Paul Blackburn Blackburn, Paul - Essay

Blackburn, Paul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blackburn, Paul 1926–1971

An American poet, translator, and editor, Blackburn was associated with the Black Mountain Poets of the 1950s. Like Cummings and Ferlinghetti, Blackburn experimented with typography and structure to produce in his poems a visual, aural, and psychological experience. He spent twenty years studying and translating the lyrics of the troubadours; his intense interest in the poetry of Provence is considered to be the single most important influence on his career. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Paul Blackburn produced a body of work that is admirable for its curiosity and attention to craft, but even more, remarkable for its almost total lack of Weltschmerz. Few contemporary poets have written as genially. The attitude is rare; in fact, it's almost confusing, we are so unused to it. Yet that is precisely how Blackburn approached his work—with a tone of ease and an ever-implicit faith in the good works of poetry. Blackburn is one of those poets who gives you to believe he can write about anything, and do a halfway creditable job of it, too. As a result we sometimes even mistrust him for a while, until we begin to catch sight of the poet in his poem, well armored with his hard-metal belief that poetry is the one thing that always remains. Then it's almost like going to see a Western—there's the marshal surrounded by an unshaven gang, but luckily he's got three extra pistols strapped to his leg. That faith in the apodictic quality of poetry is in its way as strong in Blackburn as it is in Valéry or Stevens. The problem, though, is that geniality is wildly unfashionable. The didactic, the expressionistic, the suburban pastoral, even the lamely funny—fine. But the sort of poetry that is often just as satisfied to leave the indelible to its images rather than its imaginer: well…. Consequently, Blackburn's work has always been handled hesitantly, either grossly underrated or slathered with sentimental over-appreciation. (p. 73)

Blackburn wrote poems that never disguised a strong affection for and belief in the kind of language and demeanor found in the work of Zukofsky, Pound, and Williams…. Neither hyperbolic nor squirrely, his poems have a smoother, better yet, a rounder surface than what we're accustomed to. Grab hold to them the wrong way, and down you slide or off you roll. Both admirer and scoffer, embarrassed at finding themselves on the ground, grab out to take the poems with them. (p. 74)

As an abstractionist Blackburn may fail—his is a portraitist's eye for the discrete, the individual; elision doesn't come easy to him—but as a particularizer …, there have been few better. The connection is hard and durable: one thing and one poet. Blackburn never evades it; he is always ready, if not lustful, for the world. (p. 86)

Ross Feld, "It May Even All Be Alright," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1974, pp. 73-86.

It seems reasonable to assume that this is the way [Blackburn's] work would have continued to go had he lived, so forcefully and serenely does he move, in [The Journals], into his statement. It is at once a triumph of voice and a triumph over it, a total mastery of his endless and variegated materials in a form that allowed him complete flexibility. I think the word "journals" is a small joke that Blackburn played on his readers, a joke almost like the smile he sometimes allowed himself when he read a poem whose bittersweetness flowered into ambiguity. They are journals only in that they purport to follow the events of the last four years of the poet's life, but the selection of the important elements out of the sea of experience and feelings that must have been his as he moved toward his death is rigorously formal and burgeons into poems that work as a shorthand of the emotions.

It was always easy to think of Blackburn's poems as instantaneous registrations of his contact with the phenomena of the world in which he moved, of "what happened" to him. I remember my shock some fifteen years ago when I realized that his most casual poem, his most "spoken" lines were composed in a language that had as much to do with his conversation as a perfectly made cabinet has to do with raw lumber. God knows, I don't mean to imply that people went about thinking that Blackburn wrote his poems in a kind of dazed passion of white-hot "inspiration." But there was a subtle and unspoken sense among many of his contemporaries that he relied a good deal on his fingertips in the composition of these marvels of seeming insouciance. Certainly, I thought this for some time, until I suddenly saw into the poems, saw the purity of his formal intention. (Now, it seems spectacularly perverse that one could have ever thought that any of his poems were thrown onto the page.) In The Journals, this purity is refined, quintessential. It is, quite simply, a handbook of invented form perfected, a book of exclusion. (pp. 57, 59)

That the poems seem, often, the thought of a moment, a brilliant or witty or dark response to still-smoking news, is the result of his carefully invented and released voice, a voice that we hear singing, virtuoso, in The Journals. It is characteristic of the man that he never explained any of this, never said that this man that you hear in the poems, this subtly shifting voice, is not Paul Blackburn. It is what he decided Paul Blackburn would be in his song….

Certainly, if we wish to read into Blackburn's poems the private concerns of his life, we may, even though we will not find them there except in so far as they exist transformed; in brief, we will not find that famous truth that facts supposedly proffer. Blackburn's truth is more elusive and difficult to come at—it is the truth of the lyric poem that slips away as we press it to stand still and answer, answer. This exquisite ordering of the common materials of the poet's life is the architecture by means of which he not only deployed them in balanced design within the poem, but by means of which he changed them into instances of artifact. His poems are as artificial as those of his beloved troubadours. (p. 59)

At that moment, in his poems, when we think we will, finally, be allowed to see the poet, he magically fades away into his voice, a protean voice so perfectly under control that we think it is telling us something true. This book is the work of a man who had come to a perfect sense of his own powers. He has done what all poets who have tried to remain faithful to the lyric must envy. His ego has been disguised, not revealed, by his voice, it has been subsumed. To come to this expertise within a poetic structure that we may call, for want of a better word, closed, is an enormous achievement. To arrive at this position in the poem as "journal," the open poem, is mastery.

At one with this subtlety of tonal modulation is the curious reticence of these poems—and of all Blackburn's poems. It is a reticence built not on a sense of shame or secrecy, or on pride in one's knowledge or perception, but on modesty. Even in lines that might otherwise function to make a reader squirm with embarrassment (as do so many of the gross statements in those poems heralded as self-confronting), Blackburn holds something back; he reins in the voice and makes it step with a true delicacy. In such a mode, it is worth our attention to see how the poet handles sexual and scatological themes and language. They become as fine-spun and sweet as the music of Campion. (pp. 60-1)

In The Journals, the concerns of this world are at the same time overwhelming and picayune. They are remarked on with dignity and dryness by a voice that speaks from a strange place between this sad earth and hell. (p. 62)

[In mentioning his vast] range I don't mean his array of subject matter—that was most carefully limited so that his mastered voice could exploit it to its limits—love, friends, travel, and place. I mean the way the poems, over his entire career, return again and again to these things and each time extend their possibilities in terms of Blackburn's deepening understanding of them. And as his understanding deepened, so did the metamorphoses of his expression become more refined and given over to sudden shifts within poems—even within stanzas. Upon a mere handful of objects, if you will, he rang ceaseless and endless changes. It is a triumph of "the quality of the affection."…

If the ever-fluctuating and precisely tuned voice that occurs within his poems is always just right, exact as to the rhythms that occur in the aimless street- and bar-talk of the workaday world, it is because the poet who constructed this voice out of those many voices knew, from living there, what they sounded like. The more he seems like "anybody at all" in his poems, the more is he the poet. He wore his learning lightly and there are dozens and dozens of poems available to readers of differing sophistication, levels that swim into cognition according to what is brought to bear on the work. (p. 64)

Blackburn learned, through the writing of literally hundreds of poems, and from his study of the troubadours, that the "I" of the poem is as much artifice as the poem it speaks—and yet it can locate itself with such immediacy that it looks like the vehicle for common speech, laden with information from the horse's mouth…. [In] The Journals we enter a territory of virtuosity, a blend of attitudes, voices, ironies, all existent as a filigree that can hardly be seen for the overt brusqueness of the basic tone. (p. 65)

His poetic learning was deep and interiorly held and in this book we can watch it at work—changed, flattened, disguised, but worked into the dense fabric of these poems in recollections of gone speech, points of rhyme and half-rhyme, formal notations on weather and landscape…. Nothing melodic or prosodic was alien to Blackburn, and when he seems most colloquial and chatty, it is often right there that we may find, buried in the perfectly broken rhythms of his voice, the skeleton of a loved and austerely bounded form. (p. 66)

What is there, finally, to say? Even lacking a satisfactory collection of his later poems, and with the enormous collection of his troubadour translations as yet unpublished, we can see that Blackburn was one of our most brilliant poets. That he had come to his maturity is obvious from The Journals. The neglect that was his during his life will, I trust, be remedied before too long, although I take no bets on it. In all events, to anyone who cares for the life of the poem in this latter half of the twentieth century, Blackburn must stand as a greatly gifted artist who has left us a body of work that is formal, intelligent, and beautiful. (pp. 66-7)

Gilbert Sorrentino, "Singing, Virtuoso," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 57-67.

Blackburn was among the most gifted proponents of what might be called the Pound-Williams line in American poetry, as mediated by Charles Olson in his theories of "Projective" (Kelly prefers to call it "Open") verse. Blackburn's version of the style features—besides such familiar surface mannerisms as a mixing of high and low vernaculars, eccentric punctuation and clumping of words about the page—a kind of easy lope through all sorts of sense impressions, stray thoughts, bits of booklearning, bursts of emotion.

He seems at times to want to turn everything into poetry…. Blackburn's gift was pre-eminently intimate and laconic, at its flavorful best in shorter poems and when engaged by "homely" subject matter; he is splendid (no other word for it) in the bathroom, and his many New York City poems invest the urban boneyard with a pungent, breathing warmth. He is also unfailingly songful, and often richly humorous.

Finally, Blackburn was that type of poet for whom poetry is a sort of cottage industry, pursued with an artisan's solitary zeal in the face of the world's indifference. His reputation and influence, special while he lived, seem bound to grow. (p. 69)

Peter Schjeldahl, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 1, 1977.

The Journals is an ambitious undertaking. The collection begins in the late spring of 1967 and continues to within a few weeks of the poet's death. Simply as a narrative of his last years, many of these poems resonate hauntingly of his encroaching fate. And at least a dozen of these poems will rank, I'm sure, among his finest works. Several of the best come early in the collection, during Blackburn's last sustained visit to Europe. (p. 55)

Many of the best of these long, inclusive journal poems demonstrate what the poet calls "the net of place." "Plaza Real With Palm Trees: second take," for example, shows his mature method. In this poem the poet is back in Barcelona after a ten-year absence (see "Plaza Real With Palm Trees" in The Cities). The poem gathers in a whole series of apparently unrelated impressions…. All this does not come in any logical progression, it doesn't build to any "momentary stay against confusion," but, somehow (by magic, by music), all of it seems right, everything feels in its place, we are left with a sense of life's poignant passing completeness. (pp. 55-6)

"The Touch" shows the tragic power Blackburn could summon from his easy conversational rhythms, his understated transitions, his accurate eye and empathetic voice. The poem ranks with "The Purse-Sein," "Affinities II," and a dozen other major works. Among the impressive successes of The Journals I would mention "Birds/Amsterdam," "Gin," "The Net of Place," "Ritual XVII," "Journal · August 1968," "Hibernation," and "Journal: June 1971." Most of these poems are a long goodbye to the people and places the poet loved. The final part, the pain increasing and the sustained poem no longer possible, shows the poet holding to his own voice, his credo ("Let each man's words be his own"), to the end…. (pp. 56-7)

The Journals should bring Blackburn's poems some of the attention and recognition they deserve. These long poems are direct descendants of Whitman's catalogues, which called attention to all those things American poets hadn't yet figured out how to write about, especially the multiplicity of urban life. Williams took it from there, finding images to fit the measure, and Blackburn takes Williams further, adding something of Pound's sound, Creeley's control, and Olson's scope. Obviously, this kind of poetry is often risky, and probably a majority of the poems don't quite come off, the fragments don't cohere ("Why record this?"), the music doesn't make it through, the images don't earn their attention. It is all too easy to open a book of his poems at random, read a few of his weaker poems, and assume that this is another indulgent today-I-went-to-the-store poet…. He is one of the finest poets of his generation. Something his friends knew all along. (p. 57)

William Heath, in Open Places (copyright 1977 Open Places), Spring/Summer, 1977.