previous chapter
The Black Mountain Review
next chapter

The Black Mountain Review

In hindsight it is almost too simple to note the reasons for the publication of The Black Mountain Review . Toward the end of 1953 Black Mountain College—a decisive experimental school started in the early thirties by John Rice and others in Black Mountain, North Carolina—was trying to solve a persistent and most awkward problem. In order to survive it needed a much larger student enrollment, and the usual bulletins and announcements of summer programs seemed to have little effect. Either they failed to reach people who might well prove interested, or else the nature of the college itself was so little known that no one quite trusted its proposals. In consequence a summer workshop in pottery, which had among its faculty Hamada, Bernard Leach, and Peter Voulkos, found itself with some six rather dazzled persons for students. Whatever the cause—and no doubt it involves too the fact that all experimental colleges faced a very marked apathy during the fifties—some other means of finding and interesting prospective students had to be managed, and so it was that Charles Olson, then rector of the college, proposed to the other faculty members that a magazine might prove a more active advertisement for the nature and form of the college's program than the kind of announcement they had been depending upon.

This, at least, is a brief sense of how the college itself came to be involved in the funding of the magazine's publication. The costs, if I remember rightly, were about $500 an issue, so that the budget

Introduction to Black Mountain Review , 3 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1969), a reprint of the original magazine issues.


for a year's publication would be about $2000—hardly a large figure. But the college was in such tight financial condition that it could not easily find any money for any purpose, and so its support of the magazine, most accurately the decision of the faculty to commit such an amount to that purpose, was a deeply generous and characteristic act. Too, it's to be acknowledged that Olson's powers of persuasion were considerable.

The nature of the magazine itself, however, and the actual means of its publication, that is, literally its printing, are of another story which is really quite separate from the college itself. In the late forties, while living in Littleton, N.H., I had tried to start a magazine with the help of a college friend, Jacob Leed. He was living in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and had an old George Washington handpress. It was on that that we proposed to print the magazine. Then, at an unhappily critical moment, he broke his arm. I came running from New Hampshire—but after a full day's labor we found we had set two pages only, each with a single poem. So that was that.

What then to do with the material we had collected? Thanks to the occasion, I had found excuse to write to both Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I didn't know what I really wanted of them but was of course deeply honored that they took me in any sense seriously. Pound very quickly seized on the possibility of our magazine's becoming in some sense a feeder for his own commitments, but was clearly a little questioning of our modus operandi . What he did give me, with quick generosity and clarity, was a kind of rule book for the editing of any magazine. For example, he suggested I think of the magazine as a center around which, "not a box within which/ any item." He proposed that verse consisted of a constant and a variant, and then told me to think from that to the context of a magazine. He suggested I get at least four others, on whom I could depend unequivocally for material, and to make their work the mainstay of the magazine's form. But then, he said, let the rest of it, roughly half, be as various and hogwild as possible, "so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in." He cited instances of what he considered effective editing, The Little Review and the Nouvelle Revue Française when its editor gave complete license to the nucleus of writers on whom he depended 'to write freely what they chose.' Williams in like sense gave us active support and tried to put us in touch with other young writers, as Pound also did, who might help us find a company. But with our failure to find a means to print the magazine, it all came to an abrupt end. I remember Pound's consoling me with the comment


that perhaps it was wise for "the Creel" to wait for a while before "he highflyz as editor," but things seemed bleak indeed.

Happily, there was what proved to be a very significant alternative. Cid Corman, then living in Boston and having also a weekly radio program there called "This Is Poetry," had come to be a friend. I had heard the program, by some fluke, in New Hampshire, wrote him, was not long after invited by him to read on the program, and soon after we were corresponding frequently, much involved with senses of contemporary writers and writing. It was Cid, in fact, who got me in touch with Olson, by way of their mutual friend, Vincent Ferrini—who sent me some of Olson's poems, with his own, for possible use in the magazine that had not yet collapsed. In returning Olson's poems to Vincent, I made the somewhat glib remark that he seemed to be "looking for a language," and got thereby my first letter from Olson himself, not particularly pleased by my comment and wanting to discuss it further, like they say. The letters thus resulting were really my education just that their range and articulation took me into terms of writing and many other areas indeed which I otherwise might never have entered. But the point now is that Cid, once Jake Leed's and my magazine was clearly dead, undertook himself to publish a magazine called Origin . Significantly enough, its first issue includes some of the material I had collected—for example, Paul Blackburn's, whom I had come to know through Pound's agency—and features the work of Charles Olson, specifically the first of the Maximus sequence, as well as other poems and prose.

Origin was, in fact, the meeting place for many of the writers who subsequently became the active nucleus for The Black Mountain Review . More than any other magazine of that period, it undertook to make place for the particular poets who later come to be called the "Black Mountain School." In its issues prior to 1954, and continuingly, it gave first significant American publication to Denise Levertov, Irving Layton, Robert Duncan, Paul Carroll, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, myself, and a number of others as well. Although I had, for example, published stories in the Kenyon Review and the New Directions Annual , neither place could afford me the actual company nor the range of my own work that Origin 's second issue provided. For me it was an acknowledgment I had almost begun to think impossible, and I am sure that Cid's consistent support of our writing has much to do with what became of it.

The point is that we felt, all of us, a great distance from the more conventional magazines of that time. Either they were dominated


by the New Critics, with whom we could have no relation, or else they were so general in character, that no active center of coherence was possible. There were exceptions certainly. Golden Goose , edited by Frederick Eckman and Richard Wirtz Emerson, was clearly partisan to myself and also to Olson, and published my first book, Le Fou , and would have published a collection of Olson's, The Praises , but for a misunderstanding between him and the editors, when the book was already in proof. Both men were much involved with Williams, and made his example and commitment the center for their own. There were also other, more occasional magazines, as Goad —whose editor, Horace Schwartz, involved me in a useful defense of my interest in Ezra Pound, just that it helped clarify my own terms of value.

But, with the exception of Origin , and possibly Golden Goose also, only two magazines of that time, the early fifties, had finally either the occasion or the sense of procedure, which served as my own measure of the possibility. One, Fragmente , edited and published in Freiburg, Germany, by Rainer Gerhardt—whose acquaintance I was also to make through Pound's help—was a heroically ambitious attempt to bring back into the German literary canon all that writing which the years of the Third Reich had absented from it. Rainer and his wife, living in great poverty with two young sons, were nonetheless able to introduce to the German context an incredible range of work, including that of Olson, Williams, Pound, Bunting, and myself. I was its American editor but its literal activity was completely the efforts of Rainer and Renate. Their conception of what such a magazine might accomplish was a deep lesson to me. They saw the possibility of changing the context of writing, and I think myself that this magazine, and also the small paperbacks they were able to publish, effectually accomplished this for present German poetry—despite the bitter fact of Rainer's early death.

In like sense, a group of young writers of various nationalities centered in Paris was of great interest to me. They were led by a lovely, obdurate and resourceful Scot, Alexander Trocchi, and included the British poet, Christopher Logue, and the brilliant American translator, Austryn Wainhouse. Others too were of equal interest, Patrick Bowles, for example, who translated the first of Beckett's French novels into English—and Richard Seaver, who was later to become a decisive editor for Grove Press. Again, what these men proposed to do with their magazine, Merlin , and the books which they also published with the help of the Olympia Press as Collection Merlin, was to change the situation of literary context


and evaluation. I've given a brief, personal sense of my relation to Trocchi in a novel, The Island , where he figures as "Manus." I was also invited by them to be an associate editor on the magazine—but by that time the funds necessary to continue publication of the magazine were not obtainable. But their translation of Genet and Beckett's work as well as their brilliant critical writing, which extended to political thinking as well as literary, made them an exceptional example of what a group of writers might do.

By 1954 my wife and I were already much involved with a small press called the Divers Press. We had moved from France to Mallorca, and had become close friends with a young English couple, Martin Seymour-Smith and his wife, Janet. It was Martin who first interested us in publishing books, since, as he pointed out, printing costs were exceptionally cheap on the island and so much might be done on a shoestring. But our initial venture together, the Roebuck Press, came a cropper because Martin's interests were not really decisively my own nor mine his. We did publish a selection of his poems, All Devils Fading , but our center was finally in writers like Olson (Mayan Letters ), Paul Blackburn (Proensa and The Dissolving Fabric ), Irving Layton (In the Midst of My Fever ), Douglas Woolf (The Hypocritic Days ), Larry Eigner (From the Sustaining Air ), and, though he comes a bit later, Robert Duncan (Caesar's Gate ). We also published Katue Kitasono's Black Rain , and it is a design of his that is used for the covers of the first four issues of The Black Mountain Review and the credits page. What I felt was the purpose of the press has much to do with my initial sense of the magazine also. For me, and the other writers who came to be involved, it was a place defined by our own activity and accomplished altogether by ourselves—a place wherein we might make evident what we, as writers, had found to be significant, both for ourselves and for that world—no doubt often vague to us indeed—we hoped our writing might enter. To be published in the Kenyon Review was too much like being "tapped" for a fraternity. It was too often all over before one got there, and few if any of one's own fellow writers came too. Therefore there had to be both a press and a magazine absolutely specific to one's own commitments and possibilities. Nothing short of that was good enough.

Origin had already done, in some sense, as much as one could hope for, and I remember having doubts about either the use or the practicality of simply another magazine more or less "like" it. I certainly didn't want to compete with Cid. But one possibility did seem to me lacking in Origin , despite occasional notes and reviews,


and that was the ground that an active, ranging critical section might effect. I wasn't thinking of criticism finally as judgment of whether or no this or that book might be deemed "good" or "bad." What I hoped for, and happily did get, was critical writing that would break down habits of "subject" and gain a new experience of context generally. If I have any disappointment in the magazine in retrospect, it's only that this part of it does not extend as far as I had hoped. Still, Jung's "The Mass & the Individuation Process" (in the fifth issue)—which I remember he sent to "The Black Mount Review," which pun, unintentional I assume, was a delight—and Borges' "Three Versions of Judas" (in the seventh issue)—which I read with absolute seriousness, not realizing it was a "fiction"—are some instance of what I was after. But, and here I was much influenced by Olson, the possible range of such writing as we conceived of it was never fully demonstrated.

There have been various comments and summaries published with respect to The Black Mountain Review 's activity as a little magazine. Most lively and helpful, I think, is Paul Blackburn's account which appears in Kulchur (Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer 1963), called "The Grinding Down." Among other things, he identifies the initials used by reviewers in the first four issues, and also the pseudonyms used for signature in some other instances. Too, Kent State University Library, in one of its bulletins, provides an accurate and useful bibliography together with a brief note by myself. But now I think it best that the pseudonyms stay pseudonyms, and that initials, if not recognized (I used three sets, for example), be part of the present reader's experience. Often I, or some friend I could quickly get hold of, had to fill blank pages, to manage our length of sixty-four pages, or subsequently the longer format of two hundred and twenty plus. I at times had nightmares of having to write the whole thing myself.

The contributing editors listed in the first issue conform to that sense Pound had earlier made clear: get a center of people you can depend on for consistently active contributions, elsewise you'll have nothing to build with. Olson was to prove that center almost single-handedly, but Blackburn was also very helpful, with all manner of support including legwork around New York to get the magazine into stores as well as much sympathetic and practical handholding. Layton I had come to know through a Canadian mimeographed magazine, Contact , which many of us had been involved with as its contents will show. He had an intensive energy and obviously was restless with what was then the Canadian literary milieu. His


brother-in-law, John Sutherland, editor of the Northern Review , no longer invited him to literary parties because Irving's conduct was too irascible. So he was an unequivocal cohort and wrote, happily, voluminous amounts of verse. If I remember rightly, I also asked others as well—in particular Paul Goodman, who answered he'd prefer being just a contributor, since his other commitments very possibly would not give him time to do more. Rexroth generously agreed although we had little information of each other beyond his own public figure. Less happily, by the time he'd read the first issue, he had realized his error and his withdrawal (as well as that of Paul Blackburn, whose reasons were happily less adamant) is noted at the back of the Fall 1954 issue along with a defensive comment by myself.

Many of the writers who became very decisive to the magazine are not so listed, however. Robert Duncan is very much one of these. His first contribution, sent at Olson's suggestion, was a poem I in turn suggested we print a section of—and Duncan's response was to the effect that if he had wanted a section of the poem printed, he would have sent it—and I learned much from him also. There was one very amusing confusion involved with a poem of his I did print, in the Fall 1954 issue, "Letters for Denise Levertov: For A Muse Ment." Apparently Denise, for some reason, took it as a parody on her own way of writing, and was thus hurt. And Olson too thought it was some kind of attack on him. I think that poor Duncan and myself were the only ones unequivocally to enjoy it, and it remains for me an extraordinary summary and exemplum of contemporary possibilities in poetry.

Denise herself, Louis Zukofsky (whom I found thanks to Edward Dahlberg and also Duncan), Jonathan Williams, and Robert Hellman (a close friend first in France, who subsequently came to teach briefly at Black Mountain), all were of great help to me in that they were there to be depended on, for specific writing but equally, for a very real sense of the whole act's not being merely a whistling in the dark but something making a way. God knows one often doubted it. Holding to Pound's sense of letting at least part of the magazine seem wide open, I know I printed work at times that any of them must have been puzzled by. Some things I just liked, for example, Gautier's "The Hippopotamus," which appears in the fifth issue. I still do. However, I've never found anyone to share my pleasure in "The Goat Man," by Harold Lee Drake, in the sixth issue. He wrote, to put it mildly, extraordinary prose—including one piece involved with masturbating by the seashore, which the


condition of censorship in the fifties never permitted me to print. He was one of the contributors who came out of nowhere, and unhappily seems to have returned there, since I've never seen his work printed again.

Of contributors generally, I've defined, I think, the character of one group clearly evident throughout the magazine's publication. These are writers who have either come together earlier, in Origin , or who are "found" by the same nature of attention that Origin 's preoccupations had effected. Louis Zukofsky would be one of these latter as would be also Edward Dahlberg. There are also "occasional" contributors, like Paul Goodman, and those who simply appear with no previous or necessarily continuing sense of relationship, like James Purdy. I think we were, possibly, the first magazine to print his work in America, and that was surely a pleasure. He had found us somehow, submitted the story, and I printed it. The same is true of Sherry Mangan's story (a curious echo from the twenties) in the seventh issue, or of Alfred Kreymborg's "Metaphysical Ballad" printed there as well.

But two other kinds of contributor were particularly significant. Thus far the relation to the college itself must seem the fact that it was paying for the magazine's publication, and that Olson was the rector of the college. Although Hellman, Duncan, and myself were briefly on the faculty, this was somewhat after the fact because the nature of the magazine was determined otherwise and really prior to that fact. But if those contributors are noted who were either students at the college at the time, or had recently been so, then a relation of the college to the magazine, and particularly to Olson's influence as a teacher, becomes very clear. First there is Jonathan Williams—who is certainly not a "student" at this point, but who is much interested in the college and in Olson particularly, as his own publishing (Jargon ) makes clear. Look at the advertisements for his press in the various issues of the magazine, for further instance. Then there is Joel Oppenheimer, who had left the college not long before the publication of the first issue and so comes into its activity by that fact. Then Fielding Dawson—also absent at this point from the college, in the army in Stuttgart, but again much involved by relation to the college and so to the magazine also. Then there are those literally there: Edward Dorn, Michael Rumaker, and Tom Field. Dorn had published one poem in Origin , in an issue edited by Denise Levertov, and his story in The Black Mountain Review is, I think, his first published prose—and clear example of what is to be his extraordinary ability in that mode as well as in poetry. Michael


Rumaker has his first publication of any kind in the magazine, with two stories I feel to be as fine as ever were published—in fact, "The Pipe" I think as exceptional a piece of writing as any of any time. Then, finally, Tom Field—actually a painter, but whose writing struck me usefully, though it has not proven of major interest to himself. But think of it—that a college having an enrollment of about twenty people as average during the time the magazine is published should have such gifted men as Dorn, Rumaker, Dawson, Oppenheimer, and Williams have so proven themselves to be. Hopefully, it makes excuse for the kind of eulogy these comments must now seem.

The college closed in the spring of 1956 and at that point Jonathan Williams became the ostensible publisher of the last issue—on the cover of which he put a little sticker to make this fact clear. There was hope we might continue. Some material for the next issue was in hand, some photos of Frederick Sommer's for one thing, and some essays of Edward Dahlberg's. But the last issue itself was almost impossible to manage. I had left Black Mountain, had been briefly in San Francisco, and was now living in New Mexico. The printer, of course, was still in Spain, and the delays in proofing, or even getting the initial printing begun, were almost impossible to manage. However, the last issue—with the addition of Allen Ginsberg as contributing editor—defines the last group of contributors who have particular relevance. Ed Dorn had moved to San Francisco with his family after leaving Black Mountain the year previous. I was in restless state, having separated from my wife, and being really at odds with much in my life. I wanted a new condition and so went west, where I'd never been, to see if that might be an answer. So I was also in San Francisco, in the spring of 1956—and for a writer there was really no place that could have been quite like it, just at that time. The contents pages of the seventh issue will make this much clearer than I can—Ginsberg, Kerouac, Whalen, McClure, Burroughs (Lee), Snyder—and another man I was deeply pleased to include, albeit from the East, Hubert Selby, Jr. It was unequivocally a shift and opening of the previous center, and finally as good a place as any to end. Other magazines had appeared as well, with much the same concerns, among them Big Table and the Evergreen Review . Whatever battle had been the case did seem effectually won.

A last note, briefly, about the divers reproductions and photographs that appear in the various issues, as well as the covers for the last three. . . . I valued these especially, in that they freshened


everything when otherwise things seemed almost too dense. It was a particular honor to include Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Aaron Siskind, and Harry Callahan, because all had been teachers at the college, and, even more than that, had each made so actively clear a new way of seeing in their art. John Altoon I can never thank enough for so much it would be specious to try to list it—and he also had made very evident how extraordinary a painter he is. Dan Rice, a close friend of those days and first met at the college—the same. Edward Corbett I met while I was editing the last issue in New Mexico, and though I'm sure he thought I was simply hysterical, his cover as well as other generosities is a lovely fact of his concern. As for Laubiès—he saw it all.

So it's finally all well in the past, either as one's own experience of something, or else the communal fact of what the writers of that situation and time seemed to have had in mind. I don't think it can ever be very different. You want to do something, to see it happen, and apparently it can't, or at least can't with what then exists as possibility. So you try to change it, and you do or don't as proves the case. What really now delights me is that a magazine having a usual printing of some five hundred to seven hundred fifty copies, about two hundred of which ever got distributed, could have made any dent whatsoever. That should cheer us all.

Placitas, N.M.
December 15, 1968


previous chapter
The Black Mountain Review
next chapter