Black Mountain College, located in a collection of church buildings in Black Mountain, North Carolina, was an educational experiment that lasted from 1933 to 1956. It was one of the first schools to stress the importance of teaching creative arts and the belief that, in combination with technical and analytical skills, the arts are essential to human understanding. The group of influential poets who studied there, taught there, or were associated with the school included Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Charles Olson. Though these poets’ work was remarkably different, they shared creative philosophies that came to be known as “projective verse.”
Olson, who taught at the college from 1948 to 1956 and was its last rector, coined the term “projective verse” in 1950. The idea of projective verse centers around process rather than product and owes much to Objectivists like William Carlos Williams and Modernists like Ezra Pound. This “composition by field” urges poets to simultaneously remove their subjectivity from their poems and “project” the energy of their work directly to the reader. Spontaneity and “the act of the poem” therefore take the place of reason and description.
Creeley was a student and a teacher at the college. At once Olson’s pupil and his peer, Creeley quickly became a tremendously influential figure, especially as editor of the groundbreaking Black Mountain Review. Derived from the same theories, Olson’s work was expansive and filled the page while Creeley’s operated by means of compressed, narrow columns.
Duncan and Levertov spent time at the college, became prominent projectivist figures, and were themselves a dichotomous pair. Intimate friends for years, the relationship between the two became strained when Levertov deviated from Duncan’s “grand collage” poetics and infused humanist politics into her verse.
The projectivist approach extended easily into open long-forms, beautifully rendered—and some might say completed—in Olson’s Maximus poems, Creeley’s Pieces, and Duncan’s “Structure of Rime” and “Passages.”