John "Gunboat" Pauker (1920-1991)
Elisavietta Ritchie

BROTHERLY POEM

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.

Reed 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 Sunday morning.

“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 Miscellany, William 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 as in:


HONEST POEM

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 grand piano.

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, Ann Darr, Roland Flint, Siv Cedering Fox, Nancy Galbraith, O.B. and Mary Frances Hardison, Richard Harteis, Rod Jellema, Merrill Leffler, Al and Barbara Lefkowitz, Eugene McCarthy, Ethelbert Miller, May Miller, Jean Nordhaus, Linda Pastan, Robert Sargent, Myra 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 listen.

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.

SURPRISING POEM

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.

Links
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: http://www.lib.umd.edu/litmss/holdings.html

 

Elisavietta Ritchie's 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 writers.

 

Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.

 

To read more by this author:
Elisavietta Ritchie
Ritchie's Tribute to Betty Parry: The Memorial Issue