Monday, June 9, 2008

STL #69: Paul Blackburn

Paul Blackburn is a poet I've heard of, and I've read some of his poems in, I think, the Origin anthology. But I don't know his work well at all. He is a hanger-on at the edge of biographies I've read, most recently turning up pretty devotedly in the second half of the Zuk bio. Judging from the gathering in NAP, Blackburn writes in two modes: short wry jokes in contemporary urban (usually) settings ("The Continuity, "The Assistance, "The Problem," "The Once Over," "The Encounter"), and longer poems drawing on medieval traditions ("Night Song for Two Mystics," "Sirventes"). Though my tastes generally run to the former, I'm drawn by "Night Song for Two Mystics." The two mystics are W.B. Yeats and "Llull," who Wikipedia suggests is Ramon Llull (1232-1315), also known as Raymond Lully. Llull was a scholar of astonishing breadth, writing on theology, mathematics and logic (his work forecasts modern information science) and the author of the first prose narrative in Catalan (and arguably the first European novel.) He lobbied for the study of Hebrew and Arabic in the universities, and sought the conversion of Muslims through his system of logical argument. Renowned in this time, the man Duns Scotus nicknamed "Dr. Illuminatus" (there's a comic book name for you!) was parodied by Swift and condemned by Popes until 1858. Though I've seen the name "Raymond Lully" here and there, I think it's safe to say he isn't now widely known.

The Llull that Blackburn writes about is both a mystic and a philosopher of love. There's a longish quotation in the first half of the poem which describes "the light of the beloved's room" illuminating (this key term for Dr. Illumunatis is stretched out over a line by Blackburn: "t o i l l u m i n a t e") the lover's room. "[T]hen/all the shadows are thrown back,/then he is filled and surfilled/with his peculiar pleasures/the heavy thoughts, the languors." The light of the beloved overtakes and inhabits every corner of the lover's room and mind. He changes his life and his habits for the beloved, but she "remains forever/far enough removed/and in a high place/ as to be easily seen from a distance." I'm not sure of the source of this quotation, but in the end this love story seems to transform into a theological parable.

The second half of the poem questions the other mystic, Yeats, on what lesson we might learn from Llull, from the distant perspective of the twentieth century. The second half starts with two quesions, one rhetorical "you see where we stand?" and one critical "must it always lead to gods?" In other words, must earthly love be divinely transformed to be worthwhile? Is Llull still meaningful in an age that has outstripped his philosophy? Llull is gone and nearly forgotten: "The man's shadow dissolves in shadows./Most men go down in obliteration/with the homeliest of remembrances." Blackburn opens a parenthesis on the seven deadly sins, asking what are the positive virtues with as much force, and then opens another suggestive parenthesis ("down, sailor/blow the man/c o i l e d d o w n t h e r e") that at once recalls the spacing of "illuminate" on the previous page and also invokes the serpent "in the dark pools of the mind." The poem ends with a classically ambivalent take on mortality: "Dust, Yeats, all dust,/tho Llull remain a lover." It's not overreaching to say that the mysticism of Yeats and Llull is transient and trendy, but love (or really their lyricism that conveys it) is what will endure.

I may have been attracted to writing about this poem simply to find out who Llull was. Most of the poetry I read is densely allusive, a quality that leads people to the conclusion that the poetry is difficult, or 'hard.' The assumption, erroneous I am sure, is that if you don't know who Llull is, then you don't know what the poet is talking about (or plug in other examples from Eliot, Pound, etc.). Blackburn doesn't offer in any cribs of notes, yet read with attention the poem yields up a great deal of intellectual pleasure. The cited Llull is really all the Lllull you need--such was Pound's argument about The Cantos. ("It's all there.") The minimal background I dug up on Llull revealed the illumination joke, and I'm sure further acquaintance with his work might deepen my understanding, but these two night mystics have been brought into the field of the poem so that we might learn from them and converse with them, as the poet himself does. They aren't there to make us feel deficient or confuse us. The "hard" poetry I like is not elitist; quite the opposite I think. A poem like this embraces seven centuries, and welcomes any reader who cares to stop in.

To read: Journals, praised in Sorrentino's excellent essay on Blackburn in Something Said. Also Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry.