Clayton Eshleman
from The Parallel Voyages


Introduction to The Parallel Voyages

The quintessential Paul Blackburn poem ("Affinities II" would be a good example), is, visually speaking, more like a sketch (Franz Kline was his favorite painter), than a work in oil. Lines are brisk, deft strokes, resulting in mobile half stanzas, particle-stanzas, slightly asymmetrical, that tilt the poem on. Whether in Barcelona or in the NYC 23rd Street "Bakery," the Blackburn persona is generally off-stage, activated by desire, an observer scoring nodes which the reader can connect to constellate relationship-oriented patterns. The tendency is to seek out value, or as Blackburn puts it in one of the poems included in The Parallel Voyages, "the whole and the flowing," but he is also fascinated by the extent to which humankind is derailed, and redesigned, by a ritualistic emotional and material interface. The content of this quintessential poem is spare, idiomatically erudite, and only marginally introspective. It frames itself as it tracks its own material, resulting in a page design that is quite mobile, with weighted, balanced lines and word-clumps.

Such a poem, it turned out, could only accommodate a limited amount of variation and materials that challenged its procedure. Anything that drew the poem inwards, that, in effect, unmoored its outer connections, seemed like sabotage. While there are some excellent poems of the early 1960s in which this frame is under great tension and bending to accommodate disintegrative psychological pressure ("The Sea and The Shadow" is an example), by the mid-60s Blackburn could no longer count on it as an organizing pattern, while it occurs from time to time in the "Journals" of the late-60s, it must fight for time and space there in a context that is increasingly given over to trivia and daily factual mapping.

The work of the mid-60s is mainly about Paul's failure to come to terms with himself as a man, or to weather the transition from being a young, accomplished poet to becoming a mature poet with a sustaining pattern out of which to work. While Paul may have had complicated defenses in the social world, he had few in his poetry. In contrast to the self-contained pieces of the mid- and late-50s, which are models of opening, developing, and resolving a poem, the mid-60s work is amorphous, meandering and preoccupied with daily and historical events in a dull, reportorial way. The specific and resolved poems are somewhat dated repetitions of earlier modes. Be this as it may, Blackburn's fate is being worked out during this period, and any ultimate and genuine evaluation of his life and his poetry must take the mid-60s carefully into consideration.

In the early spring of 1963, Paul wrote most of the long "Selection of Heaven" and his fusion of NYC observation and Greek myth, "The Watchers," two major works which, in the light of what he later produced, can oddly be thought of as summations. After these two peaks, references to alcohol, bars, bums, sensations of social or sexual rejection and impotence mill about in the writing. In a curious and touching way, the poem itself becomes a vagabond, without schedule or resting place. While Sara Blackburn is seldom named at this point, she appears to be the companion figure who, according to Paul at least, is rejecting him.

There are fits and starts of word-play oriented poems, and some pieces that juxtapose seemingly unrelated patches of experience (e.g., "Hesper Adest" and "You Light It"), both modes of which could, under different circumstances, have been developed to stake out new grounds. Something deep and central in Paul has come unhinged, and the poem has become a murky lamentation rather than a tool to get at and come to terms with the problem. An accurate indication of what has happened can be gauged by comparing "The Watchers" to a 1966 poem organized in a similar way, "The Procedures." In contrast to the former poem which bristles with alertness, the speaker in the latter piece is unengaged and seems to be writing to pass the time.

Blackburn's decline in this period might well be pondered by younger writers coming to poetry now out of a William Carlos Williamsesque idiomatic tradition which has been filtered and softened by the "confessional" poetry of the late-50s/early-60s. On one hand, Blackburn stayed "open" by not locking himself into a set of values that would have determined what he affirmed and what he rejected. On the other hand, his failure to do so, made him extremely dependent upon the facts of daily existence in the harsh, impersonal labyrinth of NYC. Had he been tougher, more self dependent and more aggressive in directly expressing his feelings, he might have come through his "mid-life crisis," completed his troubadour translation project, and developed a sustaining vision based on his work in the mid- to late-50s.

However, the facts, according to the poetry, seem to indicate that Paul's of creative worth was exceptionally contingent upon sexual acceptance, very overtly in the case of women and very covertly in the case of men His antennae were lust-sensitive, and many poems are organized explicitly around an anonymous or intimately-known person who aroused him. As he approached his 40s, this point of imaginative ignition increasingly misfired, or did not spark at all, to the point that the pain of loving (himself as well as others) appears to have engulfed sexual gratification. In the chasm that began to appear as this single power gave way and divided was a morass of unresolvable childhood unhappiness.

In her Introduction to The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn, Edie Jarolim writes that Paul and his slightly younger sister lived with his mother's "strict and elderly grandparents" in Vermont between his 4th and 14th years, while his mother, Francis Frost, recipient of the 1929 Yale Younger Poets Award, was in NYC trying to earn a living as a writer, and living with a woman companion. According to comments that Robert Creeley relates, (1) Paul was repeatedly whipped by his maternal grandmother. The image of small, brutalized 14-year-old Paul rejoining his mother in NYC in 1940 and via her encouragement becoming, as she did not, a major American poet, is so redolent with Oedipal consternation that I begin to think that the host of anonymous women whose sexuality drifts in and out of his poetry (as well as his troubadour translations, which he could never to his satisfaction complete) is Paul's reversed version of Isis and Osiris, in which it is the female figure whose body is scattered and the task of the poet-son to vainly attempt to reconstitute her via endless sallies into the moment of desire.

In this context it is worthwhile to think about what looked at superficially appears to be a heavy load of machoism in Blackburn's poetry. It is true that women are often signed, or identified, as sexual targets, and that his seeming dependence on women for self-confirmation empowers them with overwhelming, sometimes menacing, psychic size. The humorous "takes" (from a patriarchal viewpoint) are in one way escape­valves to let out some of the pressure such size builds up. But it is more complicated than this. There is, for example, a cluster of images making use of traps and nets (the purse-seine in the poem by that title, "the net of lust" and "that silken trap" in "Call It The Net") which evokes Blake's poem, "The Crystal Cabinet." Unlike the speaker in Blake's superb lyric, who is brought to understand that intercourse per se is not going to yield an apocalyptic vision, Blackburn never seems to get clear as to the limitations, meanings, and specific mental rewards of sexual union—nor is he able to develop an alternative set of values that lie outside its crisis. From the late-50s on, he seems to turn and twist, a dreamer in its nets, as if in the grip of an inhibition so intense that the source of the anguish cannot be identified, or even addressed.

An indication of the extent to which sexual fulfillment is endlessly complicated occurs in the splendid "Purse-Seine," when the "sea bird," in context a gull-man-penis, facing the rising hips of the other, "hits the mast in the dark and falls / with a cry to the deck and flutters off." These lines occur at the threshold of penetration, and immediately after the "bird" strikes this peculiar "mast," we read: "Panic spreads, the / night is long, no / one sleeps, the net / is tight . . ." In "Call It The Net," a poem written 5 years later in 1964, the speaker "imagines a young woman / lying on her back at the intersection / Third Ave., and 8th St.," and as he continues to both titillate and vex himself, he writes:

                                                                     It is a threshold I cross, no
                                                                     longer an intersection, the bird
                                                             hidden in the shirt upon the chest
                                                             torn     .    the eye
                                                             swells in the head
                                                             bird flutters and falls into the sea of eyes
                                                                     She was so beautiful  :
                                                             Bird and sun are holy take the head
                                                             tear it open and set it like a
                                                             melon upon the threshold     .

Taken together, these two related passages suggest to me that Blackburn has projected a phallic intensity ("the mast") upon the vagina, with a loss of potency before penetration can take place. Subsequently, in the above passage, he fantasizes that he is castrated, and offers the street-woman object of his fantasy his genitals as a sacrificial gift. Given that Blackburn's first and ongoing projection of the creative self is the gull, which is envisioned as the poet's own childhood body as well as the numinous word riding the wind, or lines, of inspiration, (2) the implication of these passages is nothing less than devastating. The sexual act becomes the sacrificial grounds where language, the poem, his identity and his sexuality are drawn and quartered.

"Lust is unpredictable," he wrote in a poem dated June 21, 1963, in which a stanza describing an angry black woman on the A train appears in a context that otherwise has nothing to do with her. Within the next week or so, Blackburn wrote the shocking "Birds chirp listlessly in the heat," in The Parallel Voyages, (3) which lets the reader in on what he believes women would do if they really had their way with him. I would propose that the terror implied by such writing is so extreme as to become somatically entropic. If the reader thinks that I am exaggerating, let him read "Crank It Up For All Of Us, But Let Me Heaven Go" in The Collected Poems. It is one of the most perfectly executed genuinely disturbing poems in American literature.

Keeping in mind the issue of machoism that I raised, I would like to suggest that there are at least three kinds of sexuality in Blackburn's poetry, only one of which is offensive from my viewpoint (which is one that believes in reciprocity between the sexes). The first kind is of the dirty joke variety, with Blackburn ogling ass on the subway or identifying anonymous women on the basis of their sexual "equipment." While such poems as "Clickety-Clack" and "The Once-Over," are well-written examples of this kind of humor, they in no way represent the range and complexity of Blackburn's sexuality or poetry at large, and it is a shame to see him again and again represented in anthologies by them.

A second kind is the turgid sexual despair that Paul attempted to reveal, or unravel, in the kind of poems that I quoted from before. Whatever sexism there may be in these multiple images of gulls, women, nets and masts, is overwhelmed, to my reading, by Blackburn's self-inflicted short-circuiting, and I can only lament that he suffered so much in this way. I am moved, not put off, by his hesitant, always somewhat thwarted attempt to express the core of his compulsive self-revulsion.

A third kind of sexuality, and certainly the dominant one for the first half of Blackburn's writing career, is an admiration and tender respect for what might be thought of as the feminity of all forms. This motif is sounded again and again, as contact with women, animals (generally cats—the occasional dogs seem to indicate a negative male presence), and plants, and appears to envision a feminine principle as the force that provides the world with growth and beauty. When Blackburn is under the sway of this persuasion (generally in his apartment, in contrast to out on the street or in the subway), he is fair-minded, masculine and extremely sensitive. The reader who draws back at "The Once-Over" should be willing to read "The One Night Stand: An Approach to the Bridge," where there is a scene that most American men and women who grew up in the 40s and 50s experienced, suffered, and seldom happily resolved. The speaker's decision in favor of respecting his "date's" sexual fears, and not pressing himself onto, and into, her, is genuinely evocative of Paul Blackburn's respect for others at large.

I've drawn out these three differing attitudes toward sexuality to point out that they represent such a complex and complicated web of ambivalences that they cannot simply be passed off as macho. To read Blackburn on these matters and to think what they humanly mean makes me wonder what we would think of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound if, in their poetry, they had been as honest as Paul about their sexual relationship to themselves and to their women and wives. The poetry of Blackburn represents a kind of halfway house in regard to the extent of his thrust into his fantasy life and the extent to which he was able to excavate the kind of ore that is precious to those of us who continue to believe, as has been attributed to Marx, that anything human is not alien.

It would be appropriate to evaluate Paul Blackburn's poetry in the company of his own entire generation—not just the haphazardly-identified "Black Mountain" associates (Levertov, Dorn, Creeley, Oppenheimer etc)—but of those American poets born between 1923 and 1929, who began to make their mark in the mid- to late-50s. In this sense, Blackburn's  company would also include Dickey, Simpson, Koch, Ammons, Merrill, Ginsberg, O'Hara, Bly, Ashbery, Merwin, Wright, Spicer, Levine, Sexton, Rich. I would say that with the possible exceptions of Ginsberg and :Ashbery, that Blackburn is a match for any of these poets, and were a reader to assemble the best 100 pages of each of them, and do a comparative reading, that Blackburn's 100 pages would be definitive and unique, an original energy that is not elsewhere duplicated or backgrounded, e.g., he is not the lesser example of any other poet, his best work is not secondary. Here, for whatever it is worth, is a list of the poems by which I feel he should be centrally identified.

The Birds              ... The One Night Stand
The Lanner   Ritual I
The Search   The Mint Quality
Pancho Villa . . .   Bryant Park
Banalbufar ...        Phone Call to Rutherford
Plaza Real with Palm Trees   .. . Crank It Up
El Camino Real   ...       This Is Not the Same
The Letter   Pre-Lenten Gestures
Ramas, Divendres . . .                                      #1, 7, & 17 from The Selection  
of Heaven 
Affinities II The Watchers
Spring Thing  Here They Go
Atardecer At The Well
El Dia Viene ... Call It The Net
Brooklyn Narcissus  Faces I
Hot Afternoons have been . . .  Sunflower Rock
The Purse-Seine  The Voices, It's Cheap
Definition  The Net of Place
The Sea and the Shadow  The Touch


         *                                          *                                       *

Between the years 1959 and 1966, Paul Blackburn and I had an active personal as well as literary friendship, much of which took place while he was in NYC and I was in Kyoto, Japan. Kyoto, in the early- to mid-60s, was a kind of mecca for a small group of American writers and artists, including Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Cid Corman, Will Petersen, Frank Samperi, Philip Whalen, with occasional visits by Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. Paul seemed to notice that our presence there represented a new alternative to Paris as a base where foreign materials could be drawn into American art.

In his poetry as well as in his correspondence, I seemed to be on Paul's mind more than the others, and some of the gifts I sent him (in particular, a happi coat mentioned in "Doubles: It's a Cabin" which he wore until it disintegrated) turned up in poems, as well as news from my daily life. A tape on which I described the images tacked up on the wall over my work area, along with a reading of Hart Crane's "The Harbor Dawn," led to Section 5 of his "The Selection of Heaven," and material describing workmen in the ravine behind our house warming their hands over fires they had built in oil-drums stimulated Paul to bring noticings of similar scenes in NYC into "Ritual IX: Gathering Winter Fuel." The conjunctions of hands and fire was also symbolically worked into "Crank It Up For All Of Us . . ." one of the poems Paul read on a 1963 tape sent to Kyoto that stunned me and consequently helped me break through a block that had paralyzed me for over a year. (4) His last mention of Kyoto appears to have been in the "24. I I . 64 / Note to Kyoto," in which he expressed the age-old spring desire to get roving again, in his own case to leap back to Paris and Barcelona.

Paul was a loyal and comradely correspondent during these years, exactly the kind of slightly older friend that a young uncertain poet needs—not a mentor, let alone a master, but someone with a slight edge of experience who is willing to set forth his views and let the younger person make of them what he can. Paul Blackburn was the first to make me aware to what extent my creative blocks had to do with a swelling up of unassimilated childhood material, and of the extent to which participating in a full present life had to do with working through such material. In 1963 he married his second wife, Sara Golden, and spontaneously I started to write a poem celebrating their marriage. As I worked away on it, the problems in my own marriage tore through the fabric, so I set the Blackburn poem aside, and tried to concentrate on my own difficulties, into which churned so much material from the past that before I knew it I was working on a poem that attempted to bring my past life to bear on all that had happened to me since I had started writing poetry and come to Kyoto. This still-unpublished 400-page poem, "The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration," was used as a quarry for the early sections of the much shorter Coils (1973).

It has now been over 15 years since Paul's death, and not a week has gone by that I have not thought of him. It seems, on one level, that the fate of our friendship was in the stars, that we were to be magnetized and then demagnetized by currents that rose up through us. Our closest years took place continents apart and appeared to be balanced not only on the age difference but on my youthful and Paul's more mature uncertainties. This incongruity was very workable when we were apart, but when I moved to NYC in 1966 and started the groundwork for the life that I have been building ever since, while Paul, from about 1963 on, seemed to be losing his grip on everything that was dearest to him, the vectors of our drawing apart were set in motion. As clear as these points seem to me now, they still seem inadequate to explain the fate of our friendship. Cutting through how we felt about each other was how we felt about ourselves as men and as writers in a world that never let us take anything for granted. Thinking about Paul now makes me realize how tough, how nigh impossible it is, for American artists of different generations to have lifelong friendships.      


        *                                          *                                       *

I selected the poems that make up The Parallel Voyages on an intuitive feel for Blackburn's work as a whole, choosing solid, first-rate pieces that filled out or added to particular periods. Several of the poems here are really outstanding, and it is a fluke that they never appeared in print during Paul's lifetime. Several, also, are quirky, and perhaps slight, such as "Alley Oop," but I included them because they had resonance and seemed to be part of the overall picture. As a collection, they not only provide a modest amplification to The Collected Poems, but offer a first­time reader many of Blackburn's themes in cameo.

The book title is from the title of one of the poems chosen, and seems to be not only emblematic of the collection, but of a voyaging, or ongoing, doubleness that Blackburn worked with throughout his writing life. Such doubleness in Blackburn's early poetry recalls Charles Olson's comment that art was life's twin, a doubleness that is experienced as aspects of the whole and joyous variety in life. As the reader goes through The Parallel Voyages, he or she may feel these flows begin to congeal and island themselves off from each other into resistances and oppositions. However, throughout the first 10 poems in the collection, perfection and separation, life and death (via bullfight imagery), the whole and the flowing, the personal and the creative, are articulated as aspects of a shifting texture that help man define his place in his world. Eight of these early poems make up a rich addition to the poetry of Blackburn's European years.

The next 8 or 9 poems, written after Blackburn's return to NYC in 1958, revolve about his affair with the then-married painter, Michelle Stuart, and were probably not published at the time (and forgotten about later) out of Blackburn's consideration for her situation.

The next half dozen pieces are less subject-focused than the early and later poems in the collection. The piece attacking Cid Corman for highlighting Ted Enslin's critical remarks about him on the inside-front cover of origin magazine (see Jarolim's note) is interesting to read relative to the earlier poems concerning Olson and Creeley, both of which attempt to reconcile differences rather than, in the case of the Corman poem, fix them. Blackburn's own position ultimately seems to me to be somewhat between that of Olson's "excesses" and Corman's "silence." The fourth poem to a male friend, "The Shot," for Robert Kelly, is a good example of Blackburn's subtlety in allowing the meaning of a situation to moreorless assemble by the implications of specific details. The poem is less about Blackburn's inability to "reach" Kelly (by typical oblique means) than about his extreme sensitivity to what for most people would be seen as random, meaningless activity.

In the latter half of The Parallel Voyages the thematic emphases are on childhood memories and the disintegrating relationship with Sara Blackburn. "A dreory rain" and, less directly, "The Circuit" turn on being hit as a child, and "The Voices, It's Cheap" uses the presence of birds, pigeons in this case, to eternalize an instant. My guess as to the meaning of "The Anticipation" is that it has to do with childhood boredom, the dirunal observation while waiting that years later resulted in the Blackburn­observer. While both "Sit Ten Minutes" and "At Prospect Park" lack drama and meaning, they are careful exercises of staying with a sequence of outer activity for a limited period of time. In regard to the poems concerning the break-up with Sara Blackburn, the reader might want to read these not only against Section 17 in "The Selection of Heaven," say, but with the poems in Against The Silences, not published in The Collected Poems, that also attempt to come to terms with what seems to have been for Paul the single most devastating experience in his adult life.

As a short Appendix, I have added a statement on poetry, and responses to a questionnaire that while in no way "major," are fascinating marginalia. As a matter of fact, the questionnaire responses are not a bad "self-portrait." In Blackburn's combination of serious, off-handed, oblique and cagey responses, he is none other than himself.

Clayton Eshleman
April 1986, Los Angeles

(Acknowledgment is made to Jimmy & Lucy's House of "K," edited by Benjamin Friedlander and Andrew Schelling, where this introduction is being simultaneously published.)



1. See Creeley's brief Preface to Against The Silences, Permanent Press, London & New York, 1980. While the editor, Robert Vas Dias, states on the back of this book that it "comprises the last manuscript remaining to be published which Paul Blackburn conceived of as a separate and unified book," he informs the reader in a Publisher's Note that he has eliminated a third of this manuscript from the present book. Vas Dias also states that "no title has been assigned to the collection," while assigning to it the first half of a poem title, "Against the Silences of Staircases." Without "of Staircases," "Against the Silences" is "poetic" in a way that Blackburn always avoided. Blackburn himself referred to this gathering as "the black binder," which seems to me to be the most appropriate title for the collection, which should have also been published entire, as Paul left it. ^

2. From the late 40s through the early 60s, Blackburn's poetry is graced with continuing bird, most often gull, appearances. Some of the key poems in this respect are: "Cantar de Noit," "The Birds," "The Lanner," "Winter Solstice" (and for a further elaboration of the "forked branch," "Morning Song"), "The Purse-Seine," "The Summer Window," "In Winter," and Sections 1 and 6 of "The Selection of Heaven." ^

3. I founded Sulfur magazine at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in the spring of 1981, and the first 8 issues were edited there, and published by the Institute, with a commitment of deficit funding for 5 years provided by President Goldberger. In 1983 I was informed by Goldberger that Caltech's name had to be immediately struck from Sulfur because of the following incident: he had been using discretionary funds from the Weingart Foundation in Pasadena to support Sulfur, and at one point showed the Weingart Board of Trustees a copy of Sulfur #4, which included 22 of the Blackburn poems in The Parallel Voyages. Upon reading "Birds chirp listlessly . . ." the Weingart Trustees informed Goldberger that Sulfur was pornographic, and that not only did they not want their "discretionary" funds used to support it, but they also wanted Caltech's name removed from it. Goldberger told me that as much as he disagreed with the Trustees' response, he had to honor it, because of the Weingart Foundation's huge yearly donations to the Institute (mainly in the science area, I believe, but it should be pointed out that they also fund a yearly "Humanities Conference" on campus). Goldberger, quite honorably I felt, offered to make good on his original 5-year deficit funding commitment to Sulfur via other sources, so that the magazine could continue either on its own for a while or until it attracted a new sponsor. While the Blackburn poem is genuinely shocking, it is hardly pornographic by current standards. That a single poem by this shy, unassertive poet was sufficient to nearly eliminate a literary magazine on grounds of censorship in 1983 should keep us all alert to the fact that while things seem to change, the "sexual revolution" etc., on another level they remain stuck, and the same. ^

4. There is a more complete description of the effect of this poem on me in the essay, "The Gull Wall," in The Gull Wall, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1975. ^