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 love when neighborhood cats approach me on the sidewalk and show me love, rub against me. I tap trees, I observe grass. And when teaching, I perform a narrative to help students test — in the classroom, in lived practice — the prescriptions of the texts that serve as our objects of study. “What would it mean to live out, here and now,” I ask them, “the utopian teachings of our authors?” The classroom as “safe space,” the classroom as “floating zendo.” Wish well all things. Intuit a way toward collective emancipation and equality — Person and Nature balanced and centered. Through discussion and interpretation, we arrive at a shared, contemplative way of being. Hippie modernist literature guides readers toward precisely this end: “seeing the systems we live by,” and then centering. Beginning with self-study so as to set things right in the fullness of each of our collective spheres of influence. By studying this literature, we bring a child’s innocence and trust and enthusiasm. We birth a child: a new person, a new society! In so doing, we “lay the ground,” as M.C. Richards says, “for the ordeals of self-examination and transformation that lie ahead” (Centering, p. 124).
M.C. Richards writes of her debt to certain techniques and strategies of high and late modernism toward the end of Centering. (It’s perhaps more than a mere coincidence, I think to myself as I write this, that Jimi Hendrix’s song “Voodoo Child” shares initials with the US military’s enemy at the time the song was released in October 1968, the Viet Cong.) “I have lived my life close to certain impulses in contemporary art,” writes Richards. “The music of the single sound, the composition of silence, and proliferating galaxies. The poetics of Western Imagism — ‘no ideas but in things.’ Garbage art: sculpture out of mashed automobiles; paintings out of old Coke bottles, soiled shirts, window blinds, coat hangers; paintings made out of dirt meant to look like dirt, to consecrate the dirt; an art which consecrates the discard. Cellar doors, walls, sidewalks, street surfaces: as well as all the minutiae of nature. A choreography of making breakfast. Summoning attention, drawing the gaze in, into. And into the wonder comes a kind of high mirth. A release of joy in the form” (Centering, p. 144). Writing becomes for Richards a transcription of her thoughts as she attends to the conditions by which she thinks.
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 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.
With college basketball coverage silenced temporarily on my in-laws’ massive television, I settle in and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. Gonzo the Great stars as the work’s author Charles Dickens. Christmas is a time of gift-exchange, the film reminds us. It ought to be a time of global Jubilee. In Leviticus, Jubilee is a time when slaves and prisoners are freed and debts are forgiven. But darkness is cheap, and the Scrooges of the world like it. Time for their minds to encounter chain-rattling dancing Marleys. Come, all ye Scrooges — there is much to see. I’m often deeply divided in my resolve regarding education and discipline. How does one make time for these meditations while parenting? It’s a matter to which mind is applied, I suppose, a gift of attention. Do it: wash some cookie trays and settle atop a bed in a pile of pillows and read hippie modernist poet and potter Mary Caroline Richards’s Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964), a book Richards published more than a decade after her departure from Black Mountain College. Through this book, Richards instructs us in how to materialize “as force in the world the unifying energy of our perceptions” (3). Discipline is something the book struggles “with, toward” (5). This is what allows it to express and convey a “whole person” — or as Richards translates, “mankind as many-membered being” (5). Richards asks us to contemplate a moral question: “How do we perform the CRAFT of life? How do we love our enemies?” (5-6). This craft requires discipline — though not a kind involving toughness, not a “tough love,” in the words of conservatives, so much as a “firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts” (9). I look forward to sharing Richards’s book in my course this spring and discussing her ideas with others.