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Poetry and politics: the example of Agnes Nemes Nagy.

An anecdote. It is 1977, I am with the poet Agnes Nemes Nagy in the spacious, well-appointed, and no doubt wiretapped room in Budapest which the PEN Club has given me to work in. We are reviewing drafts of the translations of her poems which I have made during the past year. With us is another woman, an Americanist from the university, a specialist in Colonial American literature, whose English is excellent. Nemes Nagy is uncomfortable with English, and while we usually converse in French, unlike her I am far from fluent in it, and it was thought advisable to have this third person present in order to be certain that I fully understood her often difficult poetry. Although the Americanist has told me that she is not in sympathy with Nemes Nagy's poetry--it is all physics and geology, she has said, there are no real people in it--this should not be a problem: after all, we are talking about language.

We come to a poem called "Statues":(1)


It was bitter, the sea, when I rolled through the rock-throat down a spiral staircase. A shingle, I spun, behind me the hum of snail-shell like memory in an abandoned house. I rattled like a skullful of shrapnel. Then I rumbled out onto the beach. And there were the statues. On a pedestal a leather-covered tortoise-egg. my skull boiled boiled in the sun, my white helmet rolled away a bubble on the sand, I was lying down, my shoulder against a rock, in filthy filthy white array.

Whose is this hunk?

Who was it from a mountainous shale-chunk

with monstrous passion hacked

this indifference out? And the plates of sheet-iron on me, the sheet-iron. Banged-up boxes, as they reflected their stammering light, --a plane-wreck glitters like this, but inside what stirs still lives, a smatter of blood on the watch-strap,-- I lay smeared out on the rock, life--the filth of it--on a stone.

Nothing more stubborn, more stubborn,

you fling yourself into a stone,

fling into a thing, fling into a stone

your living neck,

it's already a stone season,

its switched-off life half-blind,

who sculpted this indifference?

who was it, from a mountainous shale-chunk

chiseled your living neck? Salt and sand and above them the rock-hunk, gouged out cave-like in the sky, this relative eternity, this half-light of minerals-- the water murmurs, murmurs, its bed an Earth. bitterness in a stone cask. But the help I need here is of a sort anterior to language. The poem is a surreal, hallucinatory fable, and I must understand the significance of the fable in order to adjust my language to it and find a tone proper to the attitude that the poem directs toward its material. Agnes seems nervous, she mentions a sculpture exhibition she once saw, and when I remark that that experience does not explain the experience of the poem, she asks hesitantly what I think it means. I begin by extemporizing, I note that the poem is full of images of junk, that human values are reduced to mechanisms, that human beings have been reduced to junk sculpture, to damaged goods, that.... But I am not allowed to continue, and over the objections of our intermediary, who seems totally perplexed by the poem and wants to return to the sculpture exhibition, Agnes says "No, Bruce understands the poem, let's go on to the next one." And so we do.

In my introduction to Agnes's Selected Poems, I referred to "Statues" as a

terrible and bitter poem .... in which the products of creation, of a Creator,

are seen as artifacts, sculptures, with just enough human consciousness to

perceive their helpless condition but without the capacity to rectify it. The

poem asks the same question that Blake asks in "The Tyger," except that here

the products of creation--or evolution--are impotent pieces of junk-sculpture

with nothing of the power with which Blake endows his tiger.

That still seems to me true enough of the poem, but it is not enough of the truth. What I could not say in 1980-chiefly out of concern for Agnes's safety, but also to protect myself from being blacklisted for subsequent visas--was that it is a deeply subversive poem, as direct a response to the totalitarian regime as the regime was likely to tolerate. It may be that she then knew, as I was to learn later, that our intermediary was a Party member, and that this made her nervous. Whether or not, the facts of her recent life--that she had been prohibited from publishing during the Stalinist years (which lasted, of course, well past the death of Stalin) and that her husband, a literary critic, had been imprisoned in 1956--would have been sufficient for her to exercise caution, both in her writing and in how she spoke of it publicly. She knew that her own safety depended upon a measure of self-censorship; but she also knew that the poems she was publishing put her at potential risk. She once said to me that if there were to be a resurgence of Stalinism she would be the first to be arrested.

Nemes Nagy's poetry is almost uniformly subversive, although it is often difficult to say why that is so, to pinpoint what specifically is subversive about it. Here is another poem, called "The Geyser":

It started First the salts.

A new crystal forms when it breaks down.

It started. First the frozen heel of

the whole globe stomped it into the ground

Then the concavities. It strained

under weights out of all proportion,

slowly with its slender body it squeezed

into agony between crumpled rocks,

and without warning a chasm, a

cavern-sized reverberation, and next

once more the black snailshell

of the gigantic stony brain, it

ground itself down to gaps and clods,

the screw-thread, already smoking,

got hotter and hotter, till finally--

It gushed upward And stayed there.

A lanky perpendicular moment

pinned to the steaming icefields.

The leap itself was bodiless,

a watery muscle of pure silver,

stretched-out preposterous--

Then it fell down.

The jet withdrew in the body,

in the briny belly of the smoking earth.

And now and again the hollow mine-shaft

jerked, as rattling, retreating,

its receding bestial heart beat back once more. What makes it possible to speak of this poem as subversive, or even as political? Or, to invert the question, what is there about it that prevents us from reading it as nothing more than a mechanically accurate description of the way geysers work? The clue is in the imagery: the geyser is seen as a "body" which is "stomped into the earth" by "the frozen heel of the whole globe." It suffers "agony." The upward leap is treated as a triumph, as a transcendent, miraculous, phallically imagined release against all the odds-- "a watery muscle of pure silver." When it falls, it withdraws "in the body,/ in the briny belly of the smoking earth" until its "bestial heart" repeats the process. The geyser is an elemental force, an energy, which by virtue of being humanized forces us to view that energy as a human quality, alternately repressed and triumphant over its repression. It becomes a metaphor--unlikely, totally original, and uncannily accurate--for the human spirit laboring to assert itself, and periodically succeeding, under nearly overwhelmingly oppressive conditions.

If "The Geyser" lends itself to the sort of explication I have indulged in, what of a poem like "The Sleeping Horsemen," where the landscape, like that of "Statues," is more surreal, more hallucinatory, less grounded in physical processes--a poem which another of Nemes Nagy's translators refers to in the context of the poet's "artistic engagement with the inexpressible"?(2)

December. Noon Eye-scorching

snowfield broad as a hillside.

On the flat slope a heap of flagstone.

On its round edges

a hot, white, snowsheet:

a small pile of sleeping Bedouins.

What faces are these that bend

groundward, dark shrubs,

in this inverted sculptural group?

What dried-up, black

root-features, what

ho& dark breathing-- And deep down under the shore what kind of Bedouin horses, their shapes here and there heaving, as inside the stable corridors, silently, invisibly, they paw, and their root-bearded large manes begin to sway underground-- And what is this motion when on the hot earth-horses' backs the earthy, brown trunks stretch, leafy-haired, higher and higher, and with one slow stupendous leap spring out. If the fable--or better, the kinetic quality of the image--is again one of irrepressible energy, that energy is less easily "located," allegorized, if you will, than is the case with "The Geyser." Yet it is equally powerful and equally threatening as a potentially disruptive force: the final image, fusing as it does two of Nemes Nagy's favorite motifs, the horse and the tree, becomes a sudden symbol of vitality, danger, and resurrection. The suggestion of resurrection occurs frequently and often explicitly in the poems, not as a sign of any religious commitment, but as a generic symbol of possibility in a fallen world. Similarly, evocations of the world before the fall appear in various guises as dreams or memories of what preceded the contemporary wasteland--never, of course, in expressly political terms:

Like someone who came with a message from far away

and then forgot it completely,

and of all of the grainy light only a handful

stayed in him, tied in a bundle--

so wanders the forgetful one

in his body's rumpled coat.

A poem entitled "Trees" was apparently of special importance to Nemes Nagy. It occupies the first position in her collection of 1969, The Horses and the Angels; but, more significantly, in her Collected Poems of 1986 it appears not only in the first position, but before the title page that announces the first major section of the book. The poem thus serves as a sort of epigraph to the whole collection:

What must be studied The winter trees.

How they're shrouded with frost to the footpads.

Immovable curtains.

What must be learned is that streak,

where the crystal is already steaming,

and the tree swims into the mist,

like a body in the memory drifting.

And the river behind the trees,

the wild duck's muted wings,

and the blind-white blue night

where hooded objects loom,

what must be learned in this place

are the trees' inexpressible acts. What can we learn from studying the picture that this strange poem presents? No, not can--must: the word occurs three times; the urgency of tone is unmistakable.

The scene could be out of a Bergman movie. Everything is frozen, unmoving. The trees are enveloped, curtained, in a glaze of frost. But there seems to be a partial thaw in a small patch of the trees (although the camera here has zoomed in on a single tree), which produces a steam, a mist, that makes the trees themselves appear to be swimming, like a remembered body, in the drifting mist. Still, we know that the trees are not moving; they are one with the rest of the landscape, silent, inert, deadened, except for "that streak" responsible for the mist, which we must take for a small sign of life, however dormant. And the total scene--the river, the muted duck wings, the weirdly lit night looming with "hooded objects" -- must, we are told, be impressed on the memory, but climactically "the trees' inexpressible acts." Acts? What acts? What are the trees doing? Well, nothing. But through a trick of the eye--the illusion of the trees swimming through the mist--we have a vision of potential life (Spring?) that will outlive the winter; a vision of survival, of resurrection. Or perhaps only of the life that once was. And how does one express acts which are non-acts? One doesn't, one can't; they are "inexpressible." But the capacity for change can be understood by concentration-by studying, by learning, the inherent life-principle of the natural world. The title of Nemes Nagy's collected volume is A Fold emlekei--Mementos/Souvenirs/Memories/Relics of the Earth.

Finally, a short poem called "Comparison":

One who's been rowing when a storm blew up

frantic to flex his quadriceps

straining away a t the rock-like footboard

and who finds suddenly that his right hand is

weightless because without warning the oar

shot back from a cracked shank

and then his entire body


he knows what I know. What is "known" is of course total helplessness, a sudden deprivation of the capacity to act. The poem is a vision of that condition--kinetic, like so many of Nemes Nagy's visions--and its political implications seem to me inescapable.

I don't know of anything in American poetry, even in the poetry that we can justifiably term political,(3) that is remotely like the poetry of Agnes Nemes Nagy. Our political poetry, with rare exceptions, is protest poetry directed at specific social or historical events--not, as with Nemes Nagy's, at a social and historical condition. This is not caviling: there is a world of difference between protesting, and so trying to alter, a course of events which gives some hope of remediation and, on the other hand, confronting a way of life, a moral atmosphere, which appears unalterable. Political poetry in America is consequently more occasional, in the old sense of the term; it is an ad hoc sort of poetry. The great exception is the Blues tradition and some of the poetry by African-Americans that evolved from it, although most Black poetry continues to protest. And there are women poets whose work is closer in its political dimension to the sort of poetry that concerns me. Still, the generalization holds. Our most recent event that called forth a spate of protest poetry was of course the Vietnam War. As with all protest poetry, some of it was good; most of it was not. And what was good will probably survive because it managed to transcend the immediate event that gave rise to it.(4) The political dimension of Nemes Nagy's poetry--and in this sense it is representative of the best poetry of Communist Europe--is more pervasive, more deeply ingrained, more inextricably embedded in the texture of its ostensible landscape. A frequently encountered remark in Hungarian criticism is that love poems very often have political overtones which it is impossible to disentangle from the love element. Which leads us to another anecdote.

I am talking poetry with Eva Toth, a younger Hungarian poet, when the subject veers round to Janos Pilinszky, Nemes Nagy's exact contemporary, who has recently died. An interesting problem of translation Occurs to me. Some years earlier I had rendered a very brief Pilinszky poem, entitled "For Life," like this:

The bed is communal.

Not the pillow.(5) Later I had come across someone else's version, the first line of which reads "The bed is common." Since the Hungarian word at issue means both "common" and "communal," I had opted for the latter in order to clarify the political import. I ask Eva if she doesn't agree with me. "Maybe," she says, "but I think you both missed a crucial point." And she proceeds to write out a rough version of a Transylvanian folk song which she believes Pilinszky may have had in mind when he wrote his poem, and which I subsequently adapted freely as "The Pillow":

Yai, what a life! to lie on the same pillow

--those whose love is through--

--the pillow's two edges frayed and torn,

its middle as good as new.(6) Eva Toth's point was that Pilinszky was emphasizing the bed, in contradistinction to the pillow, as "shared"--that, in short, the central subject of the poem was love, whatever its political connotations.

But the chief difference to keep in mind when thinking of our own protest poetry is that we may protest, we are free to do it with impunity; poets in Communist countries were not, and the fact that they were not forced upon them the necessity of developing strategies to speak the unspeakable. The richness and subtlety of Nemes Nagy's poetry seems to me a direct result of her insistence upon dealing with the conditions of her life (and of her part of the world) without, however, writing her own obituary. This does not mean that there weren't apparatchiks who knew what she was up to, who could read as carefully as anyone else. But in the relatively benign years of the Kadar regime a poet as revered and as difficult as Nemes Nagy could afford to be indulged. She was even, in 1983, awarded the Kossuth Prize, Hungary's highest artistic honor--an award about which she was totally cynical because she interpreted it as an act of cynicism on the part of the authorities. She told me that the powers were trying to make themselves appear more tolerant than they actually were.

There have been various attempts to explain the dearth of political poetry in the United States. In an essay of 1968 (written, that is, during the Vietnam War) Robert Bly claims that "one reason is that political concerns and inward concerns have always been regarded in our tradition as opposites, even incompatibles."(7) It is an observation which has been made many times, more recently by Terrence Des Pres, who referred to poetry in America as "much of it still Emersonian in spirit, still enamored of self, nature, and escape to worlds elsewhere."(8) The truth of this strikes me as right on target; and it is a truth which has been exacerbated by America's privileged position in the monstrous events of our century. A case in point, as I write, is the New York production of Ariel Dorfman's play, Death and the Maiden, which is running simultaneously in London. While I have not seen the London production, from all accounts, including Dorfman's, it is a different play almost entirely. Death and the Maiden, set in an unspecified country (but most probably Chile), has three characters--a woman who was tortured under the previous government; her attorney husband, who is under a limited mandate from the new president to investigate civil rights violations sanctioned by the previous regime; and a new acquaintance of the husband, a doctor, who as soon as he enters the house is recognized by the woman as the man she believes was her torturer. The New York production, directed by Mike Nichols, plays up the domestic possibilities of this triangle at the expense of the political. Nichols views the play as "a thriller about the intimate lives of three people and the way their sexual natures are intertwined."(9) Ariel Dorfman, however, claims that he is "presenting to the most apolitical audience in the world a deeply political play with a director who deeply understands its human dimensions and shies away from its politics." And further: "People should feel uncomfortable after this play. But maybe I'm asking something impossible, given the tradition." The fact is that politics has not been central to the lives of Americans, at least not in our century; or, as Dorfman phrases it, Americans have "not the same feeling as in Europe that political decisions affect people's lives very deeply." The sad truth is that Mike Nichols was very probably right in insisting that emphasis on the political content would have been the kiss of death for the Broadway play.

If the end of Nemes Nagy's poetry is not, as with protest poetry, to effect a change, what is its end? What is the end of any political poetry which is not protesting? I would answer that it provides a context for the poet's engagement with any subject matter, and thereby serves as witness to life beyond the immediate fife of the poet; "like the personal poem," says Bly, "it moves to deepen awareness"--which I would modify by insisting that it may be, in precisely the sense Bly means, an intensely "personal poem." At its best, the political context may be the way a personal poem realizes itself. One example--and I wish there were many more like it than there are--will suffice to show that that has been accomplished at least occasionally in American poetry. It is Robert Lowell's "The Old Flame" from his book For the Union Dead The poem would seem, judging from the frequency with which it is anthologized and cited, to be much admired; yet it has elicited scarcely any comment.

My old flame, my wife!

Remember our lists of birds?

One morning last summer, I drove

by our house in Maine. It was still

on top of its hill--

Now a red ear of Indian maize

was splashed on the door.

Old Glory with thirteen stars

hung on a pole. The clapboard

was old-red schoolhouse red

Inside, a new landlord,

a new wife, a new broom!

Atlantic seaboard antique shop

pewter and plunder

shone in each room.

A new frontier!

No running next door

now to phone the sheriff

for his taxi to Bath

and the State Liquor Store!

No one saw your ghostly

imaginary lover

stare through the window,

and tighten

the scarf at his throat.

Health to the new people,

health to their flag, to their old

restored house on the hill!

Everything had been swept bare,

furnished, garnished, and aired

Everything's changed for the best--

how quivering and fierce we were,

there snowbound together,

simmering like wasps

in our tent of books!

Poor ghost, old love, speak

with your old voice

of flaming insight

that kept us awake all night.

In one bed and apart,

we heard the plow

groaning up hill--

a red light, then a blue,

as it tossed off the snow

to the side of the road One of the difficulties that readers initially have with this poem is that it's a difficult poem to get a handle on--both what it is saying and who is saying it. The speaker of the poem, the voice, is disarmingly, effortlessly, casual. It's a virtually egoless voice, which is what makes it difficult to perceive what the voice is saying, what its position is with respect to what it is saying. A poem with a strong voice, a voice which readily establishes the identity of the speaker as a personality, declares its meaning--how we are to take it--in a relatively forthright manner. If a voice is judgmental, for example, that establishment of stance and tone can provide us with an important aspect of the poem's meaning. But the speaker in Lowell's poem is not judgmental; or, to put it more accurately, just when he seems on the point of being judgmental he backs off, even reverses the judgment he had seemed on the point of making. To cite the most obvious instance of this strategy, the sixth stanza begins with three fines wishing "Health to the new people." There is no irony in those lines; they seem to signal a generous acceptance of the present, of the way things are. But the stanza then concludes with two lines that seem to retreat from that acceptance; they happen to be the last reference in the poem to the house as it now is--this time in the past perfect tense, as if some lingering reservation about the new owners was again asserting itself. Yet immediately we have the beginning of stanza eight, suggesting another reversal: "Everything's changed for the best." And as if to complicate the problem further, the whole matter of stance with respect to the new owners is abruptly abandoned, and the speaker drifts off into nostalgic memories, concluding with a sharp image of a snowplow that appears almost self-indulgently irrelevant.

The poem develops a set of contrasts between the old owners--the speaker and his wife (Lowell has said that the poem refers to his first marriage to Jean Stafford)--and the new. The new owners are characterized entirely by what we are told about the house as it now is. They are upscale, conservative, patriotic, traditional folks, who surely vote Republican and probably belong to the local country club and send their kids to private schools. What we learn of the Lowells we learn more directly by what we are told about their old life: their lists of birds, shortage of money, drinking, books, insight, intensity. In their own way, they are as representative of their class as the new owners: struggling intellectuals, idealistic, excitable, bookish, insular, who leave the premises only for forays to the liquor store. The only metaphor in the poem has them "simmering like wasps/ in our tent of books"--a suggestion of Achilles out of the mainstream of action, but also of their single-minded devotion (tent as tabernacle) to the intellectual life.

And that life failed them. The marriage was failing while they were still in the house, "In one bed and apart...," and the view we now have of the speaker is of a "ghostly/ imaginary [was he ever real?] lover" tightening his scarf in a suicidal gesture. The housr remains, refurbished in the image of the new people; the strongest close rhymes in the poem--"It was still/on top of its hill"--suggesting its solidity, permanence, imperviousness to time. What happened? Well, what happened on a personal level we don't know, and it doesn't matter. We know what is important to the poem, that the marriage ended. But what is chilling about that final image of the snowplow--

a red light, then a blue,

as it tossed off the snow

to the side of the road --is that it duplicates the colors of "Old Glory" on the flagpole outside the new people's house. The image suggests that the values embodied in the new owners are "groaning up hill" to displace the couple. The feeling is that middle-class chauvinism has prevailed, as the speaker's idealism did not.

It's worth reiterating that "The Old Flame" is an extremely personal poem. It's a poem of reflections on a private life, a marriage that came to an end, and about the mixed feelings of the speaker occasioned by his reflections. But those feelings are inextricable from the motifs which provide the poem's visual texture--from the house and its new people as seen against the Lowells' previous life. Indeed, it is through those motifs that the feelings are realized. Lowell's seeming vacination in his attitude toward the new people, which I mentioned earlier, speaks directly to the more central confusion of the isolated, displaced, "ghostly," suicidal survivor who says the poem. The personal poem and the political poem are one and the same. And what is remarkable is that it moves and sustains itself without any easy ironies. Lowell takes no easy ways out of his confusions. That is part of what I meant by the speaker being egoless. It can also be said that it is an egoless poem.

Agnes Nemes Nagy died in October, 1991, after a year's painful bout with cancer. Almost to the end, I'm told, she spoke of recovering, although it had been clear for months that recovery was impossible. But this was not spoken out of a fearful evasion of her condition; it was spoken out of anger. She was a woman of passionate indignation, which extended especially to matters of morality. Her disdain for doublespeak was boundless. "Where there are two positions on a moral issue," she once proclaimed--this in 1984 during one of the first talk shows on Hungarian television--"one of them is wrong." She was thoroughly contemptuous of trimmers, of whom there were many as political oppression eased over the years. At the same time, as I reread the score of letters I received from her I am struck by an almost girlish enthusiasm at new experiences. One, written from the Grand Canyon during a sojourn in this country as a guest of the International Writing Program at Iowa, signs off: "votre Agnes (qui a vu le Pacifique)." She was born in 1922 of a comfortably situated professional family, so did not fit the preferred archetype of the Hungarian poet during the Communist years, who was of peasant stock and wrote of country things. She was passionately, fiercely intellectual, totally conversant with Western literature, much of which she translated. Eliot, Rilke, and the French symbolists were of special importance to her. And while music failed to interest her, her knowledge of painting, sculpture, and architecture was close to professional. But chiefly it was history that was in her blood, and above all Hungarian history. She felt the pains of her beleaguered country as if it was part of her own body. As indeed it was: notwithstanding all that was cosmopolitan about her, she was deeply, totally, Hungarian. The siege of Buda by the Turks in the sixteenth century was as much a cause of anguish as the Treaty of Trianon or the more recent indignities of the Communist years. And the restraints that those years imposed upon her natural inclination to speak forcefully and honestly must have taken their toll. I recall her frustration when we were driving one hot summer day in the outskirts of Budapest, with the windows open, and came to a red light abreast of another car; she hushed the conversation abruptly on the chance that it was a car of the secret police.

It is not too much to say that great poetry can be wrenched from political extremity. There are too many instances over the centuries to doubt it. A political response is no substitute for talent, and political repression is no sure road to the muses' diadem. But repression can force a honing process on talent which enables it to develop in directions it would not have taken under more congenial circumstances. That is what happened, I believe, to Nemes Nagy. She is not only the greatest woman poet Hungary has produced; she is among the major voices in twentieth-century poetry.


(1.) All of Nemes Nagy's poems quoted here are from: Agnes Nemes Nagy, Selected Poems, translated by Bruce Berlind (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1980). (2.) Agnes Nemes Nagy, Between: Selected Poems of Agnes Nemes Nagy, translated by Hugh Maxton (Budapest and Dublin: Corvina/Depalos, 1988), 89. (3.) The argument, increasingly heard, that all poetry is political strikes me as extravagant. It dispenses with useful distinctions, including any more or less precise meanings that we might assign to the term. But chiefly, I just don't believe it. (4.) There is a revealing passage in David Ray's preface to his anthology From the Hungarian Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966). He is speaking of the poems written by political prisoners in Hungarian gulags: "Not all survived, but the strength of the fallen somehow fired those who lived, and it continues to fire them in their spirited exile, an exile devoted to continuing efforts to remind the West of the Hungarians' right to Hungary. If the great powers someday demilitarize part of Europe, perhaps these efforts will become history; otherwise they remain the quixotic, admirable work of men who refuse to shrug or flee or be silenced simply because the rest of the world has; in short, their efforts will remain poetry." What the passage admits is the ephemeral status of political poetry that does not transcend the special conditions of its genesis. The prison writings "remain poetry" only as long as Europe is militarized; if demilitarization occurs (presumably now) the writings are no longer poetry but history. (5.) London Magazine (December 1978/January 1979). (6.) Poetry East (Fall 1989). (7.) "Leaping Up Into Political Poetry," in American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity (New York: HarperCollins, 1990). (8.) Terrence Des Pres, Praises and Dispraises (New York: Viking, 1988), xvii. (9.) All quotations are from The New York Times of May 10, 1992.
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Author:Berlind, Bruce
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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