Keith Wilson, Again

In October last year the poetry community in Las Cruces, under the umbrella of the Sin Fronteras organization (a loosely knit collective of writers in the area) celebrated the life’s work of poet Keith Wilson and his enormous contribution to the area’s poetry scene. I documented a like event held in Placitas in June, but I want to include the equally enjoyable Las Cruces event in this discussion, especially because I wanted to add Joe Somoza’s introduction. Joe’s introduction (this is an abbreviated version, what Joe could put together after a month, but it's the melody line on which he riffed for a longer time) is much different from mine that I posted last month. It speaks more to Keith’s biography and poetics, how the two intertwined and evolved. Joe and Jill were in Chicago and so missed the Placitas event, but they were central to the Sin Fronteras celebration. Readers at the Las Cruces event included Joe Somoza, Denise Chavez, Dick Thomas, Connie Voisine, Grant Price, David Slagle, Tim Cleveland, Roger Saxton, Michael Mandel, Todd Dickson, Wayne Crawford, Kevin McIlvoy, Kevin Wilson, Nancy Hastings, Heloise Wilson and myself.

One brief note: most readers think of Keith as a “Southwest poet,” which sometimes equates, however wrongly, to a number of sentimental concerns. At both readings poet Wayne Crawford reminded us that Keith was one of the foremost anti-war poets of the last 60 years. On both occasions, he gave passionate readings of “The Poem Politic X: A Note for Future Historians” from Keith’s 1972 book Midwatch from Sumac. As Wayne said, he can think of no decade in American history when the poem was not relevant, and today even more so, after five years of this senseless war on-going war in Iraq. I am pasting "The Poem Politic below Joe's introduction, Wayne having been nice enough to forward me his perfectly typed file. Joe’s introduction speaks briefly about the importance of Keith’s Annapolis education and his naval service aboard ship in Korea to the body of his work, but it would be hoped that in the future somebody would write a nice long piece about Keith's contribution to the poetry of yearning for peace.

■ ■ ■

A Celebration of Keith Wilson's Poetry
Introduction by Joseph Somoza
October 1, 2007
Branigan Library, Las Cruces, NM

This is a reading to celebrate Keith Wilson’s poetry. As most of you know, Keith has developed aphasia, a condition that makes it very difficult for him to speak, so we will be speaking for him (though, of course, using the words of his own poems).

Todd Dickson came up with the idea, and Michael Mandel brought it to our writers group, Sin Fronteras. We all agreed it was a great idea, and after asking Keith if he approved, we organized this reading. The readers are all friends, fellow writers, and/or former students of Keith’s.

I’ll start things off, but first want to say a few words about Keith’s life to set the context for the poems you will be hearing.

First of all, Keith is a native New Mexican, born in 1927, who grew up in various small rural towns such as Fort Sumner, Deming, and Alamogordo (his father being a road surveyor for the state, they moved around a lot). As a result, he came to be exposed to the various parts and cultures of the state, learning to speak Spanish, for example, and learning about the rituals of the Penitentes and of some of the Native American tribes of the state, not to mention Anglo rancher culture.

Even though Keith always had an interest in writing, his mother wanted him to follow in the footsteps of her great uncle who had been a rear-admiral in the navy, and he wound up attending Annapolis (where he studied Engineering) and serving as a naval officer in the Korean War. But he soon became disenchanted with the military and resigned his commission early in the 50’s. Not knowing what he wanted to do next, he returned to New Mexico for a visit, and as he got closer he realized how much he loved his home state and decided he wanted to write about it—to give voice to the places and people he had grown up around and that had not received sufficient voice up until then.

He had his subject but needed to develop a poetic language that would treat it seriously and in a modern way. Much of the literature of the southwest at that time treated the place in a traditional, stereotypical and sentimental manner. Keith wanted to write modern, convincing poems about New Mexico but didn’t know exactly how to go about it, not knowing much about the contemporary poetry of that time. He enrolled as a graduate student in English at the University of New Mexico but although he learned about the tradition of poetry, this didn’t help him to write a contemporary poem.

In the 1950’s, though, the various experimental post-W.W.2 poetic movements were coming to the fore in this country, and Keith soon began to get wind of the Beats, the Black Mountain School Poets, and others. He was particularly helped in learning about contemporary poetry through the poetry anthology The New American Poetry (1960), edited by Donald Allen, which included Charles Olson’s essay on poetics, “Projective Verse,” as well as a good sampling of poetry by some of the leading experimental American poets of that time. Keith was particularly struck by such writers as Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer and Denise Levertov. Soon after ending his studies, he accepted a teaching job at the University of Arizona and, serving on the board of the new Ruth Stephan Poetry Center, he got to invite some of these same writers to campus and got to know them firsthand.

Now he had a subject matter and was developing a writing style that was clipped, vivid, unsentimental, and modern. Thus began his writing career. In 1965, he was offered a teaching job at New Mexico State University and, soon after, his first book of poems, Sketches for a New Mexico Hill Town, was published. Many more books would follow.

The Poem Politic X: A Note for Future Historians
(from Midwatch, pages 55-57, Sumac Press, © 1972 by Keith Wilson)

When writing of us, state
as your first premise
You will never understand us
otherwise, say that we

cherished war

over peace and comfort
over feeding the poor
over our own health
over love, even the act of it
over religion, all of them, except
perhaps certain forms of Buddhism

that we never failed to pass bills of war
through our legislatures, using the pressures
of imminent invasion or disaster (potential)
abroad as absolution for not spending moneys
on projects which might make us happy or even
save us from clear and evident crises at home

Write of us that we spent millions educating
the best of our youth and then slaughtered them
capturing some hill or swamp of no value and
bragged for several months about how well they died
following orders that were admittedly stupid, ill-conceived

Explain how the military virtues, best practiced
by robots, are most valued by us. You will never come
to understand us unless you realize, from the first,
that we love killing and kill our own youth, our own great
men FIRST. Enemies can be forgiven, their broken bodies
mourned over, but our own are rarely spoken of except
in political speeches when we “honor” the dead and encourage
the living young to follow their example and be gloriously
dead also

NOTE: Almost all religious training, in all our countries,
dedicates itself to preparing the people for war.
Catholic chaplains rage against “peaceniks,” forgetting
Christ's title in the Church is Prince of Peace;
Baptists shout of the ungodly and the necessity of
ritual holy wars while preaching of the Ten Commandments
each Sunday; Mohammedans, Shintoists look forward
to days of bloody retribution while Jews march
across the sands of Palestine deserts, Rabbis
urging them on....


Will expose our children, our homes to murder and
devastation on the chance that we can murder or devastate
FIRST and thus gain honor. No scientist is respected whose
inventions help mankind, for its own sake, but only when
those discoveries help to destroy, or to heal people,
that they may help destroy other men and living things

Be aware that
Destiny has caught us up, our choices made
subtly over the ages have spun a web about us:
It is unlikely we will escape, having geared
everything in our societies toward war and combat.
It is probably too late for us to survive
in anything like our present form.


If you build us monuments let them all
say that, as warning, as a poison label
on a bottle, that you may not ever
repeat our follies, feel our grief.


brian salchert said...

Thank you.

Don said...

I don't know how to define what is a poem and what is not, but...

whatever you call Keith's piece, it is good.

And true.