R. P. Blackmur Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blackmur, R(ichard) P(almer) (Vol. 2)

Blackmur, R(ichard) P(almer) 1904–1965

American poet and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

The most successful of R. P. Blackmur's early poems were modeled on those of Yeats. Their style was at once too open and too objective for the material and temperament of the poet—and such an inheritance has to be worked out, not simply appropriated, if it is ever to be your own. Many of Mr. Blackmur's later poems were written as the man in the story played the violin, by main force; they seemed interesting as an awkward, tortured, and honest diary, but surprisingly unsuccessful as works of art. One felt that they were mired both in their raw material and—more especially—in the raw act of writing, of making: they had too little spontaneity, grace, or autonomy to give delight. But two or three of the poems in this last book, The Good European, are successful, and most of them are interesting…. These are poems of the most extreme situations possible, of a constricted, turned-in-upon-itself, contorted, almost tetanic agony: the poet not only works against the grain of things, but the grain is all knots….

Mr. Blackmur's poems are troubling, difficult, and serious poems; one needs a good deal of time to get used to them—and they are printed, quite elaborately, in an extraordinary type that one has almost to learn to read. Readers are most likely to be repelled by their stubborn awkwardness; their crudities, their sometimes barbarous word-twisting; their nightmarish unpleasantness; their echoes. But one could defend them by saying that the awkwardness is that persisted-in folly which becomes wisdom; that the crudities ruin some poems and flaw others, but in the two or three best poems disappear or are incidental; that the nightmarishness is also that of our world; and that the echoes are either inconsequential … or else the consequence of using Hopkins as a source pretty much as the metaphysicals used Donne….

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 151-53.

It seems to me that Blackmur was always at his best and most rewarding when he felt it necessary to attach his ideas to some real, geographical places … or to anchor himself to a text. When he is invited, by something like Arnold Toynbee's "A Study of History," to go on a balloon ascension, he rises into his own stratosphere of ellipsis, abstraction, and impossible style. I have a feeling that Blackmur has already been relegated, by students and younger readers of criticism, to a past generation—too many of them have been put off by such flights. It is unfortunate; the best of Blackmur's criticism is both brilliant and lucid. This volume could have done better service to his memory if the essays that are largely abstractions about abstractions had been kept out and assigned to a book of Blackmur supra-criticism. But Blackmur, the eccentric thinking man on tour, is well worth meeting….

Robie Macauley, "The Critic as Pundit," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 12, 1967.

Blackmur had no sympathy for criticism as dissection, "the discovery of difficulties and their exegesis or explication for its own sake." The movement toward analysis and intrinsic touchstones was "professional or trade criticism," and he was impatient with any approach that he saw as purely descriptive, such as sociological or psychological modes.

Geoffrey Wagner, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 3, 1967, p. 628.

Blackmur's ideals have an enormous relevance today, as our culture continually becomes more multifarious; for he suggests that audiences, as well as critics, should be not monoliterate, which is to say specialists in only one field, but polyliterate, familiar with the "vocabularies" and traditions of several fields.

Richard Kostelanetz, "A Critic Looks Back," in The Reporter (© 1967 by The Reporter Magazine Co.), June 1, 1967, pp. 50-1.

All of Blackmur's work can be viewed as an effort to grasp the rich variety of experience as it bends and surges either toward form (thought) or toward pure behavior (actuality). To discover the "deep, underlying form" in behavior is the task of literature, specifically of fiction, and most specifically in the master nineteenth-century novelists, of whom James was Blackmur's spiritual mentor…. [Blackmur] is a lively abacus of all our critical and imaginative skills. What quickens the pulse of Blackmur's work is a scepticism learnt from Montaigne, what Blackmur called "having a marginal mind for the play and interest of it," which holds to a sense of radical imperfection in both imagination and intellect.

Edward W. Said, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1967 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1967, p. 631.

If most readers judge Blackmur's later work harshly, it is partly because he himself established so high a critical standard. Though the essays that he wrote in the 30's on the modern poets have begun to lose some of their force in the present climate of taste, they still constitute one of the notable critical projects of the century: a frontal assault on an elusive, demanding, and arrogantly new body of literature, an adventure not only in exegesis but in evaluation. Today poetry is changing in exciting ways, but Blackmur's individual essays on Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Stevens, and Hart Crane still have more to tell us than most book-length studies of these poets….

In Blackmur … meaning is everything, but meaning vitiated by the paucity of fact, the weak grasp upon the actual. His method is poetic rather than discursive: he turns objects into emblems and recurrent images, slight narratives into allegory, and elusive phrases into choruses and leitmotives. Strange juxtapositions lead to gnomic observations and conclusions, a wisdom that often seems arbitrary and self-reflexive.

The Jamesian obliqueness of these essays [in A Primer of Ignorance] is very much a part of Blackmur's design. He listens for the timbre of a culture and watches its small, revealing gestures, seeking to put himself in touch with that culture's momentum and energy rather than to be taken in by its ideas about itself….

Blackmur remains what he calls a "bourgeois humanist," but only by redefining bourgeois humanism into the broad and subversive doctrine it may once have been: "the treasure of residual reason in live relation to the madness of the senses." He is, as he says of Mann's heroes, a bourgeois humanist tainted by art, and this double perspective enables him to give so inward and yet so ambivalent an account of modern literature. We have here no academic embalming, but a testimony from within, the culmination of a lifetime of practice and contemplation and struggle. Blackmur grew up with these books, and he deserves to be heard….

[He] comes to us as a voice from an old-fashioned literary culture, demanding of both our art and our conduct the exercise of humane intelligence.

Morris Dickstein, "The Newer Criticism" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1968 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, January, 1968, pp. 80-6.

[Blackmur's] A Primer [of Ignorance], in effect, amounts to a kind of intellectual autobiography which recalls Adams's Education in its concern to enquire into the meaning of American culture and to assess its promise for the future. Both writers blend their wide interests—literature, the fine arts, philosophy, religion, politics—into a complex but unified mode of interpretation, and both show the scars of their encounters with the problems of their times. Even the title of Blackmur's book reiterates the insistence throughout the Education on the author's ignorance and thus creates the same ironic effect.

Ernest Sandeen, in Poetry (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1968.

One should recognize Blackmur's concern for the unity of "poetry and religion" which "rise through us from a deeper and earlier source than any theology or any church—any prosody or any rule of genre."… Though Blackmur had dismissed Matthew Arnold's hope for the substitution of poetry for religion and saw the fallacy of [I. A.] Richards' idea that poetic therapy could replace religion, Blackmur, possibly as early as 1949, accepted the view that the poet discovers or creates religion as an aesthetic experience: "The poet has to put his religion itself into his poetry along with his experience of it."… He felt the attraction of the Latin and Roman Catholic tradition—though always from the distance of a "northerner"—and "the everlasting and vital predicament" of the human condition which, he thinks, is in our time mainly acknowledged in works of art: in Dostoyevsky, in Mann, and in Joyce in particular. Still Blackmur's own position did not go beyond such an acknowledgement. He remained, while conscious of the Christian tradition and its historical role, outside the Church or any church. At least in his printed writings there is no evidence for Blackmur's "prophecy."…

One must not take Blackmur literally, but he said that "Felix Krull is in effect a marvelous and heightened version of my own autobiography."… He seemed, however ironically, to have recognized the streak of the imposter or Confidence Man in himself. But this streak should not make us forget or undervalue the criticism, particularly of his early and middle years. It is even then permeated by a sense of its ultimate failure. Failure and a final mystery, or simply opacity, is the special attraction which men like Henry Adams and T. E. Lawrence held for Blackmur, and failure, or rather an insight into human insufficiency and into the ultimate obscurity of life, death, and art seems also his last word. He found only an "irregular metaphysics," "the great grasp of unreason"—titles of two chapters of his lectures on the literature of the twenties—in modern literature. He seems to have shared them himself.

René Wellek, "R. P. Blackmur Re-Examined," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 825-45.