PAUL BLACKBURN: NOTES FROM A LECTURE
A BLACKBURN CHRONOLOGY
Paul Blackburn was born November 24, 1926 in St. Alban’s, VT, The son of poet Frances Frost, he was raised by his mother’s parents. In 1940, he moves to NYC to live with his mother in Greenwich Village on Horatio Street. From 1945-47, he serves in the Army. Armistice is declared days after his enlistment.
In 1948, he studies with M.L. Rosenthal at NYU. In 1949, he begins correspondence with Pound, occasionally hitchhiking to see him at St. Elizabeth’s. His interest in Provencal comes from his reading of The Cantos. Pound prompts voluminous correspondence with _a chicken farmer in New Hampshire, Robert Creeley, who puts him in touch with Olson & Corman. Blackburn is 24 years old when he receives a BA from University of Wisconsin where he studies _the language of the troubadours. In 1953, Proensa, translations from medieval Provencal, is published by Creeley’s Majorca-based Divers Press._ From 1954 to 1955, he is on a Fullbright Fellowship at the University of Toulouse studying Provencal.
The Dissolving Fabric (Divers Press), Blackburn’s first book of original poems, is published in 1955. From 1955 to 1956, he is lecteur americaine at the University of Toulouse. For the next two years, he spent time in Europe where he buys a copy of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Obras Completas and acquires a lifelong habit of translating from it.
In 1957, Blackburn returns to New York after various periods of living in Spain. Interest in oral tradition and enthusiasm for the troubadours leads to his becoming an active presence on the poetry scene of the village and Lower East Side. He frequently organizes and tapes readings.
Blackburn publishes Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (Totem Press, 1960). New American Poetry, Grove Press (Donald M. Allen, ed., 1960), includes “The Continuity” (1953/54), “The Assistance” (1953/54), “Night Song for Two Mystics” (1955/58), “The Problem” (1956/60), “Sirventes” (1957/59), “The Once-Over” (1958/60), and “The Encounter” (1958). In the early 1960s, he reads at the Deux Magots Coffeehouse, hosts Wednesday night guest program at Le Metro. In 1961, he publishes The Nets (Trobar Books). In 1962, he is poetry editor at Nation magazine. From 1964 to 1965, he hosts for WBAI radio station program of readings & interviews by poets.
At age 40, Blackburn is instrumental in establishing the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. An indefatigable attender of readings, he carries a large, double-reel tape recorder with him wherever he goes. That tape collection, at the special collections archive at UCSD, is perhaps the best oral history of the New York poetry scene late 1950s to 1970. His Poem of the Cid, [translation] is published in 1966.
In 1967, Blackburn’s The Cities (Grove Press) and The Reardon Poems (Perishable Press) are published. In 1968, he marries Joan Miller, his third wife. Also that year, In . On . Or About the Premises (Goliard Press) is published. A son, Carlos, is born in 1969. From 1970 to 1971, he is Assistant Professor of English: SUNY Cortland. In 1970, he is diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Radiation treatments prove ineffective. On December 13, 1971, Paul Blackburn is dead at age 45 from cancer of the esophagus.
PAUL BLACKBURN: AESTHETICS PRIMER
On Being Lumped In With Black Mountain Poets
PB opposed the division of poets into schools and did not like the role of Black Mountain poet into which he was cast by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). He never attended Black Mountain College or taught there, and his affiliation with the Black Mountain Review, established in 1953 to raise money for the experimental college, was short-lived. He was contributing editor and New York distributor of the first two issues only, and then a quarrel with editor Creeley caused him to sever his connection with the journal. (EJ, 1985, xxii-xxiii)
The Importance Of Olson’s “Projective Verse” Essay (1951)
PB, whose typing skills had been polished in the Army, took naturally to Olson’s concept of the typewriter as a means of notating the oral performance of a poem, on the analogy of a musical score. More than anyone else associated with the Black Mountain aesthetic, he refined the use of punctuation, line breaks, and text alignments that characterize the practice. (EJ, 1985, xxiii)
Undercutting The Poetic Devices On Which He Continued To Rely
The conventions he chose early on the “trope of the unkind lady, the romantic linking of love and death” naturally held more than literary interest for him. Over the years he developed them, built a set of personal associations around them. (EJ, 1985, xxiii-xxiv)
Impulse Toward Formal Control & Simultaneous Drive Toward Relinquishing It
. . .seeking a defining, totemic image for his art & uses of imagery to project an ambivalence about loss of control, visual puns=jazz equivalents, self-irony. (EJ, 1985, xxiv-xxvi)
European Literary Traditions
Focus on the living history of the continent, everyday activities that continue to be performed as they have been for centuries. PB emphasizes the sensual, celebratory character, their closeness to pagan nature-worship sources. (EJ, 1985, xxvi)
Democratic Notion of “Poet”
Just one among many potentially meaningful occupations...(EJ, 1985, xxvi)
Drive For Relinquishing Consciousness
Expression of the dreamer’s desire to rid himself of civilization’s discontents...desire for death of period 1963-67. (EJ, 1985, xxx-xxxi)
The Journals: Chronicles Of Everyday Life
used for a wide variety of structures, including prose, to capture textures...final evidence of PB’s continual struggle, often with himself, to extend the boundaries of what could be considered poetry’s fit subject & form. (EJ, 1985, xxxi-xxxii)
Reactions To Illness
In the last 30 poems or so, PB’s reactions to his illness are treated with characteristic delicacy not lightness, but deftness & subtlety from the Catholicism of his youth & its liturgical Christian language, Greek mythology, Celtic goddess-cults, alchemical lore & Buddhism. (EJ, 1985, xxxiii)
Poetics of Radical Presence
A poetics of radical presence has emerged which is based around the poet’s immediate physical and emotional state during the act of composition; such as Charles Olson’s demand for language as the “act of the instant,” Robert Duncan’s emphasis on registering physiological energies in the poem, the emergence of ethnopoetics and “sound” poetry, the growth of varying forms of confessionalism, and the continued significance of poetry readings. . . (Michael Davidson, in Creedences, 105)
The Poetry of Open Forms
The end of a “self-enclosed text,” found in a new “oral impulse” grounded in the gradual synthesis of poetry with general aesthetics of process & spontaneity; the importance of bardic & romantic poetic models, the valuation of activist & participatory political roles, for emotive, expressive language in the face of highly codified cybernetic-media jargon was based upon a _stance toward reality beyond the poem,_ as Olson said, in which the “poem is an active participant rather than a mimetic record.”
PB & The Tape Recorder
For the poet, a personal collection of tapes is as important as books in the library. The poet who makes assiduous use of the tape recorder, both for research & composition, creates an archive of language experiences intimate to the growth & development of the text. Such a poet was PB. The series at Le Metro, Les Deux Magots, Dr. Generosity’s & St. Mark’s Church were all formed out of B’ generous enthusiasm, and his poetry show on WBAI radio brought the new writing out of the clubs & bars of the lower East Side and made it available to a wider audience. During the sixties he began to record readings by the second generation NY School poets Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, as well as poets of his own generations: David Antin, Diane Wakoski, Jackson MacLow, Armand Schwerner, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman & Carol Berg. Blackburn taped informal conversations among poets, radio interviews, street noises, broadcasted public events (the first Moon landing, news of Kennedy’s assassination), current jazz & rock music, medieval poetry read aloud, conversations among members of his family, correspondence to European & Latin American writers, _taped letters,_ recordings of himself typing, whistling, talking on the phone, opening the refrigerator door & lighting a cigarette. . .audio ephemera that provided a pleasant record of the rhythms of a poet’s daily life. (MD, 107-8)
The Variable Text
Since the page no longer constitutes the source of the text, criticism must witness a performance. Where literary study once relied upon a stable, unified text, it now depends on a variable activity suspended somewhere between notation (the instructions for performance) and documentation (the record of the event). Rather than constituting a meaning, (the poem) simply exposes the possibilities for meaning.
Conception of the Organization of a Stanza
One of the most important things about a poem’s is that it is basically a musical structure, and like any piece of music it needs resolution. It must tie together as a musical unit, however irregular it looks upon the page. Kerouac, for instance, borrows jazz forms a good bit, and with a fair amount of success (Mexico City Blues). ... Mine is probably closer to modern music, or the concept of modern jazz. ... The point is that very few people have consistently good ears: some have good ears for small pieces, some for large, some can work in between the two. For instance, Bob Creeley writes mostly small poems, fairly short on the whole ... At the opposite extreme is the poetry of Ginsberg. I walked in one day, down on Second Street, and asked how things were going. He said, I started writing a poem to my mother yesterday and it’s already fifty pages long, what am I going to do? (from “The Sullen Art,” with David Ossman, in Nomad, 1962, 8-9)
Physical & Social Environments That Shaped PB’s Poetry
I’ve grown up within mountains & cities, as they say, & the sea is a great influence on my work. I have south Carolina; I have the west . . . on top of that, great pieces of western Europe, especially Spain––the sea coast, and river valleys in France. And four languages working into it. I got to New York when I was fourteen. My sister’s a nun, she was already out of it. It was just my mother, my aunt & myself. My old man’s on the West Coast in Portland, been married three times. I have a half-sister who’s as old as my wife. My mother was a a writer. Frances Frost: a poet & novelist, so, there was always that around the house. ... But the geography always does get into it, very constantly & if the geography happens to be the city, then that’s where it is. An awful lot of my life has been spent in the city & I do love them & have my own tracks; I mean, that’s the thing. There are always tracks––like I know how to get from Max_s Kansas City to here by the tracks. . .(from _ PB Interview with Joshua Stotler, January, 18, 1970, 1-2)
I was in WW II & I thought reasonably well of the country. The Korean thing evaded me entirely. . .I didn_t come to political things, really, until the Vietnam began to be important. . . I shook John Kennedy’s hand once in Union Square__that sort of thing__& I voted for him: he seemed like the man to vote for in that year. Then, all of a sudden, he’s invading Cuba: that_s when I started writing political poems. That_s when my public poems began. ... (JS, 2)
We’re All Part of What our Landscape Is
You have tracks inside a city. You build from wherever your center is. Wherever you sit your ass, wherever you put your drink, the place you eat in or a house or an apartment, you build your tracks from here to there. If you’re going shopping, you find your stores: you usually even go to those stores a certain way. You follow certain tracks through the city. You might even work it into a sense of birth. Constantly, you’re moving toward something, but you always return to wherever your womb is, whether it’s McSorely’s bar or you know. Just put me on Second Avenue; I can hang on. I’m driving down this ugly street again and like I know where I am. I know where the parking places are, if there are any, or what streets they’re likely to be on. And it’s get out of the car and get into a subway and go where you’re going, but you immediately move into a whole new set of grooves, your head turned around, and you’re moving places. You have friends here. It’s easier to walk over to Carmine Street or to Van Dam Street than it is to take any kind of transportation whatsoever from the Lower East side. You have a fifteen or twenty-minute walk, but it’s much simpler than taking any transportation. And not only that, you can vary your routes. There are all sorts of channels inside a city, ways of doing things, going places. (But), it’s somebody else’s system. You use this whole complex of systems, somehow to satisfy your own sense of moving from here to there. I don’t build roads, man: I didn’t lay out the city. But I can walk all over Central Park practically in the dark. ... I’m completely located in this wild little park. (“An Inter-view with PB” with L.S. Dembo, conducted May 25, 1971––less than 4 months before PB’s death on 13 September 1971, in Contemporary Literature, 1972, 141-42)
Robert Buckeye, Rock_ Scissors_ Paper: The Poetry of Paul Blackburn. From an exhibit at the Star Library, (1987-88) and a bibliography of Blackburn Manuscript Materials in the Abernethy Library of American Literature, Middlebury College. In the North Dakota Quarterly, (nd).
Edith Jarolim, The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn [Authorized Edition]. New York: Persea Books, 1985. See Introduction (xxi-xxxv).
BLACKBURN POSTHUMOUS PUBLICATIONS
1972 Early Selected Y Mas, Black Sparrow Press.
1975 Halfway Down the Coast, Mulch Press. The Journals, Black Sparrow Press (Robert Kelly, ed.).
1978 Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, [translations] University of California Press (George Economou, ed.). A larger project than the original. Provencal translations_ published by Creeley_s Divers Press in 1953, it was accepted by Macmillan Co. in 1958, but never completed to Blackburn_s satisfaction; Macmillan finally abandoned the project in 1961.
1979 Garcia Lorca, Lorca/Blackburn: Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, [translations] Momo’s Press. Some of the L/B translations were first published in Origin, New Directions & Evergreen Review.
1980 The Selection of Heaven, The Perishable Press, 1980. A 16 part long poem, Blackburn's longest__his own version of Kerouac's Visions of the Golden Eternity, worked on between 1963-72.
1983 The Omitted Journals, The Perishable Press (Edith Jarolim, ed.). Seven additional poems, with the exception of _A Very Great Treasure,_ from the black-binder ms. of The Journals not published in the Black Sparrow volume.
1985 Collected Poems, Persea Books (Edith Jarolim, ed.). 523 poems, out of a total ofapproximately 1250. “If he liked a poem he would keep submitting it until it got into print, sometimes many years after he wrote it.” [EJ]
1989 Selected Poems, Persea Books (Edith Jarolim, ed.).
1994 Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology includes, (Paul Hoover, ed.), includes
Brooklyn Narcissus” (1958, 1960), “El Camino Verde” (1955, 1961), “Park Poem” (1961, 1962), “The Net of Place” (1968, 1969).