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POETS OF ENGAGEMENT BLURBED BY PETER DALE SCOTT
"The= re is no reason why the state should not tolerate an activity that consists of creat= ing "experimental" poems and prose, if these are conceived as autonom= ous systems of reference, enclosed within their own boundaries. Only if we assu= me 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." -- Czeslaw Milosz 
"Conceptual art, like political art, needs an ethical rudder to steer with. Without the steering device of "the issue", it becomes - and much of it is - pointless." -- Martin Earl 
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 l= ist (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 exur= ban 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 Fran= ces Stonor Saunders' excellent book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. 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 Lo= well was actually benefited by covert support for his celebrated trip to Latin America. It also supported one fine journal, Partisan Review, and helped start two others, Encounter and Paris Review.
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 t=
American poetry today, compared to the past, is relatively inoffensive a= nd innocuous. In this contemporary environment of consensus, and availability = for academic and government subvention, most of the poets below are at this mom= ent 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 mainst=
poetry journals of
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=
[Her] poems startle on every page: at times t= hey bring your heart to your throat.
Stephen Hartnett, Incarceration Nation: Investigative Prison Poems=
Hope and Terror (
Political poetry, even from great artists, is=
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.=
revives Whitman's vision of
Jamey Hecht, Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapru= der 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 f= rom 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 l= ook 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 t= he death of the young Patroclus in Homer. This insightful and learned book cou= ld 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 (
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 Ho= wl, his poem also gives more authentic snapshots of our chaotic world, from the streets of Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Managua, and Port-au-Prince to the pressro= om of the United Nations. Readers will share his vivid experiences, whether of= an unfolding military coup d'état, or of invasive psychiatric obtusenes= s. Above all, one feels the agony of "a man of peace in a situation of war."
Bryan Sentes is a heroic Pound-Joyce of the G=
era. Polyglot, polymath, his imagination leaps in macaronic shifts from
language to L=3DA=3DN=3DG=3DU=3DA=3DG=3DE. Vignettes of a drunken world fro=
m Europe to
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 Pub=
he expands his meditative analysis from introspection to the troubled psych=
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.
 Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Laureate Lecture, 8 December 1980, http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1980/milosz-lecture-en.html.
 Martin Earl, http://www.webdelsol.com/LITARTS/Cyber_Rambler/cyber_r5.htm
 Fran= ces Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold = War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 199= 9); 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).
 I sh= ould perhaps mention that a poem by Milosz which I co-translated with him appear= ed in Encounter, the most famous (= but not the only) journal supported by a covert CIA subsidy. See "Througho= ut 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.
Matthiessen…co-founded and wrote for the