Bert Meyers, Lyric Poet: an Homage with Some Caveats
by Sam Bluefarb (September 2013)
"You broke my pipe! You broke my goddamned pipe!"
--Bert Meyers, under duress
This is not the first word on poet Bert Meyers (1928-1979), nor will it likely be the last. And though much--mostly posthumous--commentary is adulatory, there was a side to him that was not always so deserving—and perhaps even a little zany. At the time of his death at age 51, he was as naïve and innocent and credulous about the dark side of the ideological world as he was in his early twenties when he nursed a touching belief in the good intensions of the post-war Soviet Union. However, in that respect, he was no different from many well-intentioned Americans during that period, the early days of the Cold War (1946-1956). Even long after the Khrushchev revelations[i] in 1956, many true believers in Stalin’s stature as a wise, all-knowing, courageous leader, found it difficult to accept the truth about his monstrous crimes.
As for the posthumous Bert Meyers, one might invoke the moral palliative De mortuis nil nisi bonum, Say nothing but good of the dead. But one does the memory of the complete man an injustice if he is seen as the brave and heroic icon his adulators viewed him as. I am speaking primarily of Bert Meyers the man, with all of his strengths and weaknesses, rather than the poet, though one can’t talk about one without the other. Although much of the adulation during his lifetime was for the man as much as for his poetry, we would not be so concerned with the person had his admirers not merged the two. This essay is not so much a critique of Meyers’ poetry than of aspects of the man who created it—although in an essay so pointedly about the poet, how is it possible to avoid the work? In spite of the New Critical dicta that biographical, intentional, historical “fallacies” should count for little in analyzing a poem—New Critics were primarily critics of poetry--it is the personality of the poet, his experiences, his loves, his hates, his humor--his humours, in the antique sense--that after all determine the style and substance of his poetry.
As a man, he was a mixture of tears and laughter writ large; of scorn and love and hatred—qualities that rose to the most sublime heights of passion and compassion. Bert Meyers was no stranger to the dark side of life, whether a stretch of poverty in his early days, the chronic pulmonary problems that plagued him and eventually led to his untimely death; the years of obscurity and the virtual ignoring of his poetry by the poetry establishment and academia. (Ironically, that’s where he found a calling beyond poetry.) But in spite of these, he never consciously vulgarized his poetry with blatant political “messages”—i.e., he was no “proletarian poet,” as some saw him;[ii],[iii] nor did he cave to the “Beat” of fashion. Yes, there was a political side to Meyers, scarcely mentioned, muted. But his bias, in the philosophical sense, was emotional rather than analytical, which perhaps may have affected his judgment when it came to the more mundane world of sectarian politics. His feelings about that world and how he saw it were filtered through verse rather than through the skewed “logic” of polemics. In his early years—the late 1940’s through the early ‘50s—his social and political concerns were vaguely of the “progressive” Left—the nuclear freeze and “peace movements” largely led by communist “front” organizations--the US Peace Council, the World Peace Council, and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, but never proven to be controlled or manipulated by communists. To be fair, so far as I know, Meyers was never active, nor an “activist”—favorite word on the Left--in these organizations. He was far too preoccupied working at his craft to devote himself to those extra pursuits, though he likely sympathized with their objectives,
For most of his short life, his adulators retained a fierce loyalty to him, even in those years when he was denied inclusion in poetry anthologies and college textbooks. Indeed, had he been as anthologized as were so many familiar names—T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Mary Anne Moore (a one-time mentor of his), e.e. cummings, and later, the much over-rated and self-promoted Allen Ginsberg—there would be no need for the belated recognition that would come to him fifteen years after his death. On May 29, 1994, columnist Jack Miles devoted a full-page story, appropriately in the Los Angeles Times Book Review section; for Bert was an L.A.-kid who grew up in the dusty, palm-lined streets of East Hollywood. It is a full-blown rave about this poet whom the critic had just rescued from obscurity. But Meyers had been publishing in little magazines for many years before that critic discovered him.
All of which has to be seen against the context of my own far-off youthful infatuation with the Left, coeval with the later years of the Great Depression—1935-1939. Those were the years when every solution for alleviating the most severe miseries of the Depression were floated, nostrums proposed, from moderate left to far left—socialism, communism, anarchism, the One Big Union of the IWW; to such bright ideas as Ham and Eggs, Townsend Plans, EPIC (End Poverty in California) hare-brained Henry “Georgeism,”etc, etc.
Bert’s slightly later generation also fell in love with the Soviet dream palace, but he, like so many other progressives and fellow travelers, never completely quite managed to move away from those sentiments and associations--even after the Khrushchev revelations that exposed the legacy of Stalin’s Gulags, the horrors of the slave labor camps, the purges of Old Bolsheviks, and the millions that had perished in those years. They may well have given up on Stalin, but the state of mind that Stalin stood for lingered on, albeit in the attenuated form of “progressivism” and a catch-all “anti-fascism.”
I don't remember the exact occasion when or how I met Bert Meyers. But it must have been some time in the summer of 1947. He would occasionally drop into the Pepper Tree Inn, an open-air eating place across the street from Los Angeles City College, long-gone, where we probably first met. At the time, he was not a student but he would occasionally hang out with us at the Pepper Tree where he also must have met Elliott Erwitt, a life-long friend who was later to become a nationally celebrated photographer. Erwitt’s photograph of Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev in their “kitchen debate” in Moscow in 1959 was famous for catching an iconic moment in the Cold War.
My earliest memories of Meyers go back to that summer in 1947 when a young 18 year-old, would drop around to my room to read me his rather hyped-up, emotionally-charged poems that were a mixture of romantic love “spiced” with sexual imagery. ("Probing tongues and squirming hips, and plunging buttocks, and Ohhh, where is my mother’s heart, where is my father’s strength. . . ? And, ohhh, stick you finger straight down and say: 'See what! Aaaagh!'" The influence of Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” poems, with their scarcely hidden sexuality—or homosexuality--is obvious. But one would hardly recognize any connection between those crude beginnings to what would later evolve into the well wrought verse of his maturity. When he stopped by at my room, he would bring with him a battered spiral notebook, from which he would read his poems. Even in his apprentice days, his poems were more rough-hewn, diffuse emotion than controlled technique. But I sensed promise in those lines, and I now take some modest pride in seeing a large talent that would produce the later, gem-like verses. Eventually, foundations, colleges, and critics would come to see what many failed to see in those early days when he worked as a frame-maker in a Westwood art dealer's establishment.
After his visit and his poetry reading, we'd go off to Tillie and Mac's on South Vermont Avenue, a coffee shop named after the famous comic-strip couple, and have supper. In Bert Meyers, I sensed a lonely kid who seemed to hunger for a spiritual older brother. I was 28, and his Jewish parents saw in me a more mature, older man who might guide their wayward son along more practical paths. Tearful Mrs. Meyers would come to my room to plead with me to see if I could get “Bertram” to “straighten out.” Go back to school. . . “He loves to paint and draw. Why can't he go to art school and become a commercial artist—or something. But no! Poetry, poetry, poetry! He'll starve!” I felt flattered by her touching belief that I could do anything, but I could do nothing. Nor would I wish to. If I had succeeded in his mother’s earnest wishes, poetry would have been the poorer.
In those early days, I knew him as “Ivan” as did many of his friends and acquaintances, a name he had adopted for some reason best known to himself—perhaps, the “Russian” influence, or an admiration for one of Dostoevsky’s Karamazov’s; or a gesture of rebellion against his mother’s “Bertram;” and finally, the now-familiar short form he could live with for the rest of his life.
In the eulogy I wrote at the time of his death, I said:
While much of his poetry was not specifically Jewish, there were bright shafts of the Jewish neshama (Heb. soul) in those magnificently crafted lines. Such a bitter-sweet poem is one with the unlikely title of "The Garlic":
Rabbi of Condiments
whose breath is a verb,
wearing a thin beard
and a white robe:
You who are pale and small
and shaped like a fist,
bless our bitterness,
transcend the kitchen
to sweeten death—
our wax in the flame
and our seed in the bread
Now my parents pray
my grandfather sits
my uncles fill
my mouth with ashes.
From: Sunlight on the Wall
Until his death, Meyers was a poet-in-residence and [taught] poetry in the English Department at Pitzer College, in Claremont, [California]. He published three collections of poetry, Early Rain (1960); Dark Birds (1968); and Sunlight on the Wall (1976). Of Meyers’ poetry, Robert Mezey, fellow poet and colleague in the college's English Department, had this to say: "Bert Meyers belonged to no school or coterie and had no use for fashion. He was. . .a pure lyric poet."[iv]
Like his friend Elliott Erwitt, Meyers had his quirky side that had a strong manic-depressive streak in it. When Bert died, Kenneth Funsten, poetry editor of a not-so-little (folio size) "little" magazine, Bachy 15, asked Bert's friends and colleagues for any interesting recollections of him he would include in an issue of the magazine devoted to Meyers’ memory. Among the contributors were: Robert Mezey, Alvaro Cardena-Hine, a close friend, William Pillin, a fellow poet, and myself. The short piece I sent to Ken was more of a personal remembrance that touched on Bert's manic/funny side than an encomium about his verse. It concerns an incident that took place on the L.A.C.C. campus one day in the summer of 1948. And it was intended as a prank, but not at Bert's expense; yet that's how it turned out to be. I wrote:
Bert was an amalgam of tears and laughter. In those days—and perhaps it's still done—colleges and universities around Los Angeles would sponsor annual events that turned campuses into bazaars. Their purpose was to raise funds to send underprivileged kids to summer camp. Booths would be set up where skits were put on and hawkers shouted the delights of cotton candy. I recall one such event at L. A. City College in the summer of 1947.
On this particular evening, Bert and I found ourselves drifting through the crowd, eyeing the goings on like a couple of alienated strangers. At the time, I happened to be carrying around with me Henry Miller's pacifist “excursus” [sic] on war MURDER THE MURDERER (Caps in the original) I was quite an admirer of Miller in those days, but as a joke, I nudged Bert into doing something I was too gutless to risk doing myself. I suggested it might be fun if he got up on the platform of a nearby booth and read the lines of the pamphlet's last impassioned paragraph. Nothing loath, he grabbed the pamphlet out of my hand and, in a single leap—I had heard that he was a gymnast at Belmont High School--he vaulted up onto the platform and began to read aloud from the coda of the long passage:
What we want is a world in which war will be unthinkable. And by God, if we have to wipe out the human race in order to achieve it, we will. . . . So, until that blessed day looms upon the horizon, do please go on murdering one another. Murder as you've never murdered before! Murder for God and country! Murder for peace! Murder for sweet murder's sake! Murder your brother! Murder your--
He never completed those last dithyrambic lines. By then, he'd made enough of a scene to attract several members of a campus service club—four big, pugnacious characters. They pounced on poor Bert—even as he kept on reading—dragged him off the platform to the ground, and quickly hustled him out of the area. In the scuffle that followed, he dropped his pipe, and it broke in two; but even as he was dragged away, he began to yell, "You broke my pipe! You broke my goddamned pipe!" When I caught up to where they'd deposited him, he was on the ground, bent over double, tears of laughter streaming down his cheeks.[v]
Thus a prank collapsed into slapstick.
* * *
When Meyers—or “Ivan”--first came to my room in the summer of 1947, we never talked political ideology, much less crass (Republican-Democrat) politics—a bore to either of us; nor did Meyers seem to be politically involved or even interested in the political world. After all, at age eighteen, given his obsessive preoccupation with poetry, it’s doubtful if he’d have been interested, much less involved in party politics, certainly not the sectarian politics of the Left.
Not long after the War, I discovered the Berkeley-based avant garde magazine, Circle. 1944-1948. It was a literary magazine which had gained cultic currency on the West Coast. Henry Miller was its star contributor. It had an anarcho-pacifist-surrealist drift, which inspired us—Bert and I and Helen Curry, a fine poet--to start a magazine of our own. One of Helen’s poems had just been accepted by Poetry, the most celebrated poetry magazine, founded in 1912, and still going strong. To make sure that our magazine could not be identified with any kind of politics, either electoral or philosophical, we self-consciously named it Group Non-Objective, its title carrying its own obvious slant. Its pages were stapled together and mimeographed. A brave and valiant start which lasted—a single issue! (The late and frail Corinne Benson, a fine and sensitive poet beyond her years, contributed an essay on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (1912) )
As we have already touched on, Walt Whitman was one of Bert’s early influences, along with William Blake and Hart Crane. That early, crude, “barbaric yawp,” would hardly have been recognizable as coming from the same person as the mature poet who years later produced lines like these:
My fingers feed in the fields of wood
I sand pine, walnut, oak
And sweat to raise their grain.
Paints, powder, and brush
Are the seasons of my trade.
At the end of the day
I drive home
The proud cattle of my hands.[vi]
Bert mastered the art and craft of frame-making—the poem eloquently encapsulates that segment of his life—and earned a living by it; and while many adulators of his work, either imply or state in a kind of hagiographic gloss-over, that the cause of his early death was the inhalation of the gold leaf powder with which he sprayed the unfinished frames, it was primarily his fierce chain-smoking that eventually led to the cancer that killed him. Even in hospital, when he lay dying, he cussed and swore and yelled, “Take this damned (oxygen) machine out. . .and give me a cigarette!”
By the Sea
Across the loud scroll of water
fishermen still sail out
to earn a living.
a boat leaves for Peru.
And always a multitude
unpacks a paradise
of Sundays on the sand
to celebrate the passage of its blood.[vii]
And again (in part):
The world’s largest ash-tray,
the latest in concrete
capital of the absurd;
one huge studio
where people drive
from set to set and everyone’s
from a different planet
This is the desert
that lost its mind,
the place that boredom
Freeways, condominiums, malls
where cartons of trash and
and ideologies and diamonds
are opened, used, dumped
near the sea.[viii]
* * *
An anecdote that’s a mix of hilarity, sadness and madness. Sometime in the summer of 1948, Bert met up with and introduced me to, to two young “co-eds,” as female college students were called back in those pre-feminist days. They were good lookers and they invited us over to their apartment. How long we were there, maneuvering around to see how far we could get with them, I don’t now recall. But it all came to nothing, and we finally left. It was a late post-midnight hour, Neither of us had cars. So when we left, we needed to walk up to West Adams Boulevard to catch a bus. But buses ran few and far between in Los Angeles after midnight, in those days. And while we waited and chatted, he suddenly broke off and, without another word, got up, stepped off the curb, and strode out into the road. He then dropped down and began to pound the ground with his fist. Had he lost his mind? He kept pounding, pounding, arms now pistons, driven by some maniacal robotic machine. Tears filled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. Then it stopped and moments after, he exploded into uncontrollable laughter. Was he mad? Hadn’t Shakespeare, the greatest poet in the English language, made the comparison. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet; / Are of imagination all compact.” Was Blake mad when he drew and painted his “mad” hallucinatory visions of angels and devils that accompanied his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”? “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. . .” Was Blake being literal when he wrote those lines? He was a poet! Was he only slightly mad when he married an illiterate woman? Was he even less than slightly mad when he later taught her to read and write!
* * *
There were two contacts in those years. Once when my wife and I ran into him coming out of a Westwood bookshop; another when we were on our way home from New Mexico, and we stopped by at the apartment in Claremont where he and his wife Odette and the children--Daniel and Anat--then lived. Odette[ix] was a poet, translator and teacher in her own right. I did not go out of my way to visit Bert, but since we would be driving through Claremont on our way home, our visit to his apartment in Claremont was serendipitous.
What has indelibly stayed with me from that visit was an endearing little demonstration of his love for his kids. How filled with joy he was when he took little Anat into his arms, lifted her up onto his shoulders, and spoke to her in bouts of baby talk. He was a happy man back then.
To repeat: Meyers was never a “proletarian poet.” He could never have written such lines as: “America, what have you done with all your gold, of human flesh and misery, What have you bought and calmly sold….etc, etc.”; nor did he think of himself as one. He was a pure lyric poet with no political message. His pen etched pain for suffering, anger for injustice, pride in honest labor.
* * *
In 1967, four Arab armies were poised to attack and destroy the state of Israel; they were supported by the armies of nine other Arab states. Israel’s very existence and the lives of her people—including her Arab citizens!—hung in the balance. Meyers, as a Jew, identified with his people, and came to love Israel—at a time when the Left was abandoning her. I now suspect that the war acted as a catalyst on his Jewish conscience. But it does not therefore follow that Meyers considered himself, or was considered an “American-Jewish poet,” in the sense that the late critic Leslie Fiedler (1917-2003) viewed writers Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, as forming a “breakthrough” in American-Jewish writing.[x]
* * *
On the steps of the Los Angeles Public Library
One incident tellingly indicated the ideological direction that Meyers would take. The place was inauspicious, even outré—on the steps of the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles Public Library. I was with a college acquaintance at the time and Bert was on his way somewhere; but in the pause that turned out to be more than a pause, the subject of the Soviet Union came up. Meyers became fully defensive when my companion and I questioned Russia’s benign intentions as opposed to America’s Cold War anti-Communism. Meyers immediately reacted. For him and for many progressives and anti-anti-communist liberals, Winston Churchill’s “provocative” Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, Russia was the aggrieved party: Hadn’t she suffered terribly during the war? Shouldn’t she, justifiably, be suspicious of any anti-Soviet threats, fueled not just by perception but by history--Nazi Germany’s attack just a few years earlier, the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s when the French, British, and twelve other armies, including an American Expeditionary Force ordered to Siberia, were sent to support the counter-revolutionary “White” armies attempting to stem the Bolshevik threat to the West?
In that debate on the steps of the Los Angeles Publc Library, my companion and I attempted to persuade Bert that Soviet Russia, pace its role as our “gallant ally” in World War II, had other interests in the post-war period—i.e., holding onto the territories it had overrun in Eastern Europe, making Soviet puppet states--Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany--in those territories. Eventually, many disillusioned fellow travelers, came to terms with the evil nature of the Stalin regime, the reality of Russian expansionism, even though they could not quite let go of the belief that Russia was still the aggrieved party. But it needed one of Stalin’s later successors, the indefatigable Nikita Khrushchev, to expose the evil nature of Stalinism, and by extension the faceless Stalinist bureaucracy that still hung on. Yet, despite the Khrushchev revelations, Stalinism as a state of mind was not so easily vanquished; it still hung on for years, albeit in less harsh and less Draconian forms, until the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet state itself in 1989.
* * *
In the 1970’s Meyers was already settling in at Pitzer College at Claremont, where he eventually gained tenure—on the strength of his poetry! As far as I knew he was not into drugs—pot, LSD, or even stronger psychodelics, as were the better known and more celebrated Allen Ginsberg and his fellow Beats. As far as I was aware, Meyers never considered himself to be a Beat poet; nor was he considered one. But then I had small contact with him in those years, and to be quite honest, that quasi-estrangement was to become permanent. I say “quasie-,” since he had been drawn to, and later was adopted by, admirers whom I did not know, had never had anything to do with, and whom, as I later learned, were obviously on the Left. And I had no appetite to resume contacts with such True Believers I had left behind decades earlier. By then, especially after the Khrushchev revelations regarding the monster Stalin, few looked to Soviet Russia as the ideal society, in the van of the progressive march of history, as they once did. But if there were few or no communist—i.e., Stalinist—sympathizers left, there were those who, for want of a better category, were anti-anti-communists—those who were bitterly critical of anti-communists whom they scornfully called “cold war liberals.” These were the apologists for Soviet Russia, first under Stalin, then, after Stalin’s death, who still hung onto the view that the U.S. was equally culpable—and often even more responsible—for the tensions and the deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S. In short, a moral equivalence.
One day in August 1979, the phone rang. Daniel Meyers, Bert’s now-grown son, was on the line. He gave me the sad news: Bert had died only days earlier, and since I was an old friend going back decades, would I do his father’s memory the honor of participating in a memorial, together with a number of other old friends and colleagues. Of course I would.
In order to set up an agenda for the memorial, and to organize its logistics, a meeting would be held at the apartment of two of Bert’s old friends. It was a small apartment somewhere in East Hollywood. My wife had come along with me. We were introduced to a number of people, none of whom I knew, not even the hosts. Earlier in the evening, before we got down to business, there was some desultory talk that dealt with the state of the world, society, and the anti-communist “hysteria.” Memory is blurred, so I may not be entirely accurate in the details. For the last several years, I had been rediscovering the work of Sidney Hook (1902-1989) and engaging in an occasional exchange of letters with him. Hook was a brilliant scholar, who had been head of the Philosophy Department of New York University for well nigh onto 40 years. I had had the honor of personal contact when I was delegated by my college—with an initial suggestion from me!--to invite him to give a lecture at the college.
Except for a brief, 1930-31, connection with the communist movement, and after a two-year stay in the Soviet Union where he conducted research at the Marx-Engels Institute, Hook came away with fewer illusions than when he had gone over to the Soviet Union. Except for that temporary anomaly, Hook was a lifelong socialist. He was also a Marxist scholar and one of the leading authorities on Marx. But during the Moscow Trials of the 1930s, when most of the Old Bolsheviks were falsely accused—Trotzky in absentia--of collaborating with the Nazis and the Japanese, Hook persuaded his old mentor and teacher, John Dewey (1859-1952), to form a Special Commission of Inquiry, which was to be headed by Dewey, and which was to investigate the charges against Trotsky. The members of the Commission went down to Mexico, where Leon Trotzky was spending what turned out to be his last years, and where the hearings were held. They concluded—and published their findings--that Trotzky was not guilty of the charge of conspiracy, and that such charges were trumped up.[xi] Findings later supported by George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Arthur Koestler, Suzanne La Follette, Reinhold Neibuhr, George Novack, and of course Hook.
The hundreds of articles that Hook produced during the time of the student campus rebellions of the 1960’s were medicines of clarity for me. One could be anti–communist—as many of Partisan Review[xii] editors were, themselves on the non-Stalinist Left—and still remain socialists without necessarily supporting the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Hearings. Hook himself, for some years, served on Partisan Review’s editorial board. Tangentially, in an article in Partisan Review of some ten years ago, Professor David Sidorsky summed up the various periods of Hook’s life which made him the object of heated controversy:
He was, to a degree probably unparalleled by any other philosopher of his generation, actively involved in the cultural and political conflicts of his time.[xiii]
If McCarthy was the Great Dark Eminence that drove the anti-communist hysteria, the communist conspiracy was a hard reality, as the Venona Papers later confirmed.[xiv] For a McCarthy could not have sprung full-blown, like Minerva, from the head of Zeus, if there had not been some truth to his scatter-shot charges: there were communists, and they were busily spying for the Russians—among whom, Alger Hiss as a high official in the U.S. State Department; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in their passing on of secret atomic information to Soviet agents.
Much in Hook’s writings sifted demagogic anti-communism from the reality of Soviet expansionism and domestic communist conspiracy. In an article in PR, in 2003, its final issue, Professor Sidorsky, succinctly summed up in a précis-like paraphrase the essence of Sidney Hook’s anti-communism and his view of the innocent fellow travelers and “progressives” who were drawn to networks of seemingly innocent communist fronts:
[I]n Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No! (1953) [Hook maintained] that [to] the extent that Communist Party activities in democratic countries represented the expression or even the advocacy of heretical ideas and competing points of view, their rights ought not to be abridged on pain of violation of democratic principles, yet, to the extent that these activities represented a conspiratorial organization against the proceedings and methods of democracy, it would be legitimate for a democracy to pass legislation that would restrain the freedom of action of the conspiracy.
Hook further believed that the fight against communism had to diligently and completely dissociate itself from the most egregious aspects of the McCarthy hearings, and not just for prudent, but for moral reasons.
At this far end of time—we are harking back almost thirty-five years—I don’t recall how the name Sidney Hook came up in that gathering in the summer of 1979; but in response, one of the group slowly shook his head and mumbled a chilling “Sidney Hook. . . ! Sidney Hook. . . !” He continued to repeat the name with no effort to conceal the venom in his voice. Talk became hot and heavy as the air in that ill-ventilated room. As the evening wore on, things took an ugly turn and while everyone in the room attacked Hook, ironically, I found myself defending him, whom decades before I had accused him of being a “Trotzkyite”—untrue. Decades later, and with greater maturity, I would come to admire that great and courageous fighter. In 1985, he was honored by President Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians.
Those gathered there that evening, were no longer young, but middle aged. And in the case of our hosts--the woman’s husband was in his early 70s—one might have thought that kind of animus had long ago been left behind in the bitter sectarian wars of the 1930’s.
Suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, our elderly host’s much younger wife burst in upon us, and exploded, “There’ll be no more talk of Sidney Hook in this house!” I was taken off balance. Hard to believe that Hook could still stir up such anger after the bitter factional wars of the 1930s when any mention of his name would set off epithets like “Trotzkyite!” “social fascist!” ”sell-out!” Obviously, the people there that evening were no strangers to the factional conflicts on the left. Even among the later generation of the New Left, Hook was regarded not only as a renegade, but, most damning, a “cold war liberal,” occasionally a “cold warrior.”
In a letter to him sometime in 1972, about the time he had joined the conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, I offered him a friendly challenge: “Since you’ve come so far in moderating your earlier socialism, and even embraced some conservative ideas, why not call yourself a conservative?” This was his answer:
Just as I hate to surrender the old, brave words like ‘”liberal” “democrat” “freedom” “tolerance” to the enemies of what they used to represent, so I hesitate to let the totalitarians become the only public exponents of “socialism”. (He was alluding to the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).
It may be that unconsciously I use the terms because it annoys—sometimes infuriates—the New Left who want me to come out for “free enterprise”—so that they can say; ”See, although he has proved that free enterprise is a myth—he supports it to mark off his “renegacy” (to coin a word) from his older ideals.” But the very ideals that led us originally to support socialism are the source of our opposition to the totalitarian varieties that use the name.
* * *
I cannot see Bert Meyers as any kind of political thinker or even an ideological advocate. He was too much the pure lyric poet. It wasn’t that he was divorced from workaday reality. After all, he’d been a frame maker, worked with his hands, “sweated,” as he put it in one of the poems, had a family, reared good kids, struggled up from an incoherent youth whose mom worried about “where will my Bertram go? What’s going to happen to him?” That he drew acolytes and followers, and not only admirers, but sycophants, friends out of the Old Left, who if they were no longer Stalinists, still hated the old socialist Hook with a passion—these were a part of his life, but not the most important part. Meyers did not need the rationale of the “progressive” crowd to negotiate history’s “many cunning passages,” though he would have identified himself with them. Yet it was paradoxically that very naiveté, that innocence, that, in part, made him a great poet. Thus, that one can be a superb and compassionate poet, does not insure against lending moral support to murderous regimes. I feel honored to have known him, and treasure his memory—in spite of his lifelong dedication to the gods that failed.
[iv] Jewish Voice, April 22, 1979..
[v] Sam Bluefarb, in Kenneth Funsten's "In Memoriam: Bert Meyers (1928-1979)," Bachy 15, 1979, 3-12.
[vi] From The Dark Birds, Eds, in Dybbuk’s Raincoat , p. 59.: Martin Marcus, Daniel Meyers, forward by Denise Levertov., http://www.kilibro.com/en/book/preview/1099948/in-a-dybbuks-raincoat
[vii] From Sunlight on the Wall,, in a Dybbuk’s Raicoat, p. 70 http://www.kilibro.com/en/book/preview/1099948/in-a-dybbuks-raincoat
[viii] From Sunlight on the Wall, in a Dybbuk’s Raincoat, p. 71, http://www.kilibro.com/en/book/preview/1099948/in-a-dy
[x] Leslie A. Fiedler, “The Breakthrough: The American Jewish Novelist and the Fictional Image of the Jew,” Midstream , IV (Winter, 1958), 15-35.
[xii] After almost seventy years, the magazine ceased publication in 2003. Many of the last century’s literary luminaries—George Orwell, Ignacio Silone, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, et al, appeared in its pages at one time or another. Its demise has turned out to be a great loss to the literary world.
[xiii] David Sidorsky,, “Charting the Intellectual Career of Sidney Hook: Five Major Steps,“ Partisan Review, Spring, 2003, vol. LXX, Number 2, p. 325.”
Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.
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