And yet the question still lurks around the periphery of much of today’s most interesting poetry. In her work since the late Seventies, Susan Howe has found more modest metaphors for the poet’s job than Olson and Creeley did (throughout The Birth-mark, her obsessively researched excavation of early American literature, she describes herself as a snooping “library cormorant”), but her books are still those of a writer self-consciously striving to define her peculiar and eccentric American inheritance. So too are recent collections by Cathy Park Hong (Engine Empire, the first section of which depicts a nineteenth-century mining expedition to California traveling across the Southwest); Adam Fitzgerald (the forthcoming George Washington, in which one poem ends on a description of the “Walt Whitman Shops,” a “shopping plaza, just down the road from the / poet’s birthplace”); and John Keene, who, like Howe, alternates between poetry and prose. (The most haunting passages in Keene’s prose collection Counternarratives, which includes a number of stories set in the pre-Civil War Americas, are monologues attributed to enslaved people of color, including a variation on the Jim of Huckleberry Finn.)
Looking back at the poets who flourished at Black Mountain, it’s striking both how seriously they set themselves the task of identifying the “marked characteristics of American poetry,” and how little their successors were to accept or replicate the characteristics they came up with. For later writers, the Black Mountain poets’ manner of asking about the “birthmark” of American poetry was both an important precedent and a point of departure.
Literature was not always a high priority at Black Mountain. Since its founding in 1933 by a small group of progressive educators who had been dismissed from Rollins College in Florida, the school had aspired to an educational vision based on what the painter Josef Albers—one of Black Mountain’s longest-serving faculty members—had articulated as the “belief that behavior and social adjustment are as interesting and important as knowledge … that the manual type, as well as eye or ear people, are as valuable as the intellectual type.” Black Mountain’s staff quarreled constantly over how this belief was to be interpreted. Usually, it was not understood to give “word people” the same attention as people whose gifts stayed concentrated in the eye or the ear. As late as 1948, the poet and potter M. C. Richards was writing two of her colleagues to complain about Albers’s insistence that “the only writing important to teach is grammar and punctuation.”
Within a decade Black Mountain had become an incubator for two towering books of postwar American poetry (Creeley’s For Love: Poems 1950 to 1960 and Olson’s The Maximus Poems); the primary base of operations for one of the most in influential poetry journals of the period (the Black Mountain Review); the name under which Donald Allen grouped a cluster of writers in his tastemaking anthology The New American Poetry; and a proving ground for two generations of young, gifted writers, from Hilda Morley and John Wieners to Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer and Francine du Plessix Gray. Several figures had a part in this transformation. In addition to Creeley, there was Robert Duncan, the San Francisco-based poet who rarely stayed for long on campus but exercised a powerful influence over it from afar, particularly through his work on the Review. But the single biggest influence, most accounts agree, was Olson.
No sooner had Richards coaxed him to Black Mountain in 1951—he had already taught at two of the school’s legendary summer sessions, where his colleagues included Merce Cunningham and John Cage—than Olson started reshaping the college into a workshop for the execution of his idiosyncratic American poetic vision. He lectured, it’s said, with the same unremitting intensity on topics he knew well (Shakespeare; Melville; Pound) and ones in which he decidedly wasn’t an expert (theoretical physics; the ancient Mayans). For one of his classes, which he called “The Present,” the only assigned reading was each morning’s edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times and the New York Times. In workshops he ranted, bullied, castigated and heaped effusive praise.
It was as if he had spent so much time reading Moby-Dick and studying Melvilliana that he had started to embody the kind of American poetry he praised: muscular, dominating, Ahab-like. He had grown up in Worcester, Massachusetts to a Swedish father and a mother whose parents had emigrated from Ireland, and he came to think of his home state’s fishermen—furrowing and wresting a livelihood from the unhospitable sea—as models for what a poet could do with space. In The Maximus Poems, his epic song of praise to the Massachusetts fishing town of Gloucester, he imagined the blank page as an ocean it was his job to fish, till and populate. His lines zigzagged across the paper and met in violent intersections; he interspersed dense blocks of text with large swaths of white; he cut out excerpts from seventeenth-century fishing diaries and town logs and let them run for pages with his own light edits and interpolations.
Olson imagined an old America populated by strong, fertile Titans. Among the poem’s characters are “Ousoos the / hunter,” deemed “the first man / to carve out / the trunk / of a tree // and go out / on the waters / from the shore,” a group of pathbreaking “farmer giants … who poked / into the Caribbean or up Virginia creeks themselves,” and a cluster of “human beings” of whom it’s said, astonishingly, that “they filled the earth, the positiveness / was in their being, they listened // to the sententious, / with ears of the coil of the sea.” Reading those lines, you imagine Olson recalling another artifact of mid-century American literary brawn: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, with its many coiled fishing lines, its sense of the ocean as an unmastered frontier and its frequent sententious utterances on the order of “pain does not matter to a man.” (Incidentally, for a few months during the winter of 1944-1945, Olson and his wife Connie had rented out the guest house on Hemingway’s Key West beach property, where the novelist’s former wife still lived with her sons. It was there, in a weird confusion of influences, that Olson discovered Pound, according to one of his later letters: “1st caught him, in Hemingway’s copy, of Personae, living in Hem’s swimming-house, K W, 1945.”)
For Olson, writing these myths was a way of paying tribute to the line of New England seamen that had begun with figures like John Smith and ended with his grandfather’s generation of Gloucester fishing people—“the last of the iron men.” The cycle was arranged to give the “respect … that belongs to what these men did, / and faced, to handle other men, / and direct their work.” Of these men Olson considered it “a testimonial, that they are still, or almost still, alive,” and
a pleasure to report,
to a city which is now so moribund,
that there are men still,
in some of these houses, of evenings,
who are of this make.
The Maximus Poems was also Olson’s way of insisting that he, too, was “of this make,” that he and the poets he lists in one poem near the end of the cycle—“John Wieners, / Edward Dorn & the women they love, / and Allen Ginsberg in some way at least,” and of course Creeley—could make out of words what their grandfathers had made out of wood and stone. “With some hope,” he prays in the same passage, “my own daughter … may / live in a World on an Earth like this one we / few American poets have / carved out of Nature and of God.”
Olson was not the first American poet to make such claims for himself. In Pope-ish rhyming couplets, the eighteenth-century preacher Mather Byles once imagined that America had, for ages, “a barbarous Desart stood” until “the first Ship the unpolish’d Letters bore / Thro’ the wide Ocean to the barb’rous Shore.” At the end of the same poem, he addressed a painter (“Pictorio”) as a kind of co-conspirator in the project of civilizing the New World: “And sudden, at our Word, new World’s arise … / Alike our Labour, and alike our Flame: / ’Tis thine to raise the Shape; ’tis mine to fix the Name.”
Melville himself helped circulate this vision of the American poet as founder and legislator of the new world. So, in a different register, did Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The poet is representative,” Emerson wrote in 1844. “He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common-wealth.” In the later essay “Uses of Great Men,” he listed the honors due to “representative” men in language that strikingly resembles the one Olson used for poets: “We call our children and our lands by their names. Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.”
With his 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse,” in which he chastised English-language poetry “from the late Elizabethans to Ezra Pound” for having been seduced by “the sweetness of meter and rime,” Olson was suggesting a kind of verse writing sufficiently flexible and expansive for the American poet’s manly, ground-clearing work. “That verse will only do,” he wrote then, “in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath.” This was Olson’s way of putting what Creeley would later argue in his introduction to Whitman: that American verse “does not depend upon a ‘poetic’ or literary vocabulary” as Victorian or Romantic verse relied on agreed-upon conventions of meter, syntax and rhyme. If the American poet was accountable to anything, for Olson, it was only lines and syllables—the “particles of sound” by which “words juxtapose in beauty.” Syllables were the wood from which the poet carved the ships that he’d sail across the page.
At Black Mountain, Olson suggested a model for translating this vision of American poetry into a system of living. It shouldn’t be surprising that the college was a freer, rambunctious, more sexually permissive place under Olson’s rectorship than it had been in the past. Black Mountain had coexisted with the conservative North Carolina communities around it in a kind of touchy détente, and its faculty had always squabbled over how much to concede to local values. (The question of whether or not to admit nonwhite students produced a particularly drawn-out, bitter debate.) In 1945, one of the school’s most influential faculty members, Bob Wunsch, had been forced out when it emerged that he was gay. By 1954, that prospect would have been inconceivable.
Freedom from the sweet constraints of “meter and rime” had become freedom from the old, aristocratic European mores that figures like Albers preserved. And just as Olson the poet made virtues out of strength, manliness and fertility, so Olson the rector turned Black Mountain into a space for male students to compete for dominance. Female students and faculty members were often diminished and cowed. In a fond but skeptical short essay about Olson, Francine du Plessix Gray remembered the bearlike poet “pressing his five fingers hard into my scalp until it hurt” to drive “the high-falootin’ Yurrup and poh-lee-tess” out of her head. Olson’s time at Black Mountain coincided with that of the composer Stefan Wolpe and his wife, the poet Hilda Morley, who never fully settled in. “If I happened to mention Henry James’s name with respect,” she later wrote about the group of male students she called “Olson’s boys,” “I was informed, mockingly, that this was—in one of Olson’s terms—only ‘literature.’”
For anyone surveying the work of the poets who studied under Olson, the question is why so little of it resembles the kind of writing one finds in The Maximus Poems. If Olson had hit on a distinctively American idiom for poetry—if, in Emerson’s words, his poetry was the kind of thing that gave him the right to “stand for the common-wealth”—why did his students and colleagues settle on poetics so different from his? Hilda Morley laid out her poems in elegant, wavy, tightly woven patterns that resembled DNA strands, as if in deliberate contrast to the crosscutting lattices of lines Olson strewed across the page. Ed Dorn’s comic Wild West-set epic poem Gunslinger, published in six parts between 1968 and 1975, seems just as much as The Maximus Poems to have come from an ear that—to borrow one of Olson’s pet phrases— “has the mind’s speed.” But its tone was more prankish than Olson’s, its vocabulary slangier and more colloquial, and its text full of the sorts of winking references to then-trendy books and philosophers that Olson would have sternly avoided. In “A Poem for Painters,” Olson’s student John Wieners offered an inventory of American place names that moves from west to east across the country, “over the Sierra Mountains,” “into Chicago,” and finally to “my city, Boston and the sea.” He could have been channeling Olson when he wrote that these names were “words / of works / we lay down for those men / who can come to them.” But Wieners mischievously includes Black Mountain as just one item midway through the list—a sly indication that the school didn’t have the last word over his style as a poet.