‘Poets are the Only Pedagogues’ *

‘I instruct not; I awake’
Ezra Pound, ‘Raphaelite Latin,’ Book News Monthly (1906) (2)

From its founding through the Albers’ era, Black Mountain demonstrated the influences of American pragmatism and German arts pedagogy. But in the Charles Olson-led BMC, we must also look to the poetic pedagogies of the twentieth century. Primarily, we must look to Ezra Pound. Pound’s publisher James Laughlin writes in “Pound as Wuz”,

Pound was born a teacher, even if not destined to be a professor. He could not keep himself from teaching. In one way or another he was always teaching. The Cantos themselves are a kind of teaching. Ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectet. They move us, they delight us, but above all they teach us. (3)

There is no doubt that the dominant tone of Pound’s poems – especially in “The Cantos” – is dogmatic and pedagogical. This has perhaps been taken for granted by his readers, as it took until 2012 to publish a book of essays, “Ezra Pound and Education” (ed. Yao & Coyle) that systematically addresses Pound’s efforts to reform the world through his brand of education. His pedagogical program was hindered by disgraceful political views and confabulations, but he did succeed in passing on a distinctively pedagogical poetic approach to a younger generation of writers – particularly those who were in direct correspondence with ‘Ez’, like Olson and Robert Creeley. Crucially, for two years before he took up a position at Black Mountain College, Charles Olson visited Pound in St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C., several times a week. That period is chronicled in the collection, “Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths” (1991).

Ezra Pound at William Carlos Williams' House, 1958. photo © Richard Avedon.

Ezra Pound at William Carlos Williams’ House, 1958. photo © Richard Avedon.

Most plainly pedagogical of Pound’s published works are his prose books, from The Spirit of Romance (1910) to – more importantly – his “ABC of Reading” (1934) and “Guide to Kulchur” (1938). They are presented as classroom materials, while his anthologies and translations point to methods of teaching and learning. During the period of these publications in the 1930s, Pound lived in Rapallo, where he presided as rector and sole faculty of his own ‘Ezuversity’:

Apparently convened at a dinner table, in the tradition of the nineteenth-century books of ‘table-talk,’ the Ezuversity never […] went on holiday […] He lectured, sometimes hectored, conducted correspondences, and whenever possible conversed with just about anyone willing to listen. The name ‘Ezuversity’ inevitably suggests a certain arrogance in the conviction that any one man could replace an entire faculty of scholars and teachers […] But the name also suggests an informality and even self-mockery. (4)

In Laughlin’s description, Ezuversity ‘courses’ sound remarkably like conditions at Black Mountain, particularly in the later days of the Olson period:

The Ezuversity was an ideal institution for a twentieth-century goliard. First of all, there was no tuition. Ezra was always hard up, but he wouldn’t take any payment. The only expenses I had were renting a room and paying my meals with Mrs. Pound […] The classes usually met at the lunch table. They might begin with Ezra going through the day’s mail, commenting on the subjects that it raised. (5)

Olson was known to share bits of his voluminous correspondence with Creeley, Robert Duncan and many others in his classes at Black Mountain. Before Creeley arrived at the College, his work was well known their, despite the fact that he was not published widely enough for more general recognition. Both Olson and Creeley were engaged in their own letter writing with Pound, who gave Creeley needed advice in establishing the “Black Mountain Review”. After all, one of Pound’s most famous aphorisms from “ABC of Reading”: ‘Literature is news that stays news.’ (6) He required correspondents.

At the heart of Pound’s pedagogy and his teaching practice in the Ezuversity was his rejection of institutional higher learning in the United States – a rejection as bitter as that of Black Mountain founder John Andrew Rice. Like Rice, Pound maintained faith that the system could be changed by radical revolution from within the arts, letters and the disciplines of knowledge; he never entirely gave up on trying to change people’s minds. As Pound’s biographer, A. David Moody, points out, ‘the only point in [Pound’s criticism of the university] would be that he still held to an ideal of what a university ought to be. “Dead” though it might be […] it still stood for something in his mind.’ (7)

Alan Golding asks, ‘How do we explain Pound’s ambivalent relationship with and ongoing address to pedagogical institutions?’

To answer this question, we have to assume that Pound saw the academy as both audience and potential outlet or conduit for the cultural values he espoused […] a site worth redeeming. This tendency is oddly Utopian, as if Pound cannot give up on some faith that universities can indeed play a crucial role in the transformation of culture. (8)

BMC Alumnus John Wieners, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson in Spoleto, 1965. Courtesy University of Connecticut Archives.

BMC Alumnus John Wieners, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson in Spoleto, 1965. Courtesy University of Connecticut Archives.

Black Mountain attempted the transformation of culture, and in large part it succeeded. We must also admit that the college’s legacy is, for the most part, in the hands of higher-education institutions. In 1933, Rice envisioned a new kind of progressivism as antidote to decades of stodgy institutional learning. Pound’s 1934 essay, ‘The Teacher’s Mission,’ takes aim at the state of the profession in characteristically caustic terms. But he begins with an aphorism very much in tune with Black Mountain’s position: ‘the function of the teaching profession is to maintain the HEALTH OF THE NATIONAL MIND.’(9) BMC had been founded only one year earlier, and Rice would certainly have agreed, ‘Education that does not bear on LIFE and on the most vital and immediate problems of the day is not education but merely suffocation and sabotage.’(10) The violence of the language – similar to Rice’s advocacy for a humanizing education in the face of domestic and international catastrophe – is imbued with impending calamity: war, and the shape of ‘the national mind’ cannot be extricated. As the United States moved through the decades of the ’30s and ’40s, her people – and more acutely, her artists – came up against the limitations of knowledge in times of unprecedented horrors. Creeley, Olson and Pound were shaped by the decades between wars and after; so too was the character of Black Mountain College.

Jonathan Creasy
Trinity College Dublin / New Dublin Press

*. ‘Poets are the Only Pedagogues’ is a quotation from a letter by Olson to Robert Creeley, 1950. Collected Correspondence. ed. George Butterick. Black Sparrow Press, 1980.
2. Pound’s first published article.
3. Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz. Peter Owen Publishers, 1989. p. 34
4. Ezra Pound and Education. ed. Yao and Coyle. National Poetry Foundation, 2012. intro xiv
5. Pound as Wuz 4
6. Ezra Pound. ABC of Reading. New Directions, reprint 2010. p. 29
7. Moody, A. David. Ezra Pound: Poet. Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 33
8. Golding, Alan. in Pound and Ed. p. 187
9. Pound, ‘Teacher’s Mission’ Literary Essays. New Directions, 1968. p. 59
10. Ibid. p. 62