The Active Nucleus – Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review

Charles Olson writing at Black Mountain College. Portrait taken by Jonathan Williams of Charles Olson writing at Black Mountain College. Charles Olson taught Writing and Literature at Black Mountain College 1948-1949, 1951, 1953-1956 and in 1953 was appointed the college's Rector.

Charles Olson. Portrait taken by Jonathan Williams

Four years before they ever met at Black Mountain College, poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley began a voluminous correspondence. The greatest of Olson’s editors and exegetes, George F. Butterick, argues that “the early letters, especially – and certainly those through 1954 [that is, leading up to Creeley’s arrival at Black Mountain] – stand together as a critical document for understanding the emerging poetics of a generation, as well as, perhaps, of the poetries yet to come.” (1) In the early letters, Butterick continues, ‘they are working out a place for themselves at the frontiers of world writing, cut off by indifference and entrenched interests, seeking to communicate from their respective foxholes.” (2) Olson and Creeley shared the active, sometimes conflicted, influences of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and through their letters they began to work out what these conflicts and affinities might mean. Black Mountain resonates in Butterick’s summation that “at times it seems they wrote not to entertain, or even instruct, but to survive.” (3) The College too had to fight for survival, and Olson planned a venture that he hoped would ensure its continuation: the “Black Mountain Review”, edited in seven issues from 1954 – 1957. (4)

Olson invited Creeley to Black Mountain primarily to edit this proposed magazine, intended as a means of publicizing the dwindling College. Creeley had already made a number of contacts as an editor, including correspondences with Pound, Williams, and Cid Corman. Though Creeley’s first attempt to found a magazine in New Hampshire in 1950 never came to fruition, much of that material ended up in Corman’s era-defining Origin magazine, which first appeared in spring, 1951. Later on, Creeley would draw on poets featured in Origin for the core contributions to the Black Mountain Review. In the later ’50s, Origin and the “Black Mountain Review” stand as the most significant experimental ‘little magazines’ in the United States, both for publishing important work, and – for Black Mountain – the collaborative design elements, which brought together the range of talents represented at the school.

Martin Duberman notes in his study of Black Mountain that the poets collected in Origin and later the “Black Mountain Review” were “in rebellion against the modalities then dominant in poetry and criticism, [who] had few outlets [for publishing their work].” (5) This points to both the circumstances of many of these poets – like Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, and Olson – who found positive critical reception from the poetry establishment elusive, and also to what the “Review” wished to create as “an active, ranging” section for critical writing that would be “prospective” – “would break down habits of ‘subject’ and gain a new experience of context generally.” (6)

The “Review’s” first four volumes bear covers designed by Japanese artist and poet Katue Kitasono, who was introduced to Creeley by Pound. The images are nearly identical, in triangular geometric shapes spilling down the page. We are reminded, perhaps, of the geometrical shapes of colour that emerge from a Josef Albers canvas. With volume five, and a cover by Los Angeles artist John Altoon, a friend of Creeley’s who had been introduced by Black Mountain student Fielding Dawson, the magazine moves toward a more abstract expressionist type of graphic design. (Another of Olson and Creeley’s students, Michael Rumaker, had complained of the static, unchanging cover of the first four volumes.)

Issue six sees a cover designed by Black Mountain artist Dan Rice. It is minimalist and suggestive of the ‘open field’ poetics of Olson and Duncan. In this issue, Louis Zukofsky’s famous essay on Shakespeare – “Bottom: On Shakespeare – Part Two” – appears, along with a representative group of poets, including Duncan, Creeley, Denise Levertov, Hilda Morely, Lorine Niedecker, and Olson. (Notice, a greater number of women than might be expected from the male-dominated Black Mountain scene.) Duncan’s partner Jess Collins contributed some of his collage works, familiar to the Bay Area art scene of the 1940s and ’50s, which graced the covers of many of Duncan’s books.

The Edward Corbett designed seventh issue expanded the reach and editorial scope of the “Black Mountain Review”, with Allen Ginsberg as co-editor, alongside Creeley. It published works by many of Ginsberg’s Beat Generation cohort in San Francisco and New York, including Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and printed Ginsberg’s own unforgettable poem, ‘America.’ This was the only issue not printed in Majorca, where Creeley had set up his Divers Press and where printing costs were comparatively cheap. It was instead printed by poet, photographer, and Black Mountain student Jonathan Williams, whose own Jargon Press published important works of the era revolving primarily around Black Mountain College, including Olson’s “The Maximus Poems I – X”.

Jonathan Creasy
Trinity College Dublin / New Dublin Press


1 Butterick, George F. Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, Vol. I. ‘Introduction.’ Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1983. xi (hereafter: ‘Letters’)
2 Letters xv
3 Ibid.
4 Copies of the Black Mountain Review are held in the collections of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. The author has made visits to the Dodd collections to look at BMR and related archives, particularly the Olson / Creeley correspondence and material related to Olson’s work as final rector of the College.
5 Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: Dutton & Co. 1972. 386 (hereafter: ‘Duberman’)
6 Creeley, Robert. ‘Black Mountain Review.’ Was That a Real Poem & Other Essays. Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation. 1979. 16-28.