Keeping the Flame Alive


American poetry in the 1950s was an artistic pastime that appealed—like fishing or bowling—to participants more than to spectators. In the years after the war, the poetry scene was primarily a loose network of little magazines publishing a wide range of stylistic expressions and philosophical viewpoints. Texas was well represented by Lilith Lorraine’s Flame and, before that, Kaleidograph, published in Dallas by Vaida Stewart Montgomery and her husband Whitney Montgomery. Such magazines, usually with circulation figures in the hundreds, drew readers and contributors by mail. But the few thousands involved in this somewhat underground traffic were true believers.

There was an entire family of poets living on a suburban street in Paterson, New Jersey. Louis Ginsberg was a teacher there at Central High and a frequent contributor and contest judge for Kaleidograph. His teenaged sons, Eugene (later a lawyer) and Allen (later Allen Ginsberg), also published strong socially conscious poems in that magazine. Kaleidograph published poetry books as well and stayed in business from 1929 until Vaida Montgomery’s death in 1959.

Another important figure was Corpus Christi native Lilith Lorraine (1894-1967), an imaginative writer and tireless literary organizer. Her little magazine Flame, published in Alpine from 1954 to 1963, promoted avant-garde poetic experiments by talented beginners such as Richard Brautigan while constantly warning against global nuclear destruction. Against the tide of McCarthyism, she established an international poetry organization devoted to the pursuit of world peace. Lorraine’s own poetry—often in the form of elegant Petrarchan sonnets—transmitted amazingly futuristic ideas. In Houston, poet and gallery owner Vivian Ayers (best known today as Debbie Allen’s and Phylicia Rashad’s mom) shared similar notions and published a lively journal entitled Adept. Through the decades of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, many others would lend their efforts to keeping the poetic flame alive.

But didn’t there have to be something just a little bit different about poetry in Texas?

What was different about poetry in Texas became clear to me one afternoon at a reading and panel discussion in Austin. “Well, Lorenzo,'” said James Cody. “I like what you said about the music of words and all that. But—in your work—how do you address la tierra?”

I looked directly into his eyes and saw that this was a genuine, sincere question. Jim was serious. This was not literary chitchat, nor an attempt to amuse the audience. Nor could what he had in mind be summed up as “nature poetry.” Cody meant that poems should have a direct connection not only to heart and head—but also to the piece of earth where we are now, talking to ourselves or each other.

I soon discovered that there was another tradition, too. It was linked to the idea that poetry is a way to make things better—a sublime instrument to tune the mundane.

In the 1970s Houston’s Joanie Whitebird (1952–2000) and E. A. Curry organized Southern Seed as an attempt to create a dialogue between the city’s black and white poets. The group held a series of dynamic, well-attended readings in coffee shops and bars around town and published a little magazine. In addition to excellent poems, one issue of Southern Seed also included “Cancrizans,” an avant-garde music composition by Texas Southern University’s Jazz Ensemble director Lanny Steele.

Travois (1976), an anthology edited by Whitebird and Paul Foreman, showed the stylistic and demographic diversity of Texas poetry in the 1970s. A handsome volume published by Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum with Foreman’s Thorp Springs Press, Travois indicated that the circle of poetry fans had broadened—if only because, “like ripples on a pond” (to use a phrase from Nikki Giovanni), previously separate circles had begun to be aware of and intersect each other. Academics were in there, Poetry Society of Texas folks were there, and the local members of the Beat generation were there, too. So were black and Hispanic writers of various literary persuasions. A similarly heterogeneous mix was also available to poetry fans on the airwaves. Radio listeners in the late 1970s and 1980s could hear national and local writers on Paul Christensen’s Poetry Southwest on KAMU-FM (College Station) and Patricia McRae’s Images On Your Ear on KPFT-FM, Houston’s Pacifica Network station. McRae’s Adriana Productions also won a Corporation for Public Broadcasting communications satellite grant to broadcast a series of poetry programs nationwide.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton’s Black Arts Movement magazine HooDoo, founded in Washington, D.C., relocated to Galveston with its editor in the late ’70s, and Zu-Bolton organized a series of HooDoo Festivals that brought writers from across the South. On one memorable evening poet Lance Jeffers rang the rafters of Ashton Villa as he recited “If I Knew the Power of My Black Hand.” Jeffers’ energized oratorical voice made the audience sweat and you know Jack Johnson was listening!

Throughout the last quarter of the century such energies seemed to encourage something of a local poetry boom, and Texas can boast of poets who have created outstanding bodies of work during those years. I can think immediately of Walt McDonald. His early poems in Caliban in Blue (1976) begin with the thoughts of a Vietnam fighter pilot, and some of his latest work captures the delights of grandfatherhood at a level of quotidian elegance not previously seen in English-language poetry. In between are many more poems to be treasured. Interestingly, it is this man who flew airplanes at the edge of space who is the contemporary poet most attentive to la tierra in Whatever the Wind Delivers (1999) and Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains (2003).

Cynthia Macdonald, no direct relation to Walt, comes to mind as well. A powerful poet—trained as an opera singer before finding literature, and as a psychotherapist since—she was founder and director of the University of Houston’s prestigious Creative Writing graduate program. Her work is elegant, probing, and seriously philosophical. It might annoy her, therefore, that her wonderfully hilarious poem “The Kilgore Rangerette Whose Life Was Ruined” (1980) is known to almost everyone who thinks of the words poetry and Texas together.

Those words are not often put together by literary critics, alas, but Paul Christensen’s boldly, exasperatingly opinionated West of the American Dream (2001) captures much of the fun, earnest humanism, pathos, and sometimes absurd self-importance in the poetry scene in Texas (as everywhere else). Of Vassar Miller (1924–1998) he writes, “Her primary subject, pain, was the real core of experience in her life; it gave her a body, a locus of mystery and myth, and a threshold into nature.” In Miller’s verse she identifies the body as “wry reproach / To athlete mind” and struggles to make simple words transmit experience and imagination, emotion, and vision.

Born in Houston, Miller was the daughter of a real estate developer who gave the street they lived on his little girl’s name. Though she suffered from cerebral palsy that made physical activity and clear speech difficult, she earned a degree at the University of Houston. As she explains in the poem “Subterfuge” (1981), Miller’s writing career began quite early when her father came home bearing an Underwood typewriter “like an awkward bouquet / for his spastic child.” The child “pecks at the keys / with a sparrow’s preoccupation” and discovers poetry. “Falling by chance on rhyme,” she becomes “spellbound by life’s clashing in accord and against itself, / pretending pretense and playing at playing.” The machine called a “makeshift toy” in this poem became a means for Miller to record her thoughts and entertain profound questions about the self and the soul.

Simple vocabulary and conversational tone are tools Miller uses to create poems of religious meditation, philosophical interrogation, and erotic yearning. Her early poems show her capable of faultless metric patterns, effortless sonnets, and strange metaphoric decisions. “The beach’s grit and pebbles / Will prick the nerves aware,” she writes in “Rescue” (1956), after depicting sleep as akin to drowning. The poet’s occupation is a game of “hide-and-seek with truth, ” Miller writes in “Waste of Breath” (1956). And a difficult game it is when she realizes that “Gloved in words, my thoughts can never / Reach my friend or touch my lover.”

Of course, you can’t stop trying.

Ricardo Sánchez (1941–1995) was large and boisterous, offering the world a display of machismo that protected a keenly perceptive intellect. He earned a GED and a Ph.D. and, due to serious mistakes in youth, some of his learning had been done behind bars. Susan Bright introduced us and we talked long into the night sitting around her wood-burning stove. Ancient history, personal adventures, the mysterious symmetry of the cosmos: His conversation was filled with artistry and candid intelligence.

In 1978 we were both at an international poetry festival in Europe, and Ricardo let me tag along for an interview with a French TV crew.

“Yes,” he was soon telling the TV interviewer, “we can sit here with you like gentlemen and scholars, discussing art, beauty, and truth. Speaking honestly and freely. But if Lorenzo and I were in Texas right now, we’d be looking over our shoulders, hiding, running through back alleys fleeing the police.”

Outrageous! Of course, the French journalists knew—as everyone in the United States and Texas did—that the police in Dallas and Houston seemed in those days especially adept at shooting down unarmed Hispanic and African American men. That scandalous reality was the true outrage. Ricardo’s poetry documented that reality and also contrasted it to a huge history that began long before the 15th century. His Canto y Grito Mi Liberación (1971) and other works are epic in ambition and achievement, demonstrating mastery of the poetic approach pioneered by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson—the measure of American vernacular. It is a poetry that draws upon and elevates the everyday speech of the barrio because that is the poet’s job—to show us how wonderfully precise our language can be, how truthful it can be when allowed to tell the truth and describe the reality of our lives.

Recalling his rebellion against the Texas prison system’s “rehabilitation through cotton picking” in Hechizospells (1976), Sánchez wrote

if god had wanted me to bea goldanged-damn cotton pickerhe’d of given mea slow mind, strong back, & quick hands.but seeing as how I don’t believe in god,society, nor pinches reglas,i’ll just pretendto being dumb,a meskin who’ll buck and not pick cotton

This is not merely a self-mocking anecdote but a way of forcing the reader or listener to question other rules as well. We know what’s going on; but does it really make sense? More than just refusing to take wooden nickels, you need an outlook that will protect you against all those who insist that you must see things their way. Don’t accept any false realities.

Comparing the situation of this bilingual Texas poet to Chaucer and Dante, Paul Christensen glumly decides, “Sánchez was a poet overwhelmed by the historical and psychological conflicts of the languages he tried to craft into an epic on equality. It couldn’t be done.” But Ricardo’s task was not simply to demonstrate that Spanglish could be eloquent, nor merely to inscribe it in print. The value of his work is mismeasured if we think that the “dialect” he writes in is somehow intended to supplant English or Spanish.

“The tongue of the tribe no longer exists,” Christensen thinks, “and one can write in the language of the master class only so long before hypocrisy or forced eloquence set in.” Class shapes language, which shapes speakers. In other words, resistance is futile. You have no right to aspire to mastery of the language you speak (or write in).

To believe that, one has to give up a genuine belief in poetry itself. It is hard to know exactly what Ricardo Sánchez wanted to win; but it is easy to see that he expanded the linguistic and literary range of powerful expression. His poetry proved it was possible to speak with eloquent force about experiences that our society would prefer to ignore.

Everyone understands that writing is the technology of memory. But those who love poetry also are deeply invested in the notion of the efficacy of words, the idea that they make a difference in what happens. Poetry surveys the marvelous created world around us, bears witness to our social interactions, and guides us into the interiority of experience that we call consciousness. At its best it gives us the words to identify what we feel and to speak of who we are.

Kaleidograph is no more. Some cutting-edge academic critics claim that following the death of the author, print itself is on its last legs. But there is the excellent journal Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts (supported by the University of Houston) and the award-winning Callaloo: Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters (now based at Texas A&M). In the direct tradition of Kaleidograph there is also the feisty and unpredictable Skanky Possum. Published from Austin by poets Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen, it’s a hand-stapled publication backed up with an Internet Web site. Now, that’s 21st century for sure!

Whether or not you want to call it progress, the fact is that almost everything that was limited to an underground or localized coterie in the 1950s has since found a niche in the glossy electronic communications universe where we now live.

Most important though are strong voices and fine poets—energetic proponents of the art such as Peggy Zuleika Lynch, Naomi Shihab Nye, Raúl Salinas, Bryce Milligan, Tammy Gomez, James Hoggard, Cyrus Cassells, Susan Bright, Jas. Mardis, Jack Myers, and others. It is due to the efforts of all those we’ve been discussing—and many others as well—that we are a bit closer to realizing Ricardo Sánchez’s hope that our society can “begin to affirm that to be human is to act humanely.”

That’s the job poetry is still called upon to do.

Lorenzo Thomas was born in Panama and grew up in New York. He is a poet, critic, and professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. His most recent book of poetry is Dancing on Main Street, published this year by Coffee House Press.