The Black Mountain Poets were a group of writers centered around Black Mountain College, in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
The group’s influence lasted for around twenty-three years in the mid-20th century, from 1933 to 1956. The college enrolled fewer than 1,200 students over its twenty-three-year history but was one of the most important, and now fabled, art institutes in the United States. The school’s curriculum included performing arts, literary, and visual arts. It believed that the teaching of the arts is essential for human understanding. The poets who worked, were taught, or were associated with the school in some way had different styles of writing but they were all associated with projective verse.
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Definition and Explanation of Black Mountain Poets
Black Mountain poets are remembered today for their work with projective verse, or as Charles Olson called it, “open field.” It was used as a means of replacing traditional poetic forms with a new, improvised form that is chosen in regard to the content of the poem. The form was based on the lines of the poem, and each line furthered that form and the purpose of the poem. Olson outlined this style of writing in his essay, Projective Verse, which became an important source of inspiration for the Black Mountain poets. One of the most important features of the style was the concept of an “utterance.” The writers only allowed themselves to include in a line what could fit in a “unit of breath and of utterance.” This meant that the poetic diction was altered and words were changed.
Black Mountain Poets Characteristics
- Open-form approach to composition.
- Interested in natural patterns of breath.
- Emphasis on the creative process.
- Reliance upon conversational/colloquial diction.
- Valued experimentation.
- The poetic form was improvised and influenced by the content.
Black Mountain Poets Key Figures
The most important figures of the Black Mountain poetry movement were:
- Larry Eigner
- Robert Duncan
- Ed Dorn
- Paul Blackburn
- Hilda Morley
- John Wieners
- Robert Creeley
- Denise Levertov
- Jonathon Williams
- Joel Oppenheimer
Examples of Black Mountain Poetry
An African Elegy by Robert Duncan
‘An African Elegy’ was published in the mid-1900s and depicts Africa in the style that Duncan is remembered for. There are great examples of imagery, enjambment, and other formal and figurative literary devices. The poem demonstrates the clear, colloquial diction of the Black Mountain poets in addition to the stranger, more surprising elements. Here are a few lines from ‘An African Elegy’:
Death is the dog-headed man zebra striped
and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion,
who is black. It was his voice crying come back,
that Virginia Woolf heard, turnd
her fine skull, hounded and haunted, stopt,
If It Should Ever Come by Ed Dorn
‘If It Should Ever Come’ is a short poem that demonstrates the fragmented lines often associated with projectivist verse. Dorn’s poem uses various types of figurative language, such as metaphors and similes, while also speaking about “we” and “you.” The poem is directed at a specific listener. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem which show how Dorn thrusts the reader directly into the content without preamble:
And we are all there together
time will wave as willows do
and adios will be truly, yes,
The poem continues on with similarly short lines, some of which are only one or two words long.
Brooklyn Narcissus by Paul Blackburn
Paul Blackburn, best-remembered as the contributing editor and distributor of the Black Mountain Review, was later included in the group when Donald Allen published his often referenced New American Poetry anthology in 1960. His work was influenced by Ezra Pound’s imagist verse. In ‘Brooklyn Narcissus,’ readers might find some similarities between his work and that of the imagists. Here are a few lines:
the lonely lovely f***ing lights
and the bridge on a rainy Tuesday night
The spacing in the third line of this excerpt immediately catches the reader’s eye, helping to define for them how the section is supposed to be read. This technique is used again later on in the poem. One particularly effective moment comes when the poet uses this line:
Drops on the train window wobble . stream
He inserts a period into the middle of this phrase then chooses not to capitalize the word that came after. This technique is repeated later on in the text.
Black Mountain Poetry Legacy
The Black Mountain poets had a strong connection with the Beat Generation, poets like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Much of their work was aimed towards the same purpose of throwing off traditional restrictions after the end of the Second World War. The Black Mountain poets influenced the course of American poetry, and literary modernism, through their inspiration on the Language School, another group of poets who emerged later.
The influence of the Black Mountain poets can also be seen in the work of Canadian and British poets. For example, the TISH group in Vancouver, CA. Today, poets like Charles Potts, who was mentored by Edward Dorn, one of the most important poets of the Black Mountain group, consider themselves projectivist poets.
Related Literary Terms
- Beat Generation: a literary movement that began after the Second World War and known for its liberal attitudes towards life.
- Lost Generation: a group of writers who came of age during World War I and dealt with the social changes the war brought.
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- New Woman Movement: a feminist ideal that was profoundly influential on 19th and 20th-century literature, as well as broader feminist beliefs.
- Listen: Robert Creeley Lecture
- Watch: Black Mountain College—‘A School Like No Other’
- Watch: Black Mountain College, Visionaries