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.)

What a wonderful commentary with truly fantastic excerpts from those poems!
Thanks, Pris.
Yea, enjoyed this and i'll keep my eyes peeled for the anthologies. I also wanted to let you know how much i enjoyed your Political Poetry essay at Pemmican.
lyle, thanks for the great commentary. there's lots and lots of stuff i can use here. what a great resource.
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