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About Paul Blackburn's Poetry

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 Provençal 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?

("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
    With a bell.

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 Cortázar, 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 Málaga, 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.

Copyright © 1989 by M. L. Rosenthal

Burt Kimmelman
The Journals by Paul Blackburn

The Journals (1975), comprising most of Paul Blackburn’s final poems, is a milestone in the history of literary innovation, beyond the open field poetry of the Black Mountain School and, earlier, vers libre (free verse) of Imagism. Blackburn wanted to create open-ended occasions out of ordinary, everyday experiences, and thereby to shape a form appearing to be, paradoxically, formless. He rejected traditional poetry’s point of view that saw certain historical events as grand or monumental and others as inconsequential and that, accordingly, insisted on poetry that followed rhetorical principles of argument first established in classical times and later reaffirmed in the Renaissance. He replaced syllogism with juxtaposition or contingency, logical deduction and inference with the "logic" of experience, such as what a person sees or hears; and he relied on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, on metonyms, not metaphors or symbols. Likewise, Blackburn avoided standard meters and employed irregular spacing of words, characteristic of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson and others. His demonstration that words could be used for their visual effects, often in conjunction with graphics, influenced later visual poetry such as Armand Schwerner's The Tablets. Robert Buckeye notes how Blackburn’s "use of juxtaposition […] equalizes the elements of the poem: one thing, no matter how different, is just next to another" (157). Blackburn’s visuality might also have been influenced by downtown New York City painting during a period in the 1950s and 1960s when poets later to be grouped in various schools—Beat, Black Mountain, and New York—were intermingling with each other, with painters and musicians as well.

Two other poets to be associated with The Journals are William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley. In its attention to the details of daily life, Blackburn’s poetry embraces and extends Williams’s renowned dictum, "no ideas but in things," a plea to ground poetry in concrete images, and provides another version of the precision celebrated in Creeley’s lines, "and and becomes // just so" in his homage to Williams ("For W.C.W"). Yet Blackburn aims for a new kind of poetry, as if the poem were a painting that refuses its frame; his is not simply the collage technique Pound made famous in The Cantos. Blackburn’s work can also be thought of within the context of Confessional Poetry—the poet’s life available for viewing, the doors of his home flung open. In this regard, these poems are similar to the work of the New York school, especially Frank O’Hara's. As Peter Baker has commented, "So little [may] apparently [be] going on in [a Blackburn] poem that it may seem beneath our notice" (44); still, the experience of reading it is palpable as momentary occurrences become events and then rituals, "what O’Hara called his ‘I do this, I do that’ poems […]." Creating the impression of relaxed candor, Blackburn is able, ultimately, "to resist the pull toward transcendence that the Romantic and American post-Romantic traditions have forced on several generations of poets, readers and interpreters" (52).

On the other hand, this apparent spontaneity is hard won. His poems, Gilbert Sorrentino observes, "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 […] is rigorously formal" (103). Each poem, as if tossed off in a diary, has actually been worked by Blackburn to great effect. "AUG/22 . Berkeley Marina," for instance, begins with a simply contrastive observation: the day is cold and the sun is bright, the strong

wind holding the flags out


as the poet’s eye alights on the legs of his wife while she is exercising on the deck of their swaying boat. The couple is perfectly composed, recalling "the 3 graces & the 4 dignities" of ancient Chinese philosophy, which Blackburn sets out on the page as two lists placed beside one another, each encased within a simply drawn rectangle: "grace of word, / of deed, / grace of thought," and, "standing // sitting / walking // & lying down." How are these to be read? There is to be no prescribed method. What is important, however, are the two people "at peace" with the world. In this poem language, in and of itself, and phenomena, the world taken in by the poet, seamlessly merge as one through the graphics on the page.

Another key aspect of The Journals is its examination of dying. Blackburn learns that he has terminal cancer. His characteristic frankness becomes especially memorable when chronicling physical deterioration as the world begins to slip away. He is direct and graphic. "27. VI. 71," for example, records a morning’s thoughts, beginning with the exclamation "sundaysundaysundaysundaysunday," and then observing the essential elements of the day: "empty walks," a "single bird," a "blue sky." The enumeration leads to a crisis, "EMPTY AND ALIVE" repeated three times going down the page. Blackburn notes his simplest acts—fastening his belt, washing, writing in his diary—made difficult by pain. Yet this pain, in an apparent contradiction, makes the present vibrant. He notices "the promise of death" in the daylight spilling across the objects in his room; with the "window open, the day comes in, o fade the carcinoma […]." This blending of diction is remarkable—the contemporaneity of " carcinoma" juxtaposed with the Romantic apostrophe "o fade." Finally there is a bitter turn as he struggles to slip out of death’s trap, when he parodies the song "The Girl on the Flying Trapeze": the cancer "floats thru the blood / with the greatest of ease . the pain goes and comes again […]."

In The Journals no other but the present moment exists, fleeting yet permanent. The typical Blackburn poem, Baker has noted, "stands outside of time while foregrounding time itself" (45), an effect resulting from The Journals’ formless formality that was a breakthrough in new verse possibilities. Blackburn’s contribution is utterly original, as well as a stage in the evolution of experimental poetry. "We hear the echo in Blackburn," Joseph Conte writes, "of Olson’s statement in ‘Projective Verse’: ‘One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception’. The poetry of process is opposed to the notion of progress, and in Blackburn […] we hear a denial of telos, closure, or climax—‘any sense of an ending’. Each arrival signals a new departure" (48-49). Gloriously unrestricted, seemingly at loose ends, The Journals created, for later poetry, a new aesthetic sense of what a poetic statement could be. This posthumous work culminated the poetic project that had consumed Blackburn throughout his adult life, representing the ultimate refinement of his technique and the distillation of his vision.


Baker, Peter. "Blackburn’s Gift." Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Imagist / Objectivist Tradition 12.1  (Spring 1993): 43-54.

Buckeye, Robert. "’Rock, Scissors, Paper’." The North Dakota Quarterly 55.4 (1987): 153-61.

Conte, Joseph M. "Against the Calendar: Paul Blackburn’s Journals." Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Imagist / Objectivist Tradition 7.2 (1988): 35-52.

Sorrentino, Gilbert. "Paul Blackburn (‘Singing, Virtuoso: The Journals Edited by Robert Kelly’)." Something Said: Essays by Gilbert Sorrentino. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. 103-113.

Copyright © 2001 by Burt Kimmelman. Online Source

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