The Overlooked Women of Black Mountain College

The Overlooked Women of Black Mountain College

Expressions of Something Shared

The women of Black Mountain College.


When Mildred Harding thought back on her year at Black Mountain College, what she remembered most were her newborn’s middle-of-the-night bottle feedings and the bitter cold. Her uninsulated cottage was heated by an ancient furnace set in a hole in the kitchen floor and a radiator that was hot for only a few hours each afternoon. When the baby cried to be fed, she buried all but his nostrils and lips under blankets and braced him and herself against the frigid Appalachian night. These winter months also meant little was coming off the college’s farm, so when her husband, an anthropology professor at the school, got paid, she would try to “outshout and outpush a dozen or so yelling, shoving students and claim a seat or standing room in the college pickup” for a ride into town, she wrote. There she would buy fruit, vegetables, secondhand coats, and baby food.

When Harding recorded her memories of Black Mountain in 1984, she knew these scenes of austerity—and of motherhood—did not fit into the mythos surrounding the college. “To admirers of Olson, Rauschenberg, Cage, Duncan, Creeley, Albers, Motherwell, and a host of others—as well as to devotees of innovative education, Black Mountain’s name is sacred, its place a Holy Ground,” she wrote. Founded in 1933 in the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Black Mountain College was the fabled nursery of the mid-century avant-garde and the site of Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic dome, John Cage’s first “happening,” and Charles Olson’s “open field” poetics. It figured in the lives of an astonishing number of era-defining artists—also including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, Cy Twombly, Jacob Lawrence, David Tudor—and was revered as an experiment in progressive education. Black Mountain closed in 1957 under political fracture and financial stress, but for a college that hosted no more than a hundred students a year and sometimes as few as a dozen, it had come to be considered a hallowed gathering place of revolutionary artistic energies. “Not so for me!” exclaimed Harding.

And not so for many Black Mountain women. The poet Hilda Morley, who taught at the college from 1952 to ’56, said she felt a sense of discomfort when she walked past “Olson’s boys” in the dining hall as “they sat against the wall with expressions on their faces which seemed to say that [she] was a questionable character” because she did not participate in their mentor’s rambling, booze-fueled poetry seminars. Francine du Plessix Gray, who would go on to author a dozen books and become a staff writer at The New Yorker, remembered Olson “pressing his five fingers hard into [her] scalp until it hurt” in an effort, she recalled him saying, to “get the highfalutin Yurrup and poh-lee-tess and stuck-up schools out of [her] noggin.” He berated her for writing “pure shit” and shouted at her that if she wanted to be a writer, she should keep her juvenilia to a journal and above all [not] try to publish anything for ten years!—advice she followed. “I remained, as ever, an obedient daughter,” she wrote. Asked in the early 1990s about her experience as a student at Black Mountain from 1946 to ’48, one woman wrote that her memories were “still very painful to [her] now.”

Yet very little of this strife factors into a new collection from New Directions called Black Mountain Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jonathan C. Creasy. The slim volume frames itself as more inclusive than previous anthologies. According to Creasy, Black Mountain Poems “accept[s] the common Black Mountain Poets” but expands this list in two ways. First, Creasy includes poems by four famous Black Mountain figures—Josef Albers, Cage, Fuller, and Paul Goodman—who are not primarily considered poets. Second, he includes the work of two women—Morley and Mary Caroline (M.C.) Richards—who taught at the college for many years and whose work, Creasy writes, has “been neglected for far too long.” (Including Denise Levertov, a commonly accepted Black Mountain poet, there are three women in the collection, as well as 13 men.) While the inclusion of Morley and Richards makes Black Mountain Poems a more accurate and more beautiful volume, Creasy could have taken his project of inclusion much further. And yet Harding, Morley, and du Plessix Gray remind us that inclusion alone is not the solution to the problem of representation. Reckoning is.

Creasy writes that it is no small task to figure out what even counts as Black Mountain poetry. Is it strictly poems written by people who were there? Or is it work by those who appeared in the magazines and presses associated with the college, such as Cid Corman’s Origin, Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Press, Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review and Divers Press? Or is it a literary style more broadly, what Olson called “composition by field”—breaking the stanza and treating the page as an open, kinetic space? The first anthology to delineate a Black Mountain school of poetry, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945–1960, went with the second method, selecting poets who appeared in the college’s associated publications. Levertov, who was never at Black Mountain, was the only woman on Allen’s list. Since it was published in 1960, no anthology has come along to challenge his selections. The literary scholar Alessandro Porco writes that Allen’s list has therefore “circulated as dogma.”

Creasy’s inclusion of Morley and Richards in Black Mountain Poems addresses the gender bias of Allen’s canon-making anthology. There were women writing poetry at Black Mountain, as Creasy’s volume makes slightly clearer. The selections (three poems by Morley and six by Richards) obscure as much as they reveal about these women’s creative lives, however. Morley, for example, did not publish her first book until 1976, when she was 60. In 1983 she won the Capricorn Award, given to poets over 40 in belated recognition of excellence. Stanley Kunitz selected her for the prize, and when he tried to explain why it had taken her so long to publish, he wrote, cringingly, that perhaps she “felt that there was room for only one genius in the family,” referring to her husband, Stefan Wolpe. In fact, Morley had been trying to publish for years but had been “buried [under] S’s ‘business’ things & other concrete trivia,” she wrote to Levertov in 1965. Their correspondence, which remains unpublished (languishing in the Levertov archive at Stanford University), documents the obstacles that Morley faced—many of them gendered—to having an early or sustained career in poetry.

In this light, it is disappointing that the three Morley poems selected by Creasy have to do with Black Mountain men. The first is about Wolpe, the second is dedicated to Willem de Kooning, and the third is titled “For Creeley.” Yet, as Morley writes in a poem called “Psalm,” composed in 1966 but not published until 1983, it was Levertov who was her muse. Morley portrayed them as the Greek goddesses Hecate and Artemis, two huntresses guiding each other through dark woods. In a manuscript version of the poem that Morley sent Levertov in 1966, she signed the poem “Hilda Wolpe”—then tellingly crossed that out and wrote “Hilda Morley.”

In addition to including more women, Creasy proposes widening the definition of “poet” and “poetry” to make room for artists and works that have not typically been a part of anthologies or discussions of Black Mountain poetics. He uses this expanded definition to include a series of aphoristic poems by the painter Albers, an excerpt from an epic poem by the architect Fuller, and several prose works by the composer Cage—in other words, unknown works by some of the college’s best-known men.

But if ever there was a case for expanding categories and dissolving boundaries between artistic disciplines, it is found in the work of Richards. A poet, ceramicist, and painter, she maintained that all art, regardless of medium, was the materialization of the “unifying energy of our perceptions,” she wrote in Centering, a mystical treatise on creativity. The structure of artistic disciplines had come to make the poem seem fundamentally different from the pot or the painting, but these, for her, were the same. They were merely different expressions of something shared: the human search for truth, wholeness, and connection.

Richards was thus committed to the cross-disciplinary collaboration that defined the college. She was part of that famous night in 1952 when Cage orchestrated what would come to be known as the first “happening.” Richards and Olson read poetry as Cunningham danced, Robert Rauschenberg showed paintings, and Tudor played piano. But for Richards, collaboration did more than bring together artists working in different disciplines. It represented the falseness of these separations in the first place. She writes in “Concerts of Space,” collected in Black Mountain Poems, that the poem, the dance, the sculpture are all “decisions, forms, and emblems: mots.” Or as she puts it in her 1966 essay “Thoughts on Writing and Handcraft,” “The central intersection where all [art] meets is language—language in some sense, not necessarily verbal.”

Using Richards’s more capacious definition of who counts as a poet and what counts as poetry might have led Creasy to a range of works by overlooked artists. For example, Black Mountain was the first predominantly white college in the South to admit a black student, the musician Alma Stone Williams, who attended the 1944 summer institute. (In histories of Black Mountain, there is much triumphalism about this event, which can obscure the fact that a sizable portion of faculty did not support it, that she was admitted not as a fully enrolled student but as a summer guest, and that her fees were paid by the Rosenwald Fund, a philanthropy for black artists, not by the college.) Creasy mentions Williams in his introduction but does not include her in the anthology. This is all the more striking because she wrote a memoir about her time at the college. If prose works by another musician (Cage) can appear in Black Mountain Poems, why not a selection from Williams?

The list of further examples goes on and on. There’s the Japanese American sculptor Asawa, who left 206 boxes of correspondence, drawings, photographs, lesson plans, and notes for her exhibitions at Stanford. Creasy includes a picture of Asawa but none of her work. There’s Ati Gropius (a daughter of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius), who penned a series of hilarious illustrated love letters while a student at Black Mountain. There’s the magnificent correspondence between Morley and Levertov, which sheds light on their poetic collaboration and personal affinity: “Such a joy to see you today,” wrote Morley, “so the whole world seemed made clean again (really) and the [arc] of one’s life unbroken & the silences began humming again with words.” Then there are the hundreds of pages of interviews with Black Mountain women, many of them students and faculty members who did not reach acclaim, housed in the State Archives of North Carolina. A rival anthology, The Black Mountain College Anthology of Poetry, set to be published late next year by the University of North Carolina Press, promises to include some 16 additional women poets, excavated from the archive’s dogmatic dust.

Following Richards’s definition would have been one way to offset the still overwhelmingly white, male, canonical set of writers Creasy assembled. But is inclusion the solution? Black Mountain College was, after all, a place that valued and practiced inclusion, if in a very limited way. But it was also a place where women had fingers dug into their scalps, where they were scrutinized as questionable characters, where they fed their babies in the freezing cold. These stories remind us that inclusion does not mean equity. While Black Mountain may have been “one of the most significant experiments in arts and education in the twentieth century,” according to Creasy, it was still a very hard place for people who didn’t fit the mold. A true reckoning with the range of experiences and artistic output would not eclipse the significance of Black Mountain. It would simply allow us to wonder, as the student Sarah Osborne did in her marginal annotations to a William Blake poem, “just how insignificant a fly is.”

Ad Policy