Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Black Mountain College

I have just finished reading Martin Duberman's Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, a history of Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina that ran from the 1930s to the 1950s. 

Charles Olson, who was a significant force during Black Mountain's last years, said something that warrants notice here: "good expression is not a quality of language but of the experience that initiates it....Banality is a lack of profound emotion before the object. The problem is how to restore yourself into a state of clean experience, how to open the latch unto the outside world which makes feeling and involvement possible" (qtd. in Duberman 398).

I often tell my students to avoid verbal cliches (a kind of banality), but quite possibly the problem lies not in the language but in the writer's attitude towards the event being described (whether a fictional event or a historical event). The act that leads to the "opening the latch" doesn't have to be extreme, I don't think: for some people freewriting or meditation may be enough. Physical isolation in a cash-poor college among productive artists--what the Black Mountain College offered in later years especially--may be what people need. Cliches may be a sign of some writers' inability or unwillingness to figure out their actual emotional or intellectual responses to characters and events. ISuch writers have shallow responses to their own writing and represent those responses in shallow terms (namely, what other people--nonwriters--tend to say about such experiences).

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