Charles Olson and an American Place

Francine du Plessix Gray
Polaroid of Francine du Plessix Gray

Francine du Plessix Gray at the "Poetry at Black Mountain College" conference, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, 1987. Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Courtesy Jonathan Williams Photographs. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“At eight-thirty tonight John Cage mounted a stepladder and until 10:30 he talked about the relation of music to Zen Buddhism while a movie was shown, dogs ran across the stage barking, 12 persons danced without any previous rehearsal, a prepared piano was played, whistles blew, babies screamed, Edith Piaf records were played double-speed on a turn-of-the-century machine …”

This journal note of mine, recording what is said to be America’s first “Happening,” is dated August 1952, Black Mountain College, North Carolina. I have long felt a need to pay tribute to this visionary community, and particularly to Charles Olson, the poet who guided it through its final phase with his maddening and towering presence.

Black Mountain originated in 1933, in the same decade of educational ferment in which Antioch, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, and the University of Chicago designed their progressive curriculums. I signed up for my first summer session there in 1951, at the age of twenty, having gravitated to it for reasons that then seemed eminently objective: How captivating, in the span of two months, to study painting with Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell, dancing with Merce Cunningham, music with John Cage, writing with Charles Olson. A dissolutely aesthetic adolescent, I was drawn to each of these possible vocations and several more; I had received one of those antiquated European educations which encourages young women to draw landscapes, play the piano, execute basic ballet steps as fluently as they read and write.

I arrived at Black Mountain straitlaced by many other conventions: the protocols of France’s diplomatic corps and of its impoverished French aristocracy (my father’s world); the decorum of my mother’s fashionable salons and of my American schools—Spence, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard, where I’d begun a major in medieval philosophy. I brought these inhibitions to a community pledged to rebel against all traditional modes of behavior, in life as in art. And it took me a few months to realize that I had gravitated towards Black Mountain not for detached aesthetic purposes, but out of an instinctual need to purge myself of much ancestral folderol, to engage in that symbolic parricide without which none of us can become totally adult. It was with equally blind instinct that all of the alluring mentors Black Mountain was offering in the summer of 1951, I gravitated to the most iconoclastic and dictatorial of the lot, Charles Olson.

Charles Olson was born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts. [ed.: b. in Worcester, MA] After receiving a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Harvard (the first doctoral candidate in that department) he worked as a fisherman and a mail carrier between brief stints of teaching. He came to Black Mountain in 1949 at the invitation of the artist Josef Albers, then the rector of the college, and soon afterwards succeeded him as rector when Albers moved on to Yale. It now strikes me as odd that he was only forty-two when I met him; for he emanated an awesome, oracular majesty (in part innate, in part shrewdly cultivated) which one only associates with the most seasoned shamans. He was a mountain, a giant of a man, measuring six feet seven inches and weighing 250 pounds. Thick lenses floated above his walrus mustaches, giving his steel-blue eyes a perpetually ferocious, irate gaze. The balding pate of his enormous head was fringed with a mane of graying hair that flowed to his shoulders, like that of some Indian sage. Just before coming to Black Mountain he had lived in the wilds of Yucatan studying the Mayan culture, and a Mexican wool serape was magisterially draped over his huge shoulders, even when he was bare-torsoed on the hottest North Carolina summer day.

Nineteen fifty-one: Olson’s rebellion against all traditional literary forms, his militant insistence on subjectivity, self-expression, self-exposure—these were the first aspects of his teaching that struck me as revolutionary. The confessional journal engaged in with full sincerity was an infinitely nobler art form, in Olson’s eyes, than any of those courteous short stories published in The New Yorker which have been the model of our literary taste. There was much of American revivalism in Olson: Bear witness by baring your soul, be redeemed by the sheer authenticity of your individual emotions. The uniquely American ideal of “finding oneself” (a phrase whose equivalent might not exist in any other Western language) was expressed by Olson in the most native populist style: each aspiring writer in his workshop must realize “what is his or her ground, get to that, citizen, go back there, stand on it, make yrself yr own place, and move from that.”

Like all introspective writers who have theorized about their craft, Olson was obsessed by the loss of energy between the rich immediacy of our emotions and the relative poverty of our scripted words

So whenever Olson was pleased by a student’s particularly intense self-revelation (I cite another instance from my Black Mountain journals) he slowly rose from his chair to tower over its author:

Si, Victor, si!” Olson shouted. “You have it, Victor!”

And he glared at the newly loved writer with fierce affection. In the case of Victor, Olson’s fancy was caught by this visceral line: “I finger my innards for the truth.”

Si, Victor, you have it!” Olson triumphed. And Victor was held up as the workshop’s hero for the rest of the week, until another equally raw metaphor of self-revelation caught the master’s ear.

LIKE ALL INTROSPECTIVE WRITERS who have theorized about their craft, Olson was obsessed by the loss of energy between the rich immediacy of our emotions and the relative poverty of our scripted words: “The dodges of discourse,” as he called it, “the distinction between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant.” His infatuation with the Mayan culture came from the directness of its hieroglyphic writing, whose signs “retain the power of the objects of which they are the images.” There was also much neoprimitivism, much redneck Yahoo posturing in this Harvard-educated scholar who preached that we would not be free “until we have completely cleaned ourselves of the biases of westernism, of greekism, until we have squared away at historical time.”

Olson proclaimed that traditional concepts of linear time must make way in our writing for an authentic American concept of “space.” Stated in the very opening of his best-known prose text, Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes larger here. Large, and with no mercy.” The ideal contemporary text, in his view, was a “space-field” organized by an idiom of shared Americanness, an optimally direct, colloquial vernacular. As in his own verse:

It ain’t dreamt until it walks It talks It spreads its green barrazza
Listen closely, folks, this poem comes to you by benefit of its own
Irish green bazoo. You take it, from here.

The lectures Olson delivered in his writing workshops were equally iconoclastic and antilinear, random shards of culture as purged of any historical coherence as the elements of John Cage’s Happenings (which Olson hailed as one of the glories of the twentieth century). His classes averaged four hours and could last six or eight, and sitting through them was like seeing an archaeologist throw a tantrum in a richly endowed museum. Within the span of one summer class we might be assailed by snatches of Sumerian history, of Fenollosa’s theories on Japanese art, on Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy; by passages from D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Leo Frobenius’s books on African rock painting, Pausanias’s Descriptions of Greece (“more valuable than Plutarch … because of its careful localism”), and from Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur (“just because it razzlesdazzles History”). We would be simultaneously assaulted by lines from the medieval poet Cavalcanti and the early Renaissance poet John Skelton, and from Olson’s more recent idols—Blake, Melville, William Carlos Williams.

Olson’s collagist approach to culture, his stress on the spontaneous and instinctual, tended to breed a mayhem of narcissistic mumblings among his students; it led to adulation of several texts as idiotic as Ezra Pound’s ABC of Economics, and more self-expression than there were selves to express. Yet his presence was magically fructifying because he did not so much engage in Oedipal rebellion against contemporary fathers, which would become the curse of the 1960s, as in a reappraisal of revolutionary great-grandfathers: “Big O.,” as we called him, transferred to us the momentum of his gigantic, archaeological curiosity for all forms of “immediate” discourse, past and present. The fineness of his ear had few equals in his generation. No teacher I’ve ever had put greater stress on tonal texture, on the notion that in all literary forms “it is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty.” He forced us to realize that prose is only as good as it approximates the condition of poetry—that state in which not a particle of sound can be changed without upsetting the entire page. And the lines of classical verse he battered us with most frequently had a haunting, reductive musicality whose repetition would make anyone into a better writer: Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower! weary of time!”; the medieval lyric “O western Wynd, when wilt thou blow / And the small rain down shall rain”; these lines from Marvell’s “The Garden”: “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.”

HOW DID I FARE in this scheme of things, an adolescent girl skilled at all Olson most detested—Aristotelian abstractions, European proprieties? Parachuted into this virulently Yankee, predominantly male community whose favorite mottoes were Ezra Pound’s “Make it new” and William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things,” I fared with mixed results. Several aspects of my brief past made me somewhat suited to Black Mountain: I’d been a pacifist leftie and World Federalist since my early teens, I was a tomboy who had always identified, in art as in life, with male heroes. Once in college, I’d concentrated so heavily on my philosophical abstractions that I’d never taken a literature course beyond freshman English, thinking I was smartass enough to read all of it by myself; and Olson thought that was particularly fine. “Girl,” he’d say, pressing his five fingers hard into my scalp until it hurt, “if you get the highfalutin Yurrup and poh-lee-tess and stuck-up schools out of that noggin and start playing Gringo ball you’ll be okay.”

That was a lot to get rid of in two months. And I’d brought along some equally unsuitable possessions to Black Mountain: my first short stories, in which I was always an adult male facing situations I knew little about—my favorite persona was a middle-aged alcoholic actor seeking salvation in a Bowery church. Olson was equally capable of abysmal rudeness and of exquisite, ambassadorial courtliness; and I’ve always been grateful that he never assailed these texts’ atrociousness publicly. He reserved his ire for our tutorials. “Girl,” he bellowed at me after reading my trash, “this is pure shit! You’re going to do nothing but keep a journal for a year, an hour a day minimum, come back next summer and show me what’s in it!”

So I went back north and obeyed Big O. and kept my journal through the rigors of my senior year of college, where I’d changed my dissertation thesis from medieval themes to a more irreverent topic, “Kierkegaard’s Views on the Demise of Christianity.” Throughout that winter I scribbled recollections of early childhood in my journal, noting one incident curiously akin to the one I’d just lived through with Olson.

In Paris in the 1930s, at the wish of my father, who deplored the laxness of twentieth-century education, I’d been tutored at home from the age of five by a tyrannical governess. The two of us traveled once a week to a correspondence school where we were doled out lessons for the following week, Gallically rigid homework (memorization of Asian capitals and Latin verbs, codifying of sentence parts) which was hardly conducive to a fertile imagination. But when I was eight an unprecedented event took place—a new teacher came in and gave us the following assignment: “Write a Story about Anything You Wish.” Filled with excitement and terror by this novel freedom, I began as a severe minimalist:

The little girl was forbidden by her parents to walk alone to the lake at the other end of the long lawn. But she wished to visit a green-eyed frog who would offer her the key to freedom. One day she disobeyed her parents and walked to the lake, and immediately drowned.


“Pathetic dribble!” the Father stormed on his daily visit to my study room. “You dare call that a story? What will become of you if you never finish anything!” He grabbed the paper from my little desk and tore it to shreds. It was a May evening of 1939, fourteen months before he died in the French Resistance. My father had been the love of my life, and he’d warned me that I should never write again. Always these male censors, silencing, silencing me ….

During my senior year at college I also returned, in my journal, to impressions of the past summer at Black Mountain:

Supercool pose of silence or monosyllabic utterances, bare feet, men’s dark glasses and long hair, easygoing nudism and bisexuality—fads of the just nascent Beat Generation, precursors of the 1960s Movement style. (I hadn’t skimped on Black Mountain’s brand of unisex macho, chopping off my hair as short and jagged as a contemporary punk’s.)

Everyone aping Olson’s Yankee-phonetic spellings and pun-some divisions: waz, enuf, luv, kulchar, yrself, lawd, abt, ga-wan for “go on,” Ru-man-tick, egg-zack-tly. All taken secondhand from 1920-vintage Pound.

The girl who danced in front of the mirror in the main hall from 7 a.m. to suppertime, stopping only to feed the baby braying in a basket by the exercise bar. She did not take any courses, she never spoke to anyone, she simply moved for about ten hours in a row, staring at herself in a mirror.

Olson, a serape flung over his naked torso, sitting in the dining room next to John Cage, always most formal in a black city suit and tie and very shiny pointed shoes, punctuating the cultivated laconism of dinnertime with his tinkling, Zen monk’s laugh as he mused about his next Happening.

Accompanying the poet Jonathan Williams to the Asheville, North Carolina, draft board in 1951 when he refused induction into the United States Army on grounds of conscientious objection. That was as important a moral and political education as any I had received from family or college.

For my Black Mountain guru had offered me an important metaphor: journal-keeping is comparable to the process of sharpening a pencil; our emotions, and the power of their expressions, are kept at maximum intensity by the daily routine of being inserted into the journal’s sharpening edge.

I RETURNED TO BLACK MOUNTAIN in 1952 for another summer session, as Olson had bidden me to, and showed him my journal. There followed a few treasured days when I was the Victor of that season’s workshop, then reduced to six students. The first week of the seminar, Olson towered over us, glowering through his thick spectacles, his finger poised on a stark line of my journals. It had to do with my father: “I pointed westwards, towards his grave.”

Si, si, girl! That’s space!” Big Charles triumphed. “Si, you’ve got it, kid!”

But I didn’t remain in favor long. For I’d brought Olson some other texts to read: three very autobiographical stories about my childhood which had followed his dictate to “Concentrate on what you know about, Write from the Center.” Clearly inspired by my obedience to Big O., they had won me the annual Creative Writing Award given to a graduating senior at Barnard. Five hundred dollars, a tidy sum for those years, and all the ego trips such mini-honors bring. But Olson didn’t give a damn about jurors from fancy New York publishing houses doling out prizes at a Big Sisters school. He was pioneering a counterculture, and such details made him all the more hostile. Once more he raged at me during a tutorial, shouting: “You’re still writing conservative junk! If you want to be a writer keep it to a journal” —the giant walrus rising from his chair, all six-foot-seven of him towering—“AND ABOVE ALL DON’T TRY TO PUBLISH ANYTHING FOR TEN YEARS!” More censorship into silence; this time, perhaps, for the best.

I remained, as ever, an obedient daughter. I again followed Big Charles’s advice. I kept my journal in New Orleans while following a jazz clarinetist on the rounds of Bourbon Street; in the dawns of New York when I relished being the only woman on the overnight shift at United Press, wrote World-in-Briefs about Joseph McCarthy’s purges, drank martinis with my colleagues at 8 a.m. in sleazy bars under the Third Avenue El. I remained loyal to it throughout a myriad of other transient aspirations that all protected me from the fear of Becoming a Writer—flirting with the notion of entering Harvard’s architectural school, or going to Union Theological Seminary for a degree in divinity. I persevered with the journal throughout my most misguided phase, when I earned my living in Paris as a fashion reporter, and dallied with a succession of consummate French narcissists to whom I eventually gave their literary due. I continued to write it after my return to the United States and my marriage, when I realized one of my life’s earliest dreams and spent five years as a painter of meticulous landscapes and still lifes. For my Black Mountain guru had offered me an important metaphor: journal-keeping is comparable to the process of sharpening a pencil; our emotions, and the power of their expressions, are kept at maximum intensity by the daily routine of being inserted into the journal’s sharpening edge.

By 1962 I had two children. I lived in deep country and in relative solitude, encompassed by domestic duties. The journal was becoming increasingly voluminous, angry, introspective. The nomadic tomboy, finally denied flight and forced to turn inward, was beginning to explode. One winter day I felt an immense void, great powerlessness, the deepest loneliness I’d ever known. I wept for some hours, took out a notebook, started rewriting one of the stories that had won me my college award. It was the one about my governess. It was published shortly afterwards in the New Yorker, precisely one year past the deadline Charles Olson had set me. Twelve years and two books of nonfiction later, it was to become the first chapter of my first novel, Lovers and Tyrants. The process of finishing that book entailed a solid and delicate psychoanalysis which forced me to accept my father’s death. Epiphany achieved, I was able to write the novel’s last three chapters—my first serious attempt at fiction—in a mere six months.

I may have had to bury the first Censoring Father to set my tongue free. I may have had to go to Black Mountain to bury many grandfathers, many mothers. I may have had to abide by Censor Two, Charles Olson, to let my tongue speak with any measure of integrity.

“A FRONTIER SOCIETY SOMETIMES RAUCOUS AND RAW,” so Martin Duberman would describe it in his fine book, Black Mountain: An Experiment in Community, “bold in its refusal to assume any reality it hadn’t tested, and therefore bold in inventing forms, both in life styles and in art.”

Charles Olson attempted to keep Black Mountain alive during the last five years of its existence through the sheer force of his personality, with total disdain for all administrative detail. He was a tortured man who had talked like a puritan about “clean writing” being solely produced by “clean experience,” and left his wife and baby to marry a student whom he had gotten with child. It was the way he had treated many women throughout his life, and I suspect he had too much decency not to feel his guilt, which he allayed by bouts of severe alcoholism after Black Mountain’s demise. By the time I wrote him to thank him for inspiring my first published texts, in the mid-1960s, he was too far gone to answer. Charles Olson died at fifty-nine, a great talent which may never have found its true center.

His leavening influence on American literature can still be felt by reading through the Black Mountain Review, founded by Olson and Robert Creeley with the intent of loosening the grip of the New Criticism. It provided more fascinating reading, for my money, than Partisan Review, New Directions, or any other classy periodical of the 1950s. In its last number, dated 1957, one finds Allen Ginsberg’s America, Kerouac’s From October in the Railroad Earth, poems by Gary Snyder and Michael McLure, a section of William Burroughs’s then-unpublished Naked Lunch, and part of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s also-unpublished Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Notwithstanding Olson’s demanding, oppressive presence, the more gifted writers of the community he nurtured were able to avoid all sectarianism. Of the ten poets since categorized as the “Black Mountain School” (a term originally coined by an outsider, Donald Allen, in his 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry) only six had some connection with the college. Others had simply published in the Black Mountain Review. And the vast range of stylistic differences among the writers indebted to him—be it Joel Oppenheimer’s domestic lyricism, Jonathan Williams’s pungent sparseness, Fielding Dawson’s Joycean memoirs, or my own discursive prose—makes the very term school ridiculous. Olson himself had clearly spelled out the terms of Black Mountain’s adamant individualism: the writer “is not free to be a part of, or to be any, sect …. The poet can not afford to traffick in any other sign than his own, his self, the man or woman he is.”

Few communities of its modest size—it seldom exceeded 120 in any given year—were ever nurtured within two decades by so distinguished a group. In addition to the ones already mentioned, it included Edward Dahlberg, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Goodman, Robert Creeley, Aaron Siskind, Stan Van Der Beek, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Nolan, Willem de Kooning, Arthur Penn, Alfred Kazin, Robert Duncan, Walter Gropius, Stefan Wolpe, and Franz Kline, among many others. But this proliferation of stars led Black Mountain to a very incongruous self-image: while trying to remain the City on the Hill, it saw itself both as a frontier and as a frontier salon. There were also the contradictions of its last rector: Olson’s Black Mountain was obsessed by its unique and redemptive Americanism and by a totally opposite nineteenth-century Romantic vision of the artist as pristine prophet—Olson’s favorite dictum was “Only the artist is on time.” How to reconcile this narcissistic sacralization of art with a community dedicated, in good part, to abolishing all traditional barriers between art and life? “Write as you breathe,” Olson always taught. “I want to erase all differences between art and life,” Cage said. “Rauschenberg just wants to fill in the gaps between the two, which strikes me as a little too Roman Catholic.”

Like Brook Farm, Oneida, and most other Utopias ballasted by a belief in their redemptive purity, Black Mountain would eventually founder on reality’s edge. By 1955 the few dedicated faculty members who had remained had not drawn salaries for a year, and many had used up their personal savings. Olson’s attempts at economic revival were of a tragicomic nature. He tried to get approval from the state to enroll Korean War veterans, and the college’s remaining six students rushed from class to class, changing disguises every few minutes, to convince Veterans Administration inspectors that the community was thriving. A few months later, Black Mountain decided that despite its “principles” it would accept the mentally retarded son of a wealthy Southerner who had suggested that he might put some money into the community. The father was to fly his private plane over the college and dip its wings in a certain way to make it known that he had decided to offer a bequest. For a few days members of the saving remnant spent their time wandering about the fields, staring at the sky and waiting for the sound of a plane which never came. One can think of few gifted men put to such an absurd task.

I don’t fully understand Olson’s magnum opus, The Maximus Poems, but I believe he has an important, underestimated place in American letters. He left many fascinating essays (“Projective Verse” and the collection, Human Universe) and a remarkable book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael, a classic of engaged, iconoclastic criticism comparable to William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. His legacy went beyond published texts. I do adulate Olson or Black Mountain the way most of its members have, feeling ambivalent about the sham and the magnificence of the man, the dangers and the vision of the place. But I thank him every week of my life for his prophetic emphasis on the valor of subjectivity and candor, of disobedience against form and state; and also for that fatherly rigor which eventually enabled me to write at all.

Decades later, as a woman nurtured by twenty years of feminism, memories of Black Mountain and Charles Olson still make me worry about the constant temptation, and great hazards, of remaining dutiful daughters. And they lead me to muse on these bittersweet paradoxes: how certain male mentors can force us to acknowledge our femaleness; how some male oppressors, by teaching us to rebel, may eventually become our liberators.

Francine du Plessix Gray was a writer, critic, and the author of Them: A Memoir of Parents and Lovers and Tyrants, which received a National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
Originally published:
April 1, 1987


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