Poets Beyond the Barricade by Dale M Smith

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In Washington, D. C. many years ago, Denise Levertov took questions after a reading and was asked if poets were obligated to protest with poetry when their government was acting illegally or immorally. Levertov replied that of course poets should protest, but since good political poetry was difficult to create, and to judge, writing letters and going into the streets were laudable, often imperative actions. This should encourage anyone with any vocation to participate in communal life , and helps explain why the handsomely designed Poets Beyond the Barricade is so important.

In his introduction, Dale Smith lets us know that he will discuss Levertov, and though he slights her relationship with religion, and with Thomas Merton, his treatment of her correspondence with Robert Duncan is masterful, and honest in a way that many men were not when Levertov and Duncan were sorting out how they should grapple with issues of war and peace and personal and public expression.

Smith believes that “From Vietnam to more recent wars in the Middle East, poetry invites us to renew public perspectives on institutional legitimacy, disciplinary practice and citizenship.” Every word in that sentence can and should be used to support other means of communication available at a given time, and Smith’s book rightly includes use of the WEB, the enormous response to Poets Against The War and the administration of George W. Bush.

Dale Smith teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto, and though this book has its share of academic jargon, it has so much more of what is necessary for engaged living that jargon is usually overcome by passionate involvement with the subject. He begins with Charles Olson’s poetry and prose protests against historical architectural negation in Gloucester, the Massachusetts fishing town he called home. Buildings he loved and believed held important meanings for the common good of the local future, were razed. But thanks to an editor who shared his devotion, urgent issues were brought up, and the documentary record provides a fine example of commitment by someone with roots in a particular place. Olson’s efforts prove heartbreaking and heartening at the same time.

Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan had a friendship each treasured, and each demanded a great deal of the other. The demands were part of their particular natures, and respect and affection kept the friendship and correspondence going long after weaker spirits might have called it quits. The war in Vietnam was agony for Levertov, as this passage Smith quotes, and so much of her poetry make clear : “I have found myself a poet, long before this particular involvement, saying things in poems which I think have moral implications. I think that if one is an articulate person, who makes certain statements, one has an obligation as a human being to back them up with one’s actions.” Duncan had problems with it this, that never went away. “We are not reacting to the war,” he wrote to Levertov in 1966, “but mining images here that the war arouses in us.” He was wrong in her case, as Smith’s examples from her collection, To Stay Alive make clear. Again Smith examines dissent and we are informed that Duncan did not waver as the war went on. Nor did he seem willing to face his not-so-veiled sexism, and jealousy at Levertov’s growing fame. That Smith does not flinch from this is another reason to praise Poets Beyond the Barricade, and the fact that Duncan and Levertov eventually ended their friendship comes as no surprise.

Smith’s treatment of Lorenzo Thomas and Ed Dorn in one chapter is another fascinating look at tensions and complexities in public-private creativity. Thomas’ relationship to visual arts—most notably painting and photo-journalism–are especially compelling when noted alongside his belief that “All poetry is incomplete until it is read aloud.” We have in Thomas a generous, original writer, allowing the infamous photo of teenagers being fire hosed in Birmingham to be used as the title page of his book The Bathers, indicating the vicious bath his subjects were exposed to. Smith cites an excellent example from the collection :

We turned to fire when the water hit
Us. Something
Berserk regained
An outmoded regard for sanity
While in the fire station
No one thought of flame.

“The understatement of these lines lends tremendous force to the voice reconstructing a narrative of baptism,” Smith writes, and baptism is especially apt because of its connections to innocence in general and the innocence of the youth in the poem. Baptism changes everything, and Americans and people everywhere were irreversibly changed after witnessing that event in the media.

“Like Thomas,” Smith says, “Edward Dorn often addressed the conflicting public interests of American democracy with a rhetorical poetics immersed in the practices of the historical avant-garde.” Dorn’s brilliantly shocking poem about the Chinese method of paying for execution ends with a swift, rhetorical slice:

It’s a good thing Reagan
didn’t know about this practice.
He’d have considered it tax relief.

And then we get to Poets Against the War, the huge support the Web site generated, and the indisputable notice that seems quaint just a few years after the Bush administration’s illegally conducted, immoral war. It’s not easy to go over material so bound to recent history, and to make it seem fresh. Smith does it in his final lines before the Afterword, just after exploring the work of Kent Johnson, a gifted satiric poet in the Midwest, who, God bless him! is mad as hell. “I’m going to box your ears,” Johnson says, and it’s a vivid to demand we get out of our poetic boxes, as so many admirable literary forebears have done. Using Johnson is one of the many reasons this chapter and this book are so effective and affecting, and why, though I am not fond of bellicose imagery, this book is ready for the ring.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →