Black Mountain’s experiments with breath intrigue me. What substances, events, beliefs, or conditions placed breath into the poetry and pottery of persons like M.C. Richards and Charles Olson? Is breath the doorway to inwardness and inner reality? It can certainly space us out, take us out of the ordinary, cheer us, focus us, enliven us, disperse us. It empowers us to “quest on, quest on,” as Richards implores. But what exactly are we struggling toward? Richards teaches that “perception itself yields moral insight. And centered consciousness yields initiative of will. And thus the ancient Trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness lives in the modern ideal of Surreality, Nakedness, and Freedom. Or Revelation, Redemption, and Compassion” (Centering, p. 130). She believes that “Substance itself bears traces of the whole” and that “These traces, as we perceive them (and provided we heed them!), carry us toward the center; they are paths and structures of interrelatedness, they are the seeds of our free residence, they may speak to us as Conscience” (131). By these instructions, we evolve into inner rule of ourselves. Acts of reading and writing come to feel like imaginative explorations of mythopoetic worlds. Somewhere along our journey, however, we arrive at the edges of these constructs and we recognize in the landscape the contours of our heads — evidence, in other words, that the world around us is not the world around us so much as a memory palace or cognitive map.
I resonate with the music of M.C. Richards’s prose in her book Centering. These trance-scripts share some of that book’s form and sentiment. “Its form,” as Richards intones, “is a demonstration of what I say in it. Themes recur and vary. There are passages of development and recapitulation. I wish to offer its meaning not as rationale but as physical presence in language. Iteration and reiteration like days in a season, and we come to the feel of its weather. […]. Sudden changes of tone — from refinement to coarseness, from mechanics to rapture — are moods of nature” (6). Like Olson, she points to breath as the tender, limber thread we walk on our journey between life and death. Breathe deeply and wish well one’s entire sphere. Let the world enter one’s awareness with each breath. Wish well, wish love and bliss to all. It’s such a simple task, and yet I’ve struggled throughout my life to keep it first in my thoughts. To behave well and bring happiness to others. Why can’t we just imagine that and do it?
The worker must have her bread — but she also must have her roses. Hand over, motherfuckers, or we’ll storm your gates and tax your estates. We’ve had enough of these open-air debtor prisons. We will remain silent no longer. From out of the monoculture into Out There step bands like Tower Recordings and Wet Tuna. By exercising consciousness, I can release from my usual mask of pain into an embodiment in breath and posture of loving kindness. “Focus on one’s breath”: this is what Charles Olson proposes in his essay, “Projective Verse.” The brain is there in the breath, the line, and the syllable. Regulate breathing, and awareness intensifies. We see and hear more of the grand dynamic. The creak of the kitchen table from the push of our hands as we write. Objects arranged on the table’s surface. Olson intervenes at just this moment to remind us to concentrate on breath and beware the ease of the descriptive. Within the energy field that will become the poem, he says, one must manage syllables and lines in their relations to each other. Such was the way Olson taught his students to write, both at Black Mountain College and elsewhere. Linguistic objects — words, sounds, sequences of syllables: for these, the poet finds a use.
I should breathe and meditate and practice a yoga of writing, I tell myself. Work on centering. Like M.C. Richards, I should try in the first meetings of my classes this semester to develop with students “a sense of fellowship and mutual service” (Centering, p. 108). How do I encourage these strangers to speak directly to one another? Help them recognize the interrelation of each other’s temperaments. Richards captures this sense of interrelation through an “ecosystem” metaphor. “A class with different levels of aptitude and many kinds of response may bloom like a garden, full of color and texture. Every one has something to give the others. Every one may learn to receive from others. An atmosphere of helpfulness and realism may flourish” (108). Above all, I need to approach education as a craft. Be warm and trusting. Behave with loving kindness. Practice metamorphosis. Learn to serve the world. Richards’s book is the best statement on pedagogy I’ve ever read. “Let us teach in our classes,” she recommends, “the connection between who we think man is on the inside and what the atmosphere is like on the outside” (113). What do all of these slogans equate to, however, in terms of technique? Let us be supple enough to yield to the invasion of a new reality, and let us grow. Let there be dialogue. Let students share in the labors of community. As Richards notes, this is the demonstration of the value of the mode of pedagogy explored and practiced during her time teaching at Black Mountain College: “After attending such a school, no young adult is surprised to learn that food has to be provided, dishes done, sheets laundered, cows milked, milk skimmed and cooled, floors mopped, roads maintained, roofs repaired, children loved, guests housed, crises met, books mended, windows caulked, solitude respected, differences enjoyed, cooperation required, spontaneity used, judgments made and revised, help given by all to all, patience won” (121). I have to build into my course opportunities for students to engage in acts of making. “In making,” Richards writes, “we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming, for death as physical process essential to creation; and we are filled with wonder” (122).
I pivot in my reading from the Black Mountain Poets to poetry written and published by the Black Panthers. I learn, for instance, about Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, one of the founding members of the latter organization’s Southern California chapter. Carter used to recite poems at Panther meetings, until his murder during a shootout between BPP and a rival black nationalist group called Organization US led by Ron Karenga. In the mid-1970s, the Church Committee hearings revealed that enmity between the groups had been sown by the FBI as part of the latter’s COINTELPRO operations. Part of me would prefer to shy away from this material; the rage it provokes worries me.
Taut on the road, palms pressed, wheeling frankly. Where I grew up, it’s all boardwalks and water parks. Like our baby nephews, we dip! we dip! Just so long as there’s some lime and vodka to counteract the sounds and ideas of the cranberries. Let pawtips be pawtips, trusting the divinity and compassion of the whole person. Understanding goes without saying, beyond words, daily life reverberating with metaphor enough to crowd out the voice that says, “Fix it.” Education leads me to minding after Rudolph Steiner and curricula informed by the Waldorf method. M.C. Richards describes this method in her book Centering as one where “The teacher works in a certain state of mind, with certain knowledge and aims, primarily listening to what the child is telling him through its body and its behavior and its fantasies and its play and speech. He does not try to apply to a situation a form conceived in advance” (101). I take note of some of Richards’s suggestions, in hopes that her book will help me connect the dots for my course on Hippie Modernism. “Certain tendencies we should try to cure, others to strengthen,” she writes. “We should not neglect the child’s relation to hero worship and ceremony and ritual. He lives naturally in a world of myth and poetry and invisible beings. He loves sound and movement and color and drama. He loves to laugh and to cry. […]. As he grows older and learns to think abstractly, he will do so as a person in whose organism is rooted the wisdom of fairy tales, and saints’ legends, and cultural mythology” (Centering, p. 103). Hippie modernism produced what was and remains a revolutionary literature. It evokes, it exhorts, it grants permission to imagine radical creative transformation of social reality, beginning with exercises of individual freedom, particularly at the level of speech and intercourse with citizens in a loving global community. Authorly life coincides with experiments in communication and lived practice amid networks of revolutionary literary-artistic peers. No need to venture so far, though. We don’t want to write the introduction before having read the books. Why do I feel like I’m plotting a prison-break? Is it wrong to want to teach hope and possibility? It’s no naive hope; Charles Olson contemplates both ruin and survival as pertinent facts of our condition in his poem “The Kingfishers.” But into history’s mixed message, Olson introduces a message of hope, a factor to induce a change of state, only to then announce to his readers, “This very thing you are.”
I often know not how to participate lovingly in time with family. So much of it descends into staring despondently at what others watch on television in garish consumerist disdain or at least ignorant unconcern for my personal preferences. The emotional and psychological investment in biological tribalism that I witness in members of my extended family seems superficial to me given their unwillingness to aid me out of my economic nightmare. How can I continue to pay to visit people who throw money around as the system through which they profit tramples me underfoot? Perhaps we just need to center. “When we are on center,” writes M.C. Richards, “we experience reality in depth rather than in partition” (Centering, p. 53). Richards knows that centering is a difficult process. It’s easier to say one will love one’s enemies than to do it. “How are we to love,” she asks, “when we are stiff and numb and disinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open to the world at the quick? […]. Love, like its counterpart Death, is a yielding at the center…figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. […]. One gives up all one has for this. […]. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind” (54). The more I read of Richards’s work, the more I want to investigate the Gate Hill Cooperative, an experimental artists’ colony that was located in Stony Point, NY. Richards wrote Centering while living there from 1954 to 1964.