If Aaron Kramer, who died on April 7, 1997, were alive
now, he would say we are living in wicked times. Indeed,
he is still, joyously, alive to testify for us in a
new edition of his work. Wicked Times: Selected Poems
of Aaron Kramer just published by the University of
Illinois Press, is lovingly researched and edited by
Donald Gilzinger, Jr., and Cary Nelson. The appearance
of a very thorough gathering of Aaron Kramer’s
poetry represents the best that poetry can be.
Such a statement might easily be taken as hyperbole
but it comes from several serious and considerable bases.
The series in which the book appears is itself called
The American Poetry Recovery Series and the very title
bespeaks the state of not just the art but the business
of poetry in America. Too many of America’s fine
poets go unheralded in their lifetime and are too quickly
forgotten upon their death. The University’s project
seeks to correct that unfortunate fact. And then, there
is the actual body of Kramer’s work, returned
to us in healthy measure.
For at least two reasons quite extensively explained
in the introduction of the book, Kramer was certainly
a neglected -- more so, a suppressed -- American genius.
The first reason for his suppression or at least his
lack of proper recognition as a poet, of course, was
his legendary politics of the left, which are the focus
of the biography included in the book. Aaron’s
life-long, finely-tuned sense of injustice, which permeated
his poetry in themes of workers’ rights, racial
equality, anti-war protests and just plain cries for
human decency, also met with establishment rebuff.
A further dilemma presented by Aaron’s poetry,
again documented in the opening of the new book, is
his choice to write in rhyme and as often didactically.
By so doing, he attempted to use a voice more comfortable
and familiar to a large non-academic audience. His resistance
to the language poets, the obscurists (passing themselves
off as “modernists”) which led him to continue
writing in rhyme, often put him at odds with the prevailing
literary “bosses.” (For more on the on-going
politics of poetry, one need only click to look at www.foetry.com
to see how the poetry wars rage on.) The price of his
stylistic integrity was less establishment recognition
than Aaron Kramer deserved.
Most of all, Aaron Kramer’s work is the work
of a genuine “people’s poet,” a point
he made for himself as a young teen when he first published
his poems and which he proved through a lifetime of
what was often anguished advocacy of the right causes.
As committed as he was to any cause, he was never blind
to the basic purpose of poetry -- to communicate the
human condition in a way sufficiently empathetic that
ordinary people, not just the literati, would feel for
Indeed, Aaron, who was on a first-name basis with all
the greatest poets from the past, could make a student
feel a personal relationship to each of them. When he
would visit a classroom, and when I would myself would
kid him when introducing him, about his own extensive
list of accomplishments, publications, awards, he would,
in turn as often state “I gave up long ago on
being famous. Now I just concentrate on writing better
poetry.” That, in itself, is the perfect summation
of his life and career, making the reappearance of his
work quintessentially just! The book itself, 380 pages
in length and arranged not chronologically, but as Kramer
himself often did with his works, thematically, brings
much of his work together for new and old readers alike.
In a way, it represents a brilliant social history,
cataloging the crimes as much as the triumphs of the
20th Century. Kramer’s poems were often rendered
in song by such as Pete Seeger, or by Waldmar Hille
(who gave us the music for “We Shall Overcome”).
His poems were choreographed, made into libretto, sung
and performed widely. Aaron, himself told me about an
occasion when he was attending a Chautauqua program
in Upstate New York, where he gathered with many others
around an evening campfire and heard a singer present
one of Aaron’s own poems as a song. The singer
announced he would perform “a wonderful old workers’
song the composition of which was, of course, anonymous.”
After, Aaron approached the singer to inform him that
Aaron himself was the author of the song lyrics. The
singer in turn replied, “That can’t be.
It’s so old and famous. How could it be by you?”
That single anecdote probably summarizes much of Aaron’s
own personal anguish which motivated, inspired, and
even drove him to fight for the rights of us all. The
literati as often pick only the few, as often their
friends, to experience wide recognition -- as much or
as little fame as a poet is able to garner in our highly
commercialized and increasingly censored world. Aaron
wrote, created, crusaded to his last days for us all
to have and hear honest, beautiful words.
There are nearly 250 poems collected by two editors
who have gone the extra measure to assure the gifts
of Aaron Kramer will persist for many more years. Donald
Gilzinger, Jr., must be praised for his life-long dedication
to cataloging and disseminating Aaron’s work.
It’s so often said that great poems stand the
test of time. That is only so if the clock is regularly
wound! By bringing us this book, containing work previously
unpublished or for various reasons, suppressed, the
University of Illinois and the editors, Nelson and Gilzinger,
don’t give us a look back, they keep us up with
our own times through the continuing relevance and beauty
of Aaron Kramer’s work.
Test this statement for yourself. Read “In Wicked
Times,” from which the title of the book derives,
and ask yourself if it wasn’t just written. And
alas, if not for such as Aaron, might it not continue
to be true?
In Wicked Times by Aaron Kramer
It is, after all, my planet.
My father trained me to care.
Night after night at eleven
I’ve somehow managed to bear
shipwrecks, planewrecks, dreamwrecks
with ice at the roots of my hair.
Once or twice per decade,
for several months in a row,
the times were more wicked than even
a trained man cares to know.
Those nights I moved toward the dial
with footsteps cramped and slow.
For several weeks I’ve noticed,
just about half past ten,
a cramp in the pit of my stomach,
a craving to flee the den;
I crawl to the dial-no question:
the times are wicked again.
And this which Aaron wrote, of course, for himself,
but which must strike a respondent cord in so many of
To Himself by Aaron Kramer
Finally it will not matter
how many kicked, how many kissed him-
how many rooms there were, how many rumors-
how many poisons were offered, or prizes-
how many salvos, how many silences.
It will mean nothing, nothing at all
whether anthologies nested his poems-
whether a critic called them bright birds-
whether they soared across heaven-smooth pages-
whether slumberers leapt at the tune.
Nothing will matter, nothing at all
except that his heart maintained its own beat,
his face its own hue, his foot its own thud,
his night its own vision, his soul its own heat,
his hand its own touch, his tongue its own word.
This will be all, on the day of days.
But meanwhile, what is a man to do-
a man, like everyone, flesh and blood?
How many times can he say to himself:
Hush, fool, hush! it will not matter,
not matter at all, not matter at all . . .
For we who knew Aaron and more so, knew him through
for his verse, his life mattered greatly. The reappearance
of his work is a proof of goodness and a further triumph
for him, for the arts and for decency. Here are two
of my own written for him: