Black Mountain School Analysis

Black Mountain College

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Situated in Buncombe County, North Carolina, the community of Black Mountain took its name from the mountain range wherein it nestles. The Black Mountains are a part of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Southern Appalachians, which extend into West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Black Mountain is about fifteen miles east of Asheville.

The population of the village of Black Mountain was about 750 in 1933 when John Andrew Rice, Jr. (1888-1968), and several other dedicated individuals founded the experimental Black Mountain College. Rice served as its first rector. Rice’s father, a Methodist minister, had been the president of Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, and a founding faculty member of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Rice’s mother was Annabelle Smith, the sister of U.S. senator Ellison Durant (“Cotton Ed”) Smith. Rice took many ideas for teaching from Webb School, the college preparatory boarding school that he attended (1905-1908) in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Rice advocated classroom discussion techniques, student-centered teaching, and a minimum of formal lecture.

A graduate of Tulane University, Rice received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. At Oxford, he met Frank Aydelotte, who would later be a president of Swarthmore College, and Frank’s sister Nell Aydelotte. Rice married Nell in 1914 after his Oxford graduation; they had two children before their divorce and...

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Facilities of Black Mountain College

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The facilities of Black Mountain College were unlike those of most colleges and universities. From 1933 to 1941, the founders of Black Mountain College rented the Young Men’s Christian Association’s Blue Ridge Assembly buildings, just south of the village of Black Mountain; these facilities had been in use primarily as a summer conference center. A three-story building, an assembly hall, plentiful rooms, and a view of the mountains seemed an ideal environment for the new college.

At its 1933 opening, Black Mountain College had twenty-one students. Over the years, as the college received increasing national recognition, enrollment grew, reaching nearly one hundred students yearly. The campus soon needed to expand. During the late 1930’s, the faculty began consulting with Walter Gropius—the German architect who founded the Staatliches Bauhaus School in Germany—and other architects to plan a larger, modern campus for Black Mountain College. Because of the impending war, however, the time for an extensive building project was not right. Still, the college was ready for some changes.

In 1940, the faculty requested that Rice tender his resignation. That year, Black Mountain College began the process of relocating to Lake Eden, just across the valley from the Blue Ridge Assembly location. The newly purchased Lake Eden property had originally been a summer camp and resort; it included a lakeside dining hall, two lodges, and several small cottages. The college enlisted the American architect A. Lawrence Kocher to devise a simple plan for the expansion of Black Mountain College. During 1940-1941, students and faculty of Black Mountain College constructed the Studies Building, a faculty cottage for music teacher Heinrich Jalowetz and his wife, and some other buildings for the campus. The college remained in this Eden Lake location until it closed in 1957.

The impact of the times

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the 1920’s, the educator Dewey developed his principles of progressive education, which contrasted with the traditional lecture method of teaching. His progressive teaching model—which featured student-centered learning—was used by many Black Mountain instructors. Black Mountain College’s curriculum and teaching methods incorporated many of Dewey’s ideas.

When Black Mountain College opened in the 1930’s, the United States was in the Great Depression. In its establishment and operation, the college had to consider the financial situation of potential students. Having the students and faculty work together was not just advantageous to the students and the school; it was a necessity for the survival of the institution.

World affairs also affected Black Mountain College. In Germany, Adolf Hitler was rising in power. He and his Nazi regime opposed the Staatliches Bauhaus School, which combined crafts and the arts in its teachings and operated from 1919 to 1933. The Nazis supported traditional architectural designs and opposed the cosmopolitan, modernistic designs advocated by the Bauhaus group. In the early 1930’s in Berlin, the married couple of Josef Albers, a Bauhaus artist, and Anni Albers, a weaver and textile designer, endured a search and interrogation by Nazi agents. Knowing of the pressures on the Bauhaus and its staff, Black Mountain College invited the Albers family to come to North Carolina. Neither artist could speak...

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Early publications

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Black Mountain College began publishing the Black Mountain Review in 1951. This journal featured the work of faculty and students of Black Mountain College. The publication, however, did not operate for long. Another journal with the same title, Black Mountain Review, was issued from 1954 to 1957. This journal’s title reflected its place of publication rather than any affiliation with the college. However, Robert Creeley—a Black Mountain poet and a former teacher at Black Mountain College—did serve as its editor for a while.

Another journal, Origin, published in 1951 by Cid Corman (1924-2004), featured the works of many of the original poets of the Black Mountain School. The contributing editor of Origin was Charles Olson, a faculty member and a rector at Black Mountain College as well as one of the original Black Mountain poets.

The original members

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, included eleven poets in the Black Mountain poets section: Olson, Creeley, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Denise Levertov, Larry Eigner, Paul Blackburn, John Wieners, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, and Hilda Morley.

Charles Olson

Charles Olson (1910-1970) was a professor and rector (1951-1957) at Black Mountain College. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Olson had studied at both Harvard and Wesleyan. With a Guggenheim Fellowship, he continued studying the works of Herman Melville. Olson’s ideas about poetry were an important part of the style of the avant-garde poets of the Black Mountain School. Olson devised the theory of projective verse and wrote of it in a 1950 essay. He proclaimed that a poem is energy; the poet transfers or projects the energy from its source through the poem to the reader. The source of the energy varies from poem to poem, but the purpose of the poem is discharging the energy. Olson stressed that the length of the line is the breath of the poet. He noted that the poet could narrow the unit of structure to fit an utterance or breath; as a result of this contraction, the poetic diction might employ a distinctive style, for instance “yr” for “your.”

There is not one poetic style that is followed by all the Black Mountain poets; they do, however, seem committed to open form. Open form replaced the traditional closed poetic forms used by earlier writers. The poetry of the Black Mountain poets could no longer be evaluated using the criteria of effective use of traditional poetic rules and conventional forms. Many essayists and critics still classify contemporary poets who work in projective verse, who use open form, and who attend to utterance or breath as members of the Black Mountain School.

In addition to producing his theory of projective verse, Olson was a prolific writer. More than one hundred of his shorter poems appeared in Archaeologist of Morning: The Collected Poems Outside the Maximus Series (1970), published by Cape Goliard in London. Olson’s most sustained poetic effort, however, was The Maximus Poems (1953-1983), a sequence published in numerous volumes. In 1987, the University of California Press published The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding “The Maximus Poems.” Selected Poems (1997) was edited by Creeley, another original Black Mountain poet.

Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley (1926-2005) was born in Arlington, Massachusetts. He lived in Asia, Europe, and Latin America before coming to teach at Black Mountain College in 1955 and serving as editor of Black Mountain Review from 1955. When Creeley left two years later when the college closed, he became the Black Mountain poets’ link to Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets and the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. Two collections capture most of Creeley’s poetic works: The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975 (1982) and The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1975-2005 (2006).

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan (1919-1988) taught at Black Mountain College from 1955 through 1957. Born in Oakland, California, this Black Mountain poet later became a leader of the San Francisco Renaissance. Two collections of Duncan’s poems that include individualistic spellings (utterances) are Derivations: Selected Poems, 1950-1956 and The First Decade: Selected Poems, 1940-1950, both published by Fulcrum Press in London in 1969.

Edward Dorn

Reared in the rural poverty of Villa Grove, Illinois, during the Great Depression, Edward Dorn (1929-1999) studied at the University of Illinois and at Black Mountain College (1950-1955). Dorn, with Duncan, Creeley, and Olson, became a Black Mountain poet. Olson influenced Dorn’s concept of poetry, and Creeley was one of Dorn’s...

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In retrospect

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although Black Mountain College existed only from 1933 until 1957 and fewer than twelve hundred students were enrolled there, the college became a noted experimental institution for the arts and literature. A remarkable number of literary achievements by its students and teachers ensured its reputation.

Those considered to be Black Mountain poets typically had direct contact with this college, its faculty, its related publishers, and its curriculum. Black Mountain poets left their mark on both American and British poetry. Modern American projectivist poets include Charles Potts (born 1943), who studied with Dorn. British poets influenced by the Black Mountain school include J. H. Prynne (born 1936) and Tom Raworth (born 1938).


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Allen, Donald. The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. New York: Grove Press, 1960. Classifies the included poets according to geographic locations and lists eleven poets as being Black Mountain poets.

Duberman, Martin B. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. 1972. Reprint. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2009. Includes commentary and interaction with the people, the community, and the history of Black Mountain College.

Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. 1987. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Traces the history of Black Mountain College, includes a roster of faculty and students, and examines the Black Mountain poets and their styles.

Katz, Vincent, et al. Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Includes a history of Black Mountain College with comments by and interaction with the people of the college.