Anselm Hollo: Naropa Archive Black Mountain School Lecture

Fall '05 TOC

II The Fifties / Sixties: Black Mountain: San Francisco (1)

In this talk, delivered at Naropa in the spring of 2005, Anselm Hollo traces the lineage of The Kerouac School, especially its relationship to Black Mountain College.

Listen to the audio. Part 1 | Part 2 (These link to mp3 files) Naropa Archive Project

In the first one of these rambles through the antecedents of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics I touched on some of the American cultural and political background phenomena that influenced writers coming of age in the late forties and fifties, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Those two first met in New York City, and both went "On the Road" at various times, not stopping much on the way except to rhapsodize, in Kerouac's case, about lonely silos in undulating cornfields, but certainly always ending up in San Francisco.

Now I would like to take a look at Black Mountain College, an extraordinary place that in the twenty-four years of its existence gathered in a stream of writers, visual artists, composers, choreographers that is a major component of late twentieth century—and I daresay early twenty-first century—American culture.

There is an entry for "Black Mountain poet" in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica: "Any of a loosely associated group of poets that formed an important part of the avant-garde of American poetry in the 1950s, publishing innovative yet disciplined verse in the Black Mountain Review (1954–57), which became a leading forum of experimental verse. The group grew up around the poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson while they were teaching at Black Mountain."

According to information provided by the North Carolina State Archives, which hold the Black Mountain College Papers, the school was established in 1933 as an independent, coeducational, four-year college, and was originally located in buildings leased from a religious organization, the Blue Ridge Assembly, near Black Mountain, a small town in North Carolina. In 1941 the college was moved nearby to property purchased by the college, and it remained at that location until it closed in 1956.

The college was created as an experiment of "education in a democracy," with the idea that the creative arts and practical responsibilities are equal in importance to the development of the intellect. The emphasis was that learning and living are intimately connected. Dramatics, music, and the fine arts were regarded as an integral part of the life of the college. Everyone, faculty and students alike, participated in work on the farm operated by the college, constructed buildings, did maintenance work, served meals, etc. Many classes were held at night, and none were scheduled in the afternoons in order to allow time for work on the campus. There was no organized athletic program as it was thought there should be no sharp distinction between work and play. Classes, which were a combination of recitations, lectures, tutorials, and seminars, met at the discretion of the teacher and attendance was voluntary. There were no required courses but each student prepared with his advisor a plan of work and was expected to complete a well-rounded course of study.

To date, the most comprehensive book on the college is a handsome volume titled The Arts at Black Mountain College by Mary Emma Harris. I quote from her introduction to the book:

American education *in its beginnings* was sponsored by the church or modeled on European forms, created to prepare the aristocracy for a life of leisure. For the common man, it was autocratic, teaching discipline and submission to authority and including only the essentials in reading, writing, and mathematics. The new progressive American education was to be an education for democracy, through which the diverse American population would learn a common way of living and working together. The fostering of initiative, ingenuity, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility rather than submission, competitiveness, and rugged individualism were to be its goals. [. . .] The quest for reform in higher education in the nineteen-thirties has been equaled only by the upheaval in American universities in the nineteen-sixties. By the nineteen-thirties, an effort was being made to apply the principles of progressive education, which previously had been primarily the province of elementary and highschools, to higher education. Schools such as Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Black Mountain College were opened; and other schools such as Bryn Mawr, Reed, Antioch, Rollins, Columbia, Whittier and Swarthmore began to experiment with a more flexible curriculum. [. . .] Black Mountain College was conceived at a critical moment in American and international history. The crisis that precipitated the colleges founding occurred simultaneously with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany in January 1933, with the closing of the Bauhaus by the Nazis, and with the beginning of the persecution of artists, intellectuals, and Jews on the European continent. The United States was in the depths of the Great Depression. [. . .] Despite the unemployment and financial hardship, the Great Depression gave rise to a garden of utopian ventures, some ephemeral, some enduring. The collapse of the financial system brought disillusionment with the existing political, economic, and social order. At the same time, Americans remained optimistic in their belief that the system could be successfully reformed and that an ideal society could be created through a new economic or spiritual order. Artists, intellectuals, educators, and politicians—many unemployed and with time on their hands—envisioned an ideal world. [. . .] It was in this spirit of cultural nationalism, experimentation, idealism, and international turmoil that Black Mountain College was born and from which it was to emerge a generative force in American life. In many respects, the college was a microcosm, both reflecting and altering the intellectual and creative life of its time.

The roll call of teachers and students at the college is impressive, to say the least: painters Josef Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly; composer John Cage, sculptor John Chamberlain, poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, Russell Edson, Galway Kinnell, John Wieners, Edward Dorn; dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham; writers Edward Dahlberg, Fielding Dawson, Michael Rumaker, Francine du Plessix Gray; architect Buckminster Fuller, art critic Clement Greenberg, film director Arthur Penn, ceramic artists and writers M.C. Richards and Peter Voulkos, filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek, composer Stefan Wolpe . . . and counting notable artists and writers associated but never in residence at the college, this list could easily be twice or three times as long.

Founded by classics scholar John Rice, Black Mountain was the first American experimental college boasting complete democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts, and interdisciplinary academic study. It was the site of the first geodesic dome built by Buckminster Fuller in 1948; the first multimedia happening occurred at Black Mountain College in 1952, staged by John Cage; and it was the spiritual home of the Black Mountain Review, edited by Robert Creeley, which in seven issues from 1954 to 1957, published a great number of writers both antedating and "anteceding" the Jack Kerouac School—among them Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Denise Levertov, M.C. Richards, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Charles Olson, and Jonathan Williams.

Fielding Dawson, eighteen years old in 1949, wrote home to his sister and her husband (back in Ohio, I think), after just one week at Black Mountain—I'm excerpting:

I'm having a wonderful time here just as I told you in the first letter. [. . .] Well, brother-in-law and sister, a few things I have on my mind and I want to tell you them. For one: the girls around this place, not all, but a good many, use terrible language. Now, for a male to say son of a bitch and for a male to call another a bastard is o.k., I can see that, 'cause I do it myself; but, for a female to drink gin and to call the guys she's with dirty names, why I just can't see it. For that, one of the guys called me grandma and pious and whatnot, so, you see the kind of people that are here. Even the teachers use bad lingo. [. . .] My vision of a college boy, is one who leads a decent life, swears, drinks beer, that's o.k., but these guys, just because they're labeled artists, drink gin and swear, and the girls do too . . . [. . .] I want to tell you about Mr. Olson {at that time, a teacher, but two years later rector of the college}. He is . . . gosh, words fail me . . . about ten steps higher than stupendous. He is about six feet eight or nine and has shoulders like an ox. He must weigh about two hundred and sixty or seventy. [. . .] He likes Ezra Pound very much. We are, at the end of the year, going to [do] three plays, the first, our version or interpretation of Homer's Odyssey; the part about the cyclops and Ulysses. The second (they are all fifteen minutes long) will be a selection of Ezra's and the third will be something we can make up, our own creation. Doesn't it sound wonderful? Gosh, I'm overwhelmed . . . then think of the painting and the sculpture, I'm taking, and the Hindu Philosophy, and the French . . . ? Boy, it's over my head, but it's still wonderful!

Fielding went on to become a terrific short story writer and novelist; he also wrote a memoir of his time at Black Mountain and another one of the painter Franz Kline. But to get back to the years of the Black Mountain Review—here's some of what Robert Creeley, its editor, had to say about it in an essay published in 1969:

Toward the end of 1953 Black Mountain College [. . .] was trying to solve a persistent and most awkward problem. In order to survive it needed a much larger student enrollment," and here I should mention that the *total* student body over the twenty-four years of Black Mountain's existence was only about twelve hundred—"and the usual bulletins and announcements of summer programs seemed to have little effect. Either they failed to reach people who might well prove interested, or else the nature of the college itself was so little known that no one quite trusted its proposals. [. . .] Whatever the cause—and no doubt it involves too the fact that all experimental colleges faced a very marked apathy during the fifties—some other means of finding and interesting prospective students had to be managed, and so it was that Charles Olson, then rector of the college, proposed to the other faculty members that a magazine might prove a more active advertisement for the nature and form of the college's program.

Creeley, who by that time had dropped out of Harvard, served in Burma as an American Field Service ambulance driver during the final years of that gruesome World War Two campaign, lived in France and Mallorca and started his own literary press, The Divers Press, had been in touch with Ezra Pound about the possibilities for a magazine comparable to the great magazines published between the wars—Transition, Blast, The Little Review, many others. Creeley writes: "What he did give me [. . .] was a kind of *rule book* for the editing of any magazine. For example, he suggested I think of the magazine as a center around which, 'not a box within which / any item.' [. . .] He suggested I get at least four others, on whom I could depend unequivocally for material, and to make their work the mainstay of the magazine's form. But then, he said, let the rest of it, roughly half, be as various and hogwild as possible, 'so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in.'"

In the way Lucien Carr (who, by the way, just passed away in late January, aged seventy-nine) was the one person in New York City destined to introduce Kerouac and Ginsberg to Burroughs and Neal Cassady, as I mentioned in my previous talk—in a similar way, a Bostonian poet and radio broadcaster, Cid Corman, was the person to introduce Creeley to Charles Olson—and published both of them in the first issues of *his* magazine, a quarterly called Origin. Creeley again: "Origin was, in fact, the meeting place for many of the writers who subsequently became the active nucleus for The Black Mountain Review. More than any other magazine of that period, it undertook to make place for the particular poets who later came to be called the 'Black Mountain School.' In its issues prior to 1954, and continuingly, it gave first significant American publication to Denise Levertov, Irving Layton, Robert Duncan, Paul Carroll, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, myself, and a number of others as well."

Back to the Black Mountain / North Carolina State Archives:

Although the college continued to espouse the inherited ideals of the 1930s such as community living, a farm, work program, and faculty-run college, the community was, in fact, comprised largely of artists and scholars with little interest in farming, administration or maintenance. Periodic efforts to give the college a more traditional structure and program were unsuccessful. A conventional college with an authoritarian administration inevitably meant a loss of academic and creative freedom. The GI Bill benefits were dwindling, and the conservative atmosphere in the 50s made it virtually impossible for experimental ventures to raise funds. Eventually, the faculty were paid in beef allotments from the remaining cows, and parcels of property were sold. In its darkest hours, despite the inevitable demise, Charles Olson continued to postulate new schemes. Finally, in the fall of 1956, the remaining faculty directed Olson to begin the process of closing the college. The few students left the campus, many for San Francisco where the college continued to sponsor programs including a drama workshop directed by Robert Duncan and Olson's Special View of History lectures. In March 1957 the courts ordered Olson to cease all programs, and the college closed although a postmortem issue of the Black Mountain Review did not appear until Autumn 1957.

{Note: Text only from this point}

"Many left for San Francisco": in October 1955, at the Six Gallery, six poets gave a by all accounts rambunctious reading to an audience of two hundred and fifty: Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen—the occasion emcee'd by Kenneth Rexroth, the elder statesman of the San Francisco poetry scene. Jack Kerouac was present, and in his own words did his best to liven up the scene: "I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy."

It was the first public performance of Howl, whose publication, prosecution, and vindication were to follow in rapid succession.

To dwell on Black Mountain for a moment longer, and specifically on its last rector, Charles Olson, the author of a groundbreaking study of Herman Melville titled Call Me Ishmael and a massive epic or cycle or epic cycle, The Maximus Poems—a book that has inspired several younger poets, the most prominent among them Susan Howe and Anne Waldman. In a short essay written in 1952, "The Present is Prologue," Olson calls himself "[. . .] an archeologist of morning. And the writing and acts which I find bear on the present job are (I) from Homer back, not forward; and (II) from Melville on, particularly himself, Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, and Lawrence. These were modern men who projected what we are and what we are in, who broke the spell."

Elsewhere, Olson again links Melville and Rimbaud: "both of them, in wholly differing ways, were prevented from work beyond what they did do [. . .] by an exasperation that a reality equivalent to their own penetration of reality had not come into being in their time. [. . .] Both had seen ideality for the discrepancy it is." And again: "Rimbaud's question is the incisive one—'What is on the other side of despair?' There is no where else to go but in and through; there is no longer any least piece of pie in the sky."

If that sounds a wee bit too "heroic" to present ears, it may not be more so than Ginsberg's "I saw the best minds . . . ." I think we have to acknowledge that many of the writers we have been discussing here, the writers who came of age in the forties and fifties, are indeed as much postromantics as they are postmoderns—the latter a term, by the way, first used by Charles Olson, although not quite in the way it is commonly interpreted now.

Both Ginsberg and Olson see Rimbaud as a forerunner, a herald of the modern. While Olson understands him as a denier of "ideality"—which term includes both religious and ideological systems—Ginsberg considers him a "see-er," a visionary similar to William Blake. There may or may not be a contradiction there. Both Olson and Ginsberg also reject the "ideality" of the eighteenth century enlightenment: Descartes is a particular bête noire in Olson's book. On the other hand, both of them also reject the capitalist corporate model of cultural and social organization, the set-up symbolized by "the man in the gray flannel suit" back in the fifties. And they do, of course, share that revulsion with contemporaries not immediately connected to the antecedents we're talking about here—Norman Mailer, James Jones, Arthur Miller, to mention just those three.

Living, as we now do, at a time when an administration of radical right-wing looters uses rampant hypocritical superstition for its mercenary ends, one might well wish for a return to the good old Enlightenment, or at least some of its positive aspects—let's say, Voltaire and Tom Paine, not Robespierre and the Terror. And this may make it a little harder to quite see where Olson is coming from when he assumes his back-to-the-Sumerians or Mayans stance, a stance initiated by D.H. Lawrence in the time between the world wars, in Lawrence's case sometimes perilously close to the German National Socialists' vision of "blood and soil." (Speaking for myself, every nostalgia for ancient hierarchical forms of human existence has always struck me as suspect, although probably more harmless than the mindless approval of present hierarchical forms masquerading as "democracy.")

As a teacher at Black Mountain and later on in various universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo, still a lively center for writing in recent times, Charles Olson rejected the "workshop" mode, which concentrates on student work and round robin discussion of same. While I was never a formal student of his, I gather from writings—his and former students'—and conversation that his focus was on an increase of the participants' interest in history, cosmology, lesser-known or only recently discovered or rediscovered traditions in the "human universe" (the title of one of his essays). Thus, a kind of groundwork that would give the aspiring writer or artist a new sense of material and direction. Olson's thirteen-page Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn, composed in 1955, is obviously too long to quote in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Assumptions: (1) that *politics* and *economics* (that is, agriculture, fisheries, capital and labor) are like love (can only be individual experience) and therefore, as they have been presented (again, like love) are not much use, that is, any study of the books about
(2) that *sociology,* without exception, is a lot of shit -- produced by people who are the most dead of all, history as politics or economics each being at least events and laws, not this dreadful beast, some average and statistic
[. . .] Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn't matter whether it's Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But *exhaust* it. Saturate it. Beat it. / And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you're in, forever. [. . .] / So far as it's reading (& history is, because you can't find em all in Justus Garage of an afternoon!) reading (=s oral history, if one's ears are open as well as one's eyes -- [. . .] the point is to get *all* that's been said on given subject. And I don't mean *books*: they stop. Because their makers are usually lazy. Or fancy. Or they are creative. And that's the end. [. . .] And that's where the trouble comes in: so few are, but so many think they are.

Thus, to grossly oversimplify the teaching, once you've spent a decade or a decade and a half finding out about one subject, you won't ever be lacking for "subject matter" in your writing or art, from then on in.

When Charles Olson was left the last man standing—quite literally—on the Black Mountain College campus in October 1957, he wrote a poem titled "Obit." It was published for the first time thirty years later, seventeen years after his death.

The quail, and the wild mountain aster,
possess the place

"It was a place of blood" sd the mother
of two daughters whose husband
is buried here, and who at seventy
was a woman. "It's hell
to be here," sd the southerner
who founded it

Now the animals, and snakes,
have come down in. I saw a fox
cross the road last night

The mountain lion
is rumored
in the hills. The last man of the place
dreamed
of 14 persons on this hillside
like the mountain in the Chinese classic
to whom all those repaired who were useless,
the empire had become that good it was impossible
it was so dull, the court had no use
for the imperial instructor in fencing,
the greatest wrestler in the nation
with his tight beard
was on the roads picking fights
at bridges, the mistress of the tea house
was also wandering, all of them, 400 of them
fetched up in Kwansing [kwan sing]

-- all the ultimate Adam of this American place
hoped for, was 14. 14 who could take
a vow of obedience. "Poverty?", he said,
to the Bishop of Raleigh when the able man noticed
the farmhouse needed paint. I should say. And
a form of chastity? Claritas. But the last vow?
Who knows, any more, what it is that one does
obey to?"

"It was a polis," sd his friend, "no wonder
you wanted to take part in its
creation."

Hm.

What one can say, is, that there are 400-odd human creatures,
more or less, who were here and, according to their powers,
which have a ratio, carry it, carry the October morning,
the soft August moons, the fabulous hailstorm on the lake
whose hails people kept in their ice boxes and are now,
of course, the size of grapefruits, the mist off
the water, or, the night he drank Tokay and did say
to the least likely man to hear it, 14 people. When he
walked down

to his pad he didn't set foot
on the earth, he walked right out over
May West, an acre of

Nights, how the wind off
the oldest mountains
can blow the hell out
of clouds: we have seen the sky here
be torn as the sea swept of its peopling
the speed the clouds
have run before it, as there are people
who ran, when others stayed, and some
got down
[. . .]

It goes on for a couple more pages, but you get the drift—the voice, moving along from one perception to the next, the focus flickering back and forth between close-up and long distance, the elegiac tone, the romantic recall of the Chinese story with its refugees—from a court gone dull and hostile to their arts—who find *their* mountain. And there is, of course, a strong sense of disappointment and bitterness that it had proven impossible to keep the college afloat.

Thinking here, for a moment, about one literally *visible* difference between poems in the Beat and Black Mountain mode on one hand and the more conventionally traditional on the other—especially back then, in the fifties and sixties—is that the former tend to *use the page* in ways considered extravagant, or even frivolous, by the latter. In Anglophone poetry, such use of the printed page goes back to Ezra Pound and the great Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, both of whom work with variable margins, white space, and carefully arranged word clusters on the page. It continues in the writings of Olson, Paul Blackburn, others in the fifties, and on through the New York Schools all the way up to the present. It is undoubtedly related to Olson's sense of keeping things moving, or Rimbaud's "thought hooking on to thought and pulling"—a visual manifestation of those mental hooks and trapezes. Olson, in his essay "Human Universe": "There is only one thing you can do about kinetic, reenact it. Which is why the man [presumably Plato] said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe. And why art is the only twin life has—its only valid metaphysic. Art does not seek to describe but to enact."

The Black Mountaineers who, in the mid-fifties, emigrated away from the not always idyllic wilds of North Carolina to the foggy hills of San Francisco / found congenial spirits there: Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, strictly San Fran at that time, and Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, Reed College graduates from the Pacific Northwest whose work seemed to look even farther west, across the Pacific—particularly in Snyder's case, who was soon to move on to Japan and become a Zen scholar of classical Chinese and Japanese traditions of poetry. There is also a clear link, here, to Ezra Pound's work and interests in the early decades of the twentieth century—sparked, perhaps, by an acquaintance with Englishman Arthur Waley's pioneering translations from the Chinese canon. Pound's poem "The River Merchant's Letter to His Wife" resonates with the cadences of Snyder's poetry to this day. The refugees from Black Mountain also encountered, or re-encountered, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer, a not always all that holy trinity of word-magicians. More about them next time around, on March 13.

Now I would like to end this talk by a look at yet another transplant to San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the famous City Lights Book Shop and the City Lights publishing house, both of which are approaching the half-century mark. Matched only by Allen Ginsberg on the poetry bestseller lists, Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind—which incorporates his first book, Pictures of the Gone World—has been a steady seller for almost fifty years. Speaking of antecedents: Ferlinghetti is also the most prominent translator of French poet Jacques Prévert. Prévert (dates: 1900–1977) was the most popular poet of post–World War Two France, a songwriter whose songs were performed by all the greats, from Juliette Gréco to Yves Montand. His "Autumn Leaves" was taken up by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Miles Davis. As if that weren't enough, he also wrote the screenplays for some of the greatest French movies of the forties and fifties—The Children of Paradise, The Night Visitors, Port of Shadows, The Crime of Monsieur Lange: classics all.

His book Paroles, in Ferlinghetti's translation, is still in print in a bilingual edition. Let me wind this up by reading a poem from that book, and one by Ferlinghetti himself. Here is Prévert's "Pater Noster":

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there
And we'll stay here on earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
With its mysteries of New York
And its mysteries of Paris
Worth as much as that of the Trinity
With its little canal at Ourcq
Its great wall of China
Its river at Morlaix
Its candy canes
With its Pacific Ocean
And its two basins in the Tuileries
With its good children and bad people
With all the wonders of the world
Which are here
Simply on the earth
Offered to everyone
Strewn about
Wondering at the wonder of themselves
And daring not avow it
As a naked pretty girl dares not show herself
With the world's outrageous misfortunes
Which are legion
With their legionaries
With their torturers
With the masters of this world
The masters with their priests their traitors and their troops
With the seasons
With the years
With the pretty girls and with the old bastards
With the straw of misery rotting in the steel
of cannons.

A kind of "default mode" of poetry, in its simplicity, or, if you wish, effectively "faux" naïveté—perfectly matched by Ferlinghetti's poem number 22 in Pictures of the Gone World, 1955:

crazy to be alive in such a strange world with the band playing schmaltz in the classic bandshell and the people on the benches under the clipped trees and girls on the grass and the breeze bowing and the streamers streaming and a fat man with a graflex and a dark woman with a dark dog she called Lucia and a cat on a leash and a pekinese with a blond baby and a cuban in a fedora and a bunch of boys posing for a group picture and just then while the band went on playing schmaltz a midget ran past shouting and waving his hat at someone and a young man with a gay campaignbutton came up and said Are you by any chance a registered DEMOCRAT?

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