Showing posts with label political poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label political poetry. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The next time a poet is selected to perform a poem at a presidential inauguration on strictly literary grounds will be the first. The carping after Richard Blanco’s selection tells me more about those who complain than it does about Blanco. The same was true for those who bemoaned and belittled Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, James Dickey &, I dare say, Robert Frost. One might make the case that Frost was selected for his pre-eminence as an American icon of poetry, but one should keep in mind that JFK was a president who understood the value – in his idyllic pre-Fox News single term – of positioning himself as an intellectual, garnering a Pulitzer for a ghost-written volume of pop history & preferring in his own time to read James Bond novels. Ian Fleming may qualify as a heavyweight alongside whatever the Bushies read, but when Kennedy got together with Marilyn Monroe, it wasn’t the president who was the serious reader in the room. And there never has been a white male inaugural poet who wasn’t selected at least partly as a play on the regional card to boot: New England, Georgia, Arkansas.

I don’t know what anyone expects from an inaugural poem – the entire premise seems utterly cringe-worthy to me – but signaling a broader inclusiveness in the American project is hardly a bad idea unless you’re one of the old white guys for whose vote Mitt Romney was campaigning.  Since the resulting poems tend toward flarf, perhaps the ideal might be some carved-up-blend of K Silem Mohammad, Judy Grahn & Simon Ortiz. In a sense, Blanco may just be the gluten-free lo-cal version of that. It might be more fun to imagine the field day Rush & O’Reilly would have had close-reading “Europe” had John Ashbery been selected, but really is it any different? With the exception of LBJ, every Democratic president for the past half century has used the occasion to signal that poetry is inside the tent, just as every Republican has spoken far louder through its absence.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A gathering in New Jersey for the journal Others in 1916.
Alfred Kreymborg, front row, second from the left, in front of Marcel Duchamp & left of WCW (holding cat).
Duchamp has his arm looped with Walter Conrad Arensberg, Man Ray folding his arms,
Maxwell Bodenheim on the far right.

One day last year, I was driving in the rain through southern Chester County when I happened to pass Baldwin’s Book Barn, one of the quirkier book establishments hereabouts. While Baldwin’s is on the web these days, it appears in situ to have largely managed not only to have ignored the digital age, but even the world after the Second World War, when paperbacks took over publishing.¹ The Book Barn claims to have 200,000 books somewhat anarchically shelved in its rambling establishment, perhaps 99% of which are hard cover. I always need the map they hand out at the counter to find my way to the poetry section & this time returned with a signed copy of Alfred Kreymborg’s The Little World: 1914 and After, published by Coward McCann in 1932 for the price of a paperback.

In 1932, Kreymborg would have been 49, publishing for over 20 years & widely known as an editor with some serious (if waning) avant-garde cred. The first literary figure to become a regular at Alfred Stieglitz’ 291 gallery, Kreymborg and Man Ray brought out a magazine called The Glebe in 1913 & ’14, the fifth issue of which was Ezra Pound’s anthology of Des Imagistes. While the younger Man Ray (the imaginatively reinvented Emmanuel Radnitzky of New Jersey) went on to establish himself primarily as a visual artist in Paris, Kreymborg stayed literary, editing a series of magazines and anthologies. Two years prior to The Little World, Coward McCann had published Kreymborg’s Lyric America: An Anthology of American Poetry (1630 – 1930), which, while aimed at the general reader, included not one, but three sections of its final age cohort of poets, those born from the mid-1880s & after, one large one focused on modernists (Amy Lowell, Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Lola Ridge, Pound, H.D., Williams, Walter Conrad Arensberg, Stevens, Loy, Moore, Hartley, Cummings, Eliot & even Haniel Long among others now forgotten), the second focused on formalists (DuBose Heyward, Aiken, Ransom, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren & George Dillon, but also Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Fenton Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes & Countee Cullen²) & finally a third group of more eclectic or relaxed quietists³ (MacLeish, Tristram Coffin, Dorothy Parker, Mark Van Doren, Robert Silliman Hillyer, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Stephen Vincent Benét, Babette Deutsch, Louise Bogan, Kenneth Fearing, Horace Gregory, Stanley Kunitz, Stanley Burnshaw &, last but not least, Hart Crane), hybridism avant la lettre.

The work I’d seen of Kreymborg’s earlier anthologies, mostly compilations of poetry published in his journal Others, had led me to pigeonhole him as a later, lesser imagist, although already by the 1930 anthology Kreymborg’s selection of his work own suggests a gradual move away from the modernist group – where he positioned his work in Lyric America – toward the third tendency. By the end of his career, Kreymborg was giving readings accompanying himself on the mandolute, a larger version of the mandolin, anticipating by a few decades Robert Bly’s similarly folksy performance style. I wasn’t prepared for the work that forms the dominant strain of The Little World, political doggerel – think of deadline poet Calvin Trillin – presented in imagist format.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tashi Rabten
has been sentenced to prison
for his book of poems,
Written in Blood

Friday, January 23, 2009

There were three instances of poetry during the inauguration of Barack Obama: the anointed inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and then two different parts of the closing benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery: the opening, which quoted, sans attribution, James Weldon Johnson’s great “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as the “Negro National Anthem,” and then again at the end, when Lowery, the 87-year-old civil rights hero who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with his friend & collaborator, Martin Luther King, in 1957, pulled a moment seemingly out of the history both of the black church and do-wop dee jays¹, with

we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.

It’s conceivable that this also is a quote, from the work of Muhammad Ali.

At the one inaugural party we attended later in the day – really more of a “Get outa town, George Bush” affair – I found that the suburban progressives of Chester County had not recognized the Johnson quote and were divided on Lowery’s later contribution, depending on whether or not they thought that humor was appropriate for an inauguration. (It was my favorite moment of the whole inauguration, if that tells you anything.) One school counselor told me that her high school only gets one “news” channel, Fox, and that Fox’s Talking Heads chatted over Alexander, making the poem impossible to hear. Others who had heard it found the poem “nice,” but uninspiring. I was repeatedly asked who Alexander was, answering that she’d taught with Obama at the University of Chicago, that she’d gotten her Ph.D. at Penn, but that I didn’t think she’d been chosen for her writing. Her poem has gotten several reviews (here, here, here, here and here), mostly negative. No matter, the forthcoming book version of the poem is already atop Amazon’s best-seller list.

One of my sons, tho, who has heard quite a bit more poetry than most of my suburban friends, was more interested in Alexander’s stilted delivery which paused. After. Every. Word. He wanted to know if Alexander had had a stroke. I had to explain to him that there is a kind of poetry in which writers do read. Like. That. It’s intended, I added, to underscore the thoughtfulness and urgency of the poem. “Shouldn’t the text do that?” he asked. I didn’t have an answer for that, at least beyond my Cheshire-like grin.


¹ One can almost hear Jerry Blavat, “the Geator with the Heator, the Boss with the Hot Sauce,” saying these lines.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

It was a bad dream that we were at war. I was involved with a company that held some support function, not involved directly in the fighting. But then I was near the front lines at night, crouching in a field of stones near barbed-wire. To our left were some buildings. Behind me, “our side” sent missiles into the distance – explosions briefly illumined the horizon. The “other side” sent their missiles in our direction. We watched them sail overhead, some further, some closer. Then I remember watching one the way, as a boy, I would watch a fly ball coming in my own direction, aware of just how little time remained before it arrived, realizing it would be very close, so close that I could not tell which way to duck. Something struck me at the base of my neck. “I’m hit!” I shouted. But there was no damage. I can still move. There’s no blood, no pain.

Then a large airplane appeared overhead. “There they are,” someone shouted, as though we’d expected this. The plane’s belly opened and a missile rocketed down into the complex of buildings just on the far side of the barbed wire. An explosion went up on its far side. In its windows now, I could see a young man in his twenties, surrounded by small children. Their aspect looked “vaguely Asian.” He opened the window to let some of the smoke billow out. “Get out” I yelled as did the others I heard around me. “No,” he hollered in return. Then the fire reached a flashpoint & they all disappeared.

I woke, feeling ragged after a night such as that, & went down to my study. At first, I read through the latest issue of Overland, an Australian journal the likes of which we no longer possess here in the U.S. of A. It’s a quarterly, devoted in large part to politics, but with a healthy dose of fiction, cultural criticism and, in the brief period I’ve read it, poetry. The poetry editor is, or has been, Pam Brown, a fine poet herself and a woman at ease with all modes of post-avant writing. This is her last issue in this capacity – she has a “farewell” note, as in fact does Ian Syson, editor-in-chief, who is himself stepping down.

What I read this early in the morning is a “lecture” by Bob Ellis on “The Age of Spin,” focusing on Australia’s culpability in the broader, US-led assault of Islamic peoples, on the use of such terms as “weapons of mass destruction” and the convenient ways in which we defined them, or “chemical weapons” & the relationship of that concept, say, to the cocktail administered to prisoners at execution. “We live in Orwellian times,” Ellis concludes.

His essay reminds me of my dream, or of the sour way I characterized the Bush administration at a Christmas party the other day – “taking the neo- out of neo-fascist.” My own sense of depression at the state of the American polis seems limitless these days. Even as I’ve lived long enough to know that things will eventually swing “back” again from the current reactionary state of affairs, I have to recognize that each swing of the pendulum over the past 30 years has always been part of a larger rightward course. Bill Clinton was in many respects a Nixon Republican when it came to domestic policy – and that was the “progressive” portion of his platform. “When does it become Germany? Will we recognize when it’s 1933? When do we have to choose exile?” a friend asked at dinner last night. She’s an official in the Democratic Party, her husband a well-placed corporate lawyer. They have a son about to graduate college – these are not “kids” posing such questions.

I thumb through the remainder of Overland. It’s the “bumper summer” issue – but I have to remember that it is summer there right now. The issue is rich & I only touch on a few pieces at the moment. It has, for example, some fine poems by one Eric Beach, whose work I know not at all, plus a good deal of other poetry. There are several reviews of poetry and a large essay by John Kinsella – listed on the masthead as a correspondent – on the shifting relations between the city and “the bush” that touches on the relation of urban poetics to those of rural communities, citing everyone from Wordsworth to Les Murray. Kinsella’s essay touches on the work of Dorothy Hewett, an Australian poet, playwright & essayist who passed away earlier this year. That is her image on the cover of Overland, looking quite grand at the age of 79 – her life and work are the subject of three other pieces in the issue. I make a mental note to look for her poems.

Overland makes me realize just how much we lack a magazine of its obvious impact in the United States. The tendency toward weeklies in the U.S. bespeaks our restlessness & the progressive journals range between silent (The American Prospect, to pick one) to reactionary (The Nation) when it comes to their general approaches to literature & the radical idea that it might be incorporated into the American experience. The great irony of a weekly in the age of the internet, is that it will always be “out of date” whenever it arrives. Instead, what we get are publications like The Atlantic, so poorly conceived & edited that they serve as their own parody, issue after issue.

So, looking for respite, I pick up Niedecker’s Collected Works & find myself immediately at this juncture:

J.F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs

To stand up

black-marked tulip
not snapped by the storm
“I’ve been duped by the experts”

and walk
the South Lawn

Thirty-odd years later, there is still debate as to whether or not Kennedy was, in fact, “duped by the experts” – the implications concerning his hold on the executive branch are, after all, damning – or merely used this explanation to distance himself from the political fallout that attended the Bay of Pigs fiasco. So here is Niedecker using a natural image – the tulip – as a metaphor for political activity.

But I don’t think of Niedecker as a “political poet,” and on the facing page starts one of her longest poems, “Wintergreen Ridge,” which includes an account of a visit from Basil Bunting:

      When visited
             by the poet

From Newcastle on Tyne
      I neglected to ask
             what wild plants

have you there
      how dark
             how inconsiderate

of me
      Well I see at this point
             no pelting of police

with flowers

There is no escaping it.* Even a poet as removed from the daily life of cities as Niedecker, Objectivism’s one true “poet of the bush,” cannot get away from the politics of the 1960s as they enveloped the nation. Any more than we can the misdeeds of our own “elected” officials at the cusp of 2003.

* “What Western peoples might find strange, Kawhlānī tribesmen taken for granted, namely, that politics and poetics are inseparable.”  Stephen C. Caton, in “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemini Tribe (University of California Press, 1990): p. 155.