Thursday, November 16, 2006

This Week: Celebrating Black Mountain Poets

Sometimes when I'm at Black Mountain's Camp Rockmont, now home to
The Lake Eden Arts Festival, and the former site of Black Mountain College, I wonder what it would have been like to hang out in the dining hall a half-century ago and listen in as the great Black Mountain poets read to one another and discussed each other's work. When Donald Allen placed the Black Mountain College poets first in The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, the great anthology that introduced a generation of experimental poets to a national audience, he might have done so based not just on the quality of their intellectual and formal adventures, but on a solid hunch about the significance their work would assume for the rest of the twentieth century. While they didn't achieve the momentary mass audiences a few of the Beat poets found, it'd be difficult to find another contemporary group of poets who did as much to shape the subsequent course of American writing. The energy of their work has rippled through the imaginations of the several generations and many schools of poets who've come down the road since, and ripples still.

This Friday, November 17th, at 6:00 PM, the Asheville Art Museum celebrates the legacy of these artists with a special evening of poetry that features local poets reading works of these groundbreaking Black Mountain College writers.

Language poet Ron Silliman recently noted on his weblog that when he met Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley in the mid-sixties, he was already the "dean" of American poetry. Ron caught some flack for that; Creeley was only in his mid-thirties, and his mentor, the visionary Charles Olson, was still living, though he had to that point little audience. I think, given that "dean" can imply the lofty heights of academic seniority, that Ron might have chosen a better word. But having met Creeley just a few years after, I can testify that the man had real mojo, genuine moxie, some serious virtu, as Horace might have said, and that by the time he was in his early forties, he had already discovered passes through language that settlers are still trooping through.

"Form is never more than the extension of content," he famously noted. Later he came to acknowledge that the statement was also true if the roles of content and form were reversed. Form embodies content, is the extension of the feeling that's the poem's initial premise. His insight into the nature of poetry, its relations to speech and mind, his consummate feel for rhythm, and his awareness of the fields of meaning within which the language of the poem must dance, make his work one of the enduring testaments of twentieth century poetry.

Charles Olson, certainly one of the most influential poets of his generation, had once befriended Ezra Pound (until he lost patience with Pound's reflexive anti-Semitism), and so provided a bridge back to the great Modernist poets who offered him, and his generation, an initial stance. When he came to Black Mountain College, he'd published a handful of poems and a short critical work on Melville; by the time he closed the College in 1957, he'd published, via Jonathan Williams' Jargon Press, the first two sections of his Maximus Poems, and completed the work that appeared as The Distances in 1960, displaying in both the gift for radical insight into history and the project of consciousness that makes his work of such value.

It was Olson, with his vision of new possibilities for poetry, and for life, who decisively shaped the minds and imaginations of the writers who gathered at the college in its final years. He brought Creeley to the college to teach, and later recruited Robert Duncan. Edward Dorn, John Wieners, and Jonathan Williams, to note just a few of the other significant poets who came through the college's refining fires, had ventured there as students. Other writers, Denise Levertov and Paul Blackburn, for instance, never visited the college, but were published by Creeley in the Black Mountain Review. The Review presented Creeley's and Olson's vision of useful modes of writing to the world, introduced the poets of Black Mountain to a larger community of like-minded writers, and became a meeting place for some of the most creative spirits of the era.

Robert Duncan went on from Black Mountain to become a leading figure in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the nineteen sixties, producing a major body of work that included The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow, as well as the important late work published in the two collections of Ground Work, republished in one volume just last year. He also authored over a period of decades the amazing HD Book, not yet published in book form, but available at the moment on the web (it's a large .pdf file) in an unofficial electronic format that bears the imprint of the crucial, elusive Frontier Press. It began as a study of the work of Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (who published as HD), but became a major work on poetic imagination. It's similar, in many ways, I think, to Coleridge's rambling, monumental Biographia Literaria, still one of the indispensable texts of the English Romantic period.

Speaking of that scepter'd isle ... Denise Levertov was English, born in Ilford, Essex, in 1927; she married an American, Mitch Goodman, after World War II, though, and moved to the States in 1948. Her Here and Now, published in 1956, and With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, published three years later, established her as a major voice in the new poetry. She published more than twenty volumes of verse during her lifetime. Though she and her husband were personal friends of Creeley, her closest relationship with another Black Mountain writer was probably with Robert Duncan, with whom she had a long and illuminating, if sometimes contentious, correspondence, published in 2004.

Ed Dorn is perhaps one of the least well known of the Black Mountain poets, though there's hope that his Collected Poems, due out next year, will bring his work the larger attention it deserves. He was the most contrary of the contrarians who stood at the college, and ever afterwards, against the generalizing mass culture that seemed, seems, to strip individuals of their particularity, of the ability to stand grounded as creative, active participants in the polis of the world. His next-to-last collection, High West Rendezvous, contained sections from "Languedoc Variorum", a major late work that remains mostly in manuscript, which reveal it to be a poem of astonishing technical achievement that also challenges the pious orthodoxies of the history of heresy. It's an amazing, polyvocalic montage that mocks, on one level, the structures of contemporary media news presentation. He had his chops till the end. Unfortunately, it'd probably be next to impossible to perform, so Thomas Rain Crowe, charged with presenting the work of Dorn, will, I hear, read from another, earlier, masterpiece, his Gunslinger.

The reading will feature the works of these Black Mountain poets, and works, as well, by the poets gathered for the occasion: Sebastian Matthews, who organized the event, Thomas Rain Crowe, Jaye Bartell, Glenis Redmond, Keith Flynn, and myself. The reading is a part of the Museum's year-long celebration of Black Mountain College and its legacy in the arts.

Olson died in 1970, Duncan in 1988 , Levertov in 1997, Dorn in 1999, Creeley just last year, but on the 17th of November, the voices of their poems will return to Western North Carolina once again, and ring out.


I took the photo of the Dining Hall on Lake Eden in 2003.
This post was published in different form in the November, 2006, issue of Rapid River. Trying to write about the Black Mountain poets in a thousand words or so ... Ha! Well, we'll have more than that to offer on Friday.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,
Terrific post. I'm glad to hear about the readings this weekend in Asheville. You and some of the attendees may be interested in this new selection of Creeley letters (to WCW, Levertov, Duncan, and Tom Raworth), which is now up at Jacket magazine. One letter to Duncan was even written from Black Mountain.

7:36 AM  

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