Sunday, January 25, 2009


Despite the heavy influences of both Robert Creely and Charles Olson on his poetry, Paul Blackburn eschewed the label of Black Mountain poet given to him by Donald Allen in his anthology, The New American Poetry, saying he believed in the value of “all work, if you work 'em right.” Active in the Lower East Side poetry community during the 1950s and 60s, Blackburn was one of the people most instrumental in establishing the Poetry Project at St. Mark's on the Bowery—even though he was passed over as its first director in favor of outsider Joel Oppenheimer. This snub felt like a slap in the face to many of the poets in the community including Anne Waldman (who would succeed Oppenheimer and run the project herself for a decade), as Blackburn had been almost solely responsible for the vigorous poetry scene in Greenwich Village and surrounding areas by his tireless promotion of live readings as a viable alternative to printed works. Blackburn, however, never publicly complained and, in fact, congratulated Oppenheimer on his appointment in a letter that began, “Dear Joel, heard the good news of yr Komisariat...”. By all accounts, Blackburn was a class act and his own, oft-overlooked, poetry deserves reconsideration nearly 38 years after his untimely death at the age of 44 in 1971.

Here's an excerpt from “AT&T Has My Dime” by Paul Blackburn

After your voice's frozen anger
emptied the air between us, the
silence of electrical connections
the vacant window pale, the
connection broken: :

...and an audio link to Blackburn reading his poem “The Assassination of President McKinley” here.

Speaking of Joel Oppenheimer—it is a little difficult not to be critical of him considering his seemingly unfair promotion in the Lower East Side poetry community over the classy, talented and deserving Blackburn. Just when I start feeling like I'm being too hard on Oppenheimer though, I read this:

wind soft as the
last time you
did it. wind soft
as a soft wind.

From “Blue Funk” by Joel Oppenheimer.

OK, I'm excerpting him out of context just to make an unflattering comparison to Blackburn but it's my blog and, so, my prerogative. His poetry really isn't necessarily that bad (but he's no Paul Blackburn). He wasn't much of an administrator, though, drifting away from the Poetry Project after only one year. Said one of his students, “some wondered how a man who had not drawn a sober breath in years was going to operate a poetry center with a several hundred thousand dollar budget.” I was going to try to redeem Oppenheimer at the end of this post but I found it nearly impossible to locate any of his poems or recordings on the Internet—perhaps a reflection of a low estimation of his poetry by others? hmm...

Finally, I'm going to talk a little about Allen Ginsberg. I love Allen Ginsberg. Not only do I love his poetry, I love what he and his fellow Beats did in helping to undo and overturn the puritanical obscenity laws of the Beaver Cleaver 1950s. Ginsberg proved that poetry can change the world. Too much? Too bad. I heart Allen Ginsberg.

Here he is reading “Kaddish.”


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Oppenheimer's poetry tends to be overwhelmingly about taking women's clothes off in the back seats of cars.

Bobby Byrd said...

Oppeneheimer should not be dismissed as wine-stained cultural wallpaper from the old days. His "Sirventes on a Sad Occurrence" is a wonderful poem about growing old in the midst of springtime, one of my all time favorite poems. Perishable Press did a letterpress edition of the poem, and I've also seen it in a Oppenheimer collection. A tape of a remarkable reading of the poem is in Blackburn's archives which I think are at the University of California San Diego. Hopefully, one day UCSD will put Paul's archives of 50s & 60s NYC readings on line.

Dan O said...

I can provide you with most Oppenheimer material...feel free to email.

Mr. Mohammad is incorrect. Though much of Joel's poetry and prose and habitual thoughts were preoccupied with sex, women and their clothes, he wrote often about children, lovers, everyday rituals, "the ruling class", history, baseball, the circus, bank robbers, weddings, deaths, his battles with cancer and chemotherapy,and, most joyfully, about the intricacies of language and communication. He was also, often, a very engaging and powerful reader in public, despite having a kind of stage fright of life.

Whether he was successful is for each reader to decide, but let's base it on more than one or two poems or one brief period. He was a working poet for more than 35 years.