Thursday, May 15, 2008

Paul Blackburn, by R.B. Kitaj

The Paul Blackburn page at the Electronic Poetry Center has gone live. Jack Krick’s months of effort have finally born fruit. I’m here to tell you it’s a major event.

The first serious critical article I ever wrote, outside of a couple of theater reviews & a report of a Cid Corman reading for the Daily Californian during my days at UC Berkeley, was a review of Paul Blackburn’s The Cities for Meg Randall & Sergio Mondragon’s El Corno Emplumado, which was still being published in those days in Mexico City. I’ve long since lost my copy of the issue, but the journal didn’t survive much longer as its editors’ political activism in the run-up to the 1968 summer Olympics (and the police massacres that “cleaned up” the city for the event) turned them into targets. The police kidnapped their kids & Meg as I recall had the hardest time getting them back before deciding that safety required a hasty move to Havana.

Blackburn himself didn’t survive all that much longer either. Four years after Grove Press made his poetry widely available in the United States for the first time, he was dead of esophageal cancer, passing away the same day as the ill-fated Attica prison rebellion in New York. I only got to meet Blackburn once, at a 1969 poetry conference at Mills College. I was surprised – shocked actually – at how short he was, having I guess a sense that my heroes all must be outsized human beings, rather in the way that 6’9” Charles Olson appeared to echo Pecos Bill. Dressed in a cowboy hat & vest, with goatee & moustache very much as shown in the R.B.. Kitaj portrait at the head of this note, Blackburn seemed to be continually juggling four objects at once: a beer, something from a flask he kept in his vest pocket, a cigarette & a doobie. It was quite a performance, actually, but it also put a screen of motion between himself & anyone to whom he was speaking.

Because Blackburn died at the age of 44 – and because, with the sole exception of one translation reissued by a university press, he has not had a book of any sort now in 19 (!) years, both the Collected and Selected Poems coming from the relatively modest Persea in New York – his importance as one of the defining poets of the 1960s has receded in the public consciousness. In a way, his narrative is not so different from that of Joe Ceravolo and Ceravolo’s relationship to the New York School, 2nd generation, at least before Coffee House Press put out The Green Lake is Awake in 1994, in that demonstrating knowledge of Blackburn/Ceravolo’s work is a way of letting people know you’re seriously engaged in the relevant literary context. In Blackburn’s case, that context was the projectivist vision of Black Mountain poetry. In the 1960s, it was always interesting to see who people would list as the 4th major projectivist figure after the triumvirate of Olson, Creeley & Duncan. Of the candidates who were mentioned – Blackburn, Dorn, Baraka & Levertov – Paul’s name came up most often, at least in the circles in which I traveled. There were I think three reasons for this.

First, Blackburn was the most important translator of poetry born in the 1920s. He’s the only poet in the entire Allen anthology for whom this is a major mode, Ashbery being a rather distant second. Of the four major translators who turn up in the next decade – Clayton Eshleman, Rosmarie Waldrop, Anselm Hollo & Jerry Rothenberg – the three males have at least some pretty direct connection to Blackburn’s work. Blackburn was an early translator & advocate for Julio Cortázar, his translations from the Provençal are the standard for that literature, and his translation of El Cid is by far the best ever done of that text. (Read it alongside Dorn’s ‘Slinger some day.)

Second, no poet came close to Blackburn’s dedication to the idea of poetry’s relationship to speech & the byways of spoken language. Many of Blackburn’s poems seem to be entirely about the language employed, such as “Ya Lift a Cold One (That’s the Commercial),” a 1964 piece that is all about the “missing” preposition in its final line:



“The game’s over?”


“The Yankees lost?”


“Good you got any melons up your house?”

Notice the acceleration the poem gets moving toward that long last line because the third Yeah is punctuated with a comma rather than a period. This concept of poetry as linguistic documentation, something Blackburn shares with the late Jonathan Williams & Phil Whalen, is all but a lost art. The only poet I can think of right now who still seems capable of this would be Anselm Hollo, all of 74 years young.

Third – and definitely related to the other two – Blackburn is the unquestioned master of using the visual page as a score for dialect and tone. Anything a typewriter could do was fair game, with a diligence not unlike how Cecil Taylor treats a piano or Jimi Hendrix handled a guitar. CAPITALIZATION, s p a c e d letters, variant leading between lines, punctuation that sometimes wandered some distance from the nearest word, and of course spelling. Thus you can get a line such as this first one from “Shoeshine Boy”:

S U B W A Y   S T O P     at Wall Street,

which captures the sign as well as sets the scene for what follows. Or the first line of “Two Flowers,” the very next poem in the Collected:

T h e   g o d     sits staring helplessly

In the former example, spacing the letters lends almost a collage kind of concreteness to the image, but in the second it helps to make the subject feel more ethereal, precisely the opposite effect derived from the same device. I can read Blackburn’s poems repeatedly, just for the utter pleasure in watching / hearing a master at work. I can’t imagine any poet who wouldn’t benefit from doing the same.

I can imagine some poets who might not always enjoy that experience, however. Blackburn is very much a man of the 1950s when it comes to some of his attitudes toward women – not that dissimilar from Kerouac, Snyder, Dorn or Creeley – and that word “Boy” in the title of that poem I referred to above certainly is reflexive and uncritical. But if you grant him the blinders of his time & place (and keep in mind that it was a nephew of Armand Schwerner’s, certainly a part of Blackburn’s social network, who was one of the Mississippi Three, murdered by the Klan for trying to register voters in 1964), you can learn an enormous amount about the possibilities of poetry from close reading all of Blackburn’s work.

Which brings me to the question of the availability of his poetry. Only one of the seven copies of The Collected Poems that can be found via is priced at under $100. Even the copy priced at $175 is well worth the money. The Selected Poems are more accessible, with over 30 copies to be had, only a British copy of which is priced over $30. But seriously folks, isn’t it time for a good paperback edition of The Collected Poems? As it is, the EPC website now becomes, on day one, the best single source for Paul Blackburn’s poetry on the planet. But until the time when you can get Blackburn’s work at Bridge Street, or through SPD or at Woodland Patterns or even, god forbid, Amazon, we are really short changing Paul Blackburn, literary history and ourselves.