The revolutionary imagination: the poetry and politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan.
John Wheelwright was an obscure poet of the 1920s and 1930s, an upper-class oddball from Boston, an Anglo-Catholic, a Marxist. Among fellow blue bloods, he was famous for crawling under the rug at parties. Among leftists he was famous for arriving at street corner rallies in raccoon coat and dinner clothes and beginning a soapbox speech with, "We, of the proletariat . . .' in Harvard tones. His writings are a bit off-putting, as you might expect of such a person. I started his Collected Poems and gave up three minutes later. The poet seemed to have crawled under the rug. But then Peter Schjeldahl published a fascinating essay on Wheelwright in the Sunday Times and offered an invaluable tip on how to approach the daunting volume: you must start at page 235. Beginning on that page, the poems display a distinct and comprehensible voice. There's an evocation of a statue of Alexander Hamilton:
Granite unsharded by the fires of revolt,
granite refined to the subtlety of a porcelain goddess of mercy--
common sense Hamilton!
Under the elms' sex-partite vaulting,
opposing the agitation of Washington on horseback
("Dr. Rimmer's Hamilton on Commonwealth Avenue and Arlington Street')
There's a fine poem called "Boston Public Library': "Most beautiful, most Tuscan, most useless/Public Building in America.' There's a witty poem in down-east drawl. And as you skip around the book with these poems in mind, others quite as good present themselves. A war anthem of Whitman's is turned into an antiwar poem. A Salvation Army woman loses patience and leads the unemployed in a riot. An old mare from the last days of the Roman Empire returns from the dead: "I have come back. I command my Palatine stable open.' The horse poem ends with something about "the unconsolating mysteries of my inviolate vagina,' which is one of the problems with Wheelwright. He hits some screechingly wrong notes. In one poem the recommends that the selfish bourgeois clean out their ears--with ladies' hatpins. Ow.
But there's great musicality in his voice, an intellectual rigor, a broad range of reference and imagination. He makes you think of those slightly older poets, Eliot and Pound. Wheelwright's political poems are not invariably his best, but command attention anyway because of the way he expresses Marxist themes with modernist technique. One of his cleverer political poems resembles William Carlos Williams's Paterson. He's altogether different from anything we think of in connection with 1930s Marxism, even when he puts a soapbox speech to verse:
Workers of Hand! Work your brain.
No more for every well-fed mind,
need thousands stupify in shrunk, sub-human bodies.
What do you want, who form our Army?
More bottled mayonnaise? D'y'want hamburger?
The Marxism has a jeering tone, much the way Eliot and Pound jeer from the extreme right, and while this may seem unpleasant, it's certainly authentic. An awful lot of 1930s Marxist poetry is revoltingly sentimental, but you can't say that about Wheelwright. He displays a bitter sarcasm worthy of Marx himself. Raccoon coat and all, maybe he was more of a Marxist than the mainstream Marxist poets of his time.
You can read about Wheelwright in a meticulous study by Alan M. Wald, The Revolutionary Imagination: The Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan. The book is helpful and intelligent on Wheelwright's poems and interesting on his politics too, which were antiwar and Trotskyist. (There's a poem comparing Trotsky to Prometheus: "Discoverer and inventor, never let 'em say:/"Human nature cannot change.'') The other subject of the book, Sherry Mangan, was an even more obscure poet, not as talented either, who succeeded, however, in living an extremely romantic life: he was an international correspondent for Time by day, a secret agent for the Fourth International by night. Wald is a demon researcher on these topics and thanks more than 250 people for helping with his study, including a Jewish businessman in Argentina who is identified by pseudonym lest the authorities persecute him for his underground Trotskyist guerrilla-aiding activities. Everyone interested in the left-wing literary tradition, not to mention the arcana of global Trotskyism, should be grateful to Wald for this mountain of research. Go get his very unusual book. Get the wheelwright poems. Start on page 235.