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.
Robert Dunn grew up in Rego Park, Queens. He must have been a formal, earnest kid with a waggish strain. I doubly whether was ever casually amiable in a street way or as they says, one of the boys. There was nobody in his family who had a life or career in the creative world. Robert was a middle class kid. Both he and his brother Jacob were always overweight to a severe degree, Even in youth both had the heft and heavy breathing of people who were enormously chubby.. They weren't bad looking.
Both the Dunns were six feet tall, wide shouldered men who had a ruggedness and substantial physical presence their mother was tiny and didn't seem as if she was ever more than mildly plump. I never met their father. He was dead by the 80s. The Dunns were a Queens Jewish family with an Irish name that must have confused the world they lived in. I think Robert told me his father had been working class. If he was, he made enough money in the 50s to live in a well off part of Queens. Between the two brothers Robert was the smart, dapper one. Jacob had a heavy quality; Robert for all his weight was even mercurial
Of the five boroughs of New York City Queens is less than Staten Island a refuge from the three more urban boroughs: Manhattan, Bro0okyn and the Bronx. People who were brought up in Queens were more suburban and laid back than anyone growing up in the three central boroughs. Queens had been along with Brooklyn and the Bronx a series of small towns that had been amalgamated on a late 19th century day by the top politicos in the borough. One could still see in much of Queens the main streets of the old villages ..
It might have been tough for both of the young Dunns as kids given their adipose condition. Jacob became a bus driver for the MTA. He died of a heart attack at 37. Robert was not as fat as Jacob. He did go through periods when he was relatively less portly, going on long strict diets. I suspect Robert's weight did give him a sense that he was presumptively not physically attractive to women. I think he himself was attracted to the wrong women. Many a woman would have found Robert very good to have in their life. he was honest, honorable, competent in a thousand ways, and as much as he had it, family oriented. It might have occurred to him that if he as a powerful wheeler dealer in the poetry world he might have seemed more fetching to the eccentrics in it; that is mere conjecture. There are plenty of fat people after all who've never tried to be that powerful. Yet it is sometimes the intent of people who feel for one reason or another they aren't good looking to find ways when they are intelligent and armed with mature skills as Robert was to make themselves more intriguing as lovers than they might be otherwise. Robert wasn't a narcissist. If anything he was self critical to a fault If any woman wanted virtue and honor in a man they didn't have to look further than Robert.
Robert had unlike his more transparent brother Jacob a kind of detachment that protected him. He was very smart and very familiar with all the conventional icons of his time. There was nothing intellectual about Jacob. Robert- one always called him Robert at his insistence- never wanted to be known as Bob. He wasn't a populist. He was a philosophic Tory. I think he was politically quite Conservative. He sang and palyed the mandolin. He was in the poetry world something of a singularity. His model , he said, was Samuel Hoffenstein. He admired Dorthy Parker and FPA of the New York World of the 1920s. He had some of their sardonic swagger. Like them Robert was never sentimental, had a tendency to take up parody, deflation of notions he found fashionable but venomous to the intelligent mind.
Robert was not only very family oriented but a good friend. When his brother Jacob died of a heart attack Robert became an active uncle to Jacob's two children. He made the career as poets of several of his friends as well as many strangers possible . He was to many people what some call an enabler. He took care of his aged mother, giving her a room in a one bedroom apartment he lived in. He slept in the living room, He was at bottom a very charitable and righteous man.
Robert took a Masters Degree in English, worked at the airlines for awhile, afterward s took a job at the Department of Buildings as an inspector. It was the perfect job for a poet. he was in the field most of the time. Robert col be on the street and on his own without supervision. It paid his bills and allowed him to be a rogue. He talked about both the airlines and Building inspector careers as something he did with competence but not with enthusiasm. For somebody original as he was Robert had a very practical side that kept him thriving in the practical world. He wasn't a Liberal aristocrat with a talent for desk work. He knew a lot about printing, computers and video making without being a severe techie. Given his great and broad intelligence there wasn't anything in the world he couldn't master as much as he need to make some craft of use to him.
Robert surfaced publicly as a poet in the early 80 as a reader in The Centerfold. it was the premiere West Side spa for reading verse on a Friday night. That's where I met him. He was like nobody else in this posh Upper West Side agora but didn't seem to notice he was very different than the other poets who frequented this refuge in a stone temple on 88th Street, looking like a Roman sacred edifice near the Hudson River. Robert never showed any signs of being iconic among this crowd. They didn't know what to make of him He was a comic writer of light verse among poets who as often as not weren't aiming to produce comedy or anything light and urbane.
During this time Robert hooked up with Bob Abramson of the New Press. As Robert waggishly put it, the New Press was the only poetry magazine to be founded n an insane asylum. Bob Abraham had indeed been committed to a Manhattan Lower West Side loony bin for mild schizophrenia and was also some kind of Christian Holy Roller. Bob Abramson decided while sitting in this receptacle for lunatics that if he ran poetry readings at odd bars in Queens he could garner a slice of the receipts and pay for his tastes in food while never leaving his father's basement. Bob was a Millennial before the generation existed. As Robert described him, he had no other reason to get intermediaries to run this improbable events in deep Ridge wood and beyond. They were very quiet places in which nobody had ever heard of a poetry reading. They were more familiar with drinking. One of them The Wine Gallery, in Forest Hills had a pathway to the men's room that everybody took after drinking the liquors at the bar while the readings were gong on.
. Bob , the eminence gris living in the cellar off his father's house in queens,took his slice.. He was gimpy, bald, and very eccentric. He had an echoing booming voice like an old radio announcer. He didn't seem crazy and delusional in conversation as much as rigid and lacking in any nuance in his thinking. He was sort of a crank. Yet he seemed sure of his heard edged ideas. His family didn't know what to make of him. He definitely want going to make any money. I would imagine Robert worked in the New Press initially because he wanted to learn the poetry business and liked to fill a role doing it at an inept but real organization. As it turned out it was a point of departure for them.
Yet he stuck with it for several years. For those same several years one heard form Robert at length how crazy and inept “Abramson” was. Considering that Bob Abramson was a certified lunatic that was hardly a surprise. Robert's criticism of Bob was fundamentally that he didn't know how to run anything. They had many an imbroglio yet Bob's ineptitude gave Robert a chance to learn the business of running a magazine and having some outreach in poetry readings he wouldn't have had were Bob less ineffectual than he was. For a time these two were in grudging symbiosis with each other.
However the New Press when Robert finally took it over was a magazine and movement far beyond anything Bob Abramson could have imagined. Robert made it a base for his video program Poet to Poet. He actually traveled to bases and spas as far as Delaware to do a television show. Poet to Poet featured Robert the way the Tonight Show was centered around the iconic image of Johnny Carson. Many poets including myself were on the show but were at times asks to be straight men for Robert's raucous humor. Of course they were glad to get any attention from anyone at all. One can't blame Robert for featuring himself on a show he had produced from scratch. he would have been the first to say he was promoting himself, the last to mention his natural generosity. Besides that, Robert was genuinely funny. His guests were free to start their own television program if they wanted to do it
Robert's confederates in this Queens movement were Thomas “Pepper' Patterson, Anthony Scarpantonio , Lorrissa Smailo and Leigh Harrison among others. Alter he had Harry Ellison on the editorial board. They were all different. They ahd a place in Robert's poetic phalanxes. Pepper was a singular likable rogue with a Don Juan flair and a sense of being a tough guy and a poet. He was short, stubby and slightly hunched over. He grew up in a neighborhood in which he had to be able to fight . He had had amputated legs and could barely walk. He was a particularly amusing talker. There were many very talented Queens poets who were happy to work with Robert. If Poet to Poet featured Robert as a television comedian more than poetry, he was good at it.
Off the screen Robert was very bitter abut lack of support of others in his fie. He vilified Bob Abramson and Karen Horne in extended critiques I suspect were motivated by deeper feelings about his absence of help from others in an existence that was more solitary than he wanted it to be. Karen Horne,a very nice lady, was not one whom Robert should have been interested in character logically. She was a practicing witch, had a large collection of pet rats in her Bronx apartment and was in all ways quite an eccentric. She was a very intelligent woman with strong talent for poetry as well. Yet she had qualities that were completely outside the range of Robert's understanding of the margins of human action much less his interests. The odor of the pet rats alone and their intimate amiability when one divisive her apartment should have suggested to him he was in territory in which he was never going to be at home. Actually Karen' rats were quite charming if one didn't mind the stink of the place. She was pretty, lithe and blonde, all qualities which might have clouded his judgment. One couldn't imagine Robert hanging out casually with these rats.
Robert did better with male friends. Anthony Scarpantonio and Toms “Pepper Catterson were eccentrics too but they were devoted to Robert and the New Press in a way the lone gunslingers like Karen Horne never was or could be..
Robert's love life or lack of it always distressed him. For a while he was involved with Karen Horne. She was a very good poet and pretty, from Georgia, and a pagan. I don't know what they had to talk about seriously. In retrospect Robert called her “Jezebel”. Yet curiously he didn't exude passion of a sentimental nature that many woman find attractive though it often lards over character flaws he didn't have . I don't think it ever occurred to him to show such emotions if he had them. It wasn't a side of him if it existed that he wanted to offer anybody.
As he passed forty Robert tried to lose weight and solve some of his personal dilemmas with a discipline that maybe wasn't good for his health. He went on a long crash diet and worked out in gyms with weights. I suspect bad hearts ran in his family. He died after a workout in a Manhattan gym at 44.
Robert left behind him a fairly large volume of mostly light verse that wasn't appreciated much by the poetry world around him. They were people largely into free verse personal confessions. Robert didn't feel he had anything revelatory to confess.. he was a master of many poetic forms; they were often people who had never studied poetic craft. His models were amusing newspaper poets the more earnest poetry world had never heard of. Even his strong presence and formidable variety of adult human skills might have put them off. He was tolerated by these peers beyond his Queens allies because the poetry world is good at the mild dismissive turn that comes with general uncritical toleration. Underneath this acceptance is a feeling that since the whole of the interest in financially worthless it is acceptable to include anybody in the social mix.
Robert and I were friends if not quite intimates, friendly colleague rather than soul searching buddies who knew something about each other's inner lives. He was several times at my house for dinner , I was in his home and knew his mother. I accepted that Robert was too formal to offer intense intimacy,. It didn't mean that he wasn't in his way honest and transparent. He was always carefully dressed in a suit jacket even in warm weather. We were both anti-sentimental poets who were aspiring to be funny and amusing We both were musical and played various instruments fluently. I could be blue; Robert never was blue. We were both formally educated with master degrees though that was hardly by our choice the side of us anybody ever saw much of. Robert didn't like my Mouse poems because he suspected they were sentimental. Actually they were based on the speech patterns of my children. He detected in that imitation some sentimental emotion that was in fact there .I never thought of these poems as sentimental. Robert saw sentiment in them because he was protective of himself in a more severe way than I had been.
Along with Robert Bailey and Bob Holman,all natural leaders like himself with good head for effective production, the interest of promoting poetry as an element of life Americans should value Robert pushed his television show and personal apprentice outside New York as hard as anyone could. Bob Holman was a radical populist; Robert was a Conservative. Yet they both aimed for the same crowd outside the liberal aristocracy. Robert's show was modeled Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. He wanted very much to make the case for poetry in popular terms. His own verse was always intelligent, amusing and witty.
At his death at 44 Robert hadn't quite done that. Like Bob Holman he produced a very interesting show but nobody in the commercial world picked up on it. I concluded that if Robert Dunn and Bob Holman couldn't put poetry on the cultural map of America, nobody could do it..
It wasn't all that much of a leap to see for different reasons Robert or Bob Holman has very engaging popular personalities who were marketing poetry as viable entertainment. Both men did the work necessary to make this pitch. The commercial world didn't pick up on either of them. I
Robert was for all his difficulties in marketing poetry, a genuine poet and leader. He knew how to do every detail of his productions. He didn't ask anybody else to do what he could have done himself. On the other hand this lack of passion coming into his life from others focused his energies on his poetry and creation of a delivery system through the New Press for others as well as himself . Robert wasn't planning to die in his middle 40s. He certainly took the message of the value of poetry to as many people as he could, much as Bob Holman did. His achievement will be honored by anybody who appreciates his humor and singular talent.