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This item is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

Letters from Marilyn Nelson, Marilyn Hacker, Graham Roe
Just a Quickie


I wondered, finding a copy of your March-April issue in my mailbox, to whom I owed this interesting surprise. Opened it, flipped through pages, wondered why it had been sent. Then saw my name, p. 1, and my words quoted, in your editorial.

As you were quoting not from me, but from a published and edited report of something I had said, I'd like to make one substantial correction. You have me saying, `I know it's an ambivalent situation and I hesitated to contribute to the project, but I felt that I needed to say I wanted peace instead of war.' You begin your critique of the poem I wrote one morning to contribute to the PoetsforPeace website with: `Having originally resisted political statement...' Quite the contrary: I did not at all resist political statement. As a matter of fact, I was at that time working on an heroic crown of sonnets (A Wreath for Emmett Till, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin) in which I point out similarities between the Mississippi mob which lynched fourteen-year-old Aframerican Emmett Till in 1955 and the mob-mentality being whipped up in this country by the GWB Administration. I hesitated to contribute to the project because I couldn't contribute this poem, already slated to be published as a book, and I didn't have anything else I could send. I took a day from working on my `real' sonnets to write a `quickie', fourteen unrhymed iambic pentameter lines, whose title (`Unrhymed Peace Sonnet'), I thought, and the fact that the date of composition appears directly under the title, would indicate the haste in which it was composed.

Your editorial argues, fairly, that `It is not élitist nor aesthetically naïve to insist that a poet's... language be, at times of crisis, precise in focus and meaning.' That may be true. (Shouldn't that be `not élitist or', by the way?) But one might argue equally persuasively that at times of crisis, even a few lines dashed off in haste might indicate that a poet is saying, in Ginsberg's words: `America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.'

A minor, but related issue: you say of my poem that `she manages to cram a dozen issues into fourteen lines'. In defence of my little quickie, I wonder where you found all those issues? I see only the potential war in Iraq: the nation's people wondering whom to believe, the individual history of Saddam Hussein's `evil' vs. the self-contradicting history of America's `rapine and ideals', GWB seen as Warner Bros cartoon character `Yosemite Sam', an angry prayer asking God why She doesn't fix the situation. Only one line brings in another issue: `And Africa is dying out, of AIDS.' I'd be very much interested in knowing how you read my poem, what you thought those `dozen issues' were.

By the time you read this, we may be at war. Here's a little passage for you, from Brecht's anti-Nazi poem, `To Posterity':

Think -
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.

Storrs, CT, USA


When I first read the Editorial to PNR 150, I wondered at first and I still wonder why you took such umbrage at Marilyn Nelson's (not entirely) `Unrhymed Peace Sonnet' of all the poems, good and bad, in Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War collection. Was it because of her (I think deliberately and understatedly comic) statement about her original intention to attend the luncheon wearing a peace-symbol scarf? Because I can't see anything in the poem itself that represents `the ill-conceived expression of impassioned sentiment' - to compress somewhat your statements. The images in the sonnet are deliberately cartoonish, but I frankly don't see `a dozen issues' crammed into fourteen lines. There's the fact that the Supreme Rulers of both the United States and Iraq are distasteful. The reader can judge which one's `evil deeds' are `individual' and which one represents `centuries of rapine and ideals'. The desire of both leaders to `bring on Armageddon' is fairly well documented - but only one of them currently has the weaponry to do so. I think the reader knows to whom the cartoon Yosemite Sam image refers. There's one line (line 11) bringing in another issue, AIDS in Africa - relevant in the fact that, like all the other humanitarian catastrophes, it has been erased from world consciousness in the face of the current crisis. And this leads to the turn of the last four lines, invoking the deity, leading to the punning - and funny - metaphor of the last line, which also has the effect of bridging harangue and humour. In fact, much about the poem is understated, beginning with its calling itself unrhymed: it doesn't have a complete sonnet rhyme scheme (of which Nelson is eminently capable, in a variety of registers and dictions: her initial reticence to contribute to Sam Hamill's website had nothing to do with a luke-warm opposition to the war, but with the fact that she was immersed in writing a full fifteen-sonnet heroic crown on the lynching of Emmett Till) but it has quite enough rhyme to hold it together. But for me what makes it a successful poem is that turn in the last line where the rhetoric gets nasty and hilarious at once.

I'm at least glad that you quoted the poem as a whole, so that readers will be able to make up their own minds about it. For this reader, the release involved in that last sly malediction is the mark of a successful poem, protest or no, which will merit the footnote in a hundred and fifty years when those who don't do American History may have forgotten the name of the millennial unelected president.



In his article `Holy Heraclitus', in PNR 150, Adam Czerniawski says `Patricia Beer calls her collection Friend of Heraclitus but, even though in one poem she addresses him by name, there is no trace there of his thought'. He seems to miss the fact that the poem concerned (also entitled `Friend of Heraclitus') does not allude to Heraclitus the philospher at all.

As is indicated by the epigraph to Beer's poem, the allusion is to William Johnson Cory's poem `Heraclitus' (`They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead'). Even at first glance there is no sign that Cory's poem is about Heraclitus the philosopher, and a couple of moments' digging in Google reveals that it is in fact a free translation of an epigram by Callimachus whose subject (according to Diogenes Laertius) is one Heraclitus of Halicarnassus, another poet.

This item is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

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