Excerpts from the interviews (Chapter 1)
the trees so overladen
their limbs seemed
to tell us by their gestures
of relief at being picked
Freeman: One of the more difficult aspects of this poem for me is all the political references. They begin to come hot and heavy in today’s session. I’m glad that, before we get to them, we can begin among the Winesaps.
Peter: Yes. This is a kind of a bucolic interlude in the poem, if you like. I wasn’t planning this consciously, but the section supplies the kind of pastoral element that is so often present in an epic poem.
It’s about the village of Compton, where I used to visit my rural cousins…
During the war, most of the Compton men were away in the army. Even though I was then only from thirteen to sixteen years old, all those wartime summers I was needed in Compton to pick the apples. The apple trees were bowed down like this [gesture], you take the apples off, and the branches rise back up as if they were saying, thank you.
Then the evening, everything was so quiet in those days. There were few cars out. No civilian cars were manufactured for the length of the war. These were jalopies that were mostly made in the ‘30s, and more and more of them died. You have to have lived in a snowscape to know how quiet the world becomes when there’s heavy snow, no traffic, and the snow somehow drinks all the sound and absorbs it.
I say, “Why shouldn’t everyone be able to do this?” Although I haven’t had terribly much agricultural experience, I really actually believe all of us city dwellers would be healthier if we had a shot of agricultural experience, as I did in Compton and recall here.
Sometimes it’s not so easy. In this section I remember a much later week of absolutely exhausting stoop‑labor. I was hitchhiking. I had no money, on purpose. I had left home with only five dollars, to see what it would be like to survive with no money and no ID.
Before I knew it I was in Ontario picking tobacco, which I’d never done in my life. I was actually priming, the hardest work there is in a tobacco field, because it’s stoop labor. The prime leaves are the ones at the very base of the plant. You have to pick those leaves and put the leaves into the boat, which is a very narrow cart being pulled by a horse between the rows.
You’re done for if you can’t keep up with the boat because you have to put the leaves in it. Out of the nine of us who started working in that field, almost half were gone after one or two days. It was very hard work. I only did it for one week. I have absolutely no ambition ever to do it again, but I’m very grateful that I did it.
I think everybody would understand the whole social structure of society if they understood what the braceros, the immigrant labor from Mexico, are doing here in California in the cotton fields and so on. It’s very hard work.
Freeman: That part probably doesn’t come into other epics of the past.
Peter: Maybe not.
Freeman: They evoke the bucolic, but they don’t take the next step the way you do here.
Peter: That’s a nice thought. Ezra Pound evokes the bucolic, but he never writes about stoop labor.
Freeman: Nor does he go on to talk about the refugee nephew of Freud.
Peter: Yes. By the way, I consider my mother to be a co‑author of this poem, in a sense, because as I have said earlier, it took almost a decade to finish it. When I first wrote this section it probably ended with the girls in the shade, singing Hungarian songs, which was very nice. My mother said, “But you know there was a darker aspect, too.”
I said, “What do you mean?” and she told me about Freud’s nephew. My mother told me about it on the phone, and I went back to the typewriter and re‑wrote the section, adding the information that he had settled just outside of bucolic, idyllic North Hatley.
He was a pacifist. He hurt no one. He was very popular in the village, even though his English wasn’t very good. But he got into a problem with people who hunted on his land. After he objected, someone shot and killed him. The coroner in the village exonerated the shooter.
My mother was a very astute, wise woman, and she didn’t allow any sort of cant in this poem. She made sure that I didn’t over‑praise primitive rusticity, because it has its down side.
* * *
such was the academic
language of Professor Fifield
Freeman: This is one of two places in the book where there are words blacked out.
Peter: That is correct.
Freeman: Can you explain what that was about?
Peter: First of all, I’ll repeat what the language was…By the way, if anyone has the Canadian edition which came out first, it’s not blacked out in the Canadian edition.
Just before it, I have been quoting Professor Fifield’s words about those members of the Indonesian officer corps who rebelled against Sukarno in 1958, which sound as if he was encouraging them to rebel again. It’s very polite academic language. But when he was saying that these people cannot “be overlooked / in Indonesia’s future,” the only way they could get into Indonesia’s future would be to throw out Sukarno. So here’s an American academic sanctioning rebellion in Indonesia, in a book written for the Council of Foreign Relations.
Then I say, “such was the academic / language of Professor Fifield / not in any indictable sense / a war criminal” (the eight words blacked out in the U.S. edition). Then I go on to Guy Pauker.
Before I discuss what happened with the American edition, let me say that it was a great honor to have had this book published by New Directions. And, in a more personal way, to have been selected for publication by James Laughlin, who created a press which promoted so many great names of American modernist poetry. But the New Directions lawyer, when he saw this poem, sent me quite a long memo raising questions about 20 places in the poem, and I had to defend them all. This section was one of two sticking points he wanted me to rewrite, but I said, “I’ll do better than that, we’ll just black it out;” and so we did.
— from Poetry And Terror: Politics and Poetics in Coming To Jakarta, by Peter Dale Scott and Freeman Ng, Lexington Books, all rights reserved.