In America we like our poets to be like characters in newspapers or on television, yawping dionysically, or monks adding a few lapidary words to dense verse like many-faceted coral. If they are not instantly sensational or mildly boring we dismiss them as churls or leaden moralists and take up fare more palatable to the tastes of our age. If we are snobs we may vary this eternal exotic lunch with a few itinerant Brits of a wry if familiarly monkish character we sample on educational television. Aaron Kramer did not have an English accent, was not addicted to anything, was married with children, had no hunger for Scythian orgies run by Tibetan despots in exile in Colorado, never evangelized for new gods or sat naked on the streets playing the harmonium and demanded a world revolution. As a consequence result he lived a life that escaped all the clichés his country associated with rock stars and poets.
Aaron had married his childhood sweetheart, a girl who literally lived next door to him in Bath Beach in Brooklyn when he was nine years old. His parents were Depression survivors; his mother was still living in California when he died, hale at ninety nine. His demise was graceful as his life. He slipped away discreetly in his Long Island home with cancer. He avoided contact with friends near the end like Disraeli because he wanted them to remember him when he was healthy. It was all part of an intuition he was born with for discreet elegance. He didn’t have a bohemian side to him. He didn’t complain about anything or anybody either. When he had an ill worlds about others it seemed to Aaron they were crazy or skewed, not evil. Dostoyevsky would have found Aaron baffling. Aaron had absolutely no feeling at all for scenting the criminal or the perverse in others; he didn’t have darkness in himself.
In certain ways Aaron was a vintage fruit of the Jewish world of competent public schools and rich street life neither alum nor an empty suburb in a world of nowhere. He didn’t come from Brownsville or raffish Flatbush; he was brought up farther out at the shore of that diverse and fecund borough. He could smell the salt water of the ocean as a child. He was a prodigy. His musical virtuosity with language was in place and intact when he was a young adolescent in high school. Aaron was the star poet of his world as a kid, carrying with him all the hopes and wonder of one born with a large natural talent. It would have set him apart in most cultures; in Bath Beach among a largely Jewish set he was both a genius and oddly ordinary.
Aaron didn’t have to make a secret of his gifts and proclivities as many poets do early in life. He remained at once a makes of sweet music and in certain way very conventional at least partially because nothing external in his life had pushed him to be otherwise. Aaron had a great love of this part of Brooklyn; it touched him with a kind of high sublimity when he looked at it again in old age. We took a trip thorough this neighborhood once that was enthralling for him, a little baffling for me. I could feel his awe and exhilaration at shards of a world that didn’t exist anymore. I didn’t have the associations with the physical streets that he did, of course.
Like many Jewish kids with brains of the time Aaron was pushed ahead in school quickly. He went to Brooklyn College when he was barely sixteen; he was always younger than his colleagues and thus consistently slightly in awe of them when he was a star in the college literary magazine. As a result Aaron was at once probably the best poet at the college yet socially feeling a little awkward among intellectual peers otherwise more adult than he was.
In probably one of the few areas of the United States were it was not merely normal but a cellar boon and manly to be a poet and intelligent, Aaron was immediately recognized both at Brooklyn College and in fashionable leftist circles as a singular verse maker of talent, power and cognitive gifts; there was never any time in Aaron’s life after thirteen that he was not mildly famous in a local way. Brooklyn College then was a vast den of social activism of a radical sort. City universities ad that overtones because they were the spas of often brilliant young men and women who in the larger American world were racially second class or much worse. As Ivy Leaguers of talent in 1930s America were tracing to be elitists and republican fops to justify their privilege, city college students were learning if not in classes or formally to make the case for rough equality by developed parallel achievements.
We tend to assume most of these poets of social realism were Whitmanesque. In fact many poets like Aaron needed and valued a virtuosi formality of style to control material which was naturally openended and even tenebrous. Besides that, there was a dimension to poetry that recalled another world of form and formalism in style, yet was radical and egalitarian in substance. Aaron and his peers of the time modelled themselves after Auden, not Whitman.
Auden was at Brooklyn College at the time. Auden offered them a poetic manner which mirrored their sense of their own natural aristocracy. Any one who could write like Aaron had to be treated presumptively, if one viewed him through the mirrors of the Old World and its royalism, as like Auden, a kind of bastard lord. Rather curiously that wonderfully fecund time at Brooklyn College was engendering some very unlikely and diverse pelts whose point of departure was the general rejection of class and vertical notions of privilege. One of Aaron’s close peers at Brooklyn College was Harold Norse, a poet of diagnostic character who later had read in Greenwich Village and finally settled in Tangier.
It’s amusing to think of Aaron and Harold together but they working on the same literary magazine for ears; Harold was its gadfly editor. Aaron spoke of Harold with admiration as a kind of moral champion; Aaron admired his courage and his easy generosity. Harold certainly was one of the nicest men I’ve met in poetry of that generation. Very possibly, though I never asked him, Harold’s rather wild private life and his proclivity for putting his nature into his verse might have reverberated in Aaron a bit later. Like most of his generation Aaron was schooled early in finding his subjects in newspapers.
It’s a nice safe place from which to write poetry. One acts as if one is a savant objectively decrying some atrocity here, some massacre there, some backward step on the inevitable progress of history toward one’s certainty about a better future for all mankind in a remote time. Though it was very fashionable to produce such verse, it’s poetry without risk, often itself a kind of terminal formalism in its subjects and treatment of them without much individual thought either.
Sometime when Aaron was just out of college or maybe right before he graduated from Brooklyn Collage he began to find these strictures very nastily procrustean. He had all kinds of feelings about friends of his who went to war and were killed or maimed that didn’t fit into the normal rhetoric of how padre had Eden defined for him. He began to write a different kind of more anguished and personal verse that annoyed and baffled people around him, excepting the dour but dispassionate level of language to which an age that never was all that prone to accept individual values were accustomed. As late as the 1950s Howard Fast rejected a large collection of Aaron’s Selected Poems because it contained two small verses about his personal life. Fast considered this a sinister backsliding toward an affirmation of a nefarious individual reality.
Aaron usually scorned wit as trivial; Fast’s irate rejection and reasons for it amused him in spite of himself. He realized in a certain way Fast was nuts. One really couldn’t make a reasonable case historically or otherwise for poetry or even prose that was steel jacketed opinion larded with fancy words, posture and ritual purging garnered from the news. Aaron didn’t feel there was anything wrong or sinful about a personal style; most of literature after all as he knew was nothing but that. Fast’s ire at Aaron had been a kind of watershed moment which Aaron, usually not one to make manifestos or think intellectually before he took up some intuitive direction, took up as a catalyst to define himself to himself in a very conscious way as a poet.
His poetry from the first had been and was going to be Horatian, not nuggets of versified opinion caged from a world he knew nothing about. He could do verse inspired by newspapers because he was a great craftsman; it wasn’t him. His feelings about his lost friends who had died in the Second World War, all his other subsequent passions he had put into his poetry weren’t formal postures in the face of an indifferent or baleful history; they were idiosyncratic expression singular to himself. From then on Aaron made sure that his Horatian mode, though he wouldn’t have used that phrase to describe himself, was going to be dominant in his verse.
I don’t know how much Aaron struggled for his virtues; I must say in all things he was a natural. Even pruning a tree or cooking a meal was done with the same sureness of intuition. It never struck him that one could or should bee other than honest, brave, moral, generous, and charitable. He never looked into the abyss of his own evil; it wasn’t there.
Aaron took a clobbering from the communists because he was a maverick and in his way a serious Jew, and was not all that popular during he same time among the anti-communist professors who were busy both betraying their colleagues and concocting a history of American poetry that did not include any realism or social criticism whatsoever.
Aaron took no sides; he loved diversity and excellence, not polemics. The original and new excited him. One of his favorite poets was Tennyson. The broadness of his appreciation of both life and Art was phenomenal in a world that was largely polarized. When Aaron spoke up against tyranny in any form, it was like breathing. He didn’t really get mad at anybody. He was a chamber mystic who loved freedom as a patriot of our species, not a lobotomized soldier. His impeccable fairness made all sides on any vulgar argument uncomfortable.
Aaron’s virtue and honor were sterling almost to a fault; knowing him, one became aware that he had an instinctual perfection rather than an awkward Augustinian journey to goodness. It never occurred to him to do any evil or injury to anyone. His goodness seemed biological; he seemed to have a gene for virtue. Excess, experiments in moral relativism, any sort of cult or polemical stance simply could not appeal to Aaron. He brushed them away like flies. He didn’t bother to reject such parochial notions; they were not worthy of notice to him.
Aaron once told me he had not published a very long satirical poem in imitation of Heine’s travels because he thought it too savage in its denunciations. I always wanted to read this poem; he never showed it to me. I couldn’t imagine Aaron going after anything or anybody like Catullus or Juvenal. I wanted to se him try. He said he did it and somewhere it lies, waiting for us, because Aaron thought- I could see it on his face- that savage indignation was unworthy of him.
It’s curious to think of Aaron translating Heine which he did; one couldn’t imagine to more polar characters than Aaron, always elegant and measured, and the splenetic and wildly funny Heine. Yet obviously there was a side to Aaron, if he didn’t want to publish it and certainly wasn’t showing it in his social life that resonated with the feral satire of Heine.
Aaron lived a very placid life unlike Heine and may have thought during his many years as a professor at Dowling that one didn’t write like Heine and teach in an American college. Yet Aaron at one point did just that, and satisfied the other side of himself by never publishing it. Go figure.
One could easily miss Aaron’s great qualities because they were smooth and seamless, never flamboyant or abrupt. His bravery as a man was both consistent and casual; like the Chinese philosophers Aaron wouldn’t even give darkness, murkiness and evil the homage of a shrug.
If Aaron spoke of the Second World War primarily as a theater in which many people died, including his friends, by the time one heard his responses to that huge massacre it was stated evenly and without any obvious show of fustian. Humanist and individualist that he was, he mourned not the destruction of states but the end of their personal hopes.
Predictably in the 50s he was very anti-McCarthy, equally anti-Red, for the same reasons: he was against anything that was reductive, that vulgarized diversity, that tried to put its stamp on the natural richness of the human spirit. For Aaron to put it very baldly this diversity in nature represented God’s will on earth. One comes across similar ideas in Ginsberg’s Howl but in a style of intense and flamboyant fury that Aaron never would have embraced.
He was a man who faced iniquity and atrocity with measure, not the flaming fury of a Juvenal, Milton or Ginsberg. It’s a kind of ripeness and maturity that Aaron seemed always to have, had even in his puerility.
Aaron until the 50s and its dionysiac aftermath for the next two rock and rolling decades was at the center of a movement among America poets for an august and reflective style that measured republican life with a muted and mature tone that was far from the sort of sensational and audacious verse that younger poets in the 50s were taking on.
Yet Aaron’s subjects and opinions were very close to some of them. After all he had turned his back on mere poetical verse and embraced personal padre in a day when all the then most fashionably progressive writers were becoming more poetical, less peroneal, more in the service of the direction they felt humanity had to travel, not less so. Aaron wasn’t an elitist; with his background and life he couldn’t have been. He certainly didn’t want to be an elitist either.
He was simply a republican egalitarian aristo on the other side of the Jacksonian revolution in language that around 10955 or so began to transform what was possible to call upon in language into a much more bottom and street style that simply was not flexible enough for a man who was a naturally elegant spirit, one never coarse. As a result though once viewed by critics in the 40s as one of American major lyric poets, he tended to fall through the cracks later, viewed as a kind of very talented conservative fossil.
It was both unfortunate for Aaron and for our literature that his lapidary way of making poetry wasn't as much honored as more strident, splenetic, careless or concretist ones, or that he wasn’t appreciated as a poet much by a younger crowd who were looking for more obliviously prophetic celebrities.
All directions eventually lead over a cliff. The radical Jacksonian one certainly has been a gaudy roller coaster ride in richness and breadth of language and subject at its best it never had much of a taste for values other than a quickie with a punch board in a Chevrolet or a bellicose evening at a bar with Charles Bukowski and a few bibulous and raucous pals arguing about baseball.
It’s fun to do both; there is more to life than either of these in the end banalities. Aaron represented as both man and poet a reflective intelligence that one would probably after a time rather have living next door than people playing loud rock and roll music, throwing orgies, and barfing on the lawn.
The bulk of his original work is a masterful set of verses extending from an idea with Euclidean linear force. In his youth his poems were socially minded; in his early middle age his poetry focused relentlessly on ordinary living much as did Montaigne. We don’t have too many Aarons or Montaignes around anymore; the logical direction of Ginsberg’s poetry had been to take the United States on a wild ride and party that was run while it lasts but didn’t leave much for anyone afterwards as it moved toward porno as a virtue, a liberating act to salvage if they wanted a realm in which there might be some sinewy community feeling.
There is always a veiled rapture and despair in Aaron’s work; it is quiet, muted, measured in its rhetoric as we expect adults to be.. His verse is never gaudy or sensational, never strains to shock nor to produce some pyrotechnic effect. Aaron would have thought such aims to be spectacular were uncivil. Perhaps they are. Aaron was probably always thinking of the kind of mileage Auden got out of being both formal and embracing ordinary life.
It’s possible Auden wasn’t the best model for any American poet though his solutions are very seductive and charming. Auden after all was one born into a world of privilege though he chose to live most of his life in New York hard by St. Marks Place as a bohemian republican. Aaron and most of the American poets who had admired Auden as a teacher were from at the time bottom origins as defined by the Old World and were republicans going the other way, defining a New World aristocracy that was at once at home at the bottom and the top. Of course nobody knows in life what the real bottom is; we always underestimate it.
Though in certain ways Aaron and Auden ended with some of the same solutions in rhetoric and even subject, they were conservatives coming from different cultures if they had some very distinct agendas they didn’t share. Aaron’s aim as was the intent of all poets of his generation was to create a role for himself as one occupying the niche of a poetic genius in a natural meritocracy as part of his Left wing politics, then as a feature of his nostalgia for French Provencal laissez faire life or its modern variant of a tentative and hallow pragmatic Anglicanism.
Auden had a passion for freedom and order as we all do; the paradox, coming as he did from one of the more stifling class systems in the Western world, was always vitiated by the fact that he could slip back at his whim into a posture of privilege; in his personal and religious life occasionally did so. Of course being homosexual as Auden was creates for oneself a rough equality no matter where one is, a palace or prison. Aaron was an egalitarian as most Jews are; such circumstances are optimal for vigorous and moral Jewish culture.
I hope one day Aaron’s Horatian values and verse are give another look by a country who really has lost its way philosophically in a way Aaron would have found unthinkable. Aaron was one of the greatest masters of rhyme and meter in English. He could do anything. Of course, to paraphrase a famous line from an old poem, all paths of glory lead to some degeneracy or excess before consolations of the grave.
Like Tennyson he was a great master of rhyme and assonance; unlike Tennyson, his lines are never suffused with erotic hungers or bloodstained heroic tragedy. Aaron never took up an impolite emotion; it wasn’t out of discretion or civility either, he probably had never had any. His augustan character took him to modes of a high consciousness and meditation rather than celebrations of puerile erotic lust or heroic warlike epics.
Although they did not resemble each other in any superficial way and as we know all comparisons are odious, some are more conspicuously more vile than others. One might think of Aaron reclusiveness and civil distemper at the pain of the world as a reflective American with much the same hermetic intuitions if not the religious zeal of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was always an Academic favorite with mid-century professors in America; he had been a neo-medievalist who spoke for the Tory vision and Anglophilia they had craved. Of course Aaron with his focus on people like Heine was a kind of maverick to them.
Aaron was a kind of spiritual Tory or Conservative in a deep sense who didn’t have any simple answers to human dilemmas but embraced the mysteries in the ordinary miracle of facing them at all. Both men testified in idiosyncratic verse to the light and dark of personal mortality.
Obviously a man like Aaron in a Jacksonian country like American was very likely to fall through the cracks. Aaron only half fell. Any poet reading Aaron may or may not feel cheated by the lack of shallow and rampant erotica and the rude dearth of violence in his verse; if they have craft and felicity of language they have to be stunned by Aaron’s sheer poetic gift. Aaron was that good a pure poet.
Even in physical appearance Aaron was a good looking, slender man with a handsome face and a pleasant slightly adenoidal voice. His trace of a Brooklyn accent was soft and warm. Aaron wondered whether he should have taken up excess or risked something large at some point in his life so he could be the sort of intrepid poet, always in recovery from a major neural trauma. Aaron didn’t miss that some poets like Shakespeare left the world verse that among other things was the record of some terrible primal suffering.
Of course, many men have lived a life of torture and never wrote even a limerick that might amuse or bore the future. Aaron never repaired to the universal hospital where many poets take up a life of retrospective romance, despair and subsequent hyperbole. “I’m too good at too many small things,” Aaron said to me a few times.
It wasn’t that. Aaron was a natural man of virtue living in an age escaping any hint of passing dullness whose sincere and earnest concern was vice.
Aaron almost certainly had his share of woe; he always found some balance or consolation in trouble. When I had a distressing rebellion from one of my sons, Aaron said to me: “He rebelled at eleven. That’s good. The earlier the better, you know.”
If Aaron suspected that he had everything to be a great poet but the proper major disaster, it might be some banal catastrophe had happened around him to nearly everyone but himself. Aaron was certainly drawn to such poets in his translations. Heine after all is a rather intense and passionate personality few take up because his feverish humor is almost untranslatable. Aaron could take up these themes easily at a remove.
American poets don’t have patrons; they have a day job. As Robert Graves points out, working in American colleges isn’t the most salubrious life for one seeking out epiphanies in the wilderness. Aaron’s life of writing and teaching, first in the New York public high schools, than at Dowling College in Long Island, was generously and successfully happy and measured.
Poets don’t thrive in a world that is fascinated by bad guys if they have had the dullsh misfortune to be good guys. We aren’t going to see any biographies of Aaron worthy of the Enquirer as we do of Byron, not merely because Aaron never lived and did mad things in Albania or later corrupted all the whores in Venice. It’s that we don’t find virtue interesting.
Aaron was in spiritual matters a serious Jew without being metaphysically religious. He easily took up the high ethical character of his traditions. His teaching was a moral and spiritual act for him, not merely a job. He never could stop doing it. I think Aaron would have been more at home in 18th century England or America.
That was the last time in Western history people valued measure and reason and detested enthusiasm. As a man and poet he seems to have been born in the wrong time.
The age that valued Pope would have appreciated him. When the future learns respect for virtue again it will turn to Aaron.
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The Death Of A Subway Poet
More Hugging Less Mugging Richard Bartee’s Calling Card
One snowy April afternoon on a New York bus a large caramel skinned Black man with the built of a former football player he had been, dapperly dressed in a good suit had a sudden massive heart attack; he died instantly as he sat looking out on a city street. It was a rough irony that Richard Bartee, the famous “Avenue D Poet” of the 70s perished in his seat at only 59, a trekker still taking public transportation. Fame in New York lasts as long as yesterday’s publicity release. Nowadays it’s almost always connected with publicists, money, some pitch to spend a shekel or two on a very mortal divinity.
Some of our most powerful revolutions are changes in perception rather than military forays. The map changes every century or so; the planet and the nature of its miserable residents stays the same. The first human being to see that our species lives better when it embraces love of one’s neighbor and takes up charity to strangers was a more important rebel in history than any general. Richard was that kind of social force. He must have seen the glum and solitary looks of pilgrims on the D Train for a while before he decided they were alone and suffering, it was all about nothing, he wanted to do something about it.
After a few minutes of Richard’s amusing and witty verse people in the car began to enjoy each other, not merely his performance. Richard’s discourse was deeper than entertainment. He was clever and articulate; he breathed out an implied feeling that we were all in fact in the same train heading underground in a world of darkness in all directions, a communal experience with its exhilaration as well as its terrors we could share. Though never an ideologue, always a man with a practical remedy for any difficulty in the classical American manner, Richard was one of the last of the 60s stalwarts who become a new York legend without media afflatus. He spent about ten years on the Avenue D line taking over subway cars, reading his elegant and witty poetry, offering a copy of it ironically for 26 cents, making a lot of friends among formerly glum underground commuters.
Probably a million New Yorkers during those years asked themselves, who is this guy interrupting my feeling lousy? They found themselves after a moment, seeing he was well dressed, wasn’t asking for money, was all generosity, amused and laughing at Richard’s sallies. Richard’s cleverly rhymed verse was both deep and simple; it went to the heart but it spent time in the upper skull where the intelligence lies too.
As talented as he was as a poet, artificer of fables, and performer, Richard in those D Train days was making another unstated point. The D Train was in those days a subway with a totally White population. Richard was an African-American who had shown up in the middle of White world to give to the needy. Since most people are miserable, everybody likes to be amused. In one way or another Richard was able to dispense charity to all while asking nothing for it.
That act alone had to resonate among the passengers, perhaps wondering themselves how they had come to be so empty, unhappy or vegetatively phlegmatic about their own existence, asking themselves what swagger, bravery or largesse they had within themselves had they chosen to offer their own portion to the cosmic waters as Richard did. Richard probably made people he never knew he touched a little more courageous or at least able to pause and have a second opinion about their mortality ever afterwards.
In those days and the next three decades Richard gave out probably over a million cards for nothing with his central and signature epigram: More Hugging, Less Mugging. He didn’t have wealth so he gathered up goods he saw on the streets and brought them home to give to other people.
Most of Richard’s life never surfaced as spectacularly as pure legend as his self-invented subway career. Nobody saw his full range. He was very often in city schools on his own with no salary reading poetry, singing and telling stories. He made a great case for literacy to kids. Richard himself had come from the bottom; he had an extended family but on the vaporous side.
He had been once in his natal Florida a high school football all-American; he was one of the best young quarterbacks in the United States. It set him apart. His football genius got him into college. With this background Richard could talk to the high and the low equally well. Though he always lived middle class as an adult, he had been both up and down.
Though a genius, Richard fell through the cracks mostly in life; in a craven world where drones are valued even in the Arts this maverick among mavericks was ironically sometimes honored for talents he had by the truckload. A Syracuse cop kicked off the force for insubordination when he refused to lie and send a designated local prey to the slammer, though lying and plea bargaining is our normal justice system style, it didn’t go down with Richard. Later he did a month of jail time in Chicago during the 1968 Yippie fracases. Once he showed me the concavities in his skull where the Chicago cops had beaten him. They had tried to kill him; they put him in the hospital. They were very big dents. Richard talked about the experience not with rancor but with awe. A 60s stalwart, Richard was everybody’s instant champion. In the three hour funeral service afterwards that Al Sharpton among others attended and spoke at, few noted in their orations how much Richard was first of all for life, for humanity.
It wasn’t merely an opinion or a posture; Richard was on the battlefront where one can look around and wonder where all the makers of speeches had gone after they had run their moth about some folly or atrocity. He never trashed anybody or anything; never was anything but a happy solder. He didn’t offer rage or splenetic misery even when injured; he had solutions, charity, a kind of rich bountifulness. With his persuasive charm in the service of virtue he had the charismatic magic to make the worst people feel better than they were.
Richard was always up, never surly, mean or despairing. Au contraire. He was in fact a great consoler; he could see into the hearts of people and heal them. He could listen to woe of others and offer elevated spiritual advice; he felt only compassion for those who had been uncivil to him. “When you got to jail somebody has taken over your life for a little while; you should feel as they’ve put you on vacation,” he once said to me. It’s not as if Richard didn’t have satire in him or wasn’t a gadfly. He offered his discourse sheathed in a kind of amiable joy.
Richard had beyond that gift for felicity and healing, the quickest mind I have ever encountered; he had not merely enormous depth and emotional power but a flawless photographic memory. I once asked him about his education in Florida. “Separate but equal,” he said with gleeful irony.
In an age in which for one reason or another people have stopped trusting each other, intimates or strangers, Richard was always an advocate of healing. His diverse remedies took various forms. He ran in his last years shows in lower Manhattan bars or raw food spas; he sold filters to purify water. He was a fierce enemy of smoking. Though his local church he counseled ex-convicts returning to a tough world from prison. Richard as few of us do understood the tremendous power of virtue. It was an easier sell that one might think in his lifetime. He was living in a world in which people had tried everything else.
His faith in goodness was never shallow. If one got to know him, though he was never a confessional type, at a polarity from narcissism, though he was one who rarely spoke about himself, one would glean in passing some of his lie’s own sorrows and losses.
He was like many charming loners a sensual man and very physical. He had had a cluttered life. He also had had his struggles with children; he had gone through the classical agony of parents, seeing their difficulties without being able to live for them.
One heard about these burdens only after he had been able to make peace a seeming place of ashes. He had wrestled with all of these checks to his spirit; he had found some lesson, consolation or dark guidance in them. One only heard about his woes as resolved dilemmas, never as complaints.
Merely walking down the street with him was an adventure. The miracle Richard had been was his legacy. It was a prodigal benefice he didn’t leave in a will. He gave it away to everyone.
When a man passes from us, the brazen finality of his acts are set in vaporous stone; one can see the metaphorical as well as the physical acts of their lives as a poetic act speaking for itself. Richard Bartee’s years of amusing and enlightening rides on the D Train was a kind of experience in which the resonances of being buried by choice in the maw of an underground train. Going to Richard’s three very well attended memorials was an etude in seeing how somebody who was like no other human being I ever met was measured by various tailors for a store bought suit of banality. The best speech about him was made by Al Sharpton. One saw Richard’s capacious shadow at the last through mirrors.
Everything Richard did including his absence at these bashes was one more act of radical transformation. His talent at wizardry was absolute; sometimes one could mistake his alchemy for a banality. He was an Afro-American nationalist as part of being for everybody; he saw others some thought enemies as his comrades. He made a point of empowering White people as well as Afro-Americans. He was a Christian in the high sense that he saw in the life of Jesus the value and power of charity, healing, talking to everybody, hanging with bums, criminals, even American intellectuals.
He was a poet who decades before rap and hip-hop attempted to weave an elegant and witty rhyming rhetoric out of common street talk. He had all the formal credentials to accept received ideas fashionable among the au courant craven; nothing he did large or small was the same after Richard got through with it. Nationally famous as Richard was in the Black community, beyond it few poets the White world had heard of him. His originality entirely eluded the American institutional world; in the Black community where fewer are on tenure they could more easily acknowledge his audacity.
Still Richard was like nobody. With his love of family, Richard had some much of it in complex ways along with his friends that he needed to be at a pay phone to juggle it all. Richard by himself must have financed that utility generously.
The ultimate street person, he would take up a conversation with somebody on the street; if it were not over, go home with him and occasional sleep over, still talking about life and death. The man really took everything to the end and beyond. Am I going to be one more unwitting Procrustean tailor? I hope not.
Richard probably touched the lives of more people in America than all but movie and television stars. He translated subway cars into spiritual temples, alchemized the solarity and yet intimacy of a hellish commute. The sudden appearance of a poet guide, the amusing and witty verse of Richard Bartee, hearing his its urbane street wit as one hustled blindly through the bowels of the Earth, changed the perception of armies of commuters from aloneness in a great pit to sharing a communal trough but exhilarating experience.
A bard whose intent was charity and light, not to acquire money, Richard saw divinity and capacities for sharing charity in a subway car. In the 70s if one sat in a subterranean cage if one was lucky, alone with one’s interred myrmidons, was happy to see Richard Bartee, a big man looking like the football quarterback he had been, a sly smile on his face, dressed nattily in a suit, dapper, reading two or three poems, offering them in print for a few pennies, for nothing if one chose. Only Richard saw the D train as a proper bully pulpit for poetry, a spa for a good word from a man of the spirit.
Since then Richard has had his imitators, few of whom knew of his genius, there at bottom to pick up some spare lucre. Sometimes the first is the best. Richard picked the D train for his poetic ministry filled with commuters to and from Brooklyn and the Bronx who were mostly affluent, trying to avoid the classical woes and desperations of mortality. Richard saw they were souls who needed a boost as much as anybody. He made life in that ineluctable underground world elegant and graceful for millions of people for a decade with his poetry. Nobody had hired him, Richard was entrepenurial; he wasn’t at all about money. He had a mission only he had recognized; he took up his prophetic life with an intelligence singular to him.
Few on the D train knew that Richard also was an indefatigable reader in public schools, ran various intriguing entertainment spas in Manhattan downtown. A deeply modest man who never took up the sinister and chilly machines of any publicity engines, though he rarely spoke metaphysically, always morally, he felt that one of the regulars among the faithful in his audience was God.
If one got close to him rather in passing one got to hear shards of a fantastical life Richard had lived, was still living. Episodic, heroic, adventurous, Richard had had taken plenty of lumps, had even one dent in his head when he had been beaten by cops and prison guards in Chicago during the 1958 Yippie riots. He was a consummate maverick. Yet he spoke about his passing tormentors only in a tone of remote, mild and detached sadness; he never complained. His focus was always severely how justice might be done for everyone on the planet. In arenas of civil rights he was even for succor for the suburban affluent.
Richard was totally fearless, aggressively standing for right action. If there was sometimes a kind of fluid untidiness in Richard about getting things done, he always thought of other people before he thought of himself. He would preach about health remedies while selling water filters for a living; he never noticed what he ate. As a result though physically an athlete, he died at 59, most poetically while taking public transportation, though the B-6 bus while going home, not a subway.
I’ve known lots of brilliant people; Richard was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. He not only had a startling photographic memory; he would continually take the kernel of any thought, bring it three or four steps beyond anybody else. Master of the sound and sense of language. His poetry and fables were at once simple, transparent, yet had both depth and urbane morality. Aesthetically somewhere between Blake and Aesop, using an Afro-American style that derived ultimately from sources in the American streets as well as West African spirituality. Richard was a true peripatetic. Like the lightfooted Hellenes He had a lot of wisdom to teach.
Richard after publishing one book in the 70s became a pure performance poet like his street poet mentor “Bama”. He offered his Art on the fly. As a result his wisdom is now about to transcribe two to three hundred tapes of his performances to collect his later work in writing. It’s hard to evaluate what he did if one weren’t there. I can testify that Richard had more raw facility with words than any body I knew,. He chose consciously to create as radical a departure in rhetoric as this republic has ever had in a long time. Now, debased, smutty, lacking ideas, it’s a commercial banality in hip-hop. He will be remembered as a didactic poet like Dryden and Pope who stood for virtue as well a connection with the past in all people as well as writing in the common language of the present. Of course one can't write about Richard without speaking about the larger man; this is hardly true of all poets. We’d like to know less than we do about most of them. I would guess Richard’s stunning memory led him rarely to write down his poetry. He could recall it all along with the stories and anything else he cared to conjure up; why bother? People with fewer gifts, no moral checks, no other discernable talents were able to make more of an impression in the larger literary world because they accepted the normal way one had a literary career. Richard totally eluded the larger literary world; he seemed to invent both poetry and its uses as well as everything else. Richard was not desperate for fame as some other people are. He assumed with justice whatever he did would be adorned by his gifts. A sterling athlete, a great blues and rock and roll singer, he talked and touched the hearts of everyone. Many people who have Richard’s gifts are short on the capacity for intimacy. Richard was even better as a close friend than he was as a performer. Though he probably championed poetry more than most of the Americana poets of his time combined beyond Allen Ginsberg, his lack of large fame didn’t seem to bother him. Sometimes one loses people whom one had in the first place. Richard was a heroic individualist in a craven time, though he had gone to college, was a real intellectual, rich in his own singular reading and education, articulate in a witty style of his own, he had been a cop in Syracuse dropped because he wouldn’t lie about a Black culprit the police wanted to frame. Richard wasn’t a person to pick his spots for acting with honor. He would tell people in city buses or on the streets not to badmouth women with whom they were intimae when he saw a public marital fight. Richard was wide open, vulnerable, fearless. He once told me that a woman he knew was trashing her ex-husband; he said to her: “You should talk like that; the man isn’t here to defend himself.”
There wasn’t a subject he didn’t illuminate by his passing attention. There was uncannily no sense of struggle in his talents, even in his gifts for moral inquiry. He didn’t seem to wrestle with internal self-contradictions; of course he had them. It was part of his charm as well as his passion for charity and virtue that Richard was an urbane New Yorker, never an innocent.
One of Richard’s main concerns was exploring Afro-American culture. In deep ways the Black concern for a viable nurturing past is most profoundly American. We are a big country of diverse people including our Native Americans who are in profound ways almost mortally deprived of memory. Richard wasn’t talking only about Black culture; he was moving as an American deprived of recall from the uncomfortable specific to the hopeful general. We all want to connect backwards into time to honor our ghosts, to commune with our perished flesh. It was very African of Richard to keep his poetry oral. African poets unless they are influenced by colonialism don’t write verse down. It was very American of him to connect with his African side.
African poets have steely memories, focus on the present, improvise from a lapidary honed craft, savor the always fresh miracle of the instant. African culture isn’t about measured time, calendars, precise sciences of definable substances as the thought of the West is. Masterful at blues and rock singing, many of his verse and stories had a connection with Nigerian roots. It was a typical practical healing direction for Richard. He went straight at the problem.
Richard’s most well known fable, a very long creation myth about a character named Nothing, is very similar both in jocular tone and easy and suave profundity to old African divine narratives, at once humorous and metaphysical. Nigerians have exquisitely personal relations to what we might call their saints, those who inhabit the upper world. The West has a little of it in the first verses of the Book Of Job and some of dialogues bete Abraham and God the flavor of Yoruba sacred lore. Richard’s fables had that divine intimacy and wit.
Richard’s verse was way back in the 70s very much in the manner of the couplets one can hear from the Virgin Islands to Brazil as well as our own American blues that are part of the repertoire of masters of this form. The style, which one only very occasionally sees in any American verse of any kind; it is only a shadow in the blues, more Carolina than Delta. The manner is didactic but humorous, guiding, aiming to crystalize some experience, giving it a pithy unsentimental comedic quality. Richard’s versions of this genre weren’t at all laconic; they were generously expansive. They preached for civil rights or against cigarette smoking with the same good humor.
Richard was a tireless punster. His nimble mind picked up every word he or others said in conversation for its potential lateral significance. Gifted with this allusive imagination that often focused on words as well as images sort of the way James Joyce did, he didn’t let a sentence go by without at least thinking of some pun in the lateral anatomy of language that illuminated the word itself. His puns weren’t random; they might be whimsical. They always enriched the linear drive of the word.
One might ask what value African poetry and culture has to a world that is very aggressively trying to escape into a realm of comforts and machines. Any direction away from the human center invokes follies that eventually bring one back to one’s point of departure as a refuge from the excesses of any linear trek. African culture is crystallized at that center. We aren’t going to escape its message anymore than we can flee our nature. Whether we should want to attempt to escape ourselves at all is a deeper matter; some try, don’t they?
Yet let us not ever think that Afro-America culture is marginal; it’s central. If we think of the metaphysics of Yoruba religion with its three worlds, mischievous divine beings that can move back and forth from them, how we in the middle worlds can implore their aid, we are looking at another version of Keltic lore, the English middle earth of Tolkien, a sense of cosmic place in the world that was yesterday everybody’s religion. When we savor the ten dimensional cosmos of which we perceive only three dimensions according to our current physicists we might well wonder whether Richard in taking up African ideas wasn’t as usual right at the center.
In a curious way the European White colonial depiction of African culture as closer to nature is true. Nature doesn't have a direction, isn’t leading anywhere in a simple linear way, doesn’t have resolutions that end the action of life, hasn’t got closed systems, beginnings and ends. Richard didn’t make a mistake when he re-invented himself as a sort of African living in America; it’s our incapacity as Americans to acknowledged nature, irrespective of African culture, our notion of Creation as a malleable slave, that has made us all at least a little crazy.
Richard didn’t push his spiritual side on anybody; his poetry appealed to everyone, transparent yet deep. Richard wrote with a rhetoric that garnered life from spoken language yet was artfully sculpted. Nurtured in the milk of severe spiritual disciplines he practiced every moment of his life, with someone less gifted than Richard his style could have been doggerel; it certainly walked a tightrope with suave attractiveness, aiming for the witty in the flimsy and filmy guise of the ordinary.
It was never obvious in the 70s that Richard was inventing a rhetoric with both African roots and charged with an urbane modern music that really didn’t have too many American or non-American antecedents.
Richard was not in any way a grumbling or dour jingoist or separatist. He’d talk with people he civilly disagreed with, honoring them no matter how crankish their opinions were. He didn’t gossip or trash anybody; evil and trouble at most roused Richard not to indignation but problem solving or a desire to shoo away vice as one would a mosquito.
I always wondered how Richard had developed from a football star, a game which is all about mayhem, inflicting and taking injury, to this elevated spiritual condition. I never heard how he did it; it must have been a remarkable story. If one were to tell his tale it would be about spiritual growth. I don’t know the details of how from a master of the primal American game of focused violence and big man on campus for it as an high schooler he become an adept at loving his enemy, non-violence, seeing Creation as a complex riddle directed by benign forces. I will miss his memoirs.
Richard’s utter fearlessness as a man defined him centrally. Richard never shrugged or walked away from any dilemma. Walking down the street with him was an adventure, almost scary sometimes; he refused to turn away from anything. He was always ready to joust with evil. He was in my life in this empire that has a science which defines only interest as a human motivation one of the few. I think these are also the qualities that make a poet. Richard helped other people to be brave because he was courageous.
When people saw that Richard stood up for justice, that nothing happened to him beyond a few arrests they became themselves through his example stronger in spirit. That is Richard’s legacy; it is the equivocal benefice of all heros and poets.