Thursday, April 12, 2012

Poem: Edward Field

I have been out and about all day and all night, and so had no time really to post today's poem, by a poet who sadly is far too underread, despite having proved he was the real thing from his first book, despite being a queer pioneer, and despite having received acclaim over the years. I can guarantee you that when people mention gay American poets of the 1960s and 1970s, his name probably won't arise. Why? That is a good question. His poetry includes mentions of popular culture, politics, the every life experiences of people of his generation. It's often witty, sometimes outright funny, and is serious without taking itself too seriously. This poet even wrote a delightful, gossipy memoir that includes Susan Sontag in its title (The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag and Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era, University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). And yet.... Okay, who am I talking about? Edward Field (1924-)!

A native of Brooklyn, a World War II veteran, the winner of many major prizes, including the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Prix de Rome, the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry, and an Academy Award in the 1964 Documentary Short for To Be Alive! Now does this make you want to find out who he is? I will admit I rushed out to find his first book when, paging through Richard Howard's snappish 1969 edition of Alone With America, I noted that rather than savaging Field, he praised him. I need to read this poet, I decided. And I did. Also, the titles of two of his first three books alone are worth the effort of finding them: Stand Up, Friend, With Me (Grove Press, 1963), and Variety Photoplays (Grove Press, 1967). He has published 12 books of poetry, five books of fiction, 2 nonfiction books (including said memoir above), and edited or co-edited 5 books as well. A poet I met some years back at a writing colony, Lisa Glatt, told me she'd met Field and could not stop singing his praises. The memoir suggests he at least has a good sense of humor, as well as poetic and narrative talent.

Let me stop there and post the poem, from his 2007 book, After the Fall: Poems Old and New (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007). If you read the most recent poems, you'll see that Field, nearing the end of his life--though he's still with us!--takes a much sterner perspective in some of them. As in the following one. I don't agree with what he's saying, because sometimes seemingly "harmless wordplay," as I've written about before on here, is anything but. One could also point to the irony of its status as a gloss on the great Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who did write actively against tyranny but was aware of how little poetry, at least in certain senses, could do.  Nevertheless, he is quite right about the government simply getting rid of us if it sees fit to, and his "Credo" stands, especially given that he's a poet in the winter of his years, as an admonition, charge and challenge to us all.


What good is poetry
if it doesn't stand up
against the lies of the government,
if it doesn't rescue us
from the liars that mislead ups?
What good is it
if it doesn't speak out, denounce what's going on?
It's nothing
but harmless wordplay to titillate and distract—
the government knows it
and can always get rid of us if we step out of line.

That I believed in poetry,
even when I betrayed it,
that I came back to its central meaning
--to save the world—
this and only this
has been my own salvation.

after C. Milosz

Copyright © Edward Field, "Credo," from After the Fall: Poems Old and New, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. All rights reserved.

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