From Black Mountain to Boulder: Educational and Social Lineages in Our Times

Vincent Katz

I want to start with a statement by Jack Collom,from the “Po/Ethics” panel at Naropa on June 7, 2004, published this year in the Cross Worlds Transcultural Poetics anthology, edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright. The other panelists, along with Jack, in that discussion were David Henderson, Harryette Mullen, Anne Waldman, and Daisy Zamora. In this panel, Jack said, “If you work at your art intensely and honestly, what could be more ethical than that? What could ever do more good than the continuation of bringing what Gary Snyder calls the richly interconnected, interdependent, and incredibly complex character of wild ecosystems into the culture? Good poetry, regardless of content, is intrinsically nutrition for language and mind, thus nutrition for life. What could be more moral than frequent surprise?”

This statement by Jack reminds me of an important statement by Guillaume Apollinaire, published in 1917. In “The New Spirit And The Poets,” written shortly before his death, as “a final statement of faith” (in Roger Shattuck’s translation), Apollinaire wrote that “the new spirit, consisting principally of surprise, is not a shattering of tradition but a careful selection of the best traditional elements.”

I connect this with a poem by Robert Creeley, “The Warning,” which ends:

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

“The virtues of an amulet / and quick surprise” could be a key phrase if we are hoping to unlock some of the conceptual and emotional pathways that could lead from an experimental educational institution, nestled in the Black Mountain range of the Appalachian Blue Ridge mountains, to another educational experiment, nestled near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Before thinking of the origins of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, and the critical roles played by nodal figures Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, in addition to the other founders, let’s look for a moment to the origins of Black Mountain College. For in origins we can find the footings on which these pioneers set themselves on arduous but necessary paths.

Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 by a group of renegades and refugees from normal academia, among them John Andrew Rice, born in South Carolina, educated at Tulane and Oxford, who had been teaching at Rollins College in Florida. Rice, later a colleague of John Dewey’s, believed in the Socratic method, i.e. discussing and debating a subject among a group of interested parties, as opposed to the model wherein the teacher holds the knowledge and dispenses it at his or her discretion to the students. Rice, by contrast, believed that knowledge was discovered by the group: learning by field.

Rice not only co-founded Black Mountain, procuring Josef and Anni Albers, simultaneously out of work as the Nazis finally shut down the Bauhaus, to run its art department; he also took on Robert Hutchins, president of the prestigious University of Chicago. Rice argued that theoretical habit, which is mainly what institutions of higher learning, then as now, promote, should not be divorced from, but rather integrated with, other forms of knowledge and experience. Rice also thought it essential that a college teach the works of its own time, as well as the classics. As he puts it, “If you can stand a little bootleg stuff, Gertrude Stein’s Lectures In America is headier than Aristotle’s Poetics or Horace’s Ars Poetica. And, if that will make it more palatable, harder reading.”

Black Mountain’s pedigree then was outsider, or let’s be frank, outrider, behavior and attitude towards learning, and living, from the very beginning. Learning could not be divorced from how one lived, bringing us back to Jack Collom’s elegant anti-definition of ethics in the arts. Students at Black Mountain had to work on the farm, in the kitchen, or on maintaining the buildings. There was no governing board. Decisions were made, Quaker-like, by a “sense of the meeting.” Anything too close to sense was tabled till the next meeting. Teachers often left jobs in other places to teach at Black Mountain for room and board only.

There was a premium at Black Mountain on having “working artists” as teachers, people at the forefront of experimentation and risk in their media. There was the idea that, in addition to a collective investigation of an idea or topic, the teachers of literature, painting, drawing, weaving, dance and music—as artists—would also be informing the students simply by living and working, providing models for them of what it really means to be an artist in the world, the importance of the work, of dedicating oneself to the work, of always pushing the limits of what the work can be, and also of the social aspects of it: socializing, partying, but also the fact that the work has a social impact, whether intended or not.

Another aspect of Black Mountain education was that it encouraged the crossing of genres. John Cage and others have cited the dining hall as the most significant locus at Black Mountain, for it was there, around the communal table, that a small, electric community rubbed shoulders, and poets met musicians, or painters dancers, and so on, and they shared ideas, which often became plans for collaborative performances or book projects. Collaboration was a mainstay of the school’s philosophy, particularly by the time Charles Olson took the helm in 1951, and there were many hybrid figures at Black Mountain—painters who were musicians, or musicians who were writers, etc.

The ideas planted by John Andrew Rice and his cohort continued flourishing all the way through the summers the Abstract Expressionists came to teach; through collaborative performances such as Erik Satie’s The Ruse of Medusa, translated by M.C. Richards, music performed by John Cage, acted by Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, and Elaine de Kooning, with sets by Willem de Kooning, directed by Arthur Penn (1948); or Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, recognized as the first Happening, with the participation of Cunningham, Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Richards, and others (1952). And they continued through the courses taught by Olson, Creeley, and Robert Duncan and the mischief created by their students, including Ed Dorn, Michael Rumaker, Fielding Dawson, Francine du Plessix Gray, Martha King, and Basil King.

Olson knew the importance of print media, and he encouraged his students to print their own publications of their work, helping to plant the seeds for the DIY mimeo revolution that would be so important to the dissemination of new poetry in the 1960s and beyond. Jonathan Williams, who came to Black Mountain to study photography and then became a poet-publisher-photographer of significance while still a student, said that “Olson said, don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or the disinterest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper, and print it.”

The Black Mountain Review was one of the primary vehicles by which the poetics of these writers were disseminated. It was edited by Creeley, at first from Mallorca. Following advice given to him by Ezra Pound, Creeley relied on contributing editors, never more so than for the critical seventh (and final) issue of the Review, published in 1957 and coinciding with the closing of the college.

In the spring of 1956, Creeley traveled to San Francisco, ostensibly to meet Jack Kerouac, whose work he had read in The Paris Review. He met Allen Ginsberg, and that meeting was to catalyze further revolution in contemporary post-war American poetry. This was one of those moments in which community is formed, person-to-person, and in groups. Interestingly, it was the end of the Black Mountain era and the beginning of what would become Naropa.

Creeley, recalling the time, wrote:

“There are lovely moments in the world when persons and place ‘burn with a like heat,’ as Olson would say. Who knows why, finally, except that some intuition or habit or simply coincidence has arranged that this shall be the case—and all those to be blessed, truly, will be present. I felt that way, arriving in San Francisco in March of 1956…”

There were meetings with Kerouac, Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but the most significant was surely with Ginsberg: “We talked endlessly, day and night. We rehearsed our senses of writing, possible publication, shop talk … Both Ed [Dorn] and I were asked a lot of questions about Olson and his ‘Projective Verse’—was it just more razzle-dazzle intellectualism? McClure and Whalen were particularly intrigued, and were at this time already in correspondence with him. Allen, as always, was alert to any information of process that might be of use.”

When Creeley left San Francisco, he took with him the typewriter given him by Marthe Rexroth and the rest of his belongings thrown into a rucksack he purchased under Kerouac’s watchful eye; twenty years later it would remain a talisman for him. He also brought with him a pile of writings by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Whalen, McClure, Snyder, and Dorn that would form the core of the last issue of the Review, which came out in Autumn 1957 with Ginsberg listed as one of the contributing editors.

Ginsberg described Creeley’s visit in a letter to Carolyn Kizer (9/10/56):

“… Robert Creeley…this summer came out here to see [us], [we] all became buddies, lots of drinking marijuana jazz and discussion of eastern (Black Mountain Creeley-Olson hip cool Mallarmé style) and recent western (me, Jack, blowing hot and frantic) (and romantic)—meeting of minds, he left town with huge pile of manuscripts for next edition of Black Mountain Review—“

Fast forward twenty years. The epochal social and cultural changes that occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s transformed the landscape, but strangely a deep continuity persisted, as well. Ancient concerns and poetries were not lost sight of—Apollinaire’s “careful selection of the best traditional elements”—while, at the same time, liberation movements continue to put pressure on outmoded, perverse, and oppressive standards. This was the context in which Naropa was founded in 1974.

John Cage was a direct link from Black Mountain to the founding of Naropa. He gave a famous talk in Boulder the night Nixon resigned that turned into an extravagant celebration. Like Theater Piece No. 1, created 22 years earlier at Black Mountain, this talk catalyzed new ideas and possibilities for art and social interactions. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman became the masterminds of the proposal, bouncing ideas off each other, making lists of whom they would want to invite. As Waldman puts it, “We took this job seriously. We wanted a diverse group of teachers—jazz musicians, visual artists, in addition to poets and writers.”

Ginsberg, meanwhile, was having internal upheavals and maybe even conflicts over the proposition. “I am caught in a whirlpool of Ego Desire Ambition Power,” he wrote, “to run the school and be elder poet host to such a large company of bards fighting for recognition and fame.” [citation – quoted as a journal entry in Ginsberg: Beat Poet by Barry Miles, Virgin Books, pp. 453-4] The big attraction to Naropa of course was the figure of Chögyam Trungpa. Meanwhile, Waldman was asking herself if she really wanted to move to Colorado, to devote that much time and energy to an experiment in a location far from the cultural centers.

The beginnings of Naropa were similar to the last phases of Black Mountain and also recall the commitment of those who taught without salaries. “We had classes in what is now the Shambhala Center,” Waldman recalls. “There were five or six students, and it was freezing … I was running the school out of my car at the beginning—my books were in there, my notes…Naropa didn’t have a physical space at the time of the school’s inception, let alone a desk, a telephone, stationary, a library, all the accoutrements of serious academies, thus the ‘disembodied’ of the title.”

As they took that plunge, with Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, William Burroughs, Jackson MacLow, and others, they really were partaking in a tradition that Black Mountain College was essential to—that of a shared commitment to knowledge and empowerment. Whether it was Sappho’s group of hetairai, Plato’s academy, Gertrude Stein’s salons, or any other of a number of groups throughout time, there was and is a need for community, as burning as the need for food. At Naropa, as at Black Mountain, a courageous few decided they could be empowerers and liberators in an institutional setting, provided they did it by their own rules.

[“Last Night — Random Thoughts on San Francisco, March-June, 1956” pp. 567-70 in Collected Essays]


This paper was originally presented as part of the Naropa at 40 conference at CUNY Graduate Center, November 5, 2014.