from Poetics and Polemics (forthcoming)
A Pre-Face for Paul Blackburn
So I find it hard to trace the changes from when I first saw him, busy about his work of 1958, at one of the many poetry series he would initiate then & later. This one was in the Café Borgia—Bleecker & MacDougal, if you remember, across from the legendary San Remo & Figaro, which latter I had frequently inhabited from college years: a gathering place for tourists & others until its transformation into ice-cream parlor circa 1970 & resurrection some years later. The Borgia readings were ephemeral (like so many others) but the poetry was solid, & on the day I sighted Paul there, Denise Levertov was reading (my first hearing of her work), over which Paul officiated: clean-shaven, boyish, aloof (I thought) & serious under heavy-rimmed glasses, showing his customary attention to the enterprise at hand.There was something he was fussing about that day, something that seemed to agitate him, but what it was I can’t remember, or can’t be certain if it wasn’t already the business of getting it down on tape, say, as he always did later. But I know he was counting the house & was making sure, if the hat was passed around, that the right words would be spoken: to make things well.
No one I knew could match him in that regard: in the easy professionalism of his gestures, his devotion to phantom benevolent organizations of poets, his vagabond teaching & learning among peers: a trick he may have borrowed from the old troubadours & would restore to us. That was the first thing to be learned or shared: that urge of a generation to set up a new life in which poetry became a likely occupation & the extension of a gentle life-style among friends. For myself too, I learned from him (& no one before had so convinced me) that natural speech & attention to line & line-breaks (heard as movement of the voice) were possible poetic ventures; & at the same time, at a more profoundly human level, his was the model of a poet who, Octavio Paz admiringly told me in a taxi ride from Paul’s place early in the 1960s, spoke of his contemporaries with great generosity & (except for one point of deep disappointment) with less rancor than any I would ever meet (“The mark of a wonderful poet,” Octavio said, or words to that effect: “the way that the wonderful poets must be” & too often weren’t.)
It was in that manner that he continued to travel through the world, & in particular through New York: the city he had come to as a young kid from Vermont & where he had grown up to become a reigning poet—though without the title in that “New York school” as such. He was differently tuned to New York from the “school” poets, traveled in it further: to the bridges & compromised outskirts of Brooklyn via BMT; or the good unfashionable bakery at 24th & Third, where we used to meet for lunch; or riding the Staten Island Ferry a century past Whitman, where he would have myopic “visions” of the moon, before returning home to 15th Street, or Spring Street, or 7th Street above McSorley’s Ale House. I wouldn’t even try to catalog his places & his people, American & European both, & the other times & places that his mind, by contrast, set them up against with so much intelligence and grace: Provence & Barcelona & terrible Toulouse: a sense of time that saw the history of alphabets scrawled on the sides of industrial cranes & caterpillar tractors:
earth / debris / & schist, the stud/stuff of the island
is moved by this
it does not rain . smoke, the
Who could be more the New York poet than he who knew the three or four taverns of Manhattan, circa 1960, where Ballantine’s ale was served on tap, or could lead you to every lower east-side bar that had Ukrainian music on the jukebox? For us who were also urban-bred he was our final, fateful connoisseur of cities.
And part of that concern, I think, was to find a place for the poet to take a stand within the city: an arena in which the friends could gather & where they wouldn’t have to keep apart but could share in the rhythm of the surrounding world. The entry of poetry into new places pleased him—but particularly places for other uses: a bar at best, although a coffee-shop was also reasonable, or (faute de mieux) a church. He was always on the lookout: got mixed into the group that started circa 1960, at Mickey Ruskin’s 10th Street Coffee Shop, moved to the Deux Megots on 7th Street, the Metro on Second Avenue, & later to St. Mark’s Church just up the block. Each stop on the way was important in the creation of a nexus: a subtle network of poets too diverse in their explorations to ever make a “school”—although the Church would later be the center for a younger “New York School” or lend itself, for better or worse, to such a designation. But by then circumstances had intervened & had separated him from that enterprise, which the initial heavy funding (from HEW, etc.) had turned overnight into a large-scale “poetry project.” To the organization created thereby, although his energies had set it in motion, he afterwards remained a stranger: often passing by but never really moved to enter in-the-spirit.
His own attentions in that sense turned to a number of bars around the city, in which the enterprise as he knew it could continue: first to Max’s Kansas City (for readings on Sundays) & Doctor Generosity’s (Saturdays), & later (though he may have been away from N.Y.C. by then, a visitor on weekends) to St. Adrian’s Company on Lower Broadway. A string of reading places he didn’t live to complete, they were his final gift to us—although he preferred even more than in the late Metro, early St. Mark’s days, to stand back & oversee the operation without making himself too frontal. But as long as he remained in New York (before the last gig at SUNY-Cortland, where the cancer overtook him), he couldn’t truly keep himself hidden but went always through old familiar motions: checking the sound levels, recording & amassing that incredible collection of tapes, taking his turn with introductions, drinking with friends, etc.
The last time I saw him at a New York reading was at Dr. Generosity’s: his own on a trip to the city, winter of 70/71, when I was myself ready to leave for a quarter of teaching out in San Diego. Not only in retrospect, but at that time too, there was a sense that something different was happening. Maybe that he mentioned not feeling too well, that he drank as heavily as he did even while reading, apologized to us for poems that “weren’t poems” (though speaking hopefully about a turn the work was taking, toward a greater sense of earth & totem beings), seemed about to cry (I thought), & when we parted, in that crowded room, hugged me & asked about my health & future, but so strangely that I spoke about it later: as if he wasn’t asking about me but a whole world (I now think) that was turning sick & fading.
“Not a bad year on the whole though,” he wrote in a letter he sent a few months later to tell about the cancer. He wanted to keep on & didn’t take lightly to dying & leaving it behind. When we saw him early that summer at the Michigan poetry festival, he had grown skeletal & could barely keep his food down—although he managed somehow with the Spanish brandy & the defiant Picayunes he kept on smoking. The big tape recorder seemed an almost impossible burden, but he lugged it around as ever & went about the business he set for himself how many years before. (That & the ping-pong match he beat us all at were the two main facts that I remember.) And when I came to visit for the first time during the last weeks at Cortland, it was my own voice I heard from upstairs, singing a horse-song on a tape he’d made in Michigan & still was into cataloging. You don’t fuse your life with that of the old troubadours & easily forget those acts of cortesia—even dying.
But generosity was the name of the place, as it was truly of the game he played. His poems will all be published someday, & the achievement (which his own strange diffidence would often hide) will loom large in retrospect, while the other accomplishments, because they don’t exist on paper, will fade with time. Where other poets made their after-hours contributions as “editors” & “critics,” Paul’s way was to organize the oral part of the enterprise, over that remarkable & terribly short span of years. And it’s to that side of his career that I would want these words to be a homage.
Revised from an earlier version for inclusion in Carol Bergé’s projected Light Years: An Anthology of Artists’ Memoirs from NY’s East Village Avant-Garde Arts in the 1960s. Final version published in Jerome Rothenberg, Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press, 2008).