Some of the best of our poetry comes out of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the discoveries of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound were approaching full realization in the work of a group of younger writers intent on keeping the language equally true, fresh and alive. One of the talented young progressives of that period was New York poet Paul Blackburn, whose early allegiance to Williams and Pound (both of whom he'd befriended by mail while still a college student) had brought him into contact with writers of his own generation like Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Along with Olson, Creeley and other writers of the Black Mountain group, Blackburn devoted himself to exploring and extending the Pound/Williams breakthrough--in so doing, creating a whole new terrain for American poetry.
That's one area of the culture where the maps keep changing constantly, however. By the 1970s, Blackburn's innovative work was already hard to find, scattered through ephemeral, often out-of-print volumes that hadn't been easy to turn up even when new. Reading Blackburn became impossible for anyone lacking the hours (or the dollars) of a serious collector. All that changes now, with the 523 poems lovingly and laboriously assembled by Edith Jarolim into this copious "Collected"--a book that gives us the first organized body of work by which to assess this prolific writer.
Blackburn died in 1971, at age 44, of a cancer that came almost as an objectification of the longing for unconsciousness, the deathward swoon, expressed in much of his later poetry. "Suffering is what happens/when you can't feel what is there," he'd written in the poem "Repetitions." "Suffering is induced, imposed, asked for. Liquor, drugs/are understandable attempts to not feel/pain." For this poet committed to the ideal of Eros, Death was the ultimate lover, a final tunnel of extinction "at spur's end" beyond the "nets of lust" and the last BMT stop--releasing one into "the jaw of what softness we rut toward . . . To roll into it/and stay there warm" ("Baggs").
The vision in many of Blackburn's poems may be as dark as a subway tunnel, but the voice is always clear. His early immersion in the regular-guy, man-on-the-street discourse of William Carlos Williams (experienced tough guy wearing heart on T-shirt sleeve, tucked in next to pack of Camels) had a permanently salutary effect, keeping Blackburn's poems as honestly expressive and democratically engaging as the pluralistic urban society whose surfaces they reflect. Confidential, wry, knowing, but somehow modest--the Blackburn voice is always there, as easy to trust as a loyal friend.
Blackburn kept the man-on-the-street modesty as his standard. "To write poems, say,/is not a personal achievement," he suggests in one poem, thereby dismissing his own years of careful practice with a single calculated shrug, as if to say, "anyone can do it." (But of course, anyone can't, as Blackburn well knew.) Or again: "Poems will not do./It is a kind of minuteness of application of whatever blessed/things the goddess has put in our hands." ("Winter Solstice").
Blackburn found that his own dalliance with "the goddess," both in her divine and too-human manifestations, brought its special costs. "Wounded so many times by love" in his poems, in real life he went through three wives and numerous temporary attachments, repeatedly bouncing back up, only to be pulled down into the whirlpool-vertigo of love (or "lust," as he called it in an unconscious echo of his Catholic upbringing) all over again.
It was as if not only in poetry but in reality Blackburn had to live out the Provencal troubadour poet-lover's fate of heart-loss and perpetual victimization at the feet of the remote, cruel, Unkind Lady. Adopting this troubadour persona as a distancing device for a mock-plaintive lyricism, he used poetry to give him courage in love, and vice versa--remaining willing to "risk/that evil thing/wherein our own heart go forth from us," even though wise enough to acknowledge that "Love is a weakness, a/sickness, a fear & a terror." ("O Do That Medieval Thing Again, Baby").
In his last years, Blackburn abandoned the strict form of his poems in favor of a looser-structured kind of verse "journal," which gradually became a diaristic catch-all for his daily doings, domestic life, travels and creative process. This increasingly painful poetic home movie keeps rolling almost to the bitter end, as we see the dying poet surveying his wasted body in the bath, "waiting for the ache . . . to go away."
"Let/each man's words be his own," he writes a few months before death, echoing the close of one of his finest early poems, "The Dissolving Fabric," about a suicide: "she possessed her own life, and took it." The self-possession always to be found at the center of Blackburn's poetry, holding it all together with a steady, controlled presence, was the last thing to leave him. In the poems, it remains.