Robert Kelly


Preface from The Journals

THE JOURNALS to my mind are Blackburn's quintessential work, and demonstrate the way his work knew to go, the power of music he could charm out of everything that came his way, or even looked as if it were thinking about it. The poems and entries are also his last work. The latest writing in it comes up to six weeks of his death in September 1971. From his papers, it is clear that in those last weeks he tried to collect the Journal pages together, and did sense them (as many of his readers from 1968 onward did) as a continuous and coherent book. The present text follows generally the order of what he had collected together and erratically paginated as The Journals. When repetitions, revisions, and versions have been taken away, our inheritance in this particular amounts to a typescript of some 160 pages.

Power. The tip he took from Pound was not a tune, but a way of finding. Of the poets working in these past three decades, I would say Blackburn is the paradigm of the processual—the one who most allowed his life and work to intertwine, who sought and found in the happenstance of experience a mysterious beauty called music when we hear it, that is, the Form made clear. His work reads the wayside signs and covert signatures, and is alert to every coincidence, analogy, trick of the light.

To say these things amounts to saying that Blackburn was a formal poet—he sought form and found form. He worked hard enough at the trobadors and their prosodies to qualify, had he chosen, as a walking book of meters and 'forms'—but those collected shapes were not the forms that concerned him. What form can be discovered as one moves through life? So his forms are always innovative, sometimes mimetic (because he loved descriptions and people and simple alignments and catalogues), but more often directly expressive of the interaction of the thing seen with the man seeing.

And very much he loved to see. Early in 1971 it became apparent to Paul and his friends that something was very wrong with his body. By mid-March, that something had been called cancer, with all the death-knell sounded. But it seems to me, without sentimental hindsight, that a few years before, certainly as early as spring 1968, Paul had intimations of death upon him. From that point forth his work, especially The Journals, reads like a carni vale, a joyous farewell to the flesh of the world. Spain, Italy, Occitan, the places he had loved and worked in on and off for twenty years, now saw him again for the last time. And the new places, California and the western mountains, he began to rack up among his knowns.

Blackburn died young, as these things are reckoned in longaeval America, but his farewell was leisurely, intensely scrutinizing the whole show again. Autumn and harvest, drive the last sweetness into the grape—all the images Europe has given us, from Ausonius to Rilke, of what it means to live on earth and then, suddenly or with warning, not to live there any more. These things talk in Blackburn's last work, strange melancholy unusual in our people, who know how to want with urgency or reject with bitterness, but hardly ever this old world song, relishing, departing, going.

Paradox, not of Blackburn but of America, that the voice that is most our own is truest to the older sequence. Very strange. In New York, which was most his home and center, he could find the sunlight on a wall not different from Barcelona. We can warm ourselves there.

What I most value in The Journals is the further transcendence of the closed poem (that museum piece, that haunting but snake-filled urn) his work had long been moving from. And what gave his achievement of the open poem its peculiar power is, in some awful and simple way, just how well he could sing. He is among those to whom we must turn if we would learn how music is not dependent on its earlier conditions or social contexts. So many who have tried to open form (whatever that may mean truly) have cast away (if ever they had it) the sonorous particularity of their own breath, their integral, their own. After the mid-1950s, there is a developing pattern whereby Paul's idiolect in the written language comes closer and closer to his idiolect in the spoken language; far from making the poems bland or conversational, the syntax grows deeper roots, twists, recovers, holds attention as no singsong could. Learning so to be honest in ear and mouth, he spoke his mind. As a result, the falsity of pastoral could not finally attract him, much as he loved olive and goat and maiden. More to his point and his time, he can sing straight (a phrase he used time and again earlier on) from the city and about the city, accepting it as the natural condition of man in a way few other poets have understood. Between the earlier generation of experimenters who imagined taxi dissonance and tohu-bohu represented the city, and the latter-day meta-hicks who turn away, Paul is one of the very few American poets who have been able to address their work sanely and coherently in the midst of the ordinary condition of contemporary man. A man, he is himself everywhere, and everything becomes natural to him. As Pound showed us long ago, the natural is the most difficult to come to, to say.

To the music nothing is trivial. To the composer of these poems, no idle dailiness was without its seed of connection. A New York poet, as they say, happiest in the middle of things, a stranger to scorn. It was all around him, and he could handle it. From what seem the most casual notations of place and event, Blackburn's formal intelligence discovers a new order rooted in content and inextricable from it, even if the deft musician willed it away.