Paul Blackburn Essay - Critical Essays


Because Paul Blackburn is a poet of immediate observation and spontaneous response, his poetry thrives on particular places. His work, however, is not rooted in a specific geographical location that is transformed into a frame of mind, as is Frost’s New England, or that is elevated to a latter-day myth, as is Williams’s Paterson. Blackburn’s places are the environments in which he happens to be: a town plaza, a boat at sea, a wooded hill, a city street, a subway car, a tavern, a luncheonette, a kitchen, a bedroom. He would often generate a poem by immersing himself in his surroundings until man and place were one, the identification stirring in him a particular thought or emotion, a combination of his mood and the suggestion of that particular rush of outside activity. Although his thematic preoccupations and technical goals remain fairly uniform throughout the course of his work, he did tend to prefer certain themes and to express certain emotions through certain techniques when he was living in European cities, and others when he was living in New York. Perhaps because he could see sheep grazing in the town square in Málaga or burros passing through Bañalbufar, when Blackburn was living in Europe he often considered the relationship between humans and nature through such concepts as freedom, mutability, eternity, and religiosity; love is portrayed as sentiment. Perhaps because his mind was on the troubadours, living with his hands on their manuscripts near Provence, Blackburn’s European poetry tends to be meditative and pensive, the soundplay more melodious, the language more metaphorical. When he was living in New York, in the densely populated modern city, where concrete substituted for grass, Blackburn focused on interpersonal relations, including friendship, complicity, estrangement, and anonymity; love becomes erotic energy. In a city whose traffic rushes and whose subway rumbles and roars, Blackburn’s poetry becomes more immediate and involved, conversational and wtty; sound is orchestrated for dissonance; metaphor, if resorted to at all, is unexpected, shocking; but the occasional use of symbol is retained.

Early Selected y Mas

Blackburn is best read, then, chronologically, according to the place where he was living and writing. The dates given for the poems gathered in Early Selected y Mas, which includes the small, early books of limited circulation, makes such a reading possible for most of the first half of his work. In the poetry written or set in Europe between 1954 and 1958, Blackburn explores the existence of humans as creatures both fundamentally part of nature, with physicality and sensuousness, and separate through consciousness, will, and ephemerality.

In “A Permanence,” Blackburn uses the seven-star constellation the bear to present nature as an eternal force separate from humanity: The bear “is there/ even in the day, when we do not see him.” Nevertheless, humans cannot help responding to nature’s perpetually changing life, being natural themselves. The lovers in “The Hour,” for example, are “hungering” not only for food but also for the first sign of spring after a long winter: They sit “listening to the warm gnawing in their stomach/ the warm wind/ through the blossoms blowing.” These lines exemplify the rich grammatical ambiguity made possible by spatial form: The appetites for food and for seasonal renewal are associated not only by repetition of the adjective “warm” but also by the possibility that “wind” as well as “gnawing” can be the object of the preposition “to,” modifying “listening.”

Separation from and unity with nature are confronted simultaneously in “Light.” Initially, humanity and sea are only linguistically related through a simile; day moves inevitably into night, but an effort of the will is required for human action: “My thought drifts like the sea/ No grip between it and my act.” By the end of the poem, however, the dark, drifting sea complements and then merges with the poet’s gloomy mood. The assertion is metaphoric, but the poet’s mind and his perceptual experience have indeed become one: “The sea flashes up in the night/ to touch and darken my sea.”

“Mestrovi and the Trees”

From this contemplation of the relationship between humans and nature, a religious sense develops, as expressed in “Mestrovi and the Trees.” For Blackburn, a feeling for the divine is unavoidable: “You never get passed the wood” where “The beginnings of things are shown.” Religion for him is a matter of origins, and this poem is Blackburn’s own version of the cosmological argument. From humanity’s own existence, which cannot be denied—“Yes we are”—he moves back to origins—“Our mother and father,” and by implication, Adam and Eve—to their origin, in nature, through God: “So these trees stand there, our/ image, the god’s image.” The trees “stand there/ naked” just as humans enter the world, their unity with nature now binding them also to the divine. By using the lower case for God and preceding his name with the definite article, Blackburn indicates that his religion is natural rather than orthodox. Although Blackburn is certain of the existence of the divine, its nature remains an enigma.

“How to Get Through Reality”

This mystery, essential to Blackburn’s religious experience, is in itself sacred for him and not to be violated by forms and formulas that he considers to be ultimately human fabrications, at best mere approximations of the divine. In “How to Get Through Reality,” Blackburn insists on the separation, epistemological despite a metaphysical complicity, between the temporal and the divine, that is, “Those who work with us . . . who create us from our stone.” An impenetrable glass wall separates the two realms, and he celebrates the divine only in the most general of ways, aesthetically: “Our beauty under glass is your reality, unreachable/ sliding our gift to you.” The insistence on the unintelligibility of the divine is portrayed grammatically with a sentence that ends incompletely just at the point God is to be named: “Beauty is the daily renewal in the eyes of.” Feeling, the basis of his perception of beauty, provides his only sense of the divine: “One could kick the glass out, no?/ No./ Pass through.” Breaking the glass, transcending the temporal, for direct communication with and precise knowledge of the supernatural is impossible; only intimations, illuminations, can pass through the transparency of the glass. A similar warning is sounded in “Suspension,” where the poet’s vision of the moon is obscured by tree branches: “—Shall I climb up and get it down?/ —No. Leave it alone.”

“Ritual I”

As a consequence, Blackburn’s attitude toward orthodox religious forms—language, ceremony, observance—is ambivalent. “Ritual I” presents a religious “Procession,” as it moves “with candles” from the church through the various streets of the Spanish town to the chant of “Ave Maria.” Because the “fiesta” does not “celebrate,” but rather “reenacts” the “event,” “time emerges.” Blackburn is observing that the religious ritual is “a timeless gesture” because its origin cannot be traced or dated, because it has been perpetuated throughout the course of history, and because it creates anew the event each time it is performed. Through this persistence of religion, this infinite renewal, this timelessness, human time is made possible: The participants too are renewed along with the ritual. Blackburn continues, however, to enlarge the concept of ritual to encompass secular as well as religious life. Midway through the poem a “lady tourist/ . . . joined the procession”; she appeared an “anomaly”: “Instead of a rosary, carried/ a white pocketbook.” After this secular irregularity in the religious ceremony, Blackburn immediately introduces what appear to be irregularities of subject in a poem describing a sacred ritual: He tells the reader that he rises everyday “in the dawn light”; he eats “Meat every Thursday/ when the calf/ is killed”; he gets “Mail from the bus at 4:30/ fresh milk at 5.” What Blackburn is implying through these juxtapositions is that our everyday lives are composed of rituals that renew life on a daily basis, that make life itself possible. The “german anthropologist,” then, “her poor self at the end of the line,”...

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