R(ichard) P(almer) Blackmur 1904–1965
American critic, poet, and editor.
Despite his relatively small number of published works, Blackmur is regarded as an imaginative and influential critic and a significant contributor to the New Criticism movement.
In his critical writings, Blackmur consistently emphasized the importance of language: "[The] only kind of meaning poetry can have requires that all its words resume their full life: the full life being modified and made unique by the qualifications the words perform upon one another in the poem." Blackmur did not develop or follow a particular critical theory. Rather, he chose a distinctive approach to each work of literature by examining a writer's individual style and using an appropriate method of analysis. Blackmur's work is also characterized by his use of complex sentences and convoluted syntax.
His first book, The Double Agent, is a discussion of the merits and limitations of a number of distinguished poets, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. Language As Gesture, Blackmur's next work, is considered his finest collection of pure literary criticism because of its concentration on technique in poetry. This volume also points toward the social criticism Blackmur developed later in The Lion and the Honeycomb and in his essays on Henry Adams.
(See also CLC, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
In The Double Agent, R. P. Blackmur characterizes his method as primarily technical, and states, with a humility which is insistent, that this method "does not tell the whole story either. The reader is conscientiously left with the real work to do." This qualification is to be accepted only when we have clear in mind what that real work is. Blackmur uses his method upon many of the best contemporary writers of verse and the results are usually such that aspects of the text have been opened up, illuminated, and even augmented by the critic. But, this being said, one must also observe the serious abstraction, incompleteness, and omission involved in Blackmur's whole method. Such an attempt at correction is given point by the fact that Blackmur's method is spreading (one's hope is that this will continue), his method is likely to be a model for both poets and critics, and his criticism (without exaggeration and so far as one can judge of such matters at an early date) will surely be of lasting value. (p. 351)Specifically and primarily, the method can be described as that of taking hold of the words of the poem and asking two very important questions: (1) Do these words represent a genuine fact, condition, or feeling? (2) Does the combining of these words result in "an access of knowledge"? Knowledge in the full sense, one must add, for something must be made known "publicly," "objectively," in terms which any intelligent reader, with the proper effort, can grasp; as distinct from terms and language used "privately," "personally," "subjectively." Now of these two questions, it is the first that Blackmur emphasizes and the second which he often neglects. The discrete parts—sentences, phrases, single words (which are sometimes counted)—are the main object of his attention. The way in which they combine is sometimes an afterthought (though this is less so in the more recent essays). In the essay on Lawrence, Blackmur lists some of the formal resources which Lawrence did not use:
The ordering of words in component rhythms, the array of rhymes for prediction, contrast, transition, and suspense, the delay of ornament, the anticipation of an exactly situated dramatic trope, the development of image and observation to an inevitable end—the devices which make a poem cohere, move, and shine apart.
The significant thing to note is that Blackmur does not especially concentrate on these devices in his specific acts of criticism, nor does his scrutiny attend to the large forms of composition. The list,...
(The entire section is 19,314 words.)