Henry the Activist (ret.)

Now & then I seem to get pigeonholed in poetryland as a (political, poetickal) conservative (if not Neo-Neanderthal Reactionary). So some might be surprised to learn that I come out of a vocational background in (the Republican-vilified) community organizing.

Yes, while other young 20-somethings were getting their MFAs & Phds., I was out there in the grungy streets & asbestos-flaking factory bldgs. of little old Providence, being a VISTA volunteer (5 years+). I specialized in grassroots legislative training - working with neighborhood organizations with lobbying at the RI State House. We published an annual detailed review of the (often execrable) doings up in the big white marble dome. & other things, too - fundraising, organizing. Food coops & community gardens, wholesale produce collectives. Mass meetings, street theater. We held a mass meeting in a hockey stadium with the RI congressional delegation, running up to the Reagan election. Many many many long late nights in smoke-filled rooms, with the 70s crop of Saul Alinsky-inspired activists. Many actions on the defense budget, Reaganomics, housing, etc. & so on...

This is some of my background. My life comes in distinct layers of re-fashioning (maybe too distinct). Actually I think my skepticism about some of the doctrinaire-enthusiastic blendings of poetry & ideology in contemporary poetry, stem not so much from any "conservative" allegiance to tradition, but from my everyday very hands-on experience with something Alinsky focused on : the differences between theory & practice. We went through many scenes, melodramas & turf wars between "radicals" of various left-wing clans & stripes; the neighborhood organizing movement itself grew out of a disillusionment with 60s New Left abstractions.

Of course, I haven't hesitated to drone on with my own theories & doctrines about poetry (physician heal thyself)... nevertheless one of the things that has consistently bothered me, through the 90s & up to now, is the scheming & bloviating about political styles in poetry. What you learn in practical politics is something about the difference between words & deeds : about the limits of "windy discoursing". This background, combined with the fact that I'm from the understated & stoic Midwest, might have more to do with my attitude than any commitment to "traditional styles" in poetry (though there's that, too, I guess).

To repeat : my life fractures into distinct layers. Perhaps also I've simply devolved, grown more conservative with age (a familiar ailment). I'd like to recover some remnant of my intense civic enthusiasm & engagement of those ancient days. Ah, yout'! But "youthful idealism" is something real (though often aligned also with youthful naivete, arrogance). The sense of community is a spiritual sense. The populist demand for justice comes from a (maybe inborn, innate) sense of fairness & humanity - the "ceremony of innocence" which suffers outrage after outrage over time - until the old man sinks into indifference, discouragement, anomie, & despair - all those spiritual blockages which confine Aristotle's virtue (man the political animal) & Dante's spiritual joy (man the animale compagnevole). What is poetry, Mandelstam was asked. "The poet's sense of being right," he answered. & he died for it : with the writing of one 10-line "political poem".

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