Robert Duncan at Black Mountain College

Robert Duncan 1959, photo © Patricia Jordan

Robert Duncan 1959, photo © Patricia Jordan

The poet Robert Duncan came to teach at Black Mountain in 1956, very near the end of the extraordinary experiment in art and learning founded back in 1933. But he actually spent a very brief moment at BMC as a student in 1938. He later recalled,

I had not been there since sometime in 1938 when, having written from Berkeley I received an acceptance as a student and, as I remember, a part scholarship, and, precariously, set out, arriving there late one night, only to be turned away after the following day, firmly, with the notification by the instructor who had welcomed me that I was found to be emotionally unfit. Was it after the heated argument I got into the morning of that day concerning the Spanish Civil War? In my anarchist convictions, the Madrid government seemd to me much the enemy as Franco was. (1)

When Duncan returned in 1956, Charles Olson was rector of the college. Olson was also deeply engaged in letter correspondence with Duncan, who viewed Olson as a groundbreaking influence. He vowed to follow Olson into new activities of poetry, signaled by Olson’s famous essay on “projective verse,” first published in 1950. In Duncan’s “The H.D. Book” – a legendary collection of writings started in 1959, yet only properly published in book form in 2011 by University of California Press – he draws on transformative experiences under the stars, naming constellations, to summon the impact of Olson and Black Mountain:

The figure of the giant hunter in the sky brings with it, as often, the creative genius of Charles Olson for me. Since the appearance of Origin I a decade ago, my vision of what the poem is to do has been transformed, reorganized around a constellation of new poets – Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley – in which Olson’s work takes the lead for me. This man, himself a “giant’ – six foot seven or so – has been an outrider, my own Orion.
It was the same time of year, with Orion overhead, in 1955 (2), when Olson read aloud to Jess and me the beginnings of a new sequence of poems, O’Ryan. The scene in the bare room at Black Mountain with its cold and the blazing winter sky at the window springs up as I write. The fugitive hero of that sequence was drawn from Robert Creeley [.] (3)

At Black Mountain, Duncan taught poetry and theatre. In fact, as part of Olson’s plan to create a ‘college on wheels’ after the closure of the North Carolina campus, Duncan undertook establishing a Black Mountain theatre company in San Francisco. Truly, it was in Northern California that Duncan began to develope his unique, prophetic voice as a poet in the 1940s. He was an integral part of the ‘Berkeley Rennaissance’ and the Bay Area arts scene, along with his partner, the artist Jess Collins. But his activities at Black Mountain brought him into contact with ideas and pedagogical practices he could not have picked up anywhere else. For instance, Josef Albers’s teaching gave Duncan a clear example:

I just had what would be anybody’s idea of what Albers must have been doing. You knew that [Albers’s students] had color theory, and that they did a workshop sort of approach, and that they didn’t aim at a finished painting … I thought “Well, that’s absolutely right”… I think we had five weeks of vowels …and syllables … Numbers enter into poetry as they do in all time things, measurements. But … [with] Albers … it’s not only the color, but it’s the interrelationships of space and numbers. (4)

It was also at Black Mountain that Duncan completed many of the poems later collected in what is perhaps his most important book, “The Opening of the Field” (1960). The title refers clearly to Olson’s idea of ‘composition by field,’ and a poetics based on the breath rather than conventional verse forms. With the additional influence of Jess’s collage works, Duncan pushed Olson’s ideas even further, envisioning the poem as a ‘grand collage’ in which any and all activities of the poet – aesthetic, intellectual, visual, emotional, sexual, pedagogical, etc. – would interact. In what is probably Duncan’s most widely read poem from “The Opening of the Field”, he offers a stirring vision of this new space open for the poet and poetry:

‘Often I am permitted to Return to a Meadow’

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Jonathan Creasy
Trinity College Dublin / New Dublin Press

(1) Duncan, Robert. ‘Black Mountain College,’ March 1955. Robert Duncan Papers. Quoted in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, The Politics of Poetry. ed. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf. Stanford University Press, 2006. p. 7
(2) Duncan and Jess visited Olson at BMC for one evening in 1955, before Duncan returned to teach in 1956.
(3) Duncan, Robert. The H.D. Book. University of California Press, 2011. p. 204
(4) Jarnot, Lisa. Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus. University of California Press, 2012. p. 154