Introduction to The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn
This collection brings together, in the order in which they were written, the original poems published during Blackburn's lifetime (November 24, 1926–September 13,1971) and those in clear preparation for book publication at the time of his death. (1) What does this gathering and arrangement reveal? At first glance—or heft—it becomes clear that he was a prolific poet, especially considering that he died at the age of 44. But then it's common lore that he had a great facility with language, "one of the best ears in poetry," and "perfect pitch." More surprising is the cumulative evidence here of his achieved naturalness, of the erudition and artifice that underlie even the most casual-seeming later poems. Blackburn made only rare—and usually misleadingly informal—statements about his poetic practice, but in a 1958 letter to Gregory Corso he summed it up neatly. "It seems to bug you," he wrote, "that I set down 'real' experiences...but in ordered form, strictly controlled. My own life is somewhat disorderly, and when not, is on the point of becoming so, almost always. I order my life in my work,"
Certainly Blackburn's life was intricately connected with poetry from very early on. Poetry took his mother, Frances Frost, from the family home in St. Albans, Vermont, when Paul was four and his younger sister, Jean, three. Frost (no relation to Robert) was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1929; she separated from her husband William Blackburn the next year. He went to California and she went to the big city—first Burlington, then New York—to try to earn a living as a writer, leaving the children in St. Albans with her strict and elderly parents. Only rarely, and not until much later, did Blackburn write about his unhappy childhood; the bitterness of such a poem as "My Sainted" may be explained by the beatings he would get daily from his grandmother.
After age 14, when his mother brought him to New York City to live with her on Horatio Street, his contact with poetry was more direct and on the whole more salutary. She encouraged him to write and gave him a wide variety of poetry to read, although her own verse was fairly conventional. (Her private life was much less so. She and her lover, Paul's "Aunt" Carr struggled to earn even enough money to keep themselves in—admittedly prodigious—supplies of scotch.)
Blackburn's formal education in poetry at New York University was interrupted the year it began: hoping to be sent overseas, he joined the Army in 1945. An armistice was declared within days of his enlistment and he was sent to Staten Island instead. After two years in the service, working mostly as a lab technician, he went back to NYU where he studied with M. L. Rosenthal and was briefly poetry editor of the school literary magazine, The Apprentice. It was at NYU that he began reading the poetry of Ezra Pound.
When Blackburn transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 1949, he started corresponding with Pound, occasionally hitchiking to St. Elizabeth's to visit him. Pound was soon responsible for Blackburn's first publication in a major literary journal: he encouraged James Laughlin to print the work of the unknown poet in New Directions in 1951. Blackburn also attributed what became a lifelong involvement with Provençal poetry to an initial frustration over not understanding the snatches of it he came across in The Cantos. Pound encouraged him in this direction—or rather he didn't discourage him. Pound's wife, Dorothy Shakespear, told Blackburn he was the only one who expressed an interest in the subject that Pound didn't vigorously warn away. (2)
And it was to Pound that Blackburn owed his first—and last—affiliation with a literary school, for better and for worse. In 1949 Pound prompted the voluminous correspondence between Blackburn and "a chicken farmer in New Hampshire," Robert Creeley. Creeley in turn put Blackburn in touch with Charles Olson, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, and other members of the group later dubbed the "Black Mountain Poets." Creeley also introduced him, via the mails, to Cid Corman, whose historic literary magazine Origin was the first to publish regularly a good deal of Blackburn's work in the early 1950s.
Blackburn always 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 anthology The New American Poetry (1960). He embraced all types of poetry, citing the value of "all work, if you work 'em right" to Robert Creeley in 1961, apropos another so-called poetic movement. His association with the Black Mountain group was in fact a tenuous one. 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 financially floundering 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.
But if Blackburn disliked the label, and if the styles of the poets with whom he is generally linked are often dissimilar (for example, Blackburn uses a longer, more varied line than Creeley and is less directly allusive, more consistently musical than Olson), all these writers did share aesthetic concerns. They were, as Blackburn later put it, "all working at speech rhythms, composition by field.... By 1951 Olson had tied a lot of it together in that 'Projective Verse' essay. So we even had a lot of principles to keep in our heads." Blackburn, 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.
During the years of his most extended contact with the Origin / Black Mountain writers, 1950–54, Blackburn was living in New York and working in various print shops. The first thirty-six poems in the present collection, representing—with the exception of the earlier opening poem—these four years and the preceding one at the University of Wisconsin, bear clear traces of Blackburn's literary education. His Provençal studies show up in such poem titles as "Alba" and "Cantar de Noit," in the characters of unkind ladies who don't give signs and birds who offer sympathy, in the casting of the poet as singer and half crazed purveyor of truth. Other literary traditions are on parade as well: we find shepherds and Greek gods, a sensitive young voyager-poet who makes a trip to the underworld—represented, à la Hart Crane, by the New York subway system—etc.
Perhaps inadvertently, Blackburn created an accurate self-portrait in his young painter of "The Innocents Who Fall like Apples." Like the artist's picture, some of his early work is stylized and relies overmuch on convention, but, as the poem puts it, "this dabbler speaks truth also." In "The Innocents" Blackburn had already begun to undercut the poetic devices on which he continued to rely. The opening lines of the poem irreverently address the prophet of their exotic Eastern setting: "Mohamet, old navigator, your flying coffin suspended between heaven and earth." And 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—in short, made them his own.
Other signs of the mature poet are discernible in the early pieces. An impulse toward formal control and a simultaneous drive toward relinquishing it are played out thematically in such complementary poems as "The Search" and "What the Tide Gave." The first sees the poet seeking a defining, totemic image for his art; the second uses sea imagery to project an ambivalence about loss of control ( = loss of identity = death), which Blackburn continually associates with love. The recurrent "limits," "lines," and "definitions" that begin to turn up in the vocabulary of the poems are at once desirable and restrictive, as the repeated image of gull flight mixes admiration for its grace with a simultaneous antipathy for its predatory nature. The as-yet unnamed gull of "The Birds" and the literary "ur-gull" of "The Lanner" are the first of many surrogates for a poet who is a master of form and works continually to do away with it.
In the poems written around 1953-54, we especially recognize the subjects and techniques with which Blackburn became associated:
On the farm it never mattered;
But in a city of eight million, one
Later on Blackburn is not so coy about the scatological "it" in the first line, but riddling opening sentences or cryptic titles remain his rhetorical trademarks. So too he later perfects the wit of the final two lines of this passage—the visual pun of separating "one" from the "city of eight million"; the verbal play of "stands on the defensive" on the psychic and physical posture of the speaker; the mock-heroic tone.
But alongside the jazzy, street-wise voice of "The Assistance" and, to an even greater degree, "The Continuity," we hear sonorous intonations of a (rather precocious) sage in such pieces as "The Dissolving Fabric." And in fact it is the quieter rhythms of the early imagistic lyrics—"Friends," "The Sunlit Room," and "The Quest"—that predominate in the next group of poems, written during the three-and-a-half years Blackburn spent in Europe:
The one-half moon is over the mountain
("The Gift and the Ending")
When, in the spring of 1954, Blackburn was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study Provençal language and literature, he and his new wife Winifred Grey left almost immediately for Europe. They spent several months in Majorca, Spain, until Blackburn was assigned to Toulouse in southern France. His increasing dislike of that city (see, especially, "Sirventes") didn't prevent him from staying on there for another year as Fulbright "lecteur Américain." He simply escaped as often as possible, usually to nearby Spain, where he spent most of his post-Fulbright time in Europe (1956-57) as well. He grew increasingly, romantically, to admire Spain, its people and especially its language and literature. It was during this time that he bought a copy of Federico García-Lorca's Obras Completas and acquired his lifelong habit of translating from it. (3) And at the end of Blackburn's stay in Europe, a friend who knew of his interest in Spanish-language literature introduced him to the work of a little-known Argentinian writer living in Paris. Although he didn't manage to meet Julio Cortázar then, he eventually became his close friend, U. S. literary agent, and sometime translator.
A few of the poems in this European group recount Blackburn's diverse travels. Most of them show him already arrived, sitting and watching—
Today makes 20 days
("Cancion de las Hormigas")
or walking the streets and listening—
The literary traditions of Europe naturally enter into these poems, but far less obtrusively than they did in the earlier work. Mostly Blackburn focuses on the living history of the continent, the everyday activities that continue to be performed as they have been for centuries. Poems such as "Atardecer" and "The Misunderstanding" evoke a timeless, almost mythical Europe. The sacerdotal aura they bestow on secular routines anticipates that of the series of "ritual" poems Blackburn began on his return to the States. As for the "official" rituals, the Christian festivals witnessed in "Ramas, Divendres, Diumenga" and "Verbena," Blackburn emphasizes their sensual, celebratory character, their closeness to pagan nature-worship sources.
So he religiously counts the number of days a group of ants walk across some steps, and confers significance on configurations of people sitting "five and six" and "seven and eight" to a bench ("Plaza Real with Palmtrees"). But just as he mocks the rhetoric of easy solutions in his numerous "how to" titles ("How to Get Through Reality," "How to Live with One Another Somehow"), he often steps back in these poems from a Noah-like propensity for grouping and tallying: "Café at Night" is a mock-heroic account of the poet's venturing to break the dominant color-pattern of food in a local restaurant and "Song for a Cool Departure" finds him wondering "where to put" the "2 cypresses, 3 elms" of his poem.
If self-irony sometimes undercuts aspects of his, the poet's, vocation, the value of that vocation is never in doubt in these European poems. It is often expressed in terms of an aesthetic pragmatism Blackburn shares with the other New England-bred members of the Black Mountain group—the notion that poetry must be utilitarian, be functional, be work:(4)
The principle, the demarcation
("City Museum, Split")
Also characteristic is his democratic notion that "poet" is just one among many potentially meaningful occupations: the balloon seller of "Plaza Real," the eponymous "The Captain" and "The First Mate" are afforded equally respectful attention. What one does is ultimately less important than how one does it; the "easy, confident step" of the driver in "The Busride" of 1957 is a precursor of "the organized waddle" of the waiter Blackburn elegizes in "The Touch" ten years later. With the Elizabethans as much as with Ernest Hemingway, Blackburn shares the notion that style—not as surface attribute, but as "coherence" or outward manifestation of inward clarity and intactness—is all-important.
The Blackburns returned to New York in late 1957, ostensibly just to recoup finances, but things didn't work out quite according to plan. The marriage soon broke up and Blackburn had a good deal of trouble finding a job. In 1958 and early 1959 he supported himself by doing publisher's reader reports and occasional translations; for the rest of 1959 through 1962 he worked as an in-house editor for Funk & Wagnall's New International Year Book.
This was a time of turmoil, but not all of the turmoil was negative. There were new loves for Blackburn—most important, Sara Golden, whom he married in 1963—and a new literary scene. Blackburn had returned to New York at a time when the beginnings of the Beat poets' influence had awakened an interest in local poetry readings. His own interest in oral tradition made natural the active role he soon took on New York's Lower East Side. For one thing, his enthusiasm for the troubadours led to his arranging and taking part in a number of programs offering translations of medieval European poems, along with the original Provençal or middle English lyrics, to jazz accompaniment.
Readings at the Deux Megots Coffeehouse and, later, Le Metro Café provided the main outlet for Blackburn's interest in contemporary poetry. The Wednesday night guest program he hosted at Le Metro in the early 1960s was known for its quality and eclecticism, having as participant readers key members of the (so designated) Beat, New York, Deep Image, and Black Mountain poetry schools. Blackburn also helped with the poetry and drama series at the Judson Church (among other things, he played Doc Watson in Joel Oppenheimer's production there of "Billy the Kid"), and he was poetry editor of both the Judson Review and The Nation in 1962.
The poems Blackburn wrote in the five between-marriage years, 1958-63, are among his best known and most successful. The time spent in Europe had confirmed his sense of vocation; this confidence combined with a continuing youthfulness to produce work at once energetic and highly crafted. A number of these poems retain a timeless, European feeling—some, in the beginning, are still set in Europe—but Blackburn soon returned to transcribing the sights and sounds of American life. In baseball and space travel he found new rituals to observe; by the end of the period he was reporting increasingly on the rites of American politics.
And in late 1957, with "The Yawn," Blackburn inaugurated the subgenre (so to speak) with which he is most often associated: the subway poem. Such pieces as "Clickety-Clack" show him at his most deceptively simple;
We take a joy ride of the senses as we follow the poet through Brooklyn, listening to him read poetry aloud and watching him unsuccessfully attempt to engage the affections of a not-so-amused female passenger. Blackburn skillfully duplicates the lurching rhythms of the train, and anyone familiar with what is now New York City's "D" line might observe that he eliminates those stations that don't fit into his rhythmic scheme. But the poem also has a wide outside frame of reference, a broad range of literary allusion. A tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, its typography and rhythms evoke the San Francisco poet's A Coney Island of the Mind as well as the subway's movement. "Clickety Clack" also offers echoes of Edward Fitzgerald's "Rubbaiyat" ("Let's fling that old garment of repentance, baby"), lines from Yeats' "Under Ben Bulben" ( "Cast a cold eye / on life, on death. . . ") and less direct evocations of numerous other poems and poetic traditions.
One of the standard comic devices of "Clickety-Clack"—and indeed too many of Blackburn's other poems—the characterization of woman as (often prudishly unwilling) sex object, is no longer the unquestioned source of amusement it was when Blackburn wrote these pieces. For Blackburn, the type of bravado expressed through this device may be seen not only as a product of its times, but also as the flip side of a fear of women and love expressed much more powerfully, if still obliquely, in "The Purse-Seine":
Earlier in the poem Blackburn warns, "Never look a gull in the eye." He follows his own advice: the vatic tone of "The Purse-Seine" and, to an even greater degree, the group of poems based on the Celtic tree as elaborated in Robert Graves' The White Goddess (see, for example, "Venus, the Lark. . .," "The Vine the Willow Lurch to and Fro," and "Bk. of Numbers"), lends the distance and authority of myth to painful personal events. Nor does Blackburn's alternate lighter, colloquial voice tend to address love directly, even when the experience recounted is a positive one. Such pieces as "Remains of an Afternoon," "Ciao," and "Love Song" are inclined to "study the artifacts," as Blackburn puts it in "Good Morning, Love! "—to examine carefully the traces or after-effects of physical love.
Often cryptic, Blackburn's long, autobiographical "The Selection of Heaven" is nevertheless one of the exceptions to his general practice of avoiding the gull's stare. Its first sixteen sections, written in the early months of 1963, concern the, deaths of Blackburn's paternal grandparents; the death of Blackburn's second marriage is the subject of the final section, appended in the summer of 1967. The years encompassed by this poem were in some ways Blackburn's most active and productive ones. He was enjoying a new degree of success as a poet: two major collections, The Cities and In . On . Or About the Premises, were slated for publication, and poems were being accepted by an unprecedented number of anthologies and journals (including, to Blackburn's bemusement, Poetry and The New Yorker). Large and interesting translation projects were offered him: the Spanish medieval epic Poem of the Cid for Studymasters in 1966 and Julio Cortázar's Blow Up and Other Stories for Pantheon in 1967. And for the first time he was getting teaching positions: he was poet-in-residence at New York's City College from 1966 to 1967 and ran poetry workshops at the Aspen Writer's Conference in the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1967.
Nor did Blackburn's activities on the New York poetry scene let up. From 1964 to 1965 he ran a show on radio station WBAI of interviews with and readings by poets. (It was terminated a few weeks before the completion of its contract because of the—even more than usually—"strong" language of one of his participating friends, LeRoi Jones.) It was Blackburn's idea to move the readings at Le Metro Café to St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, and he was instrumental in establishing what officially became (and still continues as) the Poetry Project there in 1966. He was an indefatigable attender of all types of poetry readings, and he carried his large, double-reel tape-recorder with him wherever he went; his tape collection, now at the University of California, San Diego, is probably the best oral history of the New York poetry scene from the late 1950s up until 1970. And through all this Blackburn continued, with increased demand for his services, to do what he had done since the early 1950s: serve as a kind of unofficial one-man reception committee for poets coming into the city. He helped them get readings, gave them advice about publication, gave them practical assistance in such matters as finding jobs and places to stay. These activities—which also included such less successful schemes as trying to get poetry placed in juke boxes across the country—attest to Blackburn's commitment to making a reality his belief in a genuine community of poets.
The poems written during this period provide a graph of American life on the left in the 1960s. The pieces Blackburn wrote against the Vietnam War focus particularly on the way in which the government originated and maintained the war through deliberate distortions of language. There are satirical reports on sports events and the space program: "Laurel," for example, probes the economic superstructures of horseracing and "Newsclips 2." takes a literal look at the men inside the space suits. We get news of the music scene in the wonderful jazz variations inspired by "Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five-Spot," and of the poetry world in "Torch Ballad for John Spicer: d. 8/17/65."
But into these songs of active engagement with world events and with the art scene there increasingly enters a counter-strain of bitterness and despair. Images of helplessness, passivity, and death begin to proliferate. Love, friendship, the meaningfulness of the past—all eventually come into doubt. Even faith in the constructive powers of poetry, literally and metaphorically demonstrated in the impressive edifice of "The Watchers" in 1963, is eroded. Less than three years later Blackburn says, in one of his "Sixteen Sloppy Haiku" dedicated to writer Robert Reardon:
Love is not enuf
A body of work which had always stressed the importance of alertness and attention now shows a strong drive toward eliminating, or at least diminishing, consciousness.
"What do you do about love?" Blackburn's friend Joel Oppenheimer asks him in "The Answer." Blackburn had already replied earlier in "Two Songs for the Opp": "Stay drunk ... / then you'll never have to know / if the girl loves you or no." The advice about this particular consciousness-reducing method is often followed in poems populated by men who sit in bars together, sometimes talking about baseball, often not talking at all. In one of the best of these pieces, based on an Andy Capp cartoon strip, Blackburn elaborates on the character's misguided effort to explain his presence at a wake:
He t'ought it were a weddin but
The drive toward relinquishing consciousness is likely the impetus as well for the group of dream poems written from 1963–67. Earlier, Blackburn had incorporated dream sequences into his work—see, for example, "Park Poem"—but now for the first time entire poems are based on dream transcriptions. "At the Well," the most successful of them, expresses the dreamer's desire to rid himself of civilization's discontents. At one point he longs to join the group of mute tribesman who come to him "at the edge of the desert" and with them
terrify the towns, the villages
Such atavistic impulses, ultimately rejected at the end of "At the Well," resurface in the first significant group of poems to retreat into the past, both that of Blackburn's childhood ("Concomitants," "Hesper Adest") and a rather romanticized version of America's past ("The Old Days," "Ritual XIII: The Shot"). The child's vulnerability in the first group throws light on the man's machismo in the second. Experimentation with "found" poetry ("Ya Lift a Cold One") and purely associative verse ("The Pain") are other progeny of this period of decontrol.
Not all of these mid-1960s poems are successful. Some are needlessly cryptic; others, fatalistic or simply morose. But some pieces derive a strong evocative power from their lack of clear external referents:
KEEP no names that give us not
The desire for death, described as "that softness we rut toward," is made more palatable here by its projection unto unfamiliar, mythic terrain. Then, too, if this non-sober lurch toward the past is responsible for such darkly comic poems as "The Assassination of President McKinley"—which might boast, among its other attributes, being the only poem in the language to contain the phrase "schluk-schluk"—we have reason to be grateful.
Whatever the cause—the dissolution of his second marriage, the imminence of return to scenes of a retrospectively happier past, or the shipboard romance with his third wife-to-be, Joan Miller—almost immediately after embarking for Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in September 1967, Blackburn experienced a psychic or spiritual renewal, made incarnate in a poetic form he soon came to designate "journals." The pieces written in this form are generally longer and more discursive than his earlier work; they tend to be divided into discrete, if related, sections, and to cover a relatively wide time-range—days, or even weeks. Chronicles of everyday life—and the public, reportorial sense of Blackburn's chosen term should be kept in mind—the journals came increasingly to use a wide variety of structures, including prose, to capture its textures. Final evidence of Blackburn's continual struggle, often with himself, to extend the boundaries of what could be considered poetry's fit subject and form, the journals offer bits and pieces of his own sights and insights as examples.
The journals and other poems of this period selectively detail the final four years of Blackburn's life. After his 1967–68 year in Europe, with a brief interim return to the U. S. South for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship reading and teaching tour of black universities, Blackburn spent two years back in New York City teaching in City College's pre-baccalaureate SEEK program, at Mannes School for Music, and at the New School for Social Research. In these years he translated Pablo Picasso's long, surrealistic poem Hunk of Skin (City Lights, 1968) and Julio Cortázar's Cronopios and Famas (Pantheon, 1969). In addition to his continued local poetry activities—to cite just one, he helped set up the reading series at Dr. Generosity's coffeehouse—he began accepting increasingly frequent invitations to give out-of-town readings. The birth of a son, Carlos, to Joan Blackburn in 1969 changed the family's census status but not their way of life. Within weeks of Carlos's birth the three took an extended cross-country trip in the Gaucelm Faidit Uzerchemobile, the VW van Blackburn bought in Europe and named after the portliest of the troubadours.
What had promised to be a relatively quiet year of teaching at the State University of New York, Cortland, turned active in a new and terrible way within months of the family's move upstate. In December 1970 Blackburn was diagnosed as having cancer of the esophagous. A series of radiation treatments proved ineffective against (and perhaps accelerated) the disease, but at least, as the poetry shows, neither they nor the cancer seriously curtailed Blackburn's routines until the very end. Journals written little more than a month before his death in Cortland on September 13, 1971 record Blackburn's still-acute observations of the events at the National Poetry Festival in Allendale, Michigan.
In typically paradoxical fashion, however, there is a retrospective cast to poems written long before Blackburn learned of his illness. In the 1967 European journals, Blackburn the seasoned traveler alludes with some irony to the poems Blackburn the neophyte poet had written some ten years earlier in Europe. The fourth section of "The Glorious Morning" quotes lines from the 1957 "La Vieille Belle" describing the same rainy reception by the same city at the same time of year: "September, O Christ, Paris . tout a fait normal." Now, however, he notes in words he would not have used in the much more romantic earlier poem, that the Place Dauphine-en-L'Isle is "all fucked up by construction." Setting the original 1956 "Plaza Real with Palmtrees" against his 1968 "Second Take" of the Spanish square, the terms of the change are clarified: the first poem is like a Greek vase, figures poised, potential but frozen, while the second is more akin to a contemporary painterly canvas, full of movement and boldly displaying the artist's brushstrokes.
By the last year of his life Blackburn was using the journals form exclusively, but before then, and particularly during the year in Europe, he was still writing what he liked wryly to distinguish as "poems." A number of these poems, later slated by him for the posthumously published Halfway Down the Coast, show an intense preoccupation with death that predates by almost three years any conscious knowledge of illness, and that differs, in its bitterness and ferocity, from the resigned fatalism of the mid-1960s poems. In spite of what must be seen here as an exacerbation of Blackburn's usual association of death and love, he seems concomitantly to have arrived at the metaphorical middle ground of the collection's title poem. At least the possibilities of reciprocity and nurturing, expressed only jokingly in the poem's final punning line—"And love? What is that many-faceted mother?"—are taken up seriously in some of the later domestic journals. "Journal April 19: The Southern Tier," for example, asserts the value of setting aside destructive memories of past relationships in order to make way for new ones.
When they do come in, in the last 30 or so poems, Blackburn's reactions to his illness are much like his reactions to other bad news: wry, ironic, bitter, for the most part resigned. He also treats the subject with characteristic delicacy—not lightness, but deftness and subtlety. Apropos of waiting for death, in "Journal 26 . VI . 71 The News," Blackburn writes that it is "NOTHING I CAN'T STAND"—only to admit in the next line "I don't believe that, either." His penchant for the self ironic and mock-heroic underplays the genuine strength that lies precisely in his ability to resist being heroic. These final poems attest to Blackburn's rare gift for precision without reductionism, his talent for resisting all definitive solutions save musical ones in his poetry.
The same intellectual openness and flexibility may have been responsible too for Blackburn's avoidance throughout his life of any strict adherence to a single belief system. Neither purely rationalistic nor rigorous in his spiritual views, Blackburn used transcendent or religious symbology—often out of the Catholicism of his youth, but also from Greek mythology, Celtic goddess-cults, alchemical lore, and Buddhism—to suit particular poetic purposes. His last poems continue to play with the possibilities. At one moment he employs liturgical Christian language in describing himself as
a doomed man planting tomatoes
("Journal: June 1971 110 in the Shade")
and in the next he dismisses the entire system, asserting acidly in "Untitled (We cannot agree)" that "There are no resurrections planned."
If any controlling idea can be gleaned from this collection of Blackburn's work, it might well be the one he expressed mid-career in "Pre-Lenten Gestures":
Every organic thing, o philosophers, man
Such a belief would account for both the fatalism of the poetry and the potentiality for significance Blackburn saw, and made others see, in the most mundane things. At its best, the work offers a feeling like Blake's "Everything is holy."
Perhaps the only change in Blackburn's eschatological views at the end is the result of the perceived loneliness and "otherness" of death. Many of the last poems wishfully project familiar, anthropocentric afterlives. In "Journal : 26 . V . 71 The News" Blackburn asks a friend, "Will I talk to you then, fill / yr / ears with words" only to retreat bravely in the next line, "Let / each man's words be his own." In the next-to-final sequence, heaven is humorously imagined as a kind of ideal poetry festival, with Blackburn still in charge of smoothing the proceedings. These visions of death are entirely in keeping with the final representations of his life. The last journals find Blackburn reading poetry, attending poetry readings and festivals, directing nearly all his farewells toward poet friends.
Clearly Blackburn did not so much allow his life to enter his poetry as—to an unusual degree—allow poetry to enter his life. It was not only the astounding amount of time he spent involved with poetry and poets, but also the quality of attention he consistently gave everyday occurrences. Early on, in "The Routine," he transformed a bleak winter interior into a spring garden by leaving an onion to sprout in his kitchen cabinet; to the end he retained his gift for seeing ordinary things anew. In the second-to-last journal he reappraises the formerly disparaged hollyhocks of his youth: "Those delicate blooms. The awkward stems. The hairy leaves." Although his ear was also unfailing, it would be difficult to refute his perception of his impending death as, most of all, an obscuring of sight. "Journal Nov/Dec . 1970," the poem in which Blackburn obliquely announces his illness, opens: "The darkness wins here." But finally it doesn't, at least not for long. Not here, in these poems.
2. Almost from the start there developed a symbiosis between Blackburn's poetry and his translations from the Provençal. He brought to the troubadours the rhythms and idioms of American speech; they gave him much of his knowledge of lyrical tone and poetic form. Proensa, a small collection of Blackburn's Provençal translations, was published by Robert Creeley's Majorca-based Divers Press in 1953. A larger anthology was accepted by Macmillan Co. in 1958, but Blackburn was never able to complete it to his satisfaction, and Macmillan finally abandoned the project in 1961. The excellent translations of troubadour verse on which Blackburn worked for nearly twenty years were not published as a group until after his death (Proensa, ed. George Economou, Univ. of California, 1978). ^
3. Some of Blackburn's Lorca translations were published in Origin, New Directions, and Evergreen Review during these years. Blackburn / Lorca, a collection of these and later translations, was published posthumously (Momo's Press, 1979). ^
4. Look, for example, at the rhetoric of Olson's 1951 "Projective Verse" essay: "[Poetry] is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it...the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points. ... " ^