Max Nelson at The Point:
In 1973, the poet Robert Creeley edited a paperback anthology of Walt Whitman’s selected verse. Midway through the introduction to the book, Creeley suggested a respect in which Leaves of Grass had “a very contemporary bearing for American poets”:
It is, moreover, a marked characteristic of American poetry since Whitman, and certainly of the contemporary, to have no single source for its language in the sense that it does not depend upon a “poetic” or literary vocabulary. … An American may choose, as John Ashbery once did, to write a group of poems whose words come entirely from the diction of the Wall Street Journal, but it is his own necessity, not that put upon him by some rigidity of literary taste.
That the American poet was distinctly guided by “his own necessity” rather than by an accepted set of literary standards was a powerful idea for certain mid-century poets and writers. It had a particular hold over the poets based at Black Mountain College, the wildly eclectic North Carolina art school where Creeley sporadically lived and taught between 1954 and 1955. The school would close only two years after he left. Chronically under-enrolled, under-staffed and under-funded, it canceled its last surviving classes near the end of 1956. Its last few years, however, produced a particularly ambitious attempt to define what a specifically American poetry could be.
Creeley had grown up in Massachusetts, did a stint abroad in the American Field Service and took classes at Harvard, from which he never graduated. Beginning in 1950, he kept up a constant correspondence with Charles Olson, the fearsome, bullish poet sixteen years his senior who served as Black Mountain’s last rector and who finally lured Creeley to the school in 1954. (The letters the two poets exchanged between 1950 and 1952 fill ten volumes.) Olson was even more inclined than Creeley to make sweeping assertions about the American poet’s inheritance.