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Edith Jarolim

In his later poems, Blackburn came to wear his learning lightly;

in his generally short early lyrics, his erudition is still on display. (Pound’s example

was not likely to have discouraged him in that regard.) The young man who wrote the lovely

"Cantar de Noit" and satirical "For Mercury, Patron of Thieves: A

Laurel" had clearly done his homework in Proven?al and Greek poetics. But he was

also taking lessons from such American masters as William Carlos Williams–and he was a

natural when it came to picking up the rhythms of New York City streets:

Th’ holdup at the liquor-store, d’ja hear?

a detective

watch’t ‘m for ten minutes

He took it

anyway

Got away

down Broadway

Yeah?

Yeah.

("The Continuity")

The way the poem had already begun to look on the page, a visual representation or

"scoring" of the oral rendition of the poem, showed the influence too of another

American poet, Charles Olson. On Pound’s suggestion in 1951, Blackburn had written to a

"chicken farmer in New Hampshire," Robert Creeley; Creeley in turn introduced

him to the ideas and poetry of Olson. Although Blackburn always disliked putting poets

into categories, and although he never set foot on the campus of Black Mountain College,

he has come to be associated with Olson and the other writers who studied or taught at the

experimental North Carolina school. If rather superficial, the "Black Mountain

poet" label is not entirely misleading: Blackburn was New York distributor for the Black

Mountain Review, the literary magazine established in 1953 to raise money for the

floundering institution, and contributing editor to one of its issues. More to the point,

of all those associated with the Black Mountain aesthetic, he was arguably the most

skilled practitioner of the punctuation, line breaks, and text alignments that define the

poetics of "composition by field," as outlined in Olson’s 1951 "Projective

Verse" essay.

In 1954, newly married and newly appointed Fulbright Teaching Fellow, Blackburn went

off to Europe to study the language and literature of the troubadours. He never lost his

interest in either, but he heartily hated Toulouse, the wet and provincial center of

modern Provence (see his poem "Sirventes" against the city). During the two

years he was assigned to teach in Toulouse, he escaped frequently to Spain, eventually

settling there for a year. He loved that country’s speech, which he heard on the streets

and read in Lorca’s poetry, the slow rhythms and living traditions of Mediterranean

culture, and the nonsacredotal but anchoring rituals of everyday life:

You shall not always sit in sunlight watching

weeds grow out of drainpipes

or burros and shadows of burros

come up the street bring sand

the first one of the line with a

bell

Always.

With a bell.

("Suerte")

He was right about the limits of his European idyll. When he came back to New York in

Fall 1957, ostensibly just to recoup finances, things rapidly fell apart: his marriage

broke up, he couldn’t find a job, and his mother died of cancer. But hiding out in

Brooklyn from his ex-wife and commuting into Manhattan, he began writing the series of

subway poems for which he is probably best known, including "Brooklyn

Narcissus," "Clickety-Clack," and "Meditation on the BMT." And

soon enough he found new loves, new rituals, and a new population for his street

observations–the men crowded around the radio listening to the ball game, the secretary

dreaming out the window of her office. Truly an urban representative, Blackburn could

deftly enlarge the pain of his own situations to encompass wider political contexts, for

example, the impingement of impersonal institutions on the individual’s life:

After your voice’s frozen anger

emptied the air between us, the

silence of electrical connections

the vacant window pale, the

connection broken: :

("AT&T Has My Dime")

By the mid-1960s his politics were more explicit in poems that criticized the U.S.

presence in Vietnam ("Foreign Policy Commitments") or looked irreverently at the

space program ("Newsclips 2."). But most of Blackburn’s energies were devoted to

his very nonpolitical activities on the poetry scene in New York. He returned in the late

1950s to find a burgeoning bard nouveau movement in town: poetry readings, sometimes to

jazz accompaniment, were springing up in coffeehouses all over the city. He took part in

some of these early mixed media programs and was instrumental in organizing two important

Lower East Side reading series, at the Deux Megots Coffeehouse and later at Le Metro Cafe.

It was Blackburn’s idea in 1966 to move the readings at Le Metro to St.

Mark’s-Church-in-the-Bowery, where the Poetry Project still flourishes today.

It may be at the cost of his own fame that he devoted himself to spreading the word and

encouraging the work of so many poets: translator of Julio Cort?zar, Lorca, and the

troubadours, among others, he also faithfully tape-recorded local poets at an astonishing

number of readings, and gave countless fledgling writers aesthetic and practical advice.

There are those who felt he spread himself too thin, dissipating his energies on writers

unworthy of attention. Perhaps. But these activities very movingly attest to Blackburn’s

remarkable commitment to the ideal of a democratic community of poets.

And, for at least part of the decade anyway, Blackburn seemed to have energy to spare:

he was at the height of his powers in the early to mid-1960s, producing, in addition to

his political poems, such masterful mythic pieces as "The Watchers" and "At

the Well." By mid-decade, however, the ambivalence about love, always a presence in

the poems, became stronger, and the alert observing persona seems more a lonely voyeur,

often sitting with other men in a bar and talking about the futility of love, or maybe not

talking at all:

It is March 9th, 3:30 in the afternoon

The loudest sound in this public room

is the exhaust fan in the east window

or the cat at my back

asleep there in the sun

bleached tabletop,

golden

shimmer of ale .

("The Island")

In September 1967, his second marriage having broken up a few months earlier, a

distraught and seemingly disconsolate Blackburn boarded the S. S. Aurelia for

Europe. "The Glorious Morning," the account of the ensuing shipboard romance

with his third-wife-to-be, marked Blackburn’s first foray into the more loosely

constructed, freewheeling records of daily life he came to call "journals."

Although they were selective records, and his by-then ingrained sense of poetic form

always kept them under aesthetic control, he distinguished them from the "poems"

he continued to write during this period. He never felt entirely confident about the form,

but it allowed him the space and latitude to write such long, cumulatively powerful pieces

as "From the November Journals: Fire," as well as the freedom for such quick

takes as "Along the San Andreas Fault."

A new, more flexible poetic style, a settled relationship, a first child, and a

teaching job at the State University at Cortland, in northern New York–life seemed good

in 1970, the year Blackburn learned that he had inoperable cancer of the esophagous. Up

until a month before he died, on September 13, 1971, he continued to record, without

self-pity and without denial, his honest reactions to the news: memories triggered of his

body when he was 15 years old, of places he loved, and, characteristically, of poets and

poetry and poems.

Excerpted from the introduction to The Selected Poems of Paul Blackburn. New

York: Persea Books.

M. L. Rosenthal

Forward to Selected Poems

Welcome to Paul Blackburn’s selected poems. Don’t stop to prepare

yourself in any way. just come right in and you’ll be with him at once on some New York or

Barcelona street, it may be, or in McSorley’s tavern near the Bowery, or overlooking the

sea in M?laga, or in some shared or lonely bedroom, or wherever. As for what comes next,

the poem will draw you further into itself: i.e., toward whatever musings have been set

ticking right there in the middle of things:

It’s going to rain

Across the avenue a crane

whose name is

CIVETTA LINK-BELT

dips, rises and turns in a

graceless geometry

But grace is slowness / as

ecstasy is some kind of speed or madness /

The crane moves slowly, that

much is graceful / The men

watch and the leaves

Thus begins the poem called "The Watchers." Natural, confiding speech

conspires easily with the simple opening rhyme–genially inviting, like a friend’s quick

summons to look at something interesting that’s happening on the street. And before we

know it, the huge machine with the felinely technical trade-name is almost personified, as

if it were a dancer or a bird. (The phrasing recalls the seagull whose wings "dip and

pivot him" in Hart Crane’s "To Brooklyn Bridge.") Now the musings take

over: thoughts about the crane’s "graceless geometry" and, contrariwise, about

the meaning of "grace" and–in an immensely suggestive associative leap

(esthetic, psychological, sexual)—of "ecstasy." Then the poem returns to

the literal scene, which has become charged with these resonances.

This is how Blackburn’s art works: lightly, broodingly, absorbingly. The opening

couplet of "The Watchers" takes us unawares. It is plain, casual. Its rhythm is

off-center, with two stresses in the first line but three in the second; also, the second

line creates a slight jolt, for it unexpectedly introduces a new sentence. These tiny

imbalances quietly prepare the poem for its shifts soon afterward to more richly complex

diction and rhythms. The ear at work here is remarkably attuned to both sophisticated and

ordinary speech. Of all the successors to Pound and Williams, Blackburn comes closest to

their ability to mix the colloquial and formal, and to their instinct for melodic

patterning and for volatile improvisational immediacy:

Flick of perfume, slight and faintly bitter

on my wrist, where her hand had rested

("Remains of an Afternoon")

But one need only open this selection at random, to find more such lines. The pleasure

and turmoil of life and awareness, depths of sun-warmed tranquility but also of

depression, degrees of passion both sensual and exalted–all these are the stuff of

Blackburn’s uninhibited expression. He was the poet of New York, city of poets, as it is

today, and at the same time a student of the troubadours. His idiom ranges from gross

street talk to whatever the lyric tradition can offer a writer whose mind plays joyously

with styles and tonalities that have enchanted his reverie since childhood. Blackburn was

that sort of poet, an American original who knew and loved what he was doing.


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