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About Aaron Kramer

Cary Nelson

Among progressive modern American poets working with social and political themes and using traditional forms, Aaron Kramer (1921-1997) may well be the single most accomplished figure. From his first protest poems, written in the mid-1930s when he was barely a teenager, through to his pointed critiques of the 1983 war in Grenada and Ronald Reagan's 1985 visit to Nazi graves in Bitburg, what stands out about Kramer's work is the musical character of his acts of political witness. Rhyme, meter, and traditional stanzaic forms in Kramer's poetry contain and direct anger, satire, and anguish about a century of singular violence.

His 1937 poem "The Shoe-Shine Boy," published when Kramer was fifteen years old, is a definitive vignette about class. The speaker reports seeing "a child whose shoes looked old / Shining another's, till they shone like gold." From then on he would question exceptionalist claims about his country. The poem is notably also a deliberately ironic use of heroic couplets. Kramer adopted traditional meters--favoring iambic trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter--in part to install a radical politics within inherited rhythms. He wanted to radicalize root and branch of our literary tradition, not to abandon it for alternative forms.

The poems deploying these techniques in time would cluster around recurring themes and historical events. His first poems about exploited labor appeared in 1934; his last was published in 1995. His earliest poems about the suppression of freedoms in the United States date from 1938 and he continued writing them through the 1980s. He is one of perhaps only two American writers to produce a series of poems about McCarthyism, from his satiric "The Soul of Martin Dies (1940) to "Called In" (1980), his poem of outrage against those compelled to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Over four decades he would repeatedly write poems about the Holocaust. Like a number of American poets who came of age in the 1930s he wrote poems about the Spanish Civil War through much of his life. And finally he had a continuing interest in and commitment to testifying about African American history.

It is this last subject that occasioned what is perhaps his masterpiece--the 26 poems comprising the 1952 sequence "Denmark Vesey," about plans for an aborted 1822 slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. It is probably the single most ambitious and inventive poem about race ever written by a white American, and it is distinguished in part by Kramer's skill at negotiating the political relationship between form, sound, diction and meaning.

The first poem offers a hint of internal rhyme in Kramer's riveting definition of plantation agriculture--"acres rooted by uprooted hands"--and then gives the first full rhymes to slavery, as the founder of the middle passage gets the inspiration to kidnap African men, women, and children, then sees the idea become a thriving business, as "inspiration swiftly turned to gold./ The first shocked screams were muffled in the hold."

In a typical Kramer strategy the hint of internal rhyme in the first poem is fulfilled in the second: "The sobs and moans cut through my bones." The line is spoken by the one white resident who does hear, the wife of a slave owner or auctioneer. This poem, "Auction Block," is a brilliantly executed dialogue between her and her husband, with their respective statements differentiated in italics and roman type. The poem reinforces what will be a constant theme in the sequence, that white civilization is grounded not only in its indifference to the suffering it imposes on its darker brothers but also in a suppression of its own humanity. This theme builds until the devastating poem "Vesey's Nightmare," Vesey being the freed black who was the leader of the slaves. In his nightmare, delivered in off-rhymed five-beat couplets, white cannibals and vampires feed on black bodies and decorate themselves with human trophies--like ghouls elevated to positions of social prominence: "The lovely brocade their ladies wore / had once been Negro grandmothers' hair."

The poem "Vesey Speaks to the Congregation" gives us Vesey's own bodily identification with the oppressed slaves in rhymed couplets: "my back is marked by your masters' whips; / and from your wounds my own blood drips." The reaction of the whites to intimations of revolt gets its own distinctive rhythm. In "The Legislators Vote" the relentless, lurching rhythm perfectly instantiates the legislature as an institutionalized lynch mob: "Fine them! Jail them! Bind them! Starve them! Brand them! Flail them!" Vesey finally warns the slaves not to hope for salvation from above: "You look for freedom in the sky? / Then chained you'll live and chained you'll die." "Turn all your sobs to battle-cries" Kramer urges, "cry freedom! freedom! and arise." It a call to African Americans but also a general rallying cry issued in the midst of McCarthyism.

 Nearly half a century after composing "Denmark Vesey," while he was hurriedly copy-editing the three books that would soon comprise his posthumous publications, Kramer was persuaded that he would soon be forgotten after his death. "Denmark Vesey" was issued in a small, privately published chapbook. It remained unavailable thereafter until the University of Illinois Press issued Kramer's Wicked Times: Selected Poems, the first comprehensive collection of his work, in 2004. The only literary scholar who took notice of the poem sequence in the intervening decades was Alan Wald.

If it is true that "Denmark Vesey" is, as some believe, one of the masterpieces of American modernism, why has it languished almost unknown for fifty years? It is partly a result of timing. Kramer was born at home, a cold-water flat in Brooklyn, on December 13, 1921. He was drawn to the proletarian poetry movement in the 1930s, but its other members were young adults, born a critical few years earlier. Langston Hughes was born in 1902, Edwin Rolfe in 1909. Even Muriel Rukeyser, born in 1913, was eight years older than Kramer. So was effectively but a child proletarian poet, hardly likely to receive critical attention. As he grew older, his use of traditional forms distinguished him from most other poets on the Left, who saw Whitman as their precursor and free verse as their natural style. In a way, the poets most likely to be sympathetic to his formal choices were those also most likely to be offended by his politics. Kramer's first pamphlet, The Alarm Clock (1938) was funded by a local Communist Party chapter. Thereafter Kramer's poetry was issued by small presses or privately printed. He had a following among New York radio's audiences and received some prominent reviews in the 1940s, but he never received the further national attention he deserved. He had a variety of minor jobs until obtaining a position teaching English in 1961 at what would later become Dowling College. In addition to his poetry, he published a number of collections of translations, including volumes of Heine, Rilke, Yiddish poetry, and poems about the Holocaust. His critical books include The Prophetic Tradition in American Poetry (1968) and Melville's Poetry (1972).

Yet his major legacy, still not fully recognized, is his poetry. He sought in the music of poetry not only cultural knowledge but also incitement to change. In a series of tributes to other political poets, one hears echoes of his ambitions and his regrets. "The tyrants of Chile are hunting Neruda" is the line that opens his poem to one. He imagines, whimsically, that "not being Yevtushenko has its advantages." And observes of Paul Celan, "so yours was the breakthrough that should have been mine." But his tribute to Boris Pasternak catches the truth that witness must be its own reward: "over your countrymens' heads, on wings that are splendid, / the swan of your sorrow and theirs is beginning to fly."

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