Winter 2005



David B Axelrod

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 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 the subjects.

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 us:

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:

David B. Axelrod
When I Listen to a Concert I Want to Move
(For Aaron Kramer, 1982)

Who is the fool dancing
in the concert aisles
giving the conductor competition?
Over the footlights he lofts
spinning amid the cellos
(his favorite instruments).
Where did this idiot learn
to drive his semi-
conscious through an orchestra?
Always, one moving in
the audience, a drumming
in his blood, a need to dance
what others only dream of.

David B. Axelrod
Near Death
(A sonnet for Aaron Kramer, 1997.)

“Do not go gentle?” Dylan missed the mark;
as if we all must think of death as dark.
I think that death’s more gentle than a birth.
I’ve seen a light that glows beyond the earth;
but not a heaven, not Elysian Fields.
One needn’t find salvation; rather, yield
to that same light that little children miss
in nurseries where doting parents kiss
their fears away indulgently. But why?
Suppose it isn’t fear that makes kids cry
but yearning for the pre-birth light they left.
Then go, good journeyman, gently cleft.
Greet death as quietly as candles burn.
From light you came. To light you shall return.



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