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Laurie Duggan

“ Mister P.B.” — on Paul Blackburn

THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY — even when it allows for amphetamines, smashed cars, and parked tigers* — is often a high language. Its conventions become like the diatonic scale:  an aid to writing music, but not the guarantor of music. Sometimes a poetry can appear so “ effortless” that its critics assume there’s been no effort, or ignore it — ignoring also perhaps one who doesn’t set himself up as an avatar (and the person who writes this kind of poetry is hardly likely to). And what can you say about the ease of a work like In, On or About the Premises (1968)?

The blind man with the Wallace Beery
whiskey voice keeps bawling
“ Mary!
tells Aunt Ella:
                        “ Feel that bread!
                        I gave pigs
                        better bread
                        when I had pigs
                        Pennsylvania 1918."

                        “ When?” says Aunt Ella.

                        “ 1918!” and he
                                   knocks over his glass of Pepsi.

                         ("Scoffing It")

These moments are clear, precise, beautiful, with none of that juggling for effect that characterises lesser writers. Paul Blackburn calls into question, as any really good poet does, the notion of “ slightness". What is “ slight"?  Sappho? Catullus?  A man falling down is as worthy a subject as the Fall Of Man, and the lightest things will last — witness the song Wordsworth heard. Witness Thomas Wyatt. If you want to live forever, shed your baggage.

Paul Blackburn

“ I like", saith the poet, “ French food, Greek wines, Spanish cognac and Italian women. (My) tastes are broad and indelicate: (I) would gladly settle for Italian food, French wines, Spanish cognac and Greek women.” He admires “ California for its greenness and Utah for its rocks and aridity; Zen Buddhists for their waterfalls and the Hopi Indians for having determined that certain parts of New Mexico and Arizona are the center of the world, a conclusion with which he agrees."

What operates on such a poet? Provençal, which he translated at length (see Proensa, a book started in the early fifties and constantly revised and added to). The Provençal bards taught Blackburn to sing. His poems, careless of appearance, generate an intense music:

Mercury! Post of Heaven, you old thief, deliver me
from this ravel-streeted, louse-ridden, down-river,
gutter-sniping, rent-gouging, hard-hearted,
           complacent provincial town,
where they have forgotten all that made this country the
belly of courage, the body of beauty, the hands of heresy,
the legs of the individual spirit, the heart of song!

                        That mad Vidal would spit on it,
                        that I as his maddened double
                        do  -  too
                        changed, too changed, o
                        deranged master of song,
                        master of the viol and the lute
                        master of these sounds,
                        I join you in public madness,
                        in the street I piss
                        on French politesse

that has wracked all passion from the sound of speech . . . . .


For music, who to look to in the early fifties but Pound, William Carlos Williams (the ever present), and jazz. In Blackburn’s poetry there is the improvisatory ease you’d find in a Dexter Gordon. Take “ Ciao", which is at once Sappho and mid-century cool:

I’m sorry
life was tranquil (sort of)

“ when you but lifted the glove of one white hand"


Or take the way familiar lines are dropped into a poem with an effortlessness which renders them appropriate in a very different context:

Watching her high backside sway and swish down that
street of tattoo artists, franks, 12 inches long, past
                                              the wax museum and a soft
drink stand     with its white inside,
I stepped beside her and said:  "Let’s
fling that old garment of repentance, baby!"
                                              smitten, I
hadn’t noticed her 2 brothers were behind me

                                              Horseman, pass by

Eliot, Frost, Yeats &c have become gestures, like blackface note-for-note imitations of Louis Armstrong, in the work of bad poets. The powerful, brilliant and inventive declines to cuteness — and one way to give things a shove in the right direction is to undermine their talismanic efficacy. So a trumpeter like Lester Bowie can cavort, showmanlike, in a white lab coat and blast all else off stage: it is love and criticism and righteous anger become one.

Poems in P.B.’s first book, The Dissolving Fabric (1955) often sound like a Charles Reznikoff poem in which third has become first person:

Returning from the funeral
                    I saw her and liked her. The air
was very quiet
                    near spring.

For a week I had opportunity to flirt;
and the last three days of the second week,
fortunate enough to share certain
                                   spaces with her.

                      ("The Funeral")


. . . in the shallow doorway of
a shop on Third Avenue, between
                                   the dark and the streetlight,
it was the trail of the likewise drinking-man who preceded me
                                   that gave me courage.

                      ("The Assistance")

The comparison is not purely arbitrary; there are similar kinds of attention at work, picking up the minutiae of sidewalk life and casting them in shapes which are casual and rock-solid at once, like Imagism going for a walk after a few drinks.

Pound would doubtless have provided an introduction to the Provençal oeuvre. The bardic elements ring clear in the early work of both poets and became an essential part of whatever either moved on into. Pound’s groundwork is present in the invocation of “ The Birds":

but now I know what thing is worth the having
and fear the imperfection in my singing . . . . .

I no longer fear to ask much of the gods.
                            It has taken me a long time to realise
I want them to come here
I want to see them here.

But Blackburn moved on, further into the Provençal canon, so that it became the single most important influence on his own work.

A short poem by an American contemporary (as concerned with music as P.B.) reads:

Protect the mysteries!
Reveal them constantly!

                      (Lew Welch: “ The Mysteries")

So the convoluted wit of:

To be a spot-headed cat on a forked tree
is to be inversely what my baby is to me

moves to:

Women are vowels       I hear the crashing wave
“I am the queen and hope of every hive ”

it could kill you


The balances between laughter, love and death are as fine and as clear as the 12th century masters would have it, before the atomistic distinctions between genres spoiled the fun. Though the costs of such attentions are measured here.

I want pity from no one for a pain
                                   I would share with no man

The lines from Jaufre Rudel, which Blackburn appends to one of his last authorial statements, take these costs long distances from the self-obsessed wallowings of a Lowell or a Berryman. It is a bardic confidence — “ not of the poet but through him” which leads to a “ lightness” (or lack of heavyness); the load is not upon the reader’s shoulders.

Detail of the ordinary, not the display of erudition or quirky invention from the poet, gives these works life. Blackburn is not a colonist imposing order by image, but a mouth through which things are sung. In, On or About the Premises sets its two sequences in a bar ("The Ale House Poems") and in a restaurant ("The Bakery Poems"). The delicacy which characterises Blackburn’s work is very apparent in the final poem:

It’s going to rain
Across the avenue a crane
whose name is
                        CIVETTA LINK-BELT
dips, rises and turns in a
        graceless geometry

        But grace is slowness / as
ecstasy is some kind of speed or madness /
The crane moves slowly, that
much it is graceful / The men
        watch and the leaves

Cranes make letters in the sky

("The Watchers")

Lightness, playfulness, bring into balance a civil engineering project and the origins of the alphabet (and in there, Pound’s “ slowness is beauty").

                The men watch
           LINK-BELT move up its load, the
           pile to the left near 24th St., the
           permanent erection moves
           slow-ly almost sensually, al-most
The scholar’s function / fact   .   Let him quarry
cleanly / leave the building to us / Poems
nicked with a knife onto the bark of a stick (Hesiod)
     or upon tablets of clay

And the whole — a mind moving on paper — and a mind which is several sheets to the wind at once contains and enacts. This is no display of spoon-fed information.

The watchers leave the construction site,
the men leave their machines
             At 323 Third Avenue
             an old drunk (Hyginus)
sits in a doorway and downs a whole
pint of Sacramento Tomato Juice

                                             The watchers are the gods

                                             The leaves burgeon

When Paul Blackburn died, aged forty-six, in 1971, little of his work was available. The only easily obtainable volume (then) — The Cities  (Grove, 1967) — contained less than half of its original manuscript. Since then a number of small books have come out, notably from Black Sparrow and Mulch presses, but a collected edition has yet to appear. [This piece was published in 1986. Ed.] When it does, a remarkable oeuvre will become fully apparent: work which will live outside exegetical fashion, as mysterious and as clear as ever....

The bricklayer tells the busdriver
and I have nothing to do but listen:

Th’holdup at the liquor-store, d’ja hear?
            a detective
watch’t’m for ten minutes
            He took it anyway
            Got away down Broadway                     Yeah?

                             And me:

                                     the one on the Circle?
Yeah?  I was in there early tonight.

                              The continuity.
          A dollar forty-
two that I spent on a bottle of wine
is now in a man’s pocket going down Broadway.

Thus far the transmission is oral.

Then a cornerboy borrows my pencil
to keep track of his sale of newspapers.

                      ("The Continuity")

The poems will take their place. Not shadow boxes, baby, but Two Vast & Trunkless Legs of Stone.

L.D., 1986

Proensa ed. George Economou, University of California Press, 1978.
The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn (ed. Edith Jarolim. N.Y., Persea, 1985) had in fact appeared by the time this article was written. It is an essential book for anyone interested in Blackburn’s work. Nonetheless it is not an ideal text and its presentation of the poems in chronological order loses in the process some of the sequences Blackburn did have control over. The best initial approach to his work may still be through the few volumes published in his lifetime. [L.D.]

* to “ park the tiger” = to vomit, Australian slang, circa 1970

Laurie Duggan
Laurie (Laurence) Duggan is an Australian poet. This piece was first published in Scripsi magazine, Melbourne, volume 4 number 2, November 1986.

Photograph of Laurie Duggan
by John Tranter, 1982

Photograph of Paul Blackburn courtesy Joan Miller-Cohn

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