Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paul Blackburn and Sexism

How does one respond to sexism in poets whose work seems to be filled with it, like Blackburn?

The quick answer most people would give is: ignore it. Yet here I am, reading more and more, and yes, enjoying, the supposedly sexist work of Paul Blackburn and wondering why there isn't much if any criticism of his important work in the late 50s and 60s, when he served as gatekeeper and recorder of many readings which have helped establish the avant-garde presence and reading scene in New York as well as given us great historical insight into the poets associated at that time with the New York scene.  And of course I'm thinking about his poems, which kept him in the middle of things as a talent in his own right. It's not difficult, unfortunately to see why he's not read, and that makes me sad. His poetry is worth more than a few cursory footnotes to the era.

I've come to the conclusion now, after dipping into the collected poems at length, but randomly, and reading four or five of his individual books, that the majority of his work isn't sexist (unless every's man work is, which is another question entirely)but the places where it is sexist tower over every other consideration of the poems, which is really, really too bad.

In his 1968 book In* On* Or About the Premises, it takes only six poems before he sets readers back with a poem narrating through what, today, we could only describe as rape, though I'm sure Blackburn didn't think of the poem in this way. In an introduction to Parallel Voyages, a posthumous edition of some Blackburn poems the critic, poet, and friend of Blackburn Clayton Eshleman gives us an interesting way to read through this sexism, though it doesn't ultimately convince.
However, the facts, according to the poetry, seem to indicate that Paul’s sense of creative worth was exceptionally contingent upon sexual acceptance, very overtly in the case of women, and very covertly in the case of men. His antennae were lust-sensitive, and many poems are organized explicitly around an anonymous or intimately-known person who aroused him. As he approached his 40s, this point of imaginative ignition increasingly misfired, or did not spark at all, to the point that the pain of loving (himself as well as others) appears to have engulfed sexual gratification. In the chasm that began to appear as this single power gave way and divided was a morass of unresolvable childhood unhappiness.(all Eshleman quotes from http://tribute-airy.blogspot.com/2010/11/clayton-eshleman-on-paul-blackburn.html)
Well, without entering into Blackburn's psychological well-being and deciding to empathize or not with his life and outlook, I guess there's no way to read past the sexism, yeah? Bad childhood or no, a sexist is still a sexist, a poet is still a poet, but he or she has more complex reasons for their sexism, fair enough; it doesn't forgive them the point. But the Eshleman essay gives us a further nugget, in addition to the bad-childhood/bad marriage explanation.
[It] is worthwhile to think about what looked at superficially appears to be a heavy load of machoism in Blackburn’s poetry. Women are often signed, or identified, as sexual targets, and his seeming dependence on women for self-affirmation empowers them with overwhelming, sometimes menacing, psychic size.
This is another argument entirely. He's not sexist solely because of his bad childhood or unresolved identity issues, he's sexist because he's afraid of women. The logical extension of this theory might explain it all. Blackburn needs to prove his male power and rather than act on those power impulses or issues he relegates them to his poetic imagination and lets fly there, in the safe zone between poet and persona. This might work as explanation, too.

It could also be that his discussion of matters sexual (and sexist) harkens back to Blackburn's eye for detail: simple revelation of what he sees in himself and his relationships, which is part of the final points Eshleman makes.
A third kind of sexuality, and certainly the dominant one for the first half of Blackburn’s writing career, is an admiration and tender respect for what might be thought of as femininity in all forms. This motif is sounded again and again, as contact with women, animals (generally cats—the occasional dogs seem to indicate a negative male presence), and plants, and appears to envision a feminine principle as the force that provides the world with growth and beauty. When Blackburn is under the sway of this persuasion (generally in his apartment, in contrast to out on the street or in the New York City subway, he is fair-minded, masculine, and extremely sensitive.

It's true that the sexism present in Blackburn's poems became more present the older he got and the more cynical he got about his failed relationships, but we might not have seen that progression at all were it not for Blackburn's willingness to put himself on the page knowing full well the effect he might have on his readers, men and women alike. Given the time frame in which much of his work was written (the beginning tremors of the feminist movement and the turbulent 1960s) I'm pretty sure he was made aware of his shortcomings in this area, though I don't know that for a fact. How could you be unaware of the profound shift in cultural values, in New York City in 1968 especially, as centered as he was around the poetry scene?

I've come to no conclusion after all these words, sadly. I see the point: Blackburn is offensive to many people. I believe they rightly take up the cudgel against his sexism but ignore his considerable gifts and presence in poetic history, and 'canon editors' do the same by ignoring the large body of work in favor of lesser lights from the same time period. I urge them to rethink this position. In terms of his lineation alone, how the breath-line works in his poems, Paul Blackburn should be read. Whether he's read for the right reasons or not, I believe it's wrong to ignore him entirely, even if his life and point of view make it easy to do so. In youth we ignore our fathers only to find out later on that what they had to say was worthwhile in ways we had no recourse to know in our youths. I believe it's time to learn and know more about Blackburn, and to cement his place in the canon not just of the avant-whatevers, but in all of poetry.

A good first step would be another edition of his Collected (mistitled for sure, as it includes only 500 or so of the 1200+ poems Blackburn wrote) if only because the current book is organized chronologically, apart from the way Blackburn organized them into his published books. Then, maybe someone could take up a biography. Right now, as his persona non grata status remains quo, we're doing poetic history a grave disservice by not including his work, and adding further insult by not giving readers sufficient tools (like a true full Collected) to review. With these tools in hand, readers could decide for themselves how to read him.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting and thought provoking post Rusty. Thanks for taking the time to post this. I am not that familiar with Blackburn's work but you've piqued my interest.

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  2. Good to bring PB's work back into public commentary. Paul was a man of the fifties & in that sense formed before a feminist consciousness became a necessary part of a male writer's make-up & he died before that transformation could/would have happened in him. Some of his contemporaries — from Creeley to Bukowski, to mention only those two — had the same problem in spades.
    btw, if you want to find writing on PB, there are copies of my maga issue devoted to him available on places like abe-books:
    Sixpack 7/8, Spring/Summer 1974: Special Paul Blackburn Issue
    JORIS, Pierre and W. R. Prescott, editors

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  3. Oh sure. I didn't mean to imply he was the only one, he's just the only one whose legacy seems tainted.

    Thanks for the tip on abebooks. Headed there now.

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