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WALTER LOWENFELS

Jim Burns

 

On 23rd July, 1953, FBI agents raided the home of Walter Lowenfels and arrested him for "conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence," a charge covered by the Smith Act which was used to harass members of the American Communist Party. "Eight men pointing revolvers converged on my typewriter as if it were a machine-gun emplacement," Lowenfels later wrote, and he was put on trial though the case against him was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. During this period he wryly commented that a large part of his adult me had "been spent trying to overthrow not only the government but the universe," a somewhat curious remark from a man who had been a full-time employee of the Party for around sixteen years and so might have been expected to have had a more prosaic view of the aims of the revolution. But Lowenfels was no ordinary communist and his background also included spells as a businessman and years in Paris during the great days of the expatriates. And he had achieved some fame as an avantgarde poet before taking up the communist cause.

Lowenfels was born in 1897 into a prosperous German-Jewish family of butter merchants. He was an inattentive student and did so badly at school that he failed to qualify for college entrance and was taken into the family business. When America entered the First World War in 1917 he enthusiastically enlisted but never actually left the United States, being as inefficient a soldier as he had been a student. His own later explanation for joining up was that he was "illiterate about war and peace and politics" in those days. Between 1919 and 1926 he worked for his father, becoming "very good in butter," but he was also beginning to take an interest in the arts. He wrote poetry, and began to pick up a few ideas from the modernist poets active in the 1920s. His first book appeared In 1925 and included a poem called From an Exposition of Power and Industrial Machinery, which was essentially a catalogue of engineering terminology but points to the way Lowenfels was concerned to develop a different kind of language and subject-matter for poetry:

unit aligning power transmission
non return vertical indicator
pump governing nose
return trap compensating joint
expanding lathe mandrel

make up water
boiler blow down
bleach liquor
stream flow
glass steam trap
air cooled wall for powdered coal

By 1926, Lowenfels had decided that the butter business was hardly the way to proceed as a poet and was planning to go to Paris, where writers like Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, and McAlmon were active and modernist ideas encouraged. His father, annoyed at his wanting to leave the family business, sent him to see a psychiatrist, who suggested that Lowenfels should be sent on a trip, provided it was to Vienna to consult Sigmund Freud about his supposed problems. Lowenfels took the money, sailed for Europe, and made his way to Paris, where he married his fiance, Lillian Apotheker, the daughter of a Yiddish scholar and humourist who wrote under the name of Hinke Dinke Schlemazel ("limping ne'er-do-well" in English). As Jonathan Cott put it:

"In the late twenties and early thirties, Paris was still the crown of the avant-garde causeway. Little magazines and small presses were springing up everywhere. Mina Loy spoke of the 'crisis of consciousness,í Eugene Jolas of the 'revolution of the word,' Gertrude Stein of the 'actual present,' and Ezra Pound of 'making it new.' Harry Crosby was using found forms and concrete poetry - all relating to sun mythology and imagery. Bob Brown experimented with 'optical' poetry and a tachistoscope-like reading machine. Abraham Lincoln Gillespie wrote 'soundpieces' in a bizarre notation that anticipated the work of Jackson Maclow and John Cage. And the painter De Hirsch Margulies sat on the quays of the Seine and painted pictures in the dark. In fact, the first exhibition of these paintings, which could be seen only in a darkened room, took place in Walter's Paris apartment."

Lowenfels was clearly at home in this kind of atmosphere. With a friend, Michael Fraenkel, he started the Anonymous Movement, advocating total anonymity in the arts. The idea collapsed when he thought the authors of the musical, Of Thee I Sing, had stolen material from his own play, USA with music and he launched a plagiarism suit against them, something he clearly couldn't do anonymously. Lowenfels and Fraenkel also started the Carrefour Press, though their plans to publish work by Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett came to nothing because of lack of funds. Their meeting with Beckett to discuss his work was somewhat bizarre. They expounded their social and artistic theories to the silent Beckett and, eventually, Lowenfels got frustrated and burst out, "You sit there saying nothing while the world is going to pieces. What do you want? What do you want to do?" Beckett crossed his legs and replied, "Walter, all I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante."

Lowenfels and Fraenkel also joined forces with Henry Miller and Anais Nin to start what was called the 'death schoolí of writing. "We had the idea that the world was dead," said Lowenfels, "and that the only thing you could do was write poems about it." As part of his contribution to a body of work representing this idea, Lowenfels produced several long poems which celebrated dead writers. The first, "Apollinaire an Elegy," appeared in 1930, the second, "Elegy in the manner of a Requiem in memory of D.H.Lawrence," in 1932, and "The Suicide," which was about Hart Crane, in 1934. It has been said that these pieces are "experimental, yet stately, long modernist reveries,"and that they "fuse a slightly formalist rhetoric and form with the oxygen of surrealism." Obviously, a few lines pulled from long poems which depend on their totality for their impact are not the best way of showing what Lowenfels was doing, but they may at least give an idea of his style and use of language:

His Arc de Triomphe is a structure of the world
not in the word but in the angels
and every taxi horn of Paris
keeps his flame eternally rekindled
not in the sound but in the angels.

(from Apollinaire)


He moves among the miles
like Switzerland among the blue bells
But the edelweiss we picked
among the leaves.
It is turned to day by day.
ft yellows slowly. It spreads Its wings.
It folds and unfolds.

(from D.H.Lawrence)
 

The skull sea-washed sprouts anemones
where the black mould eats into the bone.
I saw it down the bottoms
among the tails fin scales
of rise and wash of endless days at sea

(from Hart Crane)

Interestingly, Lowenfels stayed in Paris when many other expatriates went back to America as the 1929 Stock Market crash wiped out family fortunes and their allowances dried up. He had been making a living as a real-estate agent, renting property to wealthy Americans and Frenchmen, and managed to carry on doing this even in the new economic climate. In Henry Millerís Black Spring there is a chapter entitled "Jabberwhorl Cronstadt," which is a portrait of Lowenfels. The narrator goes to visit Cronstadt and finds him and his family living In a state of bohemian confusion. Cronstadt talks non-stop, interrupts his discourse to deal with a phone call from someone wanting to rent an apartment, and then carries on talking and drinking. At one point he says: "You think a poem must have covers around it. The moment you write a thing the poem ceases. The poem is the present which you can't define. You live it. Anything is a poem if it has time in it. You don't have to take a terry-boat or go to China to write a poem. The finest poem I ever lived was a kitchen sink." And he passes out and is put to bed.

Miller's account show us the bohemian side of Lowenfels, but by the early-1930s he was becoming more aware of the rise of fascism and other social and political problems. In a memoir published in the 1970s he recalled attending meetings in Paris where banners saying "Free the Scottsboro Boys," and "Free Ernst Thaelmann: Unite Against War and Fascism," were displayed. The Scottsboro Boys were a group of young blacks convicted in Alabama for allegedly raping a white girt, and Thaelmann was the leader of the German Communist Party and was imprisoned when Hitler came to power. Lowenfels also started to read Marx and his friendship with Miller and Fraenkel began to weaken. He wrote to them to say: "The insoluble contradictions arising in the social structure are reflected in the personality of the poet. We go to pieces inwardly and, as we sing, toss up brittle pieces of ourselves. And what is it that we have reflected? Nothing more than that Mellon owns all the aluminium in the world and it's killing us."

Lowenfels returned to the United States in 1934 and to the butter business to support his wife and children. But he was by then committed to communist ideas, and a small collection, Steel, 1937, published in 1938 pointed to the way in which these ideas were shaping his poetry:

I don't went to know the name of this town.
I don't want to know the reasons why
it spells two more are dead.
But still I know. From the earth
In Alcoa from the corpses gas guns
from the pictures Mellon buys and gives away
from the dividends that mix with the dead
the aluminium smells bad.
The coffee pot spells death.

In an interview published in a newspaper around this time he was quoted as saying of France: "Aragon is making communist poetry at Belleville, the workmen's quarters. All the young men with intelligence enough to be creative are interested in social matters." But his verse didn't find favour in American Communist Party circles, where the Popular Front ideology dictated that modernist verse was elitist, and one critic has suggested that it was considered "far too experimental and surrealist for Party dictates on what was considered poetry for the working class." In 1938 Lowenfels took his family to Philadelphia, where he became a reporter for, and then editor of, the Pennsylvania edition of the Daily Worker. His wife became a schoolteacher, a job she would lose when Lowenfels was arrested in the 1950s. It would seem that working full-time for the Party led to Lowenfels abandoning poetry, perhaps because he thought that silence was better than turning out officially-approved verse. Or he may have just thought that he needed to give all his time to Party work. Whatever the reason he certainly gave up poetry, especially of an avant-garde kind, for fourteen or fifteen years. Instead, he produced prose which was suitable for Party papers, as in this excerpt from a report published in the Daily Worker in 1947: "Perhaps the most unbelievable part of the coal crisis is that some men, called operators, make money, and spend their winters in fine homes and in Florida, out of what miners go through every day and night in the mines."

It's difficult to know exactly when Lowenfels started to write poetry again on a regular basis. He published pamphlets In 1963 and 1954, one of them, American Voices, being an intriguing mixture in which, in the words of Louis Aragon, "the lines of the author alternate with a sort of prose counterpoint made up of letters from readers printed in newspapers all over America." Aragon's words were used as part of the introduction to another pamphlet, The Prisoners, which was largely devoted to poems about American Communists who were being hounded by the Government. The following lines, from a poem called "Letter to Steve Nelson," (a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a leading member of the Party) are fairly typical:

Let's talk as we used to, Steve
not as in each other's prison,
(am I on bail? are you inside?)
One hardly knows from day to day now
which of us is where....

Although Lowenfels doesn't seem to have been active as a writer or editor for the communist press after 1954 he remained a Party member, despite the Kruschev revelations about Stalin, the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, and other matters which caused many members to quit. But returning to poetry allowed him to take note of what was happening in literary circles as the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, the New York poets, the writers of the San Francisco Renaissance, and more, began to revive the bohemian and radical traditions in American poetry. Lowenfels rightly saw all this activity as a continuation of the avant-garde tradition he'd been involved in during his Paris years. The social protest aspect of the work of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti naturally interested him, as did the surrealistic leanings of some of the new writers. In 1954, Jonathan Williams, at the instigation of Louis Zukofsky and Kenneth Rexroth, published Some Deaths, a selection of poems by Lowenfels, the newer ones of which indicated that he still favoured a modernist approach, with irregular lines and stanzas, prose and poetry sometimes mixed, surrealist flights of fancy alongside direct social observations, and a willingness at all times to take chances. Poets like Allen Ginsberg and Armand Schwerner were Impressed by his work, and Lowenfels, in turn, began to relate to many younger writers and regularly attended readings in New York at the Cafe Metro and the Poetry Project at St Mark's.

An idea of how he viewed the new poetry and its links to the past can be gained from an anthology, Poets of Today: A New American Anthology, which he edited In 1954. It ranged far and wide in its choice of poets, with older radicals like John Beecher, Don Gordon,and Thomas McGrath, alongside Beats such as Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Spanish Civil War veterans Ray Durem and Alvah Bessie next to Charles Bukowski and Denise Levertov. Lowenfels wasn't afraid to use poems by little-known poets and some by people who probably only wrote poetry occasionally. The overall impression was that most of the poems had a social angle, though not dogmatically so, and the forms were flexible. A similar approach is evident in another anthology, The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest, edited by Lowenfels in 1959, which went back in time to find poems by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Edwin Markham, to place with those by contemporary writers like Robert Bly, Bob Kaufman, and Leroi Jones. Lowenfels said that many of the newer writers he used were not likely to appear in academic anthologies, and so his collections made (and still make) useful starting places for alternative views of 20th Century American poetry.

It's important to note that Lowenfels saw the various anthologies he edited (and there were several others besides those mentioned) as an integral part of his total output. In response to a suggestion that what was important was his own poetry, he said "But I'm concerned with the totality of what I'm doing. To exclude my anthologies is to miss that total creative impact. They're not my words, they're the other guys' words, but I'm making a collage of poems. I am not doing anthologies the way other people do anthologies for schools, literary purposes, academic purposes and so forth. Each of my anthologies is a creative conception." Joel Lewis was of the opinion that "Lowenfels' goal was nothing less than to dissolve the Western notion of 'literature,' reclaim poetry from those who made it "a pedant's game" (in Basil Bunting's trenchant phrase) and replace it with a writing life where there is no difference between poem and non-poem, verse and prose, letter and elegy."

As for Lowenfels' own later work, he was influenced by William Carlos Williams and the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet. He had encountered Williams in Paris In the 1920s but had not paid much attention to his writing. It was much later that he read Paterson and recognised that Williams had been making "inventions in rhythms, using documentary material, newspaper quotes, combining prose letters with verse," and generally doing what Lowenfels had gradually worked towards. And Hikmet also used documentary materials, and had the added attraction of being a committed communist. It's also possible to see the influence of someone like Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Lowenfels' new poems:

And after Governor Faubus led his army against Little Rock
and General Walker led his troops against the
Supreme Court and Governor Wallace led his
bombers against Birmingham
and after 300 years of if you're white alright, but If you're
black, step back
and after 20 millions of us said now, right now and a
quarter million of us marched on Washington
and after the secret army of Governor X and Senator Y
bombed the constitution 41 times in Birmingham
and nobody was arrested
we cornered four girl hostages in the basement at Sunday
School and executed them using the secret dynamite formula.

Although Lowenfels was heavily involved with poetry in the 50s and 60s he also produced a great deal of prose, and in line with his stated aims, switched easily from one to the other, often within the same piece. He wrote a four-part autobiography, put together a large collection of correspondence (he was a great believer in letters as a form of communication), and compiled The Autobiography of an Empire, described as "a massive documentary history of the United States as told through visual materials, letters and documents." Much of his work remains unpublished, apart from excerpts In a few little magazines. One small book that did see print, To An Imaginary Daughter, published in 1954, is a wonderful series of reflections, comments, anecdotes, reminiscences, and general musings, all of which add up to the kind of volume that often baffles reviewers because it can't easily be pigeonholed. It's autobiography at times, with Lowenfels recalling Bob Brown, "old-time Greenwich Villager, Socialist, cookbook author and collector, bookseller," and experimental poet who, in the period before the First World War, had turned out hundreds of short stories and several novels, including a best-seller, and then given up his career to write poetry. He turned up in Paris in the late-1920s and had several collections published which placed him with the avant-garde, and then quit again. Lowenfels lost track of him until 1955 when he met Brown in New York. Brown was then "in his cookbook period," both writing them and dealing in rare volumes for collectors. Lowenfels also wrote about James Neugass, a poet who did the Paris stint in the early 1930s, served with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, wrote a powerful long poem, Give Us This Day, about that experience, and died In 1949 at the early age of forty-four, just before his only novel appeared. Trying to track down Neugass's work some years later, Lowenfels discovered that all his manuscripts had been destroyed when the cellar in which they were stored was flooded. There is, in the lines that Lowenfels wrote about people like Brown and Neugass, a lament for a lost world of radicalism in both politics and literature.

Walter Lowenfels was luckier than Brown and Neugass because his work did receive some attention in the 1950s and 1960s. But his poetry tended to be acknowledged mostly by non-Establishment writers. and it was probably his anthologies which gave him a place in literary circles, though I suspect that it was mainly 'underground' audiences which responded most of all to what he was doing. He died in 1976, and within a few years his books were out-of-print. It's only recently that a selection of his poems has become available again.

Lowenfels always thought that there was a continuity in the movement from avant-garde poet to communist activist and then back to poetry again, just as he thought that writing (whether poetry or prose), editing anthologies, and all his other activities, were part of his grand aim to "overthrow the universe."As for his politics, his obvious commitment to communism comes through, but that he could be idiosyncratic is perhaps indicated by something that the critic Harold Rosenberg once said. Asked about Lowenfels, Rosenberg replied: "O Walter, he belongs to a party all his own."

 

NOTES

The best current source for Lowenfels' poetry is Reality Prime: Selected Poems, edited with an introduction by Joel Lewis, published by Talisman House, Jersey City, 1998. Copies of The Portable Walter From the Prose and Poetry of Walter Lowenfels, edited by Robert Gover and published by International Publishers, New York, 1968, still turn up in second-hand bookshops. More difficult to find is Some Deaths, The Nantahala Foundation, Highlands, North Carolina, 1964. To An Imaginary Daughter was published by Horizon Press, New York, 1964.

Poets of Today: A New American Anthology was published by International Publishers, New York, 1964, and The writing on the Wall 108 American Poems of Protest by Doubleday, New York, 1969.

Extracts from Lowenfels' My Many Lives: The Paris Years, 1926-1934 were published in The Expatriate Review, New York/London, issue l(Summer, 1971) and issue 2(Winter/Spring, 1972).

An informative essay/interview, Walter Lowenfels: The Poet in the Flying Suit, was included In Jonathan Cott's, Forever Young, Random House, New York, 1977. Information about Lowenfels in Paris can be found in Hugh Ford's Published in Paris: American and British Writers Printers, and Publishers In Paris, 1920-1939, Macmillan,New York, 1975.

This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications