The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn
Paul Blackburn’s career as poet can best be understood as a challenge to the cultural predominance of the lyric poem. For Blackburn, the lyric form imprisoned the imagination of the poet by its rigidity, its inability to take the measure of anything other than snatches of the flux. It is a problem that has haunted many another poet, but it has seemed particularly acute to those schooled in the aesthetics of Ezra Pound, as Blackburn was. By the end of his short life (he died in 1971 at the age of forty-four), he had given up the lyric altogether, resorting instead to “journals,” daily amalgams of description, meditation, and narration written in the style of so-called “projective verse”—that style that imagines the page as a “field” on which the indentation and spacing of lines, freed of the tyranny of orthodox stanzaic form, aspire to the control of a musical score.
Blackburn’s interrogation of the lyric form began literally with Pound. Puzzled by certain references to troubadour poetry in the Cantos, Blackburn wrote to Pound, who—ever the pedagogical spirit—directed Blackburn to the troubadours themselves. It was the beginning of a lifelong affiliation that eventuated in formal study at the University of Wisconsin, trips to the Continent, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a set of masterful translations (published in 1978 as Proensa by the University of California Press). About what captured a life’s worth of attention one may only speculate. Two speculations, though, have particular relevance to Blackburn’s own poems. First, there is the unnervingly fresh and direct voice that the troubadour poets had in common. Their manner of direct speaking belies the fact that the poems are highly allusive and rhetorical. By the time Blackburn took up the study, the reigning canon of American poetry, enforced by the New Criticism, struck many poets as too dependent on rhetorical means, too lacking in straightforward effects. It was time for a reexamination, if not for rebellion. The other characteristic of troubadour poetry was its allegiance, often accompanied by severe degrees of formal restraint, to the supremacy of the lyric form. It was here, one surmises, that Blackburn found a bone to pick.
As literary critics have not demurred from demonstrating, poets’ quarrels with tradition possess a strong Oedipal component. The son must overcome the father in order to make a place for himself. Nevertheless, the father—he who has already created the poetry—will not go willingly away. The son, then, must reinterpret the father’s role in such a way as to present himself with opportunities to “revise” the erring father and tame him by causing him to be seen through the corrective lens of the son. So much for originality. Yet even a poet as apparently “experimental” as Blackburn fashioned an oeuvre which is in fact a dialogue with the means and methods of his legendary forebears. How much of this dialogue proves significant will not be seen for some time, as the returns are not yet in concerning which of the competing schools of literature, “paleface” or “Indian,” has the longer shelf life.
What is clear is that Blackburn was predisposed by birthright to live the life of a literary Bohemian. His mother, Francis Frost (no relation to Robert), was herself a poet, her first book selected for the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1929. Her muse thus validated, Francis decided to leave St. Albans, Vermont, for brighter lights, eventually settling in New York, divorcing her husband, William Blackburn, and leaving Paul and his younger sister, Jean, to the Puritanical care of her elderly parents. Ten years later, Francis summoned Paul to New York, where he got his first glimpse of the less commendable side of literary life: drinking, poverty, and the specter of careers that had failed to fulfill their original promise. Nevertheless, his mother encouraged him to write and supplied him with a large variety of...
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