Tuesday, July 26, 2005


About Walter Lowenfels

Among the poetry most important to me during the first few years I was writing was the stunning range of work I found in several anthologies gathered by Walter Lowenfels. Coming out of the literary traditions of the political left in the earlier half of the twentieth century, and having spent some years in Europe during the 1920's and 1930's, in the 1960's and 1970's he brought together politically alive and culturally alert poetry, the offerings of many voices, speaking about the most urgent moments of the times.

There are six collections I know first-hand. (Most if not all are long out of print; when I prowl used book stores I keep my eyes peeled for anything of his I haven't come across previously.)

Poets of Today (1964, International Publishers) is a general gathering of politically progressive poems by poets of the United States. John Beecher, Art Berger, Alvah Bessie, Olga Cabral, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Margaret Danner, Ray Durem, Vincent Ferrini, Estelle Gershgoren, Don Gordon, Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Charles Humboldt, Aaron Kurtz, Denise Levertov, Thomas McGrath, Eve Merriam, Joel Oppenheimer, Irene Paull, Ishmael Reed, Naomi Replansky, Gary Snyder, Dalton Trumbo, Mel Weisburd ... among many others. Over the years I've used Lowenfels' antholgies, in part, as reading lists or bibliographies, field guides to poetry I hadn't found and needed to know about. From the poem "Empire State" by Olga Cabral (in Poets of Today):

And again it is
jobday another
morning in the gray
beginning when five million
alarm clocks salute the sun
in unison and the
Flow Indicator Top Connector
throws the Master Switch wherefore
on the Remote Control Panel
of the Photoelectric Scanner I'm
swept sorted scanned [...]
The first Lowenfels anthology I found was Where Is Vietnam? (1967, Doubleday Anchor Books), a gathering of 89 poets (mostly of the United States), one poem each, sounding aloud against the war that pervaded every aspect of the shape and texture of those years. It provided an effective model for the numerous collections of poems that have been published in later years in opposition to the U.S. wars on Iraq. Where Is Vietnam? begins with a poem by the Vietnamese Buddhist poet Thich Nhat Hanh, and follows with poems by (among others) Etel Adnan, Marvin Bell, Harvey Bialy, Robert Bly, Hayden Carruth, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (from whose poem the anthology takes it title), Allen Ginsberg, David Henderson, Will Inman, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Karen Lindsey, Robert Lowell, Clarence Major, Lenore Marshall, Thanasis Maskaleris, Thomas McGrath, Robert Peterson, Ishmael Reed, F.D. Reeve (co-editor many years later of After the Storm, the best anthology I've seen of poems opposing the first Iraq war), Jerome Rothenberg, Louis Simpson, William Stafford, George Starbuck, William Wantling, James Wright ...

the first flaming roach
the first headless child

in another minute
it will be all right
in another
minute it will all be
in another minute
it will all be all

the second flaming roach
(From the poem "The Minute Ago" by Robert Herson, in Where Is Vietnam?)

The Writing on the Wall (1969, Doubleday), is similar in content and selection to the earlier Poets of Today, with the poems grouped by general theme or subject, and with an overall tone of urgency as with graffiti or a news broadcast. In A Time of Revolution: Poems from Our Third World (Vintage Books, 1969) and From the Belly of the Shark (Vintage, 1973) expand the range of cultural backgrounds of the poets included, and include much work by poets younger than those typical of Lowenfels' earlier anthologies.

In a Time of Revolution where I first read poems by Daisy Aldan, Charlie Cobb, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Calvin C. Hernton, Barbara Holland, Bob Kaufman, Peter LaFarge, D.A. Levy, Margaret Randall, Sonia Sanchez... From the Belly of the Shark features work by (among many others) Alta, Joseph Bruchac, Donald Govan, Maurice Kenny, Chiron Khanshandel [Wendy Rose], N. Scott Momaday, Duane Niatum, Betty Oliver, Simon Ortiz, W.M. Ransom, James Welch, Ray Young Bear, Alurista, Marina de Bellagente, Rodolfo Gonzales, Juan Felipe Herrera, Omar Salinas, Ricardo Sanchez, John Angaiak, Larry Kimura, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Jose-Angel Figueroa, David Hernandez, Carmen Martinez, Pedro Pietri, Piri Thomas, Robert Bly, Olga Cabral, Hayden Carruth, Michael S. Harper, Collette Inez, Meridel LeSueur, Thomas McGrath, Clarence Major, Charles Olson, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Genevieve Taggard, Quincy Troupe, Marnie Walsh; and a large selection of traditional/oral poems from the varous traditions of Hawaii (including selections of the epic poem The Kumulipo), Alaska, and other indigenous cultures of what modern maps call the United States.

From the poem "The Cage" by Luis Garcia, in From the Belly of the Shark:

A candle of tears
with the voice of a lemon exclaims
the violets in your grandmother's garden
are my cousins.

An angel who makes windows that fly
and inhabits an elevator
at the bottom of a lake
melts a chain
with the voice he keeps
in the bones of his fingers.

So it all comes down to this --
a voice that doesn't exist
except when the door of a cage
is accidentally left open.
It is too easy simply to list a catalog of names; the names, worthwhile as they are, do not altogether convey the character of the period of history in which the poets were writing their poems. When poets come from similar experience, or write from similar motivations, sometimes a common intention emerges. If the poets are able to articulate their common experience and intention, what results is sometimes called a literary (and possibly a political) movement.

The last of Lowenfels' anthologies I found during his lifetime, For Neruda, For Chile (Beacon Press, 1975), was his most far-reaching and the most politically militant. The collection gathers poems, and a few prose pieces, by more than 140 poets and writers from 27 countries, responding to the military coup in Chile in 1973 (directed at a slight distance by the U.S. government) that overthrew the elected government headed by Salvador Allende, and which coincided (though not by coincidence) with the death of poet Pablo Neruda (caused at least in part by deliberate medical neglect enforced by the new right-wing regime.) Margot de Silva, Louis Aragon, Rafael Alberti, Jean Brierre, Volker Braun, Muriel Rukeyser, Thomas McGrath, Joseph Bruchac, Yusuf Al-Khal, Allen Ginsberg, Ida Gramcko, Tanure Ojaide, Alain Bosquet, June Jordan, Andrew Salkey, Victor Jara, Ricardo Garibay (a stunning prose description of the funeral procession for Pablo Neruda in the streets of Santiago de Chile, during which people among the tens of thousands began spontaneously calling out lines from Neruda's poems), Quincy Troupe, Nicolas Guillen, Zoe Best [known in later years Zoe Anglesey], Cecil Rajendra, Alan Britt, Pat Lowther, Jose=Angel Figueroa, Osman Turkay, Eva Kovacova, Kyoko Komori, Gyorgy Somlyo, Olga Cabral, Ishmael Reed, Nina Serrano, Stephen Kessler, Evgenii [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko, Giannis [Yannis] Ritsos, Jose Rodeiro, Barbara A. Holland, Beatriz Allende...

The anthologies collected by Walter Lowenfels (with the help of the numerous collaborators he acknowledged in each book) suggest something of the possibilities of poetry for speaking in the larger world beyond itself, and make a simple and flat rejection of the timid aethestics that would have poetry stay safely out of the street.
And Pablo Neruda is not dead.Chile
today is like a flower that has been cut
down where men gather, and those who
disappear in the crowd, in the heart of our cities,
and those who mark time without knowing it, prisoners of a helmet,
hoping against hope for half a liter of milk per day,
one day will read about it in the eyes of the women. Flesh
does not surrender. Crime
waits. The sky
is red.
(From the poem "An Example" by Dominique Grandmont, translated by Serge Gavronsky, in For Neruda, For Chile.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Proletarian poetry

The most important literary movement in the United States in the 20th century was the Proletarian literature movement, which was at its most active and took its most cohesive shape during the 1930's, though it existed prior to those years and has remained alive since.

Many literary histories from the academic fringes and the "avant"-garde either ignore the Proletarian movement or make light of its significance. In fact, at one time or another many of the greatest American poets and writers of the past century were in one way or another associated with the loosely defined movement.

Among the poets, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Meridel LeSueur, Kenneth Fearing, Margaret Walker, Kenneth Patchen, Joseph Kalar, Sol Funaroff, Ruth Lechlitner, Joy Davidman, Norman Rosten, John Beecher, Genevieve Taggard, Josephine W. Johnson, Lola Ridge...

And, a little later, Thomas McGrath, Edwin Rolfe, Don Gordon, Naomi Replansky, Bert Meyers, Clemente Soto Velez, Olga Cabral...

(Among earlier predecessors, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benet, Edwin Markham, James Weldon Johnson, Arturo Giovanitti, Sarah Cleghorn...John Greenleaf Whittier, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Emma Lazarus, Walt Whitman...)

These are the live,
Not silhouettes or dead men.
That dull murmer is their tread on the street.
Those brass quavers are their shouts.
Here is the wind blowing through the crowded square.
Here is the violence and secret change.
And these are figures of life beneath the sea.
These are the lovely women
And the exhilarations that die.
Here is a stone lying on the sidewalk
In the shadow of the wall.

(Kenneth Fearing, from "These Are the Live," in An Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Selden Rodman, Modern Library, 1938.)

Poetry ringing with the hammer and sweep of the collective work and collective rebellion, in misery and joy, that has built the world through the millenia that humans have walked on the earth.

But what if they stood aside,
Who hold the earth so careless in the crook of their arms?

What of the flamboyant cities
And the lights guttering out like candles in a wind...
And the armies halted...
And the train midway on the mountain
And idle men chaffing across the trenches...
And the cursing and lamentation
And the clamor for grain
shut in the mills of the world?
(Lola Ridge, from "The Legion of Iron," in the Rodman anthology noted above.)

In 1932 John D. Rockefeller, Jr., commissioned the artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural in Rockfeller Center in New York. When Rockefeller saw that Rivera had included an image of the Russian Bolshevik leader Lenin in the mural, he demanded that Rivera remove the Lenin image and paint something in its place. When Rivera refused, Rockefeller had the mural destroyed. A poet commented on this, none other than E.B. White (author of the renowned children's book Charlotte's Web). In White's poem -- also quoted here from the Selden Rodman anthology cited above -- Rockefeller speaks to Rivera:

"For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
"You painted a radical. I say shucks,
"I never could rent the offices --
"The capitalistic offices.
"For this, as you know, is a public hall
"And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
"And though your art I dislike to hamper,
"I owe a little to God and Gramper,
'And after all,
"It's my wall..."

"We'll see if it is," said Rivera.
One of the better recent critical works dealing, in part, with the poets and poetry of the Proletarian movement is Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 by Cary Nelson, published 1992 by University of Wisconsin Press. Although at times Nelson's approach strikes me as a little overly cautious, he nevertheless brings to light the work and very existence of many poets who have been half buried in the shadows of history for much of the later 20th century.

And the tradition continues, on through to the present and beyond: Margaret Randall, Anya Achtenberg, Dale Jacobson, Etheridge Knight, Luis. J. Rodriguez, Adrian C. Louis, Robert Edwards, Sharon Doubiago, Wanda Coleman, Doren Robbins, Maggie Jaffe, Sesshu Foster, Nellie Wong, Roy McBride, Mary McAnally, Christopher Butters, Rob Whitbeck, Naomi Quinonez, Wendy Rose, William Witherup, Julia Stein, Janice Mirikitani...

The poetry of the poets named above is important because it reminds us of the potential for furthering human life in a free and thriving world, breaking through the crumbling walls of a moribund and long-useless market system that considers nothing of value unless it can be bought and sold. We are more than that; even in temporary silence, we shout and we sing.

In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!
(Langston Hughes, from "Warning," in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad, Vintage Books, 1995.)

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