R. P. Blackmur

1904–1965
Literary critic, poet, playwright, and author Robert Palmer Blackmur was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The son of a boarding house owner, he was expelled from the Cambridge High and Latin School at 14 after arguing with the headmaster. He became an autodidact and attended lectures at Harvard University but did not pursue an academic degree. He worked in a bookstore in Cambridge and for two years edited the small literary magazine Hound & Horn.
 
Blackmur’s formal, metered poems engage moral and intellectual themes. Collected Poems (1977) draws together the three volumes of poetry he published during his lifetime, which include From Jordan’s Delight (1937), The Second World (1942), and The Good European and Other Poems (1947).
 
Blackmur’s critical writing, which emphasizes the process of close reading as a means of examining how literary language shapes understanding of form and technique, played an integral role in the development of the New Criticism. In the New York Review of Books, Michael Wood stated, “R.P. Blackmur was much possessed by failure, by what René Wellek calls an insight into human insufficiency.… Blackmur wished he could show, ‘clearly, self-evidently, and irrefutably,’ how criticism resembles art.”
 
Blackmur published six books of criticism, including The Double Agent (1935), Language as Gesture (1952), The Lion and the Honeycomb: Essays in Solicitude and Critique (1955), and Form and Value in Modern Poetry (1957). Denis Donoghue edited Selected Essays of R.P. Blackmur (1986). Russell A. Fraser wrote the biography A Mingled Yarn: The Life of R.P. Blackmur (1982), and James T. Jones produced the critical overview Wayward Skeptic: The Theories of R.P. Blackmur (1987).
 
Blackmur’s honors included the inaugural Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, membership in the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellowship in American Letters at the Library of Congress. He served as vice president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, taught for 25 years at Princeton University, and founded the Christian Gauss Seminars on Criticism there. The Princeton University library holds a selection of his papers.
 

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

LIFE SPAN 1904–1965

Biography

Literary critic, poet, playwright, and author Robert Palmer Blackmur was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The son of a boarding house owner, he was expelled from the Cambridge High and Latin School at 14 after arguing with the headmaster. He became an autodidact and attended lectures at Harvard University but did not pursue an academic degree. He worked in a bookstore in Cambridge and for two years edited the small . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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