A Location Constantly Occurring
The beginning was not propitious. But it was direct.
In a letter from Washington, D.C. dated April 21, 1950, Charles Olson writes:
my dear robert creeley:
so Bill W[illiams] too sez, write creeley, he
has ideas and wants to USE 'em
so what do I do? so I write so ferrini sends
creeley a lovely liquid thing, and creeley says, he's a boll weevil, olson,
just a lookin' for a lang, just a lookin nuts, and
i says, creeley, you're
off yr trolley a man
god damn well has to come up with his lang., a syntax and song both,
but also each poem under hand has its own language . . .
Olson signed off, "hello, this is direct, Olson."
At the time, Creeley was 23 and Olson 39. They would not meet in person until Creeley arrived at Black Mountain College in 1954, at about the time of the publication of the first issue of The Black Mountain Review, which Creeley had edited in Majorca.
Creeley was younger and far less experienced than Olson, not yet a poet let alone one who would surpass his older contemporary. In contrast, Olson had already published a masterpiece of literary commentary, Call Me Ishmael. He had received a Guggenheim. He had spent weeks visiting with Pound at St. Elizabeth's, an experience recounted in the posthumously published book edited by Catherine Seelye, Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeth's. He had been published by Caresse Crosby—also publisher of Pound, Crane, Joyce, and Lawrence.
Creeley apologized for his initial remarks, however, telling Olson in an April 24 letter:
Have your poems at hand. These are too much—unlike what I had seen; forgive, etc. But the others didn't make it for me, and, perhaps, useless to go into that here. Except to say that you have my vote on the matters of language, etc.
So Creeley accepted Olson's "The Morning News" for his magazine. Even though the magazine would never appear, "It hardly mattered," Tom Clark writes. The company was formed.
What that first encounter led to was an alliance. In fact, the true genesis of Black Mountain poetry essentially begins with this exchange.
"In strategic terms," Clark writes, "for Olson the greatest value of his association with Creeley lay in the simple fact of having someone with whom to promote a shared agenda."
The time and space for these poets, however, was not only Black Mountain.
Before Creeley and Olson, there was Pound and Williams—but mostly Williams.
Pay attention to the sound of the language, he told students at the University of Washington in 1948.
Earlier, though, Williams defined it perfectly, Creeley says, in his 1944 book The Wedge:
When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them, interrelated about him and composes them . . .
It isn't what he says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity . . .
There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning.
While it started with Williams, it was Creeley and Olson, and later Denise Levertov, who maintained attention on the line. To these writers, a poem was something made actively.
Using Williams' statement that "The poet thinks with his poem. In that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity," Creeley states in an interview with Linda Wagner that "we're thinking, we're gaining an articulation for ourselves in the activity of the poem."
Or, Creeley, in his essays: "The poem is not a signboard, pointing to a content ultimately to be regarded; but is, on the contrary, a form inhabited by intelligence and feeling."
Inhabited; it is a living thing.
"Form is never more than an extension of content, " is how Creeley told it to Olson in a letter, a statement Olson then used in his most famous essay, "Projective Verse."
In other words, form grows out of content and is never imposed, as one would impose a form like the sonnet, on content.
As Creeley told interviewer Wagner, "I felt that the way a thing was said would intimately declare what was being said, and so therefore, form was never more than an extension of what it was saying. The what of what was being said gained the how of what was being said, and the how (the mode) then became what I called 'form'."
This concern with the line means a concern with the language the poet actually uses.
"To borrow the language of other times and places when it is not intimate is to risk faking—even though one be very sincere," Creeley told Wagner.
Traditional forms are not our intimate forms, Creeley might say, so the poet must explore and find new forms—new cadences.
For Olson, the line grew out of breath, the living voice of the poet. It was written in an open field, not a closed one, one full of possibility each time the poet approached the page.
The three principal tenets of Olson's 1950 "Projective Verse" are these: composition by field, form is never more than an extension of content, one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.
Here is how Creeley describes Olson's writing in his essays:
I am most impressed that, in Olson's writing, these several measures of human term are adamant: (1) that the instant is human time and/or all that can be so felt must be so present or cannot exist; (2) that the human content and possibility are the issues of acts, and are only absolute in that finiteness; and (3) that the geography, the complex of place—not at all the simplicity of a humanistic 'nature'—is the complement of all human condition.
Creeley also says, in what seems his most important observation, "The poems themselves are, then, the issue of an engagement, of an impingement, a location that is constantly occurring. They are not a decision of forms more than such forms may be apprehended, literally gained, as possible in the actual writing."
For Creeley and Olson, and those who emerged as the Black Mountain poets, formal invention meant carrying on and moving beyond Pound and Williams.
The Modernists broke, as Pound said, the iambic, but the dominant poetry in his time continued to be written as if he and Williams had never written.
In content, poets were still locked into, as too many are today, the worst elements of the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Keats—too much emotion and not enough character; too much effusion and not enough making of a poem, something Wordsworth and Keats succeeded in doing because they used the language and form that was true to their own times.
Along with such content, traditional British forms, or "free verse" anchored by these forms, were pushed by the New Critics and galvanized by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's 1938 Understanding Poetry, the first major wrong turn in our nation's poetry of this century, a turn that still takes poets far afield in creative writing programs today, even poets outside the academy who fail to recognize how they are shaped by these programs. The New Critics were too impressed by well-used literary and poetic techniques and a diction that had come to the United States from England, a particularly Southern failing. Perhaps they were sincere, but they were not authentic.
As writers they created poetic artifices that echoed the past.
As critics, they championed such artifice.
Alfred Kazin says this of the New Critics in Writing was Everything: "[Their] pedagogy, perhaps necessary at the time, given our hit-and-skip mass education, has clearly not fostered a love and feel for poetry as a wholly different language, as more than everyday language just adroitly elevated."
Creeley and Oslon were clearly after a different language.
In the 1940s—not the 1950s!—Pound's Pisan Cantos and Williams' Paterson appeared and gave Creeley and Olson and other younger poets necessary models and, as David Perkins writes, alternatives to the new critical poem. This was a poetry that gave the poet freedom to not only explore the self but to explore American speech patterns, to reach an authentic poetry made up of actual speech in open form.
Then in 1950, there was Olson's "Projective Verse."
After Williams read "Projective Verse," which he reprinted a good part of in his Autobiography, he wrote Creeley, as Creeley recalls in his essays, "I share your excitement, it is as if the whole area lifted. It's the sort of thing we are after and must have . . ."
Creeley comments: "It was an excitement which many of us shared, because what confronted us in 1950 was a closed system indeed, poems patterned upon exterior and traditionally accepted models. The New Criticism of that period was dominant and would not admit the possibility of verse considered as an 'open field'."
Olson's temporal and physical Black Mountain, 1951 until the college's end in 1956, became a center for this shared excitement about a new poetry. In six years the excitement had grown from a movement of two at first, with Cid Corman as a conduit because of his magazine Origin. But a list of names emerged over time, by association. They are linked with Black Mountain in Donald Allen and George F. Butterick's now classic anthology, The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised, Martin Duberman's brilliant study of the college, and David Perkins' exhaustive A History of Modern Poetry. In addition to Creeley and Olson, there are in particular Robert Duncan, who was at the college briefly; Denise Levertov, Creeley's friend, who was not; Paul Blackburn, who also never was at the college; and Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, Michael Rumaker, and John Weiners, who were all students at the school. Add in a fiction writer and memoirist, Fielding Dawson. And then the many others who have fallowed, both known and unknown, from SUNY Buffalo where both Olson and Creeley eventually landed after Black Mountain, and onward to Ginsberg and Waldman's Naropa.
In an interview with John Sinclair and Robin Eichele, Creeley describes the Black Mountain poets as "a lovely company of persons"—people with whom we share our time, our space comfortably. But it was a company, he has also noted, that was never locked into a physical location. Or as Olson wrote Duberman about the last "new" Black Mountain:
or the Original Damsel Re'deemed
you might call 1951 on
—with no end date known or in sight!
Olson and Creeley were instrumental in opening the closed poetic system of the 1950s, providing every poet who followed them, but particularly those with similar concerns, who became their literal and spiritual company, with the possibility to make poems—living, actual, inhabited poems: with no end in sight!