Selected and Translated by Paul Blackburn
Edited by George Economou
NYRB Classics ($16.95)
by Erik Noonan
Two people shaped Paul Blackburn’s life and art: his mother, a poet and lesbian named Frances Frost, and Ezra Pound. Frost, whom he idolized, mailed him a book by W.H. Auden when he was in the Army, and his first poems were imitations of the expatriate queer English poet. Blackburn visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the controversial American had been confined after being declared unfit to stand trial for treason. Blackburn corresponded with Pound and followed his example, studying the Occitan tongue and the troubadour corpus at the Universities of Wisconsin and Toulouse, and producing a Master’s thesis that he published under the title Proensa with Robert Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca in 1953. He would continue to expand and revise his free renditions until he died of esophageal cancer in 1971.
In Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship as a young man, Blackburn located within the cultural heritage of the relatively high-context societies of the Mediterranean littoral an objective correlative for the cultivated emotions of recondite postmodern American poetry, and his poems transformed these idealized places into the imaginary cities of a paradiso terrestre. His work appeared in the anthology The New American Poetry alongside that of Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Charles Olson, and his translations of Julio Cortázar’s fiction are still in print today. Returning to the United States, Blackburn founded the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and developed a persona that allowed him to advocate for his fellow writers. At the same time, he adopted an adversarial stance toward contemporary American society. With a set of maladaptive psychic defenses against a repressive and turbulent period of U.S. history, Blackburn smoked and drank heavily, self-medicating in the name of sensuality, which cut his life short at the age of forty-four, even as he became a professor at SUNY Cortland, found true love, established a household, and became a father. An expanded Proensa, edited by George Economou, was published by the University of California Press in 1978. The title presently under review is a reprint of that edition.
Thirty poets are represented, some more substantially than others, along with their biographies, written by a contemporary. Ambiguities, obscure passages, translation choices, and variants are discussed in Blackburn’s notes, which are glossed in turn by editor Economou. Critical commentary is limited to evocations of historical context. Whereas for Pound the ultimate troubadour was Arnaut Daniel, in whose work he found a reflection of his own preoccupation with the beauty cults of Parnassian Paris and Decadent London, Blackburn’s favorite was Peire Vidal, whose oeuvre offered him a theoretical precedent for postwar nonconformity. Vidal wrote in a hybrid genre, half love lyric and half political commentary, self-conscious and literary. The events of his biography are extrapolated from the text of his poetry, and they’re unreliable, except as a legend—one in which the major tropes of troubadour poetry are not only treated as biographical fact, but exaggerated to the point of allegory. “Sirventes,” one of Blackburn’s early poems, declares an affinity for Vidal: “master of the viol and the lute / master of those 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.” Proto-Romantic, driven “mad” by “passion,” Vidal is said in his biography to have been banished from a castle at Marseilles for stealing a kiss, and to have gone on crusade in his grief at being separated from his liege; one of his poems can be dated between the end of his travels to the Holy Land and his being allowed to return to court:
I suck in air deep from Provence to here.
All things from there so please me
when I hear
in dockside taverns
travelers’ gossip told
I listen smiling,
and for each word ask a hundred smiling words,
all news is good
for no man knows so sweet a country as
from the Rhône down to Vence.
The troubadours are valuable for being the second body of imaginative literature written in a modern European vernacular (the first was written in Irish), and Proensa is the only substantial selection of translations that’s written in the grain of contemporary American poetry, as William Carlos Williams called it. This book is a significant contribution to several disciplines.
Pedants didn’t welcome Blackburn’s work. “Mr. Blackburn does not know his paradigms sufficiently well to translate correctly,” sneered the Hudson Review. The poet replied: “I was taken with the idea of Vidal sitting out his exile in various parts of the Mediterranean, homesick, keeping check on the doings back at Marseilles by pumping newcomers for gossip two months old, buying them drinks, asking questions.” Among Blackburn’s papers one sometimes happens upon a poignant—and maddening—lack of self-assurance, as when he announced while pitching Proensa to the Clarendon Press at Oxford University, “I only want everyone to relax and enjoy it.” That august body rejected his versions of the Occitan corpus, claiming that “they do not render it accurately either in sense, material form, or spirit.” After all, Clarendon opined, “There is such a thing as a surfeit of love.” This rebuke from a prestigious university press seems to have dissuaded Blackburn from compiling a finished anthology of final versions of the poems, and thereby staking his claim to academic legitimacy, even as his fellow poets recognized the value of his work.