Redefining the Black Mountain Poets


Arts & Culture

Drawing of project for Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Architectural design by Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. Photo of original work taken in Harvard Art Museums. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Grouping writers into “schools” has always been problematic. The so-called Black Mountain poets never identified themselves as such, but the facts of their union spring from a remarkable instance of artistic community: Black Mountain College and the web of interactions the place occasioned. Founded in the mountains of western North Carolina in 1933 and closed by 1956, the college was one of the most significant experiments in arts and education of the twentieth century. In recent years, a number of international exhibitions and publications have showcased the range of artwork produced at the college’s two campuses, the first situated in the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, and the second at Lake Eden in the Swannanoa Valley. The list of famous names associated with Black Mountain is as impressive as it is unlikely, given that the college never housed more than a hundred students and faculty at a time, often far fewer.

Difficult questions persist in attempting to define a “Black Mountain” school of poets. Do we look to the physical and historical circumstances of Black Mountain College, or the complex pattern of friendships, influence, correspondence, publication, and collaboration that constitute the broader notion of this artistic coterie?

Charles Olson, the nucleus of what we have generally considered Black Mountain poetry, began teaching at the college in 1948 and became its final rector in 1953. In 1954, he brought Robert Creeley—Olson’s “Figure of Outward”—to Black Mountain. By that time there were fewer than twenty students in residence. However, through a network of relationships and correspondence emanating from Olson’s “little hot-box of education,” the instigations of Black Mountain College made an impact on artistic circles in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The “open field” poetics of Olson, Creeley, and Robert Duncan in particular have influenced generations of poets. Still, the supposed Black Mountain school of poetry is difficult, if not impossible, to define. Olson said himself,

I think that whole “Black Mountain Poet” thing is a lot of bullshit. I mean, actually, it was created by the editor, the famous editor of that anthology, Mr. Allen … There are people, for example, poets, who just can’t get us straight, because they think we form some sort of a what? A clique or a gang or something. And that there was a poetics? Boy, there was no poetics. It was Charlie Parker. Literally, it was Charlie Parker.

Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945–1960 includes Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, Paul Carroll, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer under the Black Mountain banner. Allen makes this selection based on these poets’ publication in two important little magazines of the fifties, Origin (edited by Cid Corman) and The Black Mountain Review (edited by Creeley from 1954 to 1957). Two small presses—Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca and Williams’s Jargon Press, founded in 1951 just before he arrived at Black Mountain—published early works by many of these writers.

Critics and editors have also argued that the Black Mountain poets can be understood in relation to Olson’s “projective verse” essay from 1950, in which he argues for a breath-metered poetry that breaks free from “that verse which print bred.” Yet, just as he rejected the idea of Black Mountain poetry, Olson diminished the importance of his 1950 essay. Much of his work is concerned with the visual elements of poetry on the page as well as with sound projected on the breath. Susan Howe, one of Olson’s poetic inheritors, argues that the “feeling for seeing in a poem, is Olson’s innovation,” and that this vision separates Olson’s epic, The Maximus Poems, from his predecessors Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and their verse epics, The Cantos and Paterson. Poems can be performative but also plastic and pictorial.

In reference to Black Mountain, Olson once told Creeley, “I need a college to think with.” The intense artistic community shaped Olson’s work and marked him as a distinctly pedagogical poet. Creeley once remarked that his voluminous correspondence with Olson leading up to their first meeting at Black Mountain was “of such energy and calculation that it constituted a practical ‘college’ of stimulus and information.” The profound creative and personal relationship between Olson and Creeley, both teachers at the college, is one window into the poetry and poetics associated with Black Mountain. Yet the story goes much deeper. As Olson says, it was “Charlie Parker”; it was improvised, open-ended, subject to chance and change.

What is all too obvious is that Allen’s grouping of Black Mountain poets leaves out a number of writers who have more to do with Black Mountain than some of those who appear in The New American Poetry. Olson, Creeley, and Duncan taught at Black Mountain, and Dorn, Oppenheimer, and Jonathan Williams were students there. Levertov and Blackburn never set foot in Black Mountain, while students like John Wieners and poet-teachers like Mary Caroline Richards and Hilda Morley are left out of Allen’s book and many other important anthologies of U.S. poetry. Olson rejected the idea of a common Black Mountain poetics, but if we look to the actual facts of the college—the teaching, learning, and experimentation that went on there, and the extraordinary artists on its grounds and in its orbit—we find certain elements of process, form, and content that reveal shared aims in their work.

The college’s founder John Andrew Rice envisioned an institution that would take the “progressive” model as professed by John Dewey and push it further toward a new vision of education within democracy. It was not an art school. Rather, in line with Dewey’s thinking, the college’s goal was to provide a well-rounded curriculum that placed the arts at its center. Rice is quoted in a 1936 article on Black Mountain, published in Harper’s Monthly,

Here our central and consistent effort is to teach method, not content, to emphasize process, not results; to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and him amid the facts is more important than the facts themselves …

There is a technic [sic] to be learned, a grammar of the art of living and working in the world. Logic, as severe as it can be, must be learned; if for no other reason, to know its limitations. Dialectic must be learned: and no feelings spared, for you can’t be nice when truth is at stake … Man’s responses to ideas and things in the past must be learned. We must realize that the world as it is isn’t worth saving; it must be made over. These are the pencil, the brush, the chisel.

Though the founding principles laid out by Rice in the thirties rarely come into discussion of the Black Mountain Poets, I can think of no better statement to unify the group of writers later associated with the college. Another founder, Theodore “Ted” Dreier, writes, “Black Mountain has stood for a non-political radicalism in higher education which, like all true radicalism, sought to find modern means for getting back to fundamentals.”

Black Mountain was not, however, isolated from the political realities of its time. From the beginning, the college’s progressive experiment was shaped by a group of European émigrés fleeing authoritarian regimes. Principal among these figures were Josef Albers, the German painter and former master in the Bauhaus, and his wife, Anni Albers, the weaver and teacher. Anni was Josef’s student in the Bauhaus, and they came to America together after the Nazis forced closure of the German art school.

Beginning in 1933, over sixteen years Josef and Anni were central to life at Black Mountain. Josef Albers’s modified Bauhaus curriculum became the high standard for teaching at the college. His goal as a teacher, he said, was “to open eyes.” This was the focus of education at Black Mountain: finding new perspectives, new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. These means were aesthetic, pedagogical, and—yes—political.

Josef Albers’s teaching later influenced poets at Black Mountain. As Duncan says of his own classes at the college,

I just had what would be anybody’s idea of what Albers must have been doing. You knew that [Albers’s students] had color theory, and that they did a workshop sort of approach, and that they didn’t aim at a finished painting … I thought “Well, that’s absolutely right” … I think we had five weeks of vowels … and syllables … Numbers enter into poetry as they do in all time things, measurements. But … [with] Albers … it’s not only the color, but it’s the interrelationships of space and numbers.

Interactions and relationships were part of the shared artistic concerns at Black Mountain, but they were also simple facts of life in the community. Beside the Black Mountain poets, one thinks of the incredible list of artists who spent time living, teaching, and studying at the college: Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ruth Asawa, Cy Twombly, Dorothea Rockburne, Elizabeth Jennerjahn, Pete Jennerjahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, Ray Johnson, Arthur Penn, Hazel Larsen Archer, Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Merce Cunningham, Katherine Litz, John Cage, David Tudor, Lou Harrison, Stefan Wolpe—the list goes on.

On the grounds of Black Mountain College, relationships between these artists created new works. For instance, Creeley collaborated with painter Dan Rice on the book All That Is Lovely in Men, which includes some of Creeley’s finest early work. Creeley and Rice lived together at the college and shared a deep love of jazz, an interest that shaped the rhythms and stuttering syntax characteristic of Creeley’s lyric poems.

Olson participated in a “glyph exchange” with artist Ben Shahn and dancer-choreographer Katherine Litz, and he even attended some of Merce Cunningham’s dance classes. William Carlos Williams, Albert Einstein, and John Dewey were all included in a list of the college’s advisers. This gives a sense of how vibrant the artistic, intellectual, and social interactions at Black Mountain really were. It inspired focused attention and groundbreaking work, while—like any small, tightly knit community—it bred resentments and schisms that ultimately led to its end.

Many of the well-known figures at Black Mountain wrote poems, and when we look at the life of the college from 1933 to 1956, we see a much wider view of what might be considered Black Mountain poetry. Josef Albers is the heart of Black Mountain pedagogy, and he served as a link between the Bauhaus and Black Mountain, extending those schools’ influence in U.S. higher education through his later connections to Harvard and Yale. Like most of his artworks, Albers’s poems are simple, direct, and economical.

John Cage taught at the college for short periods in the spring and summer of 1948 and summers of 1952 and 1953, and he made a profound impact on the community alongside his collaborator Merce Cunningham. Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 (known as the first “happening”) is one of the most famous events in Black Mountain’s history and mythology. The improvised event included Olson and Richards reading poems, with contributions from Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Tudor, among others. Cage’s largely chance-derived writing, much of which he wrote to be performed as lecture-poetry, expands the space-time experiments of his musical compositions.

Paul Goodman also taught briefly at Black Mountain. A fine poet, he authored seminal prose works of the era, including Growing Up Absurd, Communitas, and Gestalt Therapy. Goodman’s work gives us a view into the profound shifts in society taking place in the United States in the forties and fifties. Black Mountain played a part in this shifting cultural landscape, and its instigations—like Goodman’s writing—paved the way for counterculture movements of the sixties.

Both M. C. Richards and Hilda Morley have been neglected for far too long. Richards was one of the most beloved teachers at Black Mountain. In 1948, she founded the Black Mountain Press and she published the first edition of The Black Mountain Review (though it is possible that Olson and Creeley knew nothing of this earlier venture when they published their magazine in 1954). The Black Mountain student Fielding Dawson writes, “We must rid our minds of the famous names that have come to identify the school. A fresh approach to comprehend and define Black Mountain, would be to place M. C. at narrative center, and define Black Mountain through her. She as much as anyone, far more than most, assumed its identity, absorbed it, no matter where she was.” Dawson places Richards in direct contrast to Olson as a potential center of Black Mountain poetry, art, and education. After leaving Black Mountain in 1954, Richards joined Cage, Cunningham, and Tudor in Paul Williams’s Stony Point community in Rockland County, New York. Olson later referred to Stony Point as a “continuing limb” of Black Mountain College.

Morley taught poetry at BMC, with a special interest in the Metaphysical poets. In 1952, she married Stefan Wolpe, the German composer who taught music at Black Mountain, and whom Olson refers to in the opening lines of “The Death of Europe.” Wolpe suffered from Parkinson’s disease for almost a decade before his death in 1972, and Morley wrote a beautiful book of elegies for him, What Are Winds & What Are Waters. Morley’s work shows a deep and abiding interest in contemporary painters, as we see in her poem “The Eye Opened.” In “For Creeley,” she gives an indelible portrait of the young poet upon his arrival at Black Mountain. Creeley himself contrasts Morley’s work with “the characteristic male proscriptions one had thought to learn and attend.” He continues in a foreword to her selected poems, The Turning, “I wonder at the way you taught yourself then to move with such lightness and particularity, touching each term and thing, each feeling, always making them actual—like Denise saying (quoting Jung), ‘Everything that acts is actual.’ You made remarkable sense of it.”

If the term “Black Mountain” stands for anything, it is a relentless searching—constant experimentation with form and process to find what is at the root. As Olson writes in “Maximus, to Himself”: “I have had to learn the simplest thing / last.” In different ways, the work of the Black Mountain poets seeks modern means for getting back to fundamentals. The power of their poems exists in a ceaseless inward searching and outward projection of simple human truths through the activity of poetry—poems as the measure of a life.


Jonathan C. Creasy is an author, musician, editor, publisher, and educator based in Dublin, Ireland.

From Black Mountain Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jonathan C. Creasy. © New Directions.