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The Poet
in Philadelphia

by HOWARD FAST

(For Walter Lowenfels, guilty under the Smith Act!)

The poet found guilty wrote poetry,
and his old heart hammered,
poor wracked machine, the most ephemeral of ephemeral flesh,
squeezed to send out such a passionate cry of love and hope!

If you would investigate again the mystery of man,
The highest mystery,
beautiful, gracious, and sweet as honey,
discover then how with life so brief,
precious as it is fragile and tormenting,
a man will give it away
because he hears the tears of pain
drop from the eyes of other men.

A country makes a poet,
and even when youth is bitter,
and dry and hard the bread,
there are some who have to sing.
We were singers,
and America was our mother.

A mother sings to the child,
and the child grown, remembers,
wandering, remembers, and searching, remembers,
and when youth is gone,
the memory is still a golden glow.

Our whole song was America,
born so violent in childbirth's revolution,
rich and horizonless,
and purple mountains' majesty
across the fruited plain
was engraved on our hearts,
with all the jingle jangle
telling us
that freedom was wherefor and whyfor
a patriot laid down his life,
and regretted, dry-eyed,
that he had but one life to give for his country.

We made a song,
song of the gutters
and the dry-brown earth of the dustbowl,
and the rivers blocked with the fruit of the plains,
grain burning while men starved,
and we who were children then
clung to the mile of boxcars
like insects cling to a stick of cane,
going and coming,
for if there was nothing here,
there was still the purple mountains' majesty,
beckoning across the fruited plain.

It was a new thing for a poet to make his stanzas
out of a picket line;
and hear music in the plain speech of plain people,
and others heard,
the world heard,
head up–listen to the sweet sound
that comes from the sorrow of America.

Yet we were mighty in our sorrow then,
and our song was a song of hope,
and in the dark places of the earth,

we saw tyranny and hated it.

The poet in Philadelphia was found guilty.
I know how his old heart constricted,
beat faster.
Will it go now?
Will the stabbing pain come,
the knife edge of death,
does the heart speak, whisper,
cherish me, easy and gentle,
and let me rest and beat easy,
and put away your ego about how big your heart is;
a heart is only so big,
and where is a heart in one man to beat for all people?

Here in a courtroom
where a poet is found guilty
of conspiring to teach and advocate,
teach and advocate and conspire,
or in Galilee, see, the teacher comes,
rabbi, they called Him,
which means teacher in old Hebrew,
that the evil men do in evil places,
high places, and in the temples too,
shall be overthrown and done with–
the cross hurts only when you are nailed to it.

And in the night that fell on my own land,
sweet land, sweet land of liberty,
a wall was made and a roof,
walled in, roofed in,
technically perfect and technically soundproof,
with clever openings
for conditioned voices,
obedient patter and chatter of those
who had never conspired to teach and advocate.

The punishment is imprisonment,
five years of darkness,
and you are put away from the sight of man,
and talk to yourself and sing to yourself, poet,
poet! damned, damned filthy stinken lousy poet,
dirtying the American way of life.

And the poet, found guilty, wrote poetry,
walled in, roofed in,
wrote poetry of sunlight, full of the laughter
of little children, through the wall and through the roof–
head up, the world listened,
heard the sweet sound
that comes from the sorrow of America.

Look at America,
deeper than the Pentagon and the White House
deeper than du Pont Chemicals and General Motors,
past McCarthy and McCarran
and eighteen laws to imprison men forever,
for one hundred times five years
and a hundred times more
for any minor infraction
of the new order,
the order of hate and horror,
fear, indecency and terror,
the order of the atom kings and the oil kings,
the killers and drinkers of blood,
past them and deeper,
deeper to the heart and the song–.

And ask where the heart of the poet finds its strength,
if not from America,
the poet in Philadelphia,
guilty of conspiring to teach and advocate
the brotherhood of man
in the city of brotherly love.
And listen to his old heart,
weak and tired,
listen to the beat,
the timely, measured, splendid beat,
the pounding, surging, raging beat,
the beat of dreams made words,
where the grapes of wrath are stored,
where the grapes of wrath are stored.


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