Baraka, Amiri, and Larry Neal, eds. Black Fire: An Anthology of
Afro-American Writing. New York: William Morrow, 1968. Gayle, Addison. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Dou-bleday, 1971.
Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic Reference. New York: William Morrow, 1973. Karenga, Ron. "Black Cultural Nationalism." In The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971, pp. 32-38.
Ama S. Wattley
BLACKBURN, PAUL (1926-1971) Paul
Blackburn is an indispensable figure in American poetry, not only for his innovations in poetic form but for his other contributions to the contemporary
American poetic community. His influences—which include Provençal troubadour poetry of the Middle Ages, Ezra pound, William Carlos Williams, Charles olson, and other figures of the black mountain school—were many, but, in turn, his influence on late 20th-century American poetry is an essential one. He was an important innovator in the contemporary sound and form of free verse, both on the page and in performance. He also shaped the public poetry reading as we know it today and helped make New York City a vital locale for poetry.
Blackburn was born in St. Albans, Vermont, where his mother, writer Frances Frost, left him to the repressive and sometimes violent care of his grandmother. At the age of 14, Frost took him to live with her in Greenwich Village in New York City. Blackburn went to New York University in 1947, where he studied with M. L. Rosenthal and discovered the work of Pound. In 1949 he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, from where he would hitchhike to Washington, D.C., to visit Pound, who introduced him to poets, such as Robert creeley. Blackburn's first book of translations of the medieval Provençal poetry, Proensa, was published in 1953, and his first collection of poetry, The Dissolving Fabric, was published in 1955, both by Creeley's Divers Press (see poetry presses). In 1954 Blackburn received a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of Toulouse in France. In 1956 he moved to Spain, where he began his lifelong translations of Federico García Lorca, published posthumously as Lorca/Blackburn. His other translations include Julio Cortazar's Blow-Up and Other Stories and Pablo Picasso's Hunk of Skin. While Blackburn neither attended nor taught at Black Mountain College, he briefly worked for Black Mountain Review and was grouped with the Black Mountain poets in Donald Allen's influential 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (see poetry anthologies). In 1967 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He taught at the State University of New York at Cortland and elsewhere.
Called by Daniel Kane "the man perhaps most responsible for developing a vibrant poetic community on the Lower East Side" (160), Blackburn organized a Wednesday Night reading series at Le Metro Café, which he suggested moving to St. Mark's Church in 1966, helping to create the still-extant Poetry Project. From 1964 to 1965, he ran a poetry radio show at WBAI. "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 1950s up until 1970," says Edith Jarolim (xxix).
Creeley, in his preface to Against the Silences (1980), says, "Paul was without question a far more accomplished craftsman than I" (11). Blackburn's ear for the poetic "breath" and his eye for how words should be spaced on a page were indeed remarkably acute. His ability, honed by his prodigious reading and translating, allowed him to revolutionize poetic form, integrating natural speech and everyday observations into a vibrant poetic space. "Brooklyn Narcissus" (1958), "Clickety-Clack" (1958/1960)—also an example of Blackburn's sometimes controversial attitude toward women—and "Meditation on the BMT" (1959) are examples of the "subway poem," a form Blackburn is credited with inventing. While these poems may at first appear to be loose, almost journalistic observations (see the journals), the intricate sound and placement of words on the page reveal the poems' craft. In "Brooklyn Narcissus," Blackburn cleverly echoes Robert FROST's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923): "But I have premises to keep / & local stops before I sleep."
"The Watchers" (1963) shows Blackburn's ability to discover significance within the small details of life. Ostensibly about construction workers operating a "CIVETTA LINK-BELT" crane, Blackburn sees poetry in the crane's "graceless geometry" and a reference to the avian crane's meaning to the ancient Greeks: "The crane moves slowly, that / much it is graceful." A sense of eternal, mythological time in human history is also expressed in "at the well" (1963), a poem of mysterious yet familiar desert figures who seem to indicate, somehow, the origin of human speech: "Can I offer them some sound / my mouth makes in the night?" This poem is one of the most striking examples of Blackburn's "ear," with complex off rhymes, typo graphical "pauses" in the form of spaces between periods and words, and unexpected line breaks.
Toward the end of his life, Blackburn wrote in a new poetic form that he titled "journals," which Jarolim calls "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" (xxxii). While in many ways the logical extension of Blackburn's interest in chronicling everyday details, the journals did indeed extend the boundaries of poetry and what was seen as acceptable poetic vocabulary and content, presenting acute and not always comfortable observations on the nature of his own illness, love, and mortality. In many ways, The Journals (1975) were the final push toward achieving a true equality of subject: Nothing should be beneath the interest of the poet, as all is equally compelling.
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