Black Mountain

[excerpt from Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’ A SECRET LOCATION ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE. Granary Books, 1998]

Black Mountain, a timeline of events


      • Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, published by Reynal & Hitchcock


      • Charles Olson’s Y & X, published by Black Sun Press


      • Origin, edited by Cid Corman, begins life near Boston; the first issue features Olson, the second, Robert Creeley
      • Charles Olson arrives at Black Mountain College as rector
      • The Dada Painters and Poets, edited by Robert Motherwell, published by Wittenborn, Schultz


      • Charles Olson’s Mayan Letters published by the Divers Press



      • Black Mountain College closes

AMONG THE SEVERAL STREAMS which made up the New American Poetry was a group known as the Black Mountain poets, so named for the experimental college in North Carolina where many of them taught or attended classes in the 1950s. The most prominent of these poets were of course Charles Olson, rector of the college in its last five years, and Robert Creeley, who edited The Black Mountain Review. The work of both has exerted an extraordinary influence on the course of American poetry in the latter half of this century. Closely allied with many of the Black Mountain writers, but especially influential on Creeley, were the poets occasionally known as the Objectivists, such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff, who were in fact too individualistic to be part of any school. Still, the spare lyricism, historical knowledge, and social conscience found in all three poets were highly regarded in the camps of the New American Poetry.

Those who taught or listened at Black Mountain constitute a veritable roll call of the American avant-garde; among those most relevant to our literary purposes are John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Fielding Dawson, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Basil King, Joel Oppenheimer, M. C. Richards, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners, and Jonathan WilliamsThe Black Mountain Review was founded to supplement allied magazines such as Origin (Olson succinctly described the importance of Origin when he told editor Cid Corman, “The thing is, because Origin exists, I write better, I write more…”) and attempted to extend this work by creating a critical grounding for the new writing through the publication of theoretical writings. The magazine also acted as a bridge to writers outside the Black Mountain milieu, publishing work by Lorine Niedecker, James Purdy, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby, Jr., and Jack Kerouac, among others.

Jonathan Williams returned from San Francisco to his home state to study photography with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at Black Mountain College. Williams’s nascent Jargon Society flourished in part as a result of his stay at the college—books published during and just after this period include Olson’s The Maximus Poems, Creeley’s A Form of Women, Louis Zukofsky’s Some Time, Larry Eigner’s On My Eyes, Robert Duncan’s Letters, Denise Levertov’s Overland to the Islands, Paul Metcalf’s Genoa, and Williams’s own Empire Finals at Verona (illustrated by Fielding Dawson), to name just a few. The Black Mountain Review had a distinctive squat format and was very well produced. Published in part as an attempt to draw attention to the college in a last-ditch effort to increase enrollment, the edition size never exceeded 750 copies.

The bringing together of unusual talents from diverse arts in the cloistered setting at Black Mountain played a crucial role in the development of postmodernism later in the 1960s. Having the likes of Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, David Tudor, Stefan Wolpe, Paul Goodman, and Cy Twombly (along with the poets mentioned above) under one roof pinpoints the location of one of several influential force fields in America that surely extended the boundaries of the various arts into new kinds of expression and new ways of making art.