The Revolution Is to Be Human
What I remember about Walter was his vast generosity, and commitment to the word. He believed change comes from young people and nurtured friendships throughout his lifetime, encouraging new writers like Clarence Major, Marge Piercy, and Ishmael Reed.
Walter also confronted the New York Times Book Review section, and wrote an editorial called “The White Poetry Mafia,” accusing the establishment of failing to review and publish new Black writers who at the time were getting exposure primarily through Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit, Michigan.
Walter had come from a wealthy family of butter manufacturers, but gave up the soft life to throw in his lot with the literary expatriates in Europe including Michael Fraenkel, Henry Miller and Anais Nin.
Lowenfels, Henry Miller, and Michael Frankel formed a “school of death” in Paris that endured throughout the thirties. Through their writing, they tried to find a way out of the collapse of Western civilization. Richard Aldington was associated with the Imagist movement in poetry and the husband of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). In 1931, Walter shared the Richard Aldington Poetry Prize with e.e. cummings.
Walter returned to the United States in 1934 to direct his efforts toward changing the system and eventually moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During his career, he came under attack by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was convicted with the testimony of paid informers under the Smith Act (The Alien Registration Act of 1940) for “conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence.”
Married to Walter was Lillian Lowenfels who received a master’s degree in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania in 1947. She was called to testify before the Velde Committee, funded by the House Un-American Activities Commission. With typical biting humor she said, “Look, my blood pressure is 260 today. I do not want to collapse here today despite my illness.” While the committee dismissed the threats she was receiving as a result of the publicity surrounding the hearings, she said, “But you are not the mother of four daughters and a granddaughter…” Lillian said that the only reason she had been called to testify was because she was Walter Lowenfels’ wife.
I’d first met Walter during a convention in New York City. During those years I’d attended so many meetings, I can’t remember the particulars, except to see a large hall with bridge tables covered in white tablecloths. It was toward the end of the summer, hopelessly hot and without air conditioning. I was getting tired of speeches. I was a newly recruited youth to the peace movement who had heard of Walter Lowenfels. People warned me about his unconventionality. “Oh, Walter,” they shook their heads.
“Are you Lenore?” he extended his hand. Walter was the associate editor at the time of “Dialog Magazine,” a mash-up of the “New Masses,” which itself was modeled upon “The Masses,” published between 1911 and 1917. Always eager to befriend a young person, he invited me to his house. He was the first person to call me a poet.
He was embarking on a series of anthologies, excited by the success of The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest published in 1969 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. Walter published my first poem which ended with the line, “this bioluminescence still swimming in the dark.” I was excited by the relationship between science and language. So was Walter, an interest that was reflected in many of his poems.
From “Every Poem Is A Love Poem” included in The Portable Walter edited by Robert Gover, International Publishers, 1968:
I am trying to break through this language to get to
without the copperbelt lining that keeps my hope
from exploding out of this typewriter,
desk, window, through the pines, down the
Little Egg Harbor River, across the
Or from The Poetry of My Politics, Volume 2 of My Many Lives self-published in 1968: “My campaign against nostalgia has its base in language, i.e., to use the language of today for today’s emotions: the clean, new, scientific word, woven into the fabric of the poem so quietly the reader doesn’t sense anything but the contemporary pulse modulation. That’s the test of language – that it is alive with today’s electronics – not Ben Franklin’s kite key.”
Between 1966 and 1971 while I attended the City College of New York, on occasional Saturdays I’d take the railroad from Grand Central Station in New York City to visit Walter and Lillian in their Peekskill, New York cottage. Once I’d arrived at the station, I’d call. In a few minutes he’d pick me up in a light blue car, almost shaking his hand loose from his wrist waving to me through the window. Then we’d drive back to the cottage where he parked between several trees, and flung open the front door. Our afternoon had begun.
For hours Walter held court in a kitchen alcove talking about different poets, anthologies he was putting together, the birds outside his window, fruit and cheese, all with equal knowledge. There were books everywhere, piled on tables and stacked on the floor, papers appearing beneath dinner plates and cups.
His most famous anthology was Where is Vietnam, poetic responses to the Vietnam War. He was a hummingbird sampling everything within his field of energy. “Do you know this writer?” he asked. “Do you know this music?” he inquired. I sadly shook my head and accepted whatever he pushed across the table for me to examine, but only able to turn a few pages before he leaped to the next subject.
Walter vibrated with palpable energy, hovering in that conversion place between matter and energy, a black beret angled over a nest of wispy grey threads that resisted encampment. He’d always served me something to drink; lemonade or coffee, whatever was available in the kitchen, a narrow alcove that seemed to have been imported from a trailer with coffee grounds scattered everywhere.
After he returned, he’d point to several photographs on the piano mantle of a dark-haired siren, Lillian. He’d say, “She was so beautiful before she got sick.”
Lillian, daughter of a Yiddish scholar and humorist and who had studied French in Paris, occasionally summoned Walter from their bedroom or emerged herself sitting in a wheelchair. She visited for short periods of time. Lillian had suffered a left hemiplegic stroke in 1958 at the age of 54, and survived for seventeen years despite her smoking for fourteen of them.
According to her daughter, Angela Lowenfels Schwartz, Lillian survived because of Walter’s caregiving. Many people thought Lillian was the more talented writer who supported the family as a linguist and an English teacher. She and her sister Nan Braymer translated French and Spanish poets and produced Modern Poetry from Spain and Latin America, published by Corinth Books (1964).
Although he had been a voluminous correspondent with the writers of his day, by the time I knew Walter, I believed he sensed that his time was short. I often received brief notes from him; it seemed every week, several sentences dashed off in red ink. I can remember him telling me that he did most of his work at night. “That’s when I can think the best.” Frequently, he’d send me messages on some kind of recycled paper, grey on the front and blue on its back and always difficult to read. I have such a packet from him that begins with a poem by Paul Eluard entitled, “To Friends Whose Demands are Exacting.” I’m not sure, at this point, if the poem was his translation, which ends:
…You advance without human aim if you do not see
That mankind needs to be one in hope, in struggle,
In understanding things—in order to transform the world.
Walter sent me off on assignments to do research for him at the Yale University Library about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. When I moved to northern California he gave me the names of several poets, including Alta whose Shameless Hussy Press had been the first to publish Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf.
Although I treasure his anthologies, my favorite book of Walter’s is Sonnets of Love and Liberty published in 1955 by The Blue Heron Press. The later sonnets in the book were composed during the Smith Act trial. He explains in the preface how the sonnet allowed him to play with dialectics—stating a problem and then through the course of the poem—resolving its thesis. He looked toward the development of new forms, and admired Walt Whitman’s “vigorous, unrhymed meters.”
Lillian died on May 9, 1975, a year before Walter on July 7, 1976.
Here’s the beginning of his love poem to her from Some Deaths and entitled, “For Lillian.”
“Let’s get a bulldozer,
plough up every street we ever lived.
Begin all over from scratch
as if it were the first day
we met and you were lame
but I never noticed
because you were so much you…”
I can still hear him escorting her back to their bedroom saying, “Lillian, be careful how you move. You’ll hurt yourself.”