Books

The Artists Who Wrote Poetry at Black Mountain, From Josef Albers to John Cage

Including poems from well known writers and less expected artists, Black Mountain Poems produces a keener vision of the interdisciplinary culture of the famed college.

Black Mountain Poems, edited by Jonathan C. Creasy (cover image courtesy of New Directions. Cover photo: Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, The Studies Building and Lake Eden, Black Mountain College, 1949, courtesy of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center)

The power of anthologies lies not only in the individual works themselves but in the relationships between them. To anthologize is to confront, and perhaps even subvert, the myth of the solitary writer. In Black Mountain Poems, editor Jonathan C. Creasy strongly engages in this type of rebellion. He is true to the nature of his subject: Black Mountain College radically pushed against glorified individualism and nourished a notion of art based on community. It is a sense of “scriptural communion,” as Creasy calls it, that anchors this collection of 16 poets.

The word poet is used somewhat freely. “The power of these poems exists in a ceaseless inward searching and outward projection of simple human truths through the activity of poetry — poems as the measure of a life,” Creasy writes (italics in original) and the selection aptly reflects this elastic approach. He includes Black Mountain’s central writers — Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov — as well as a variety of multimedia artists, including Josef Albers, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller. He also gathers largely overlooked Black Mountain women, such as M.C. Richards and Hilda Morley. By plucking artists out of the context of their main craft and placing them next to the pivotal poets, Creasy produces a keener vision of both the poems and the movement. The works become active ways of measuring various kinds of relationships, an experiment in reading through the Black Mountain experiment.

Black Mountain Poems illuminates visual artists’ influence on verse. Olson was known for a “feeling for seeing,” according to Susan Howe. “The Death of Europe” and “Maximus, to himself” are apt representations; pictorially tortuous, the script pendulates from side to side in waves of black ink.

Creeley follows with plains of white pages. Cascades of tiny stanzas in “The Whip” and “Two Ways of Looking in a Mirror” evoke the smallness of the self peering out of a vast expanse of blankness. Like shape in abstract art, both Creeley and Olson pursued forms that liberate words from their referents. Creasy shows how their profound relationships to the artists spurred this strategy in a visual as well as a linguistic sense.

Josef Albers, a painter and art instructor at Black Mountain College, wrote blunt, crisp poems that have the character of irrefutable facts. “More of less” attests to his faith in submitting to art as a spontaneous process. He attempts to soothe the reader with a relinquishing of individual control:

calm down

what happens

happens mostly

without you

Like Creeley, he isolates the “you” in condensed lines: here the self stands mostly solitary, joined only by “without.” John Cage shares this sentiment in “Composition in Retrospect,” a mesostic poem spelling “indeterminacy,” as he muses that “two notations on the saMe / pIece of paper / automatically briNg / About relationship / my Composing / is actuallY unnecessary.”

M.C. Richards’s “Concerts of Space / For Lucy Rie” flourishes in its treatment of sculpture as both material and aural. Bewitched by the banal, she describes ceramicist Lucy Ries’s movements at the kiln as this “concert of space,” and in her poem for ceramicist Karen Karns, she cherishes such music:

This is our pleasure,

To listen to the vessels’ cuneiform,

To respond with a verse

and to love the speaking dust.

Richards clearly owed much to her relationship with Cage, as evidenced by her yearning for a union of sound and space, as well as her ode to him, “For John Cage on his 75th birthday.” Both a potter and leading pedagogue at Black Mountain College, much of Black Mountain’s activity revolved around Richards. However, she continues to be bypassed by anthologies and historical accounts alike. Black Mountain Poems celebrates her contributions with fervent dedication.

“…Everything in the world must excel itself to be itself” writes Boris Pasternak, quoted by Levertov in “A Common Ground.” One senses this urgency acutely in the relationships between poets and poems that form the anthology. Each verse strives for something larger: a way to liberate art as a process of genuine living and to liberate the self through the act of communing with others. Black Mountain Poems represents this spirit splendidly, binding the artists together in a shared passion for experimentation that defined Black Mountain College.

Black Mountain Poems (2019), edited by Jonathan C. Creasy, is published by New Directions and is available from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

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