POETS OF ENGAGEMENT BLURBED BY PETER DALE SCOTT
“There is no reason why the state should not tolerate an activity that consists of creating “experimental” poems and prose, if these are conceived as autonomous systems of reference, enclosed within their own boundaries. Only if we assume that a poet constantly strives to liberate himself from borrowed styles in search for reality, is he dangerous. In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” (1)
The original idea for this list was to bring attention to books of poetry which I have admired and consequently blurbed. Only after assembling this list (still incomplete) I realized that these fine books had something in common. Virtually all of them exhibit a complex engagement with our unhappy 21st-century world, in contradistinction to the abstract formalism and exurban domesticity that have been so widespread in American poetry since World War II.
We now know about the extensive and covert CIA promotion of abstract formalism in poetry, art, and music in the last six decades, thanks to Frances Stonor Saunders’ excellent book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.(2) I have no particular quarrel with that program of support, apart from its secrecy, which led to dishonesty and some rather mean and foolish decisions. CIA support reached poets whose work I honor and respect, notably Czeslaw Milosz, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell (though it can be debated how much Lowell was actually benefited by covert support for his celebrated trip to Latin America). (3) It also supported one fine journal, Partisan Review, and helped start two others, Encounter and Paris Review. (4)
Any corruption that resulted from this program was more likely to emerge among those who grew up with it. A number of people have become what we may call State Department poets, whose travels match those of Yevtushenko for the Soviet Union. Benefits have accrued to all from these programs, but the sociology of poetic culture in this country has been subtly altered.
American poetry today, compared to the past, is relatively inoffensive and innocuous. In this contemporary environment of consensus, and availability for academic and government subvention, most of the poets below are at this moment relatively marginal. Again, that is not such a bad place for a poet to be. Many poets, notably Stephen Spender, the sometime co-editor of the CIA-subsidized journal Encounter, have been anesthetized by the complacency that so easily accompanies premature acceptance.
But as many of these poets of engagement will not be found in the mainstream poetry journals of North America, it gives me particular pleasure to present them all here, along with their book titles and my blurbal comments.
Sandra M. Gilbert, Ghost Volcano: Poems (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997):
Sandra Gilbert’s poems startle on every page: at times they bring your heart to your throat. Her narrations of grief buried under dazzling seasonal beauty prove once again that it is in death we most experience life.
Sandra M. Gilbert, Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000):
[Her] poems startle on every page: at times they bring your heart to your throat.
Stephen Hartnett, Incarceration Nation: Investigative Prison Poems of Hope and Terror (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).
Political poetry, even from great artists, is often narrow-focused if not shrill. One of the chief graces of Stephen Hartnett’s dazzlingly original first book… is the amazing range of subject, mood, thought, and voice within its exploration of America’s imprisoning culture. He revives Whitman’s vision of America against the countervailing evidence, often by borrowing from prison poets, some grossly over-punished, some never guilty. The suppressed horrors of prison life are intercalated with gruff male humor, compassionate moments with guards, and perspectives from Schelling and Kant. Hartnett does homage to Forché’s poetry of witness and Sanders’ investigative poetics. But more than either, his is a poetry of engagement, of vision becoming practice. This is a major achievement, with promise of more to come.
Jamey Hecht, Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film
This is real, imaginative poetry – not, as a skeptic might suspect, a desperate striving for difference. The genre is certainly unprecedented: a series of sonnets, one for each frame selected from the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. But Hecht has focused on this defining moment of truth in our culture as a two-way mirror, which he can look both through – to Brown and Root, General Dynamics and the Vietnam War – and also reflexively back to Nietzsche, St. Cecilia in the Golden Legend, and the death of the young Patroclus in Homer. This insightful and learned book could become a landmark, like the event it describes.
D.H. Kerby, It Fell from the Sky, it Must be Ours: a Poem for Peace with Justice (Dhaka: Blitz, 2006):
Kerby’s short epic is an awakened poem of the nightmare we live in, one in which religion and science are at the service of oppressors. More intensely personal and self-questioning than Ginsberg’s Howl, his poem also gives more authentic snapshots of our chaotic world, from the streets of Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Managua, and Port-au-Prince to the pressroom of the United Nations. Readers will share his vivid experiences, whether of an unfolding military coup d’état, or of invasive psychiatric obtuseness. Above all, one feels the agony of “a man of peace in a situation of war.”
Bryan Sentes, Ladonian Magnitudes (Montreal: DC Books, 2006):
Bryan Sentes is a heroic Pound-Joyce of the Google era. Polyglot, polymath, his imagination leaps in macaronic shifts from language to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Vignettes of a drunken world from Europe to Saskatoon vie with a fine rendition from the Lyra Graeca, and far-out explorations of Internet virtual space (which we can follow with the help of a Search Engine, hand-to-mouse). At his best Sentes is brilliant, and the tone and range of the whole book, from demotic to encyclopaedic, are a most welcome addition to Canadian letters.
Alan Williamson, Res Publica (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998):
Williamson is the unequalled detective of the mythic reverberations behind the psyche’s complex inner weather. In Res Publica he expands his meditative analysis from introspection to the troubled psyche of Vietnam-age America.
Message to readers: I know I have blurbed other books of poetry, which offhand I don’t recall. Send me all the relevant info (including the blurb), and I will add it to this list.
(1) Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Laureate Lecture, 8 December 1980, http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1980/milosz-lecture-en.html.
(2) Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 1999); originally published as Who Paid the Piper (London: Granta, 1999). She focuses in particular on “The Congress for Cultural Freedom’s support for experimental, predominantly abstract painting over representational, or realist aesthetics….There is further, incontrovertible evidence that the CIA was an active component in the machinery which produced Abstract Expressionism” (272-73).
(3) I should perhaps mention that a poem by Milosz which I co-translated with him appeared in Encounter, the most famous (but not the only) journal supported by a covert CIA subsidy. See “Throughout Our Lands,” Encounter (Feb. 1964), 46-49. I was also pleased to have a poem appear in Partisan Review, but this was long after the period of its CIA subvention.
(4) “Peter Matthiessen…co-founded and wrote for the Paris Review…whilst he was working for the CIA” (Saunders, The Cultural Cold War, 246). “The bigger lie, I was to learn even later, was that the Paris Review, which Matthiessen allegedly founded and which was ostensibly funded by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, was his cover and that the money all came from the CIA” (Richard Cummings, “The Real Agenda,” http://www.lewrockwell.com/cummings/cummings29.html).