The Black Mountain poets

The third grouping of the New American Poets was the Black Mountain school, consisting of those poets identified with Black Mountain College and its charismatic teacher, rector, and poet-in-residence Charles Olson. The Black Mountain group consisted of poets who taught at the college (Olson and Creeley), poets who studied there in the early 1950s (Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Jonathan Williams, and John Wieners), and poets such as Denise Levertov who were more loosely affiliated with the college or its literary magazines. Located in rural North Carolina, the college was conceived as a kind of utopian community where writers, painters, musicians, dancers, and other intellectuals could work in an open educational environment. The most important poetic influences on the work of the Black Mountain poets were Pound, Williams, and Olson, though the Objectivists were admitted as a secondary influence.

Olson's essay "Projective Verse" (1950) was the guiding text for the Black Mountain poets. Not since Pound's Imagist manifestoes of the 1910s had a declaration ofpoetic ideas made such an profound impact on contemporary writing. "Projective Verse" proposed a poetics based on a technique Olson called "composition by field." As opposed to "closed verse" (i.e. traditional poetic form), the "open-form" poem would be written in such as way as to maximize the energy and spontaneity of the poet's language. Olson's essay left the details of the process of "composition by field" rather vague, but he emphasized the importance of a more active attention to the properties of sound and rhythm in creating a verbal energy: a "kinetics" of poetic form. Olson defined the poem as a "high-energy construct" that enacts the process ofits own creation. Perhaps the most famous statement to come from "Projective Verse" was one Olson had borrowed from his friend Creeley: "form is never more than an extension of content." The principal units of form for Olson were the line (which should serve to move the poem forward rather than to emphasize the polish of its construction) and the syllable (which should provide a rhythmical and sonic base for the poem). One of the more controversial aspects of Olson's essay was its emphasis on the physical presence of the breath as a basis for poetic composition: according to Olson, it was the breath which generated the "speech-force of language" and which determined the length and shape of the poetic line. Such ideas were influential on the free-verse poetics of the 1950s and 1960s: Ginsberg, for example, credited Olson's theories as a partial explanation for the style of "Howl."

The poet whose work and ideas were most clearly in dialogue with those of Olson was Robert Creeley. Olson and Creeley were in almost daily contact during the early 1950s, and their voluminous correspondence (published in ten volumes thus far) chronicles one of the most important literary friendships of the late twentieth century. Creeley's peripatetic lifestyle - he moved from New Hampshire to southern France and then to Mallorca before coming to teach at Black Mountain in 1954 - made letters a convenient form in which to express his developing sense of poetry and poetics.

Creeley published several books of poetry with small presses during the 1950s, but it was not until the publication of For Love: Poems, 1950-1960 (1962) that he received widespread recognition. In Creeley's early work, his dual preoccupations were the attempt to understand and describe human relationships, and the analysis of language as a medium for communication and self-expression. Creeley's characteristic poems are short meditations on some aspect oflife; they are remarkable for their psychological complexity and their highly compressed, even minimalist style. In Creeley's most famous poem, "I Know a Man" (1954), he displays a unique ability to make us feel the weight of every syllable:

As I sd to my friend, because I am always talking, - John, I

sd, which was not his name, the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car drive, he sd, for christ's sake, look out where yr going.

The form ofthe poem owes something to the example ofWilliams, with its short free-verse lines and compact stanzas. But Creeley takes Williams' nontraditional use of form a step further: the highly syncopated rhythm of his lines is inspired less by Williams' lyrics than by the jazz improvisations of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. The most striking aspect of the poem's rhythm, as Charles Hartman has observed, is an extreme form of enjamb-ment in which Creeley seems constantly to be pushing the last word of the line into the next line: "to my / friend," "which was not his / name," "for christ's / sake." Creeley disrupts the normal flow of meaning by continually breaking words across line breaks, stanza breaks ("what // can we do," and even in the middle of a word ("the darkness sur-/rounds us"). This disruption also takes place on the level ofpunctuation (the frequent use ofcommas to create caesuras in the middle of the line), orthography (ampersands and abbreviations like "sd" and "yr"), and syntax ("shall we & / why not, buy a goddamn big car").

These formal devices are not simply intended to make the poem more difficult or experimental; they play an important role in defining the voice and mood of the poem's speaker. This speaker is not the articulate confes-sionalist of Lowell's "Skunk Hour," nor is he the self-dramatizing persona of Plath's "Lady Lazarus." Instead, this is a speaker who stumbles through his narrative - interrupting himself with self-analysis ("because / I am always talking") and clarifications ("which was not his / name") - until he is cut off by his friend's warning to watch where he is going. Further, his speech act takes place in a very untraditional setting for a lyric poem: he is talking while driving a car. Though the speaker appears to be having a conversation with his friend, the rhythm of the poem is not typically conversational: instead, as Lynn Keller observes, "The crowding of stresses and the unnatural pauses communicate both the speaker's anxious restraint and his need for release."4

If the climax of the poem clearly comes in stanza III - where we feel the tension between the speaker's fear of the darkness that surrounds us and the escapism latent in the desire to buy a big car - it is difficult to know how to interpret this moment and its interruption in the fourth stanza by the friend's warning to "look out where yr going." Charles Altieri reads line 9 as the speaker's desperate attempt to "cover the emptiness" through an appeal to a "purely verbal universe."5 In this reading, looking out where we are going becomes a metaphor for a greater attention to life experience. Michael Davidson, on the other hand, emphasizes the poem's social context as an expression of the Beat counterculture: for the Beats and other New American Poets of the 1950s, "the world [was] perceived as alien and hostile, an undifferentiated 'darkness' created and maintained by forces beyond the individual's control."6 The two alternatives to that darkness suggested by the poem are the endless talk of the hipster-poet (suggested by the dialogic form of the poem itself) and the need to "take the open road," in this case in a "big car." We might also read the fantasy of buying the "goddamn big car" as a reference to the materialistic consumerism of the 1950s, an era marked by the increasing size and social significance of the automobile. Creeley himself, who was plagued by money problems throughout the early 1950s, managed to buy a car in 1950, but it was a 1928 Hupmobile which he purchased for $15. In the poem, Creeley at once acknowledges his own material desires (for a better car, for an easier or more comfortable life) and satirizes the postwar spending binge that led Americans to define their lives and aspirations through the acquisition of material possessions.

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