I suffer from a peculiar malady. My sense of what a poem is, how it should work, how it might feel (its aesthetics)—all of this, my understanding of a poem, was determined when I was an adolescent who came into contact with a number of Black Mountain poets. For all my life as a working poet, now more than fifty years, I have been unable to appreciate a poem outside of the framework imparted to me when I was learning what poetry could be—when I realized I was serious about the vocation of poet.
Throughout the ensuing decades, I have viewed my own poetry as a poetry of accident—because of my adolescent choice, before I could really have any idea of what I might do, to attend a college in Cortland, New York, where I would come to absorb the precepts and writings of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan and others of their ilk. My shortcoming has proven to be a strong sense of purpose.
I attended a creative writing workshop run by a Cortland professor, David Toor, in 1965. That same year, I first set eyes on Donald Allen’s game-changing anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, which had appeared five years earlier. Years later, I learned that Allen was guided by Olson, former Rector of Black Mountain College, in putting his book together. To create sections of his book, Allen devised the post-World War Two avant-garde “schools” readers now know of, which he named Black Mountain, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance, Beat, and so on. He also gave Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse”—whose influence has been enormous, to put it mildly, since it first appeared in 1950—pride of place in the Poetics portion of the anthology.
I read Olson with the greatest passion (mesmerized by what I was seeing on the page), also Creeley, Oppenheimer, the others—who came to Cortland to read and sit in on that workshop. It just so happened that Toor’s brother worked alongside Oppenheimer in a Greenwich Village print shop. First Oppenheimer, then everyone else showed up, during my college days. Blackburn eventually settled there to teach. Like Creeley and Oppenheimer, he would be a mentor to me.
I was an athlete. I wanted to become a football coach, so I enrolled in Cortland’s physical education program. I was not the only future writer or artist to be enrolled in it. Somewhat wayward students, with athletic ability, had been recruited into it, including the future writer and poet Michael (M.G.) Stephens, and Ron Edson who ended up as a painter.
Toor was devoted to us students. And he gave us a gift greater than we could possibly have imagined. I had fallen in love with Stevens, Emerson, Herbert, Donne, Dickinson. I came to appreciate these great poets as I read them through the lens of Black Mountain poetics.
Both Stephens and Edson were fixtures in the inaugural writing workshops at the St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery Poetry Project (Ron having completed college, Mike having dropped out, as I would). The Poetry Project had been created by Blackburn. Its first Director was Oppenheimer. His very young secretary, then, and its future Director—who would put her indelible stamp on the Project for all time—was Anne Waldman.
Before meeting Toor, I had no knowledge of the Black Mountain poets, any of their forbears such as the Objectivists, or any of their predecessors among the Vorticists and Imagists such as Pound, Williams, and H.D.—the core of American Modernist poetry. Burton Hatlen, who became the Director of the National Poetry Foundation (taking over from its founder, the Pound scholar Carroll Terrell), neatly referred to them (in conversation with me) as “The Philadelphia Three.” They all met in or around the University of Pennsylvania in 1905, when still in their teens. (Marianne Moore was just up the road at Bryn Mawr.) These three Modernists—as well as Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen et al.—were not to be found in the mainstream collections and were not taught in universities.
The English courses I took—quite other, fundamentally, from Toor’s workshop experiences—were steeped in neoRomanticism and driven by New Criticism. The work to be found in the Allen anthology, on the other hand, was fresh, obeying Pound’s dictum to “make it new.” Allen’s book stood as a repudiation of academic poetry preceding it. For young poets like myself, the work was far more than enlightening.
Even before I first met Creeley or read his poems, I heard him read a poem as part of a PBS television film. The poem was simply about birds in a tree who were aware of his “presence.” The brief lyric ended with a rhetorical question about them there: “And / why not, I thought to // myself, why / not” (“Like They Say,” circa 1955). I was stunned by the sense that the poem did not end. Its open architecture was a quality I strove to emulate.
The poem’s lack of closure undermined the very edifice of the neoRomantic poem—a poem that depended on a sense of crisis or a revelation, and that led to a closure, “the sense of an ending,” in the words of the great critic Frank Kermode. Such a formula could not accommodate the explorations of a Creeley or, before him, Williams (think of “The Red Wheelbarrow” or “This Is Just to Say”). I would discover an even more open-ended quality in Blackburn’s poems.
The mainstream was facing a challenge, one that, even in the mid-sixties, I had yet to comprehend as that. What I call “the poets of nostalgia” were being represented in a particularly well-known anthology, New Poets of England and America, which appeared just before, and then, in a new edition, just after the appearance of Allen’s book. I doubt the New Poets editors (Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson) at all looked outside the mainstream. The poets they selected were celebrated and canonized, though.
Their anthology contained work written by not a single poet included in The New American Poetry, and vice versa. This “other” anthology is virtually forgotten now. It was the standard collection, the one most often taught from in the universities, for many years. The difference between the two books was stark.
The college-assigned collection lacked the focus within the avant garde upon language in and of itself (what Creeley later called “the thingness of language”). That sense of words was coalescing in me, starting in my college days. Then, after leaving college to live in the East Village, I attended a workshop led by Oppenheimer; that sense of words, and of the freedom from formalism’s constraints, deepened. (Today, I write syllabic verse. But this choice came much later.)
There’s another thing about my Black Mountain legacy. While the poetics grew out of the teaching, writing, and thinking that took place at Black Mountain College, in rural North Carolina—and while participants in that grand conversation arrived there from various points on the globe, many of them rural—a direct outgrowth of the college was a jolt of energy and innovation that dramatically affected arts communities in a number of cities, San Francisco and New York especially. (The story of Basil and Martha King’s migration from Black Mountain, for instance, first to San Francisco, then to Manhattan and ultimately Brooklyn, is iconic.)
That the New York School was already helping to establish its namesake city as the center of the art world, well before Black Mountain closed its doors, does not fully account for the breadth and vibrancy of art activity in New York, along with poetry and other disciplines, linking back to the college. And as for poetry—the post-war avant-garde especially indebted to Black Mountain—new forms of poetry, which were alien to the mainstream and radically different, would come to the fore in vibrant urban centers of innovation.
In large measure because of emigration to New York from Black Mountain, its poets (also Blackburn and a young Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, whose aesthetic outlook comported with theirs) contributed significantly to a downtown literary scene. This community was made up of the likes of Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg and, along with Oppenheimer, younger people, such as Diane di Prima, who was later to be viewed as a hybrid (according to Donald Allen’s categorizations, that is, some writers, like William Bronk, did not fit neatly into the various schools). Perhaps no more vivid sign of this community, which we might now view as disparate, is the fact that Ginsberg’s long poem Howl was first typewritten by Creeley.
Out of this downtown New York City scene, eventually the Poetry Project birthed its own poetic practices, which sponsored later New York School (Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Lewis Warsh, et al.), later Beat (di Prima, Waldman), and then L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, et al.). In common among these new schools’ proclivities, was the urban lyric.
The benchmark of this “urban” poem was the 1967 publication of Blackburn’s The Cities. The poems in his collection were first disseminated in little magazines of the fifties and sixties. Arguably, it was Blackburn’s Black Mountain poetics, holding imagery to be crucial (in keeping with the precepts of Pound, H.D., and Williams), which gave rise to various evocations of the cityscape. What the Black Mountain impulse contributed to this new poem of the city was the precise image, including on the page, along with a candid voice.
Both can be found in the work of O’Hara (one of the poets comprising the original New York School). Yet the sense of written language as material existence, in and of itself, as can be found in Black Mountain and, earlier, Objectivist poetry and poetics, could manifest through a voice embodying the breakdown of statement. Particles of speech stood on their own (as in, vividly, Blackburn’s poems, before his Oppen’s).
A poet like Oppenheimer contributed to this emerging complex with a palpably urban grit (perhaps coming through subliminally in his juxtapositions). The very feel of the city was critical in his poems. Here is the title work of his 1962 book, The Love Bit:
the colors we depend on are
red for raspberry jam, white
of the inside thigh, purple as
in deep, the blue of moods, green
cucumbers (cars), yellow stripes down
the pants, orange suns on ill-
omened days, and black as the
dirt in my fingernails.
also, brown, in the night,
appearing at its best when
the eyes turn inward, seeking
An explanation of how the younger di Prima was working, having absorbed this aesthetics, and for a time working closely with Jones/Baraka, is encapsulated by remarks she’d make much later about this period (in an interview with Waldman): “All my writing was completely predicated on getting the slang of N.Y. in the period in the early 50’s, down on paper somehow or another.” Here is one of her late-fifties lyrics from her first collection This Kind of Bird Flies Backward:
In case you put me down I put you down
I know the games you play.
In case you put me down I got it figured
how there are better mouths than yours
more swinging bodies
wilder scenes than this.
In case you put me down it won’t help much.
Communal living and jazz make up di Prima’s language here. The poem also proclaims the sense of being free within an alternative way of living. All of this is embodied in her word “swinging.” There is melody in di Prima’s verse lines that, echoing both agreements and disagreements the poem’s speaker encounters through daily happenstance, espouses the democratic.
One final aspect of Black Mountain poetics should be mentioned. There was, not in any obvious way, a philosophical aspect in the poetry of someone like Creeley, so too as regards Olson’s or Duncan’s poems. But it was Creeley who put together something for me, which I had been observing in North American avant-garde poetry although I was failing to see a bigger picture. These poets, along with Oppen and Bronk (and Stevens, who had also appeared in Cid Corman’s journal Origin, and the Black Mountain Review edited by Creeley), grasped the phenomenological implications of quantum mechanics (evident in some of their work).
Through Oppen’s sister, June Degnan, then publisher of the San Francisco Review, Bronk appeared on the national landscape in 1964 when his collection The World, the Worldless, whose manuscript had been edited by Oppen, was brought out by New Directions. Especially of interest, here, is the fact that Bronk had been the last poet to be cut from the Allen anthology, ostensibly due to space issues.
Yet Olson’s stunning blurb on the back cover said a lot about what Black Mountain poetics was: “I may have, for the first time in my life, imagined a further succinct life.” (Bronk had once shown up at Black Mountain, wanting to visit Olson, and was met by Duncan who told him that Olson was asleep and could not be disturbed. Olson then tried to visit Bronk at his home in Hudson Falls, New York, but Bronk was traveling with his sister in Europe. The blurb originates on a postcard Olson penned to Bronk, expressing regret at having missed him. The published correspondence between the two poets is fascinating.)
Olson’s comment—the “further succinct life”—riveted me as a young poet, who was steeped in both Olson’s and Bronk’s writings. (I first met Bronk in Cortland, in 1966; and we began exchanging letters and sometimes poems.) Olson’s work was, in many ways, quite distant from Bronk’s—yet not in some fundamental way that, as it happened, extended beyond Pound’s notion of “condensare” (his coinage) while comprehending that. In some respects, just as Oppen’s work differed from Bronk’s on the surface, while, nevertheless, their respective writings shared a vision (as is professed in their correspondence), that vision was partaken of by Creeley and others. Olson and Bronk entertained a fundamental world view.
The word world possessed a special heft for them (also for Creeley, Stevens, Oppen and others—today, in poems by Michael Heller and Hugh Seidman, for example). They also shared a certain understanding, and appreciation, of language that fit with a common cosmology. Creeley was pivotal in this intellectual as well as artistic history (for years, Olson famously carried on an intense dialogue with him—note the fat volumes of their published letters).
I’ll always cherish what, for me, was an epiphanic moment, when I opened a letter from Creeley, which contained his permission to quote passages of his work in my then-upcoming critical book on Bronk. Creeley had scribbled an encouraging note on the permissions page itself, in the margin. His inscription included an apostrophe in quotes, and with the exclamation mark to be found in a line from a poem of Bronk’s: “World, world!” The phrase comes from Bronk’s fifties poem “In Contempt of Worldliness,” which, initially, he sent to Olson in a letter that continued a conversation they’d been having about Oppen. The phrase would later appear in Bronk’s 1964 book:
How one comes
to despise all worldliness! World, world!
We cling like animal young to the flanks of the world
to show our belonging; but to be at ease here
in mastery, were to make too light of the world
as if it were less than it is: the unmasterable.
Creeley’s imitation cri de coeur, in the margin of his response to my entreaty, could well have come from the title of Oppen’s poem “World, World—” that concludes his 1965 collection This In Which (note the title’s privileging of pronouns). I mean to suggest, all the same, a bidirectional influence here (as might be seen in letters between Bronk and Oppen), in addition taking into account another poem of Bronk’s, “The Arts and Death: A Fugue for Sidney Cox,” which appeared in his 1956 volume Light and Dark, hence preceding Oppen’s poem. Therein Bronk writes: “World, world, I am scared / and waver in awe […].”
Creeley’s inscription confirmed for me what I was already intuiting about our avant-garde poetry. That was something not being comprehended by the poets in the post-War “academic” scene. It was something essential within the Black Mountain experience. Creeley was signaling me, making sure I got it all.
Below is a recent poem of mine, which is deeply indebted to him. I have come to realize how very much, over the many years he was supportive of me and my work, my own poetry and intellectual framework were nurtured—deeply inflected, actually by Creeley’s (of course, my debt to Bronk, Olson, Oppen is not news):
The World at Dawn
I wanted so ably
to reassure you…
up, and went to the window,
pushed back, as you asked me to,
the curtain, to see
the outline of the trees
in the night outside.
—Robert Creeley, from “The World”
on my bed,
I look through
the sky, their
The dawn is
white. I am
on the world.
There is its
light. A car
goes by not
I might say
if I were
will leave this
world.” The word
world is so
for poets —
some knew it
was a word.
all gone. They
words. They knew
words are. Their
words are mine.
I lie still
and I say
that the world,
its light, is
out “there” and
I want it.
Burt Kimmelman has published seventeen books of poetry and criticism, and more than a hundred articles on literature, art and other matters. His poems are often anthologized and have been featured on National Public Radio. Interviews of him are available in print or online. His most recent collection of poems is Abandoned Angel (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016). His tenth collection, Wings Apart (Dos Madres Press), is forthcoming. Kimmelman teaches literary and cultural studies at New Jersey Institute of Technology. More about him can be found at BurtKimmelman.com.
An earlier version of this essay, titled “My Own Private Black Mountain,” appeared in the Appalachian Review 3-4 (2017). Special thanks to its editors.