Tuesday, March 22, 2016

HiIary Putnam, my dear friend, loved poetry

      Hilary wrote to me (and talked to me much of this) – and over many years, when I began putting up poems on my blog, would often write to me a short note about each one – something that meant a lot. He spoke to me of poems of Louis MacNeice and many others that he especially liked,  sent me the news when Houghton Library put up the original manuscripts of Emily Dickinson poems (see Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson).  When I was in Dharamsala this winter, I heard Tenzin Tsundue speak about the meaning to him of poetry. It saved his life against exile and torture and re-arrest even in India, and many friends and relatives being worried about or angry with him.   I wrote a poem about it, which Hillary sent me a note about:

“Dear Alan,
   I love this poem.

Age and health related problems (mine and Ruth Anna's) absorb all
my time lately, but a poem like this transcends them. 


Hilary himself was a bit like the Brahmaputra, coming swiftly down from Tibet, being, creating life, watering our wider Asia.

This poem is now, also, for him.

       Steve Wagner a wonderful friend of Hilary’s and mine, sent me news of Hilary’s death while I was in Chile.  That same evening, he came across and then sent me a facebook page of Robert Reich’s about how an older boy, Michael Schwerner, had saved him from bullies in school.  Andy Goodman, my friend from Walden School, went with SNCC and Freedom Summer to Mississippi.  Mickey Schwerner was down there, James Cheney from there (he left his brother Ben with a promise to come back and play with him and went off that day…); it was Andy’s first day in Mississippi.  They went to visit a burned out church where the minister had urged people to register to vote. Their car had a flat tire.  They were abducted by the Sheriff and given, at midnight, to the Klan…

       Hilary once wrote me of the pride that he and Ruth Anna felt, and that I should to, at the lives of fighting racism we had led.  It was how I met Hilary.  It was how I stood with Hilary against the wordy racism of Herrnstein and Murray (even bigger bullies, more blood on their hands…).  It was how he (and we) stood against certain powerful prejudices about the Vietnam War at Harvard and in the Philosophical Association and in the elite.  Somehow, the coincidence was very striking to Steve and he sent me a poem of Wallace Stevens’s.  In “The Palm Tree at the End of the Universe,” Stevens imagines a mechanical bird – whose song, imitating the song of birds, has no reason to it, and yet we hear the beautiful music.  For there is a connection of my friendship with Andy now long ago, and my long and dear friendship with Hilary, a moral and political (as he wrote so eloquently) and philosophical thing, of many fibers, but one also about poetry.  Stevens often had marvelously sounding last lines:

              its fire-fangled feathers
dangle down

      The sorrow that Hillary is gone, a dark hole in the universe for so many of us or the vanishing of a beautiful water-drop (Basho, also summoned by Steve) is intense.  The warmth and kindness of his friendship and his being human and somehow fire-fangled – Hilary’s amazing singing and brilliance and compassion for all - will be with me, and I hope with all of us, its soul-echoes spreading out to infinity, in the great move into the future.

What are poems for?

                               For Tenzin Tsundue and Hilary Putnam

A serious man


red bandana

lost along a roadway

raised away from parents


lost yourself in demonstrations

far from home

walked over the mountains


5 days into China

tortured and beaten three months

to lead resistance


amidst fists:

Why have you come
Who do you know
Who sent you


all the way to Lhasa in a cell

red flag

I studied English at Mumbai


Keats   Shelley
in another tongue

interrogators do not believe


words have power


clear as the sweeping headwaters of the Brahmaputra

roiling Tibet

turn swiftly down

at the Great Bend

rush down down down

to water Asia


fine mountain snow


down down down

on the yak herder

20,000 feet of night

cordoned in cities

with a protective scroll

tiny houses

of beautiful images

no grass

and words

investigators took pity

not your need

sent you out of China

where Indian authorities

held you for a month

perhaps brainwashed

a spy for Beijing

anyone but 

a maker of the words

that saved you

imagining the lost fathers

who fought

betrayed perhaps

by nonviolence

or a homeland you have barely seen

perhaps the prison cells

or a warrior Tibet

cutting throats

but now

fighter of anger and greed


a free Kom Amdo

the fiery invisible


and you and others

sword of nonviolence

blindly exiled

day by day

within it

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