To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: The Cities by Paul Blackburn
So you walk into a used bookstore on Shattuck and head over to the poetry section and scan the spines for anything that might not have been there the last time you looked. You have most of the Chinese poets, and the anthology edited by Watson and Chaves you also own, but in paper. The great unknowns of literature are taking up space, cheekily, with the newly greats or the for-the-time-being greats, history doth reserve its judgment, and the all time greats. So many names that you never heard of before nor will you ever again. Then a thin sky blue spine catches your eye, and the old Grove Press logo, always a sign of something interesting, and as you fold it down into your hand, you see that it is The Cities by Paul Blackburn. Flipping through the pages you notice that someone has written comments in the margins of some of the poems, and though you agree with Steiner that an avid reader always has a pencil close by, this is blue ballpoint pen. The crabbed scrawl is enough to make you slip the volume back onto the shelf until you spy the previous owner’s name on the fly leaf and realize that you hold in your hand a literary artifact.
The Cities is probably Paul Blackburn’s best known and most accessible selection of poems. Blackburn, born in Vermont in 1926, was the son of Frances Frost, herself a poet and children’s book author. While studying at the University of Wisconsin in his early twenties, he began a correspondence with Ezra Pound, and through Pound connected with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Cid Corman and Jonathan Williams. And it is with these poets that he became associated with The Black Mountain School, and its magazine Black Mountain Review. Blackburn was also noted for his translations from the Provençal of troubadour literature, from the Spanish of Lorca, and the South American poet, Julio Cortazar. Blackburn also played an important role in the late 50’s and 60’s in New York City by organizing readings of a diverse range of poets and tape recording those readings. The readings featured poets from various affiliations, including the Beats, the New York School, Deep Image Poets, and Black Mountain Poets. Although lumped in with The Black Mountain Poets in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry, Blackburn himself eschewed labels and continued to write and develop under the influence of seminal modern American poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams as well as that of his direct contemporaries. At the time of his death from cancer of the esophagus in 1971 at the age of 44, Blackburn was still exploring his range as a poet.
Flash forward some three decades from that day in the bookstore, and you find yourself in front of a bookcase again, this time your own, vowing to organize the books into some kind of order, not necessarily alphabetical, but certainly grouped by author so that the Berrigans, the Kerouacs, the Notleys, the Kygers, the Rexroths, the Whalens, and the Williams titles can be found within proximity of each other (Codrescu takes up a shelf to himself as do the Chinese and Japanese poets), and for that reason the sky blue Grove Press Blackburn can be located next to the Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn (a posthumous collection), and the rare edition of Blackburn’s translations of Lorca published by Momo’s Press in 1979. You hold the sky blue enigma and wonder why the poet who previously owned this book, known to guard his privacy with concertina wire, had let this one escape the burn bag of classified personally sensitive material.
The book itself is in fairly shabby condition and not just from age and shelf wear. It was battered when you bought it, the bottom edge discolored from having sustained the periphery of a spill, corners splayed from frequent thumbing. But it’s in the table of contents where the interior defacements begin, the titles of certain poems circled to give them mnemonic value.
One of the titles so circled is Phone Call To Rutherford. Anyone familiar with the modern American canon will know that the call is being made to 9 Ridge Rd. The poem itself is a verse transcription of the good Dr. Williams begging off a visit from the younger poet in the manner of the elder poet’s line breaks and eccentric punctuation. “—Bill, can you still/ answer letters?” the young poet queries. “my hands/ are tongue tied” the old poet replies, “You have. . .made/ a record in my heart./ Goodbye.” The poem is dated October, 1962. The previous owner has inscribed “A break for the heart. Adios” in blue ballpoint at the bottom perhaps suggesting an alternate ending or adding his sense of pathos to the affecting poem.
The next title circled is Sirventes. A sirventes is a form practiced by the troubadour poets of Languedoc that often lent itself to vitriolic parodies. Blackburn was encouraged by Pound to discover the Provençal poets for himself. He did numerous translations of troubadour poetry while living in New York City from 1950 to 1954 and, as a Fullbright scholar, lived and worked in Toulouse during the latter half of that decade. It was those translations, and those of Lorca, and of the Argentine poet Cortazar, that brought him to the attention of his contemporaries.
Sirventes opens with a translation from the Occitan of the epigraph. “I have made a sirventes against the city of Toulouse/ and it cost me a plenty of garlic”. So begins this wonderful rant, full of humor, wordplay and outrage at the insensible. Toward the end the poet calls upon the gods: “Jove, father, cast your bolts/ & down these bourgeois dolts” and “Hermes, keep my song/ from the dull rhythms of rain” and finally “Apollo, hurl your darts/ cleanse these abysmal farts”.
The next title is of the poem following, Song For A Cool Departure, to which the previous owner of this book has scribbled a curleque to highlight a particular stanza: “Shrubbery close to the track goes by so fact/ it hurts the eyes.”
The Cities numbers a hundred and fifty seven pages with the table of contents taking three pages to list the selected poems. Poem titles are also circled on the remaining two pages, and the previous owner has added his own penciled-in list of titles with their attendant page numbers. This, at first, is puzzling until you realize that there is a huge copy editing gaffe from the first page to the second page of the table of contents. Missing from reference in the contents are over two dozen poems! You wonder how long it took Grove Press to catch this mistake, if they ever did. And you now realize you own a book of poems by a poet you admire that was once owned by another poet you admire, but one of your own generation, and which contains examples of his orthography commenting and deictically pointing at some of the poems of a poet he obviously admired as well. This correspondence alone should be enough, but with the gap in the table of contents, it’s like finding a postage stamp that was printed upside down! Now not only is it a literary artifact but one whose copy editing or production oversight has rendered it unusual if not rare.
Once into the texts of the poems, the notes, commentary, additions, and revisions are fairly fast and loose with not a few guffaws and winks. The poem City Sunset has written in parentheses next to the title “(Beach Boys)”. The poem could be transported to the West Coast to the strains of surf music, emphasized by the last lines “O/ dance/ with me!” Another pop music reference is noted at the bottom of the poem entitled The Unemployment Bureau: “(cf, The Kinks “Contenders” etc.)”. In the poem Poor Dog, the line “The silly-assed hard-drinking nights of our youth” has been underlined and continued with the scrawled “who built them?” And in the poem Darkness is on the World, the word “glot” is circled with a question mark in the line “I glot toward bed” and perhaps rightfully so.
Paul Blackburn is an important transitional poet in the American poetry revolution of the latter half of the 20th Century, and in the evolution of a unique American canon. Not quite in the Beat camp, but an intellectual maverick all the same, Blackburn followed Olson’s lead in the idea that the poem was a transcription of the spoken word and that the typewriter was the author’s tool for inscribing it on the open field of the page. His poems are noteworthy in that they exhibit concerns and attitudes in poetry that would be championed in the work of a succeeding generation, particularly those associated with the second wave New York School.
Blackburn didn’t make a big noise, preferring to work behind the scenes, promoting other poets of his generation, and those of the following, by hosting a number of readings at various coffee houses throughout New York City. His legacy is continued in The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, the last location to which he lent his name. From that space has developed one of the most influential poetry venues for unaffiliated poets in the US, still going strong some 50 years later.
You heft the sky blue distraction and flip it over to realize that in all the time you have owned this volume of Blackburn’s poems you can’t recall ever reading the back cover blurb, as if you hadn’t needed convincing, that you knew all along the importance of this poet. What it states doesn’t surprise: you already knew that Blackburn was a “poet of great range and mastery of tone” and that he could invest “the wispiest fragment of overheard conversation with grace and power.” In the exercise of his craft, his measure is “fluid, easy and continually shifting,” employing “words with a precision that lifts the poem precisely at the point where he wants to lay in comment, irony, or humor.” This is undoubtedly where much of your own work, and that of the previous owner’s, draws its example. Fitting The Cities back onto the shelf with its companion volumes, you understand a little better how you came to be here, and that it is probably enough for now.
New To The Society’s Shelves:
Sandy Berrigan, Grasp Bird’s Tail, 2015 (private edition)
Clifford Burke, Samish Bay Blues, Deer Creek, 2015
Sam Hamill, Basho’s Ghost, Carnegie Mellon, 2004
Ed Dorn, Yellow Lola, formerly Japanese Neon, Cadmus Editions, 1981
Max Blecher, Adventures In Immediate Irreality, (Preface by Andrei Codrescu)
New Directions, 2015
Poetry Project Newsletter 243, Spring 2015 (Ted Dodson, editor)
Fell Swoop 136/137, Spring 2015 (XJ Dailey, editor)
Wonderful rehabilitation of marginalia as the love of a reader for the writer. My first reading of a book on Kindle made me nauseous with underlined lines leading to ignorant reader comments — until I figured that could turn off the future. The used college book effect. Your essay reminded me of the intelligent use of marginalia, the feeling that you’re sharing with a kindred soul.
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