John "Gunboat" Pauker
Credit: Portrait by William Mapes, from In Solitary and Other Imaginations (The Word Works, 1977)
All men are brothers
Like Cain and Abel.
This couplet constitutes John Pauker’s entire
“Brotherly Poem,” and encapsulates both his idealism and
his bitter realism. He helped more poets and writers around the world
than anyone else alive in his time. Some were American, and free to
write as they wished and to travel on international cultural exchanges.
Others lived under threat of imprisonment in their own lands. Many were
young and little-known, others older and revered, often neglected and
persecuted by their country’s establishment.
Pauker was born in Hungary and brought to New York in 1924, but many
of his relatives died in the Holocaust. His working life took him to
many continents, so he knew first-hand man’s cruelty to his fellows.
Pauker embodied the beliefs of Albert Camus, that it
is a writer’s duty to speak for the unknown prisoner at the other
end of the world, and also for his fellow writers, especially that seemingly
endangered species, poets. Thus Pauker not only promoted countless poets
and writers, but helped to save the lives of several, such as Solomon
Deressa from Ethiopia and Arnost Lustig of
Czechoslovakia. Pauker rescued them, and helped them find university
jobs and publishing outlets during their exiles in America.
“But every poet is in exile,” he protested one afternoon
as we discussed with Arnost Lustig their mutual dilemma, what Jean-Paul
Sartre termed “liberté en situation”—or
as I see it, the ability to derive the best from whatever mess life
has imposed upon you. And in his working life Pauker was to interview
Sartre, and many another prominent thinker.
Yet Pauker, who surely did the most ever for poets and literary audiences,
occasionally created a mess in his own life. Or he appeared to play
the clown and prankster sporting various madcap outfits including, in
his college days, a green cape setting off his hair then as bright red
as his sparks of inspiration.
Whittemore in his memoir Against the Grain (Dryad
Press, 2007) describes Pauker at Yale: “…a fine disrupter—though
not exactly political. Pauker dramatically proved where he stood in
relation to Yale’s freshman establishment by plotting one Saturday
night to lock up the whole class of ’42 right on the freshman
campus, which was one square block enclosed by walls and gates. Yes,
he brought chains in order to incarcerate them all there on a quiet
“What a spirit that hero had…Unluckily the campus cops caught
the hero as he sealed the last gate.”
His was a double mask: the mask of comedy hid the tragic. If he sometimes
acted the wild man, however, he was a most erudite, effective and generous
individual who, from his youth, assembled interesting mixtures of people,
cultures, ideas and situations. In more serious mode, Pauker was editor-in-chief
of the Yale Literary Magazine. With Reed Whittemore and Jim
Angleton–the three remained friends for life–he
founded the pioneering literary magazine Furioso, to which
they persuaded Ezra
Pound, e.e. cummings, Archibald
MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Wallace
Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Richard Eberhart,
John Crowe Ransome and other notables to submit their
poems and essays on poetics. Pauker served as one of Furioso’s
editors for seven years, and later served on the boards of Carleton
Claire’s Voyager, and other journals publishing
innovative writers and poets known and unknown. Officially and/or personally,
he embraced and promoted us all.
His own poems could be satiric, preposterous, angry, bitter, on occasion
lyrical, but always interesting, thought-provoking, sometimes terse
Dear God, I try to keep You honest. But
I look to You to do the same for me.
Other poems are long-winded and declamatory, as in the bulk of his diatribe
against American consumerism and bureaucracy, Angry Candy.
As he wrote, “In order to make art you have to scream/ From time
to time.” His favorite epithet “Gunboat” suited him:
he was ever a small tug with big engine perpetually chugging upstream.
He contributed to over thirty literary publications big and small around
the world, and gave more than fifty “shows” in 67 cities
of 27 countries, in universities, libraries, schools, and cultural centers.
Yet he encouraged other local poets to perform with him, and always
shared the limelight with others. In his other guise as an actor, he
performed in little theater and big, and played in operas.
For he was highly educated and knowledgeable on international as well
as literary affairs. He grew up speaking and eventually translating
seven languages. In World War Two he served with the Office of War Information,
broadcasting from Algeria to Europe, then served in the US Army, later
lived in Berlin. This had quickly become the era of the Cold War, Soviet
Occupation of Eastern Europe, and injustices on the home fronts of not
a few nations. Pauker worked for fifteen years for the Voice of America,
which parachuted him in to cover the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. One
can imagine that slight figure in shabby trench coat slipping through
the dark and dangerous streets of Budapest, clutching notebook and microphone.
Among other jobs with the United States Information Agency, he served
as public affairs officer during John Kenneth Galbraith’s
tenure as U. S. ambassador to India. On his own initiative, Pauker brought
together Indian poets of various linguistic groups whose only common
language was English and set them communicating with each other and
with the outside world.
During these years with USIA, Pauker pulled many strings and spun a
veritable cat’s cradle of literary networks around the world.
He directly and indirectly organized formal gatherings which brought
internationally-known poets together with local ones in many countries.
Among the American poets he arranged to have serve as Volunteer Overseas
Speakers and for whom he organized readings and meetings with their
peers abroad were Reed Whittemore and Stanley Kunitz
in Moscow, William Meredith in Bulgaria, and Allan
Ginsberg in India (this proved a bit disconcerting when Ginsberg
undressed while reciting his poems). Likewise James Dickey
upset his Brazilian hosts by chasing winsome local Lolitas under the
Most of the American poets whom Pauker sponsored on these cultural exchanges,
however, behaved, enlarged audiences for American literature and the
poets’ own appreciation of other countries’ cultures. Via
that indefinable subcutaneous instant understanding that poets and musicians
can feel with one another even if they barely understand each other’s
languages, they made personal friends in communities around the globe.
Pauker also organized readings and meetings, both formal and informal,
in Washington for poets and writers visiting from abroad. Some were
well-known and invited to read at the Library of Congress, universities
and other cultural venues throughout the United States. Others were
little known to most of us. When he had other official duties he sent
Bengali poet Nissim Ezekial and a string of Eastern
European poets and editors over to my house for lunch and hours of conversation,
and our correspondences sometimes continued for years. The contacts
enriched our lives and spread their own fame as “Gunboat”
Pauker mixed them with new generations of local poets at his stone house
on Porter Street in Washington.
Modest on the outside, the Paukers’ More Fun House was a sultan’s
palace—or junk shop— of objets-d’art, curiosities,
books in many languages, and avant garde paintings picked up—bought,
received as gifts, or swiped magpie-style—in their travels and
assignments abroad. In turn John and his wife Pam (whom he called Shoo-Shoo
and encouraged to write a few poems herself) were gloriously hospitable
to dozens of guests, and to one at a time. We sat on the floor or up
the stairs, our elders on elegant antique chairs, to listen to each
other read poetry and to discuss international affairs as we feasted
on meals that miraculously materialized. We were a delightfully mixed
bag at those soirees. Without any fanfare of noble statements, in the
process the Paukers, along with Betty
Parry, another great promoter of poets and poetry series,
brought together Washington poets of diverse backgrounds, and in effect
helped desegregate what had been a de facto if not de jure
segregated Southern city. They were friends-of-poets not only in a formal
but a very personal way.
Thus Pauker was the first friend whom I phoned in star-struck excitement
one morning in 1973 to relate that a few moments before, Al
Hackl, the editor of Acropolis Books had accepted my first
book of poetry, Tightening the Circle Over Eel Country. I had
phoned my then-spouse at his office with the news, but he’d only
muttered “Sorry, I’m busy,” and hung up. But Pauker
shouted over the phone, “Run right over this minute and I’ll
open the champagne!” I literally ran the six blocks to the More
Fun House for his now bubbleless champagne and leftover peanut butter
cookies at ten am. He knew the thrill of acceptances and invitations
to perform. He remembered the day his own first book, Yoked by Violence,
was accepted by Alan Swallow Press in 1949, as well as the many other
acceptances by Poetry, New Republic, Beloit, New York Quarterly,
Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Carleton and other literary journals.
He was invited to read his own poems as well as his translations on
the second evening of Betty Parry’s innovative reading series
at the Textile Museum in 1973, and was instrumental in advising her
on the invitations to various foreign and local writers. Among the other
“regulars” at his soirees, in addition to the Poetry Consultants
at the Library of Congress such as Josephine Jacobsen,
Robert Hayden, Stanley Kunitz, William Meredith, Howard
Nemerov, William Jay Smith, and Reed Whittemore
were Alan Austin, Robert A. Brooks,
Grace Cavalieri, Bill Claire, Shirley Cochrane,
Flint, Siv Cedering Fox, Nancy
and Mary Frances Hardison, Richard Harteis,
Leffler, Al and Barbara Lefkowitz, Eugene
Sklarew, Octave Stevenson, Henry
Taylor, Ed Weismiller, occasional Significant
Others, and kaleidoscopes of figures who were or would become influential
in and out of the literary and occasionally official worlds.
Later he was to arrange my own travels as a Volunteer Overseas Speaker
during periods when I would anyway be in Brazil, the Far East and the
Balkans. When he was requested to entertain two apparatchiks of the
Soviet Writers’ Union, he passed on to me his Open-Door Policy
of hosting a bilingual and sometimes iffy mix of foreign and local writers
and poets and an audience who might come merely to observe as well as
Pauker also knew the despair of non-acceptance. Arriving in New York
as a small, skinny Jewish five-year-old, he must have known intolerance
first-hand. His father, however, became a successful literary agent
for movie scripts, and Pauker was able to attend Fieldston School and
Yale, from which he graduated “with high honors.” (Not so
long before, Yale had infamous quotas for Jewish as well as other minority
applicants.) And when he retired from USIA in 1975, it was as chief
policy guidance officer.
This background is perhaps another reason why his poems could emanate
such bitterness at bureaucracies and prejudices, and at the same time
he was propelled to reach out to people of all backgrounds. He was especially
interested in presenting writers from Eastern European and India to
the world, but also novelists such as Chinua Achebe
of Nigeria and the Francophone writers from the African continent. He
was versatile, whether hosting an important visitor, acting the good
gray bureaucrat (on occasion), reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library
or to elementary school children in Washington or Tanzania.
With one hand he quietly helped unknown and indigent writers to survive,
though with the other hand might swipe flowers from someone’s
yard as he walked past. Thus he knocked at my door one spring morning
and grandly presented me a bouquet of frilled purple-black tulips, rare
but they looked vaguely familiar. Later on my way down the street I
spotted the very clump of broken-off stems in my neighbor’s garden.
Too late to protest, only time to forgive. For Pauker could be deliberately
shocking, flaunting convention, a government official of international
stature, a friend bursting with joy and great ideas, spontaneous, lovable,
thoughtful, and entertaining all at once.
He loved to entertain, and the bottle was always uncorked for the unexpected
guest. But he took too many a swig himself. His marriage to Pam was
disintegrating. Toward the end, every step of the staircase was littered
with books and manuscripts, loose pages of his plays and poems, unopened
envelopes, unanswered letters from famous writers, ignored utility bills,
dust. The glorious potpourri of his castle became inglorious disorder
from which he could not seem to extricate himself.
He died at home in Washington at age 70 “of congestive heart failure.”
An understandably congested heart, filled with so many delights, a world-ful
of individuals, and so many agonies. At least his memorial service,
held at the house of fellow poet, O.B. Hardison, and his wife Mary Francis,
was crowded by his many friends from the literary community as well
as from diplomatic and government circles. We toasted him into the night.
Pauker’s total of fourteen books include Yoked by Violence
(Alan Swallow Press, 1949), Excellence (1968), In Solitary
And Other Imaginations (The Word Works, 1977) and Angry Candy
(Pigiron Press, 1976). Four volumes of his collections of verse were
published in the United States, one in Iran, two in India, and a book
in France. His play Moonbirds, adapted from Les Oiseaux
de Lune by Marcel Ayme, was produced on Broadway,
and his translation of The Dukays, a Hungarian novel by Lajos
Zilahy, was for six months a nationwide bestseller in the USA.
I looked, and looked again. There were no people.
The people had disappeared. The people were gone.
But the things they had created were still there,
A suit of clothes and a gown walked arm in arm
With a dog at the end of a leash. The dog was there
And snarling. In the street, vehicular traffic
Flowed as usual but without drivers or riders.
Inside buildings, doors opened and closed.
Cigarettes smoked, telephones rang, receivers
Slammed as usual, and on television
Something of all this showed, but without people.
--The fifth of scotch went on diminishing.
Electric razors razed and revolvers fired
As Usual. The things went through their paces
And seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely.
I longed to look in a mirror but did not dare.
The Word Works, Inc.: http://www.wordworksdc.com/oop_books.htm
New York Times Obituary: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE0D61F3FF936A15752C0A967958260
Special Collections at the University of Maryland, American Literature:
15 books and chapbooks include Real Toads; Awaiting Permission
to Land; and In Haste I Write You This Note: Stories &
Half-Stories. A writer, poet, editor, translator and frequent teacher
of creative writing, she is long associated with Washington Writers’
Publishing House. Ritchie has lived and performed, as Pauker did, on
all continents, and likewise has a special interest in foreign and dissident
Published in Volume
9, Number 3, Summer 2008.
To read more by this author:
Ritchie's Tribute to Betty
Parry: The Memorial Issue