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Thursday, October 9, 2014

October 9, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: The Black Mountain Poets

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On how context can amplify and enrich our analysis of individual authors and works.
I had a high school English teacher who really liked Robert Creeley, so we read a fair amount of his work as part of a poetry unit; I then read a good bit more Creeley as part of a college poetry course with the great Helen Vendler; and I returned to Creeley one more time as a supplemental author for a grad school paper I was writing on Robert Penn Warren’s poetry. I was of course a very different person and reader at each of those stages, but one thing remained the same: Creeley’s poetry did very little for me. I appreciated his potent, imagistic use of language, which reminded me a bit of William Carlos Williams; but for whatever reason, the depths that I have consistently found and appreciated in Williams’ poems eluded me when I read Creeley’s at each of those different moments.
My perspective on Creeley and his poetry has significantly evolved, however, and it has done so in large part through a better understanding of his principal literary and cultural communities: the Black Mountain Poets, and Asheville, NC’s Black Mountain College where they were located. It generally helps to have a sense of what goals and concepts infuse a poet’s work, for example, and reading Charles Olson’s seminal essay “Projective Verse” (1950), widely considered a manifesto for the Black Mountain Poets, gave me a much clearer sense of the use to which Creeley and his colleagues hoped to put their striking images. Olson writes of “Objectism, … a word to be taken to stand for the kind of relation of man to experience which a poet might state as the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is, to be as clean as wood is as it issues from the hand of nature, to be as shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it.” A distinctly Appalachian analogy to be sure, and one borne out by the careful shaping of Creeley and his peers.
Yet Black Mountain College was more than just home to this group of avant-garde poets; over its 23 years of existence (1933-1956), the experimental educational institution featured instruction from (among many others!) Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Duncan, and Olson and Creeley, as well as guest lectures by William Carlos Williams and a certain physicist by the name of Albert Einstein. The College’s influence on modernist and postmodernist American culture, as well as on society more broadly, was profound and lasting, and the Black Mountain Poets represent only one part of those widespread effects. But they were a part of it, and it a part of them--and the more we can see Creeley and his fellow poets as operating within that experimental, artistic but also social and educational, southern Appalachian space, the more we (no, I’ll speak for myself, the more I) can appreciate their works.
Last Appalachian text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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