Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Black Mountain Poets

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The Black Mountain poets, sometimes called the Projectivist poets, were a group of mid 20th century American avant-garde or postmodern poets centered around Black Mountain College.

Background

Black Mountain College, which operated from 1933 to 1956, was one of the leading experimental schools of art in the United States. The college attracted leading figures from across the arts as teachers. These included Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius and Charles Olson. Guest lecturers included Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg, and William Carlos Williams.

Projective Verse

In 1950, Olson published his seminal essay, Projective Verse. In this, he called for a poetry of "open field" composition to replace traditional closed poetic forms with an improvised form that should reflect exactly the content of the poem. This form was to be based on the line, and each line was to be a unit of breath and of utterance. The content was to consist of "one perception immediately and directly (leading) to a further perception". This essay was to become a kind of de facto manifesto for the Black Mountain poets. One of the effects of narrowing the unit of structure in the poem down to what could fit within an utterance was that the Black Mountain poets developed a distinctive style of poetic diction (e.g. "yr" for "your").

The Main Black Mountain Poets

In addition to Olson, the poets most closely associated with Black Mountain include Larry Eigner, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Paul Blackburn, Hilda Morley, John Wieners, Denise Levertov, Jonathan Williams and Robert Creeley. Creeley worked as a teacher and editor of the Black Mountain Review for two years, moving to San Francisco in 1957. Here, he acted as a link between the Black Mountain poets and the Beats, many of whom he had published in the review.

Legacy of the Black Mountain Poets

Apart from their strong interconnections with the Beats, the Black Mountain poets influenced the course of later American poetry via their importance for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. They were also important for the development of innovative British poetry since the 1960s, as evidenced by such poets as Tom Raworth and J. H. Prynne.

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