Black Mountain Chamberlain: John Chamberlain’s Writings at Black Mountain College, 1955

Black Mountain Chamberlain: John Chamberlain’s Writings at Black Mountain College, 1955
Julie Sylvester, Editor

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2020
104 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-20448-2.

Reviewed by
Robert Maddox-Harle
August 2020

John Chamberlain is better known for his abstract expressionist sculptures, mostly made from discarded automobile parts, than for his poetry. However, while he was at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in the early 1950s he wrote experimental poetry, which was not known and never published. He gave these poems to Julie Sylvester in the mid 1980s, and they are published for the first time in original form in this book.

Sylvester is a curator and author, having curated the first exhibition in contemporary art at the State Hermitage Museum, Russia featuring Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, and Willem de Kooning. Her other recent efforts have been concerned with the exhibitions and writings about Cy Twombly.

This book is largish in format, very nicely produced, but smallish in content. I was a little disappointed when the book arrived as I expected not only Chamberlain’s original poems but perhaps a few scholarly essays discussing Chamberlain’s work, early influences and so on. There is one short piece of text, Blond Day, an introduction, which is compiled from interviews with Chamberlain by Sylvester in the early 1980s when he was living in New York City, and one colour photograph of Chamberlain and Sylvester at an airfield in Texas.

Chamberlain’s poems are reproduced as facsimiles in their original typescript form. I found this a wonderful way of presenting Chamberlain’s poetry as it gives an almost palpable feel to his work. It is easy to imagine him sitting at a clunky old typewriter pushing its capabilities to the limit with his highly original and experimental poems. The yellowed sheets of paper have his corrections and additions in handwriting beside the typed words. He used abbreviations regularly, some of which are ubiquitous today in texting and on the Internet such as yr (for your) @ and & symbols.

Most of the poems are of a fairly personal nature though many refer to such “new” (1951-52) phenomena as TV and supermarkets. Here below is one short poem, titled “supermarket” (p. 19) -he rarely used capital letters!

“in this stage of inertia

breaking their backs over

canned ham vacuum-packed

morons conscienciously [sic] put

pickles on a shelf.

shoving cans to the right

bottles to the left.”

In the Introduction Chamberlain explains the strong connection between his poems and his later work. He also mentions other poets at Black Mountain when he was there that were writing poetry, such as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. Chamberlain’s definition of art as explained to Sylvester was:

“Art is a particular madness where you are using a means of communication, which means are recognizable to other people, to say something that they hadn’t heard, or hadn’t perceived, or had repressed.” Then he added, “Curiously, it’s only recently that I’ve noticed that I’m still making sculptures in the way that I made the poems.” (Intro)

Chamberlain did not make many sculptures when he lived at Black Mountain College, but those he did were strongly influenced by American sculptor David Smith, in particular Smith’s piece Agricoal Nine at the Art Institute of Chicago. Interestingly Chamberlain did not see himself as a poet as such but was deeply influenced by the poets he interacted with at Black Mountain.

This book will appeal to art students and educators and be very useful to historians, and poets interested in modes of experimental poetry, especially those from the early years of “Beat” poetry.