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Video: Black Mountain College and Charles Olson

A short documentary about the legendary arts school in the mountains of North Carolina.

Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, Frederick Georgia, and Ralph Lounsbury, who were dismissed as faculty from Rollins College in a seminal academic freedom incident, specifically for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge, for which Rollins was formally censured by the American Association of University Professors. The institution was established to “avoid the pitfalls of autocratic chancellors and trustees and allow for a more flexible curriculum,” and “with the holistic aim ‘to educate a student as a person and a citizen.'” The school was originally funded through a $10,000 gift from “Mac” Forbes, a former Rollins College faculty member, after the founders were unable to raise funds from traditional sources.

Black Mountain was experimental in nature and committed to an interdisciplinary approach, prioritizing art-making as a necessary component of education and attracting a faculty and lecturers that included many of America’s leading visual artists, composers, poets, and designers. During the 1930s and 1940s the school flourished, becoming well known as an incubator for artistic talent. Notable events at the school were common; it was here that the first large-scale geodesic dome was made by faculty member Buckminster Fuller and students, where Merce Cunningham formed his dance company, and where John Cage staged his first musical happening. In the 1950s, the focus of the school shifted to the literary arts under the rectorship of Charles Olson. Olson founded The Black Mountain Review in 1954 and, together with his colleague and student Robert Creeley, developed the poetic school of Black Mountain Poets.

Additionally, the College was an important incubator for the American avant-garde. Black Mountain proved to be an important precursor to and prototype for many of the alternative colleges of today, ranging from College of the AtlanticNaropa University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Marlboro College to Evergreen State CollegeHampshire CollegeShimer CollegePrescott CollegeGoddard CollegeWorld College West (1973-1992), and New College of Florida, among others, including Warren Wilson College located just minutes down the road from where Black Mountain College was located. Bennington College, based on the same philosophy, was founded one year before Black Mountain College.

Running time: 13 minutes

Email subscribers may click on the title of this post to watch the video.

Charles Olson

Olson, who taught at the college and was its last rector, was most famous for creating the concept of “projective verse”  and coining the phrase in 1950. The idea behind projective verse focuses around process rather than product, and objectivists like William Carlos Williams and modernists like Ezra Pound had obvious influence on its creation. This poetry style urges poets to simultaneously remove their subjectivity from their poems and project the energy of their work directly to the reader. Spontaneity and the physical act of writing and speaking the poem thereby take the place of reason and description.

Olson went by ear, and his lines are breath-conditioned. The two halves, he says, are: “the head, by way of the ear, to the syllable/the heart, by way of the breath, to the line.” Olson believes that “in any given poem always, always one perception must must must move, instanter, faster, on another!” So, all the conventions that “logic has forced on syntax must be broken open as quietly as must the too set feet of the old line.” 

These ideas are illustrated in this excerpt from his poem “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You”: 

the thing you’re after

may lie around the bend

of the nest (second, time slain, the bird! the bird!

And there! (strong) thrust, the mast! flight

                                                                 (of the bird

                                                                 o kylix, o

                                                                 Antony of Padua

                                                                 sweep low, o bless


the roofs, the old ones, the gentle steep ones

on whose ridge-poles the gulls sit, from which they depart,


                                                                 And the flake-racks

Source: The Black Mountain School of Poetry, included in “Poetic Skewels” published by the University of Georgia.

Charles Olson (1910-1970)

2 comments on “Video: Black Mountain College and Charles Olson

  1. johnlawsonpoet
    March 4, 2023

    My own poetry guru, Ron Bayes, introduced me to Olson’s poetry when I was an undergrad. Olson’s work often bemuses me; it sure doesn’t read like “good,” conventional poetry, and Ron’s work was often the same. Both Olson and Bayes were heavily influenced by Pound’s Cantos, and Robert Duncan loomed large for both of them, too. None of these poets would go down easily in a typical academic poetry workshop. Maybe that’s why I love them. They certainly give one permission to try bold things with one’s own writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      March 4, 2023

      Yes, so much of what I read in poetry journals is interchangeable. I often feel I could move the poems from one journal to another without seeing much difference. I admire the inventors of American poetry, such as Robinson, Hughes, Duncan, Williams, Olson, Creeley, Levertov, Plath.. they were making it up as they went along.

      Liked by 1 person

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