Paul Blackburn Analysis

Other literary forms

Paul Blackburn was an ambitious translator, not only of such modern Spanish-language writers as Federico García Lorca, Julio Cortázar, and Octavio Paz but also of the medieval troubadours, who had some influence on his own verse. Although his work in the Provençal poets was primarily finished by the late 1950’s, Blackburn continued to revise his translations for the rest of his life. The substantial manuscript was eventually edited by his friend, the scholar of medieval literature George Economou, and published posthumously as Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (1978).


Appreciated as a translator, Paul Blackburn limited his reputation as a poet during his lifetime by publishing only a small portion of his poetry and then in very limited editions. His position in literary history can be appreciated through the inevitable comparison with Frank O’Hara. Both poets were born and graduated from college in the same years; both were celebrators of the city, primarily New York, in verse that revealed their awareness of centuries of literary history at the same time that they were pursuing some of the more radical modernist innovations in poetic structure and idiom; and both bodies of work reveal warm, generous, witty sensibilities; unfortunately, both poets also died young. Blackburn and O’Hara were, in fact, simultaneously experimenting with the open-form poem, the poem that strives to convey the immediacy of life by presenting the poet’s situation, observations, and responses as directly and precisely as possible, according to the chronology of the events themselves as they happened, thus giving the illusion of both inclusiveness and inconclusiveness. The mediating consciousness that shapes and judges experience, that yields a crafted, discursive, linearly logical development of images progressing to a closure that both evolves from and unifies them, is seemingly denied. O’Hara’s affinities, however, are with the French: the post-Symbolists Pierre Reverdy and Guillaume Apollinaire, and the Surrealists. Consequently, his “lunch poems” retain a sense of a consciousness willing and directing, a gesture akin to that of the analogical subconscious managing the flow of his “automatic” texts. Blackburn, however, places the reader almost completely in reality, in the experience itself, perhaps because he is working within the more objectivist American tradition.

Blackburn readily acknowledged that Ezra Pound had the most influence on his work, along with William Carlos Williams, whom he first encountered through the poetry of Robert Creeley. Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” (1950) provided added incentive, as did the poetry of Louis Zukofsky. Blackburn worked in the modernist poetic technique pioneered by Pound and Williams, and E. E. Cummings and T. S. Eliot as well, and defined in 1945 by Joseph Frank in a seminal essay as “spatial form.” This technique complements a nondiscursive content by replacing the linear conventions of typographically recorded language, appropriate to discursive content, with a two-dimensional, spatially oriented presentation. The unconventional spacing of words or phrases can establish rhythm by indicating length of pause between verbal elements, and calculated rather than conventional line...

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Malkoff, Karl. Crowell’s Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. The entry on Blackburn lists him not only as a Black Mountain poet but also as a Projectivist, although like most Projectivists, his poetry is individualistic. Mentions his long sojourns abroad and discusses two of his works, The Cities and The Nets. Other than some insightful comments about Projectivist poetry—for example, that there is no real distinction between the inner and outer world—there is little noteworthy criticism here.

Marowski, Daniel G., and Roger Matuz, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 43. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. Lists Blackburn as a noted translator, scholar, and poet, whose poetry combines structural experimentation with colloquial forms. This combination creates a “visual, aural, and psychological reading experience.” Gathers together some fine reviews of Blackburn’s work, in particular critical commentary of his most widely acclaimed work, The Journals. Also notes that since the posthumous publication of The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn, his verse has attracted a wider audience and has undergone critical reevaluation.

Rosenthal, M. L. Review of The Cities. Poetry 114 (May, 1969): 129-130. Comments on Blackburn’s love of American lingo and his emphasis on the quality of movement, both of which lend his poems qualities of “humor and sensuality.” Appreciates Blackburn’s focus on the process of the poet’s involvement in the poem as a “disciplining subject of the poem, as well as its range in action.”

Stephens, Michael. “Common Speech and Complex Forms.” The Nation 223 (September 4, 1976): 189-190. Reviews The Cities, The Journals, and Halfway down the Coast, which he considers a suitable introduction to Blackburn. Notes that the possibility of death that Blackburn explores in Halfway becomes the reality of dying in The Journals. Commends Blackburn for his ability to appreciate “overheard cadences in common speech,” which he says is indicative of Blackburn’s love of people.