “Projective Verse”—which I found myself seduced and flummoxed by when I first encountered it in Allen’s anthology. “Projective Verse” promulgates a break with canonical American and English poets. At the time of its initial publication, in 1950, in Poetry New York, the essay was exclusively aligned with the still-forming counterculture and underground movements in fringe poetic communities. While Olson’s “Projective Verse” is a terrifically influential essay—one that middle and late twentieth century poets, regardless of their affiliation with particular schools would have been aware of—I can’t help but wonder how widely it is still read.
Olson makes clear in “Projective Verse” that “ … that the human breath be the measure of the line, not any alien imposed thing, and that the song has to be the man’s own song if it is to be of use, of decent use, to other men ….” Using the breath to calibrate line can certainly be traced clear back to Whitman, then on to William Carlos Williams who, along with Ezra Pound, was, again, the darling of the Black Mountain Poets as well as of the Beats. Allen Ginsberg, of course, also believed the breath to be the measure of the poetic line. Olson reveled in the sacrosanctity of the instant in which one composes, the ordained, yet still-to-be-discovered organic epiphany —whenness as Muse—something the Beats would capitalize upon, most notably Jack Kerouac.
Olson’s “Projective Verse” is digressive, frenetic, holographic; and, most of all, imbued with Olson’s wild makeshift presence. It owes its inspiration to science, biology, epistemology, and ontology. But perhaps the most fascinating point the essay makes is that poetry is a conflation and synthesis of so many seemingly disparate elements that it remains at best a psychical process which ineluctably springs from a particular person’s particular history and biochemistry—in addition to his unconscious—as well as the all-important mystery of a particular place and time in which the composition occurs and from which it takes its cues.
The poet is a force field that draws in energy from his particulars and then transmits this energy, without altering its essence, to the reader. If a poem is composed in a moment in time and is thus influenced rhythmically by whatever forces are abroad at that moment, then the poem, again, becomes an organism, and takes on a life of its own. By the same token, the reader approaches the poem in a moment in time, yet obviously at a remove from the instant of the poem’s conception and composition. Nevertheless, there occurs, theoretically, enlightenment of an incomparable sort (as I imagine it), a kind of synergistic epiphany between poet and reader.
We don’t abide in stasis, but flux—and one of Olson’s salient points is the protean constitution of verse. He unabashedly invokes the Muse. The same Muse that, for a shimmering ephemeral interstice in time, resided palpably at Black Mountain College, in this case, specifically, at its latter campus at Lake Eden for the better part of the 1950s (though given the list of luminaries who graced Black Mountain College, it remains abundantly and mind-blowingly apparent that the Muse worked overtime at both College campuses during its 24 year existence).
It is gratifying, but also a tad jarring, to see the municipality of Black Mountain listed in Allen’s preface with Berkeley, San Francisco, Boston, and New York City as a hot spot for the emerging avant-garde of the period—especially when one conceptualizes Black Mountain in the 50s, not to mention in 1933 when the first pioneering students and faculty of newly founded Black Mountain College arrived by train in the tiny village. But, in truth, what did provincial, very rural, Black Mountain—the place, the locus, its geography, its ether and ethos—immured gloriously yet invisibly in the heart of Appalachia—have in common with its obviously more sophisticated cosmopolitan counterparts in Berkley, San Francisco, Boston and New York?
Gauging place as inspiration, as shaping oeuvre, as the Muse incarnate, requires what in fiction we call “the willing suspension of belief.” But nothing less than a kind of willed predestined magic, true intuitive mysticism, the Muse in spades, was at play at Black Mountain during those Olson years that produced a cadre of writers, unapologetically experimental, derivative of no one, except perhaps one another, that would profoundly influence not only its own generation, but generations to come. The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry re-champions, restores, rediscovers, uncovers, and introduces an exponentially more diverse roster than Donald Allen, clairvoyant though he was, dished up in 1960. Including more names and titles than Allen did 55 years ago, this anthology expresses the ongoing, fertile yield and influence of Black Mountain College in these ensuing years.