Once Berton Braley was among America's best-known poets; two years ago he was unknown to all but a few. Thanks to the efforts of Linda Abrams and the Atlantean Press, though, a collection of his poems is once again available to the public. With a style reminiscent of Kipling, a spirit of joy and adventure, and an acidic wit directed against Roosevelt's welfare state, his poems should delight any lover of liberty.
Driving rhythm and a sure sense of rhyme characterize most of his poems. Many of them celebrate the spirit of achievement, such as "The Thinker," which tells us of
The Thought that is ever master
Of iron and steam and steel,
That rises above disaster
And tramples it under heel!
Such poems as "Song of the Aeronaut," "The Electrician," and "Adventurers of Science" find romance in the emerging technologies and new discoveries of the early twentieth century.
Braley's parody of Kipling's "When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted" makes a Twain-like point about idyllic visions of the afterlife; his "Annie Up to Date" gives us the delightful line: "Or the Bureaucrats'll git you Ef you Don't Watch Out!" But he is also capable of seriousness; "Chant Royal of War" stands apart from anything else in the book in its solemn, bitter tone and its powerful imagery.
In dealing back to the New Deal, he offers sharp-toothed satire. I can't do better than to quote a few passages:
Election promises, glibly spoken,
Are easily made -- and easily broken.
("Fresh Every Hour")
It's anti-social to fail to fail,
It makes our wonderful schemes look funny;
Rush the Traitor at once to jail,
For the son-of-a-gun is making money!
In the days of old, when our souls were free,
We called such arrogance "Tyranny,"
And now -- describe it as what you will,
By any name -- it is Tyranny still!
To be fought with ridicule, laughter, wit,
With gallant courage and dogged grit,
Till we rip in tatters the web that's spun
By the Little Tin Gods in Washington!
("The Little Tin Gods")
In addition to the verses, this book includes excerpts from Braley's autobiography, Pegasus Pulls a Hack. This is entertaining reading, and provides some useful advice on the formulation of verses.
Braley's poems don't go for multiple layers of meaning and hidden subtleties; they make their point openly, and they are fun to read. They practically write their own music; I've already set tunes to two of them, and hope to do more. When the news from Washington verges on hopelessness, it's a pleasure just to flip through Braley's book for laughter and inspiration.
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