The best of poetry in the worst of times

Philip Levine is the author of numerous books, including "New Selected Poems," "So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews" and "The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography." He has twice been awarded the National Book Award and in 1995 won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Simple Truth."

What is it like to write poetry for a country that doesn't want poetry? Ask anyone who tried doing it back in the '50s, and he or she will struggle toward an answer. ("Like making love to someone sound asleep," the Los Angeles poet Henri Coulette once said to me.)

Let's make the game even harder. Come to your art in a city in the provinces -- Birmingham, Detroit, or Bakersfield -- a place without the least literary heritage and far enough spiritually and aesthetically from New Haven or Cambridge not to find the sculptured alexandrines of the taste-makers congenial. Try doing it in a city that isn't a city but a collection of suburbs rehearsing to become one of the world's largest urban misunderstandings. Let's go for broke and add the House Un-American Activities Committee and all of the attendant ghouls hovering over your words lest a subversive thought might decide to pass through your brain. (And how is there poetry without subversive thoughts? No answer.) Just in case you considered surviving on your labors, working for a public institution -- a school, for example -- or representing that largest American constituency, those without representation, this pack of "patriotic" vultures and their henchmen and -women in the fourth estate (and the other estates as well) are there to see you're unemployable. You're thinking no poetry could survive such conditions. Think again.

In spite of all these obstacles, perhaps because of them, a group of writers in Los Angeles banded together to support one another in every way possible and created a finer poetry than the city ever deserved. (Crazy things like this happen in the worlds of poetry; in the postwar years under communist domination and strict censorship, Poland gave the world one of the greatest poetic flowerings within memory. Zbigniew Herbert, the greatest poet ever to teach in Los Angeles and the compass rose of that crop, once remarked that he considered the censor a challenge and a stimulant to the imagination. For Herbert, a poet wrote in the actual world without a free pass because he or she was an "artist." There were tactics to survival, and to become a poet, one mastered them.)

For those who ask what it was like to write under such circumstances, the answer is contained in a remarkable new volume from the University of New Mexico Press, and the answer is nothing short of inspiring. "Poets of the Non-Existent City" is also a very useful book -- a handbook for the maintenance of sanity -- for the poets of today as well as anyone else interested in an honest and accurate use of language in the current storm of lies and deceits. Anyone who thinks the American political climate is the worst it's ever been should have a look. We've got no idea what bad is. With a little help from our friends, we might develop the pluck these writers had.

First and foremost, "Poets of the Non-Existent City" is a homage to an era and a place -- Los Angeles in the decade after the end of World War II -- and to the dedicated few poets who worked to create a decent society during the shameful decade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A collection of poetry, prose and graphic arts of the era, culled from the pages of the journals the California Quarterly and Coastlines, the book brings together 19 poets representing 13 years in the life of the city.

At the center was Tom McGrath, still -- alas -- America's greatest unread poet. In one remarkable passage in the book, McGrath tells us exactly how he found the courage to embark on his epic, "Letter to an Imaginary Friend," a book every American should be required to read before receiving a high school diploma. McGrath describes one of the informal workshops at which these L.A. writers shared and -- when necessary -- decimated each others' poetry. (Like Herbert, these poets were in and of the world.) When his friend, poet Don Gordon, asked him what he was writing or planning to write, McGrath answered that he had a notion for a long poem, but he was worried about starting. Gordon advised him to go home and write the first line that came into his head. McGrath went home and sat down as instructed, but he didn't know what to write, so he wrote, "I'm sitting here at 2716 Marsh Street Writing, turning east with the world. Dreaming of laughter and indifference," and thus was born the opening of his masterpiece, a poem he would labor over for the rest of his life. Of course only a fragment of the poem is presented in this collection, but there's enough here to incite any poetry lover to pursue the whole:

-- "From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east."

I am here in Los Angeles, at 2714 Marsh St.,

Writing, rolling east with the earth drifting toward Scorpio,

thinking,

Hoping toward laughter and indifference.

"They came through the passes,

they crossed the dark mountains in a month

of snow.

Finding the plains, the bitter water,

the iron rivers of the black North.

Horsemen,

Hunters of the hornless deer in the high plateaus of that

country,

They traveled the cold year, died in the stone desert."

There's also more than enough of Naomi Replansky's poetry in the book to make you wonder why she has still not gained the reputation she deserves. Her first book, "Ring Song," published by Scribner in '52, was nominated for the National Book Award and presented work remarkably different from McGrath's, for this was not a movement that required adherence to an aesthetic; in truth it wasn't a movement at all but a collection of individuals, free spirits, who shared a common belief in the value of poetry and in the need for a society founded on the principles of justice and equality. Naturally enough, they were brought closer by their disgust with those who were throttling their country.

Replansky, born and raised in New York City, settled in L.A. in the '50s and studied at UCLA; she may have written in the provinces, but her work makes clear she was a poet of the world. No other North American poet I've read has been able to incorporate the fire and brilliance of Latin American surrealism in original work of such startling authority. And a lot of us have tried.

When there was one kiss

against ten curses

and one loaf

against ten hungry

and one hello

against ten goodbyes

the odds stalked

your crooked steps.

And you turned no corner

without heart-tightening

and against ten cannon

you had one fist

and against ten winters

you had one fire.

Another represented poet who deserved a larger following was Edwin Rolfe, who settled in Los Angeles some years after service with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. One of our premature anti-fascists, Rolfe had been employed as a scriptwriter until HUAC made a visit to Hollywood and he was blacklisted. The University of Illinois Press brought out his "Collected Poems" 10 years ago, so now that he's safely dead, he may once again be read. Forty years before that, "Permit Me Refuge," his final book, was published posthumously by the California Quarterly.

Rolfe is thought of -- when he's thought of at all -- as our best poet of the Spanish War era, but in fact he is an even more moving poet of the early '50s. In McGrath's words, Rolfe "was always smelling the real sweat of the terrible Now, the terrible Always .... At the end he was trying to write that not-quite-yet-written poem which is both lament and triumph. A hard work, and as good a signature as any." There in McGrath's words you have the dominant tone of the two literary magazines that nurtured and celebrated this poetry: eloquent, defiant, skeptical and yet hopeful; none of these writers was surrendering anything.

The most exquisite poetry by any of the L.A.-born poets was written by Bert Meyers (1928-1979), a colossal talent and a protege of McGrath, who worked at a variety of laboring jobs before becoming a professional picture framer. (Emphysema forced him out of Los Angeles and fine carpentry work. During the last dozen years of his life, he taught at Pitzer College in Claremont.) He brought a remarkably precise physicality to poems of an unusual spiritual dimension, poems unlike anything else spawned by the '50s. He too is an intensely "social poet" but very much in his own manner. When expelling his disgust with the society that gives us the horrors of life in everyday L.A., he is capable of great verbal violence, as in these lines from "In the Alley":

Later, a man,

grey as gravel,

comes up the alley.

In a garbage can

an alarm of flies

goes off in his face.

The passing dogs

wouldn't even piss

on such disgrace.

And he is also capable of the most tender celebrations. As his fellow L.A. poet Gene Frumkin wrote, his efforts "don't go halfway," for Meyers is all or nothing, and most often it's all:

My fingers feed in the field of wood.

I sand pine, walnut, bass,

and sweat to raise their grain.

Paints, powder and brush

are the seasons of my trade.

At the end of the day

I drive home

the proud cattle of my hands.

"Poets of the Non-Existent City" is not merely an anthology of the work of these "existent" marvels in the nowhere place, although it is that; it is also a concise history of this remarkable literary outpouring and the conditions it defied to become what it was. The people who made it happen are here, their writing along with affectionate biographies of many of the more central figures. These were not only the literary premature anti-fascists of Los Angeles, they were also the city's outcast bards, its Beats before that term was plundered. Curtis Zahn, Coulette, William Pillin, Gordon, Frumkin, writers of power and integrity who should not be forgotten. They prepared a rich soil out of which a larger, more diversified American poetry of the West would soon spring.

Anyone interested in the cultural life of Californians in the 20th century is indebted to the editor, Estelle Gershgoren Novak, for rescuing this portrait of a time we would forget at our own peril. She's given us one of those magical books that leads one to other magical books you never knew existed. The illustrations alone, culled from the two literary journals, are worth the price of admission and then some.

*

Aubade By William Pillin

Life, be fresh with daybreak!

Though papers print death

by wind, by fire,

and wolf teeth are bared

at curving hollows

where little homes sleep,

may I wake, my storms scattered

on lovely landscape of her body,

and wonder at life's small matters

that continue forever.

Light jostles

sea-waves, ghost cough

in trees, the twig

drunk with raindrops

snaps, falls

to junkyard of dead leaves;

all these will last

beyond the moment of being

as the wind of flutes persists

past the bright hoard of sound.

From "Poets of the Non-Existent City"

*

I Dreamed By Bert Meyers

I dreamed of a light that kills:

there wasn't a sound from man.

A clinic of clouds appeared

And the moon dressed as a nurse.

Then, khaki colored leaves

fell from the public trees.

I saw that we'd all come

to the corner to say: Peace.

At last the generals

Were beaten with ploughshares

and you and I became

two hammers with one blow that builds.

From "Poets of the Non-Existent City"

*

Epitaph: 1945 By Naomi Replansky

My spoon was lifted when the bomb came down

That left no face, no hand, no spoon to hold.

One hundred thousand died in my hometown.

This came to pass before my soup was cold.

From "Poets of the Non-Existent City"

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