This is the introduction to In the Embryo of All Things: The Collected Poems of Harry Alan Potamkin, the inaugural release of Sightline Editions, a publishing company that I began in 2017 to release books on the intersection of poetry and cinema.
IN THE EMBRYO OF ALL THINGS:
THE POEMS OF HARRY ALAN POTAMKIN
Harry Alan Potamkin is best remembered for his contributions to film criticism, writing for Hound & Horn, Close-Up and The New Masses. He developed one of the first coherent, impassioned bodies of critical writings on cinema, in the daily chore of reviews, in philosophical speculations on the possibilities and applications of the medium, and in a series of essays dealing with the complexities of sound and image relations, what he would come to call the “compound cinema.” Potamkin’s ideal film would elicit all of the potential of the marriage of sound and image, in the dawn of the talkie, to achieve something akin to the character of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is to say, his ideal was a cinema of difficult pleasures arising from a meeting of narrative risk, formal adventure and polyphonic experience. He understood the motion picture as a new art form, one in which primitive bridges and juxtapositions of image and sound could form complex meanings; his writings on the aesthetic dimensions, social responsibilities and narrative powers of film influenced a generation of critics, cultivating the field as a forum for intellectuals to bring their critical acumen to bear on cinema. His contributions sowed the field of film criticism, and his devotion to it is further evidenced by the plans that he set in place to develop film education in America.(1)
Potamkin was raised in Philadelphia, the fourth child of six to a poor family of Russian immigrants, his father an educated man who worked as a fish-seller in the slum in which they lived. A range of formative experiences in his school days led Potamkin to choose writing as his vocation, and he began contributing to his school’s literary journals and newspapers. He was forced to leave the University of Pennsylvania because he couldn’t pass a mandatory swimming test, eventually earning a degree in English from New York University in 1921.(2) Many of Potamkin’s more radical ideas in art, politics and progressive education had come to him as a resident of the Stanton, New Jersey anarchist colony, and he would bring these ideas home to Philadelphia, where he became a social worker in the 1920s. There he served as director of the Northern Liberties Playground, developing programs to teach youth through what he called “educational play,” a Children’s Play Village, in which children more fully realized their imaginative potential, forming a micro society in which the children created and patronized imaginary, self-run businesses. The children also collectively wrote and published a newspaper under Potamkin’s supervision. The Village Gazette featured verse, stories and observations. The American historian Louis Filler offered a personal reminiscence of Potamkin, under whose supervision he, at age twelve, served as an editor of the Gazette. Filler describes Potamkin as a man who invested tremendous time in imparting skills to children, but whose reservation in sharing the full scale of his intellectual life had left the author doubting his teacher’s motives.(3) He nevertheless paints a portrait of Potamkin as a driven, lonesome figure, whose generosity and dedication enriched these children’s lives with skills that might help them attain their creative potential. Such selfless organization was at the heart of Potamkin’s work as a public intellectual and as a promoter of humanist ideals.
While Potamkin’s writings on cinema remain his abiding gift to the world of letters, he was first a poet, writing for modernist “little” magazines and political newspapers beginning in 1920, and continuing until his death. His contributions to modern poetry are dimly remembered vessels of the poet’s indignation and wonder that reflect a range of social and aesthetic beliefs. These poems include meditations on early conflicts between revolutionaries and capitalist society, such as the Haymarket Affair and the Paris Commune; explicit indictments of international anti-revolutionary events, such as Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in the May Fourth Movement and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; and evocations of ancient, mythic and literary figures of contemporary resonance, such as the cyclops Polyphemus, Shakespeare’s Mercutio and the Jewish prophet Malachi and poet Susskind of Trimberg.
Many of his poems serve as despairing accounts of injustice, balanced with calls to action, rubbing his observations of misery and endurance against anthemic slogans (“Dig on, dig in, comrades, / There’s water!”) His rage at injustice was not restricted to the struggles of labor movements: he also wrote an unfinished collection of poems, Spectacle Negre, on slavery, African art and landscape, and the ancient nobility of blackness. And still there is another line of thought in his poetry, a formalist line that speaks of history, love, death, and the aesthetic dimension, and which is anchored in neither the politics of labor nor race. An early example of such a poem is “Dissertation” (1923), from which this collection takes its name, what might be called an inquiry into the reflecting, circulating, syncopating energies of the universe. With one of Potamkin’s longest poems, “Burial by an Inland Sea” (1927), we see this line reach its end, in a sequence of four component poems that invoke funerary rites.
Between 1920 and 1925, writing and editing poetry commanded all of Potamkin’s attention. In 1925, he married Elizabeth Kleiman, who like him was employed as a social worker in Philadelphia. A year later, for a belated honeymoon, they travelled to Europe. This trip had a practical, professional purpose for Potamkin: he had planned to meet writers whose work he admired, to solicit manuscripts for his journal, The Guardian. In Paris, he met Blaise Cendrars, Joseph Delteil and Jules Romains, all writers of difficult, surreal texts, whose interests in filmmaking were growing. Many in their circle, including André Breton and Robert Desnos, were writing mini ‘cinéarios’ for the Nouvelle Revue Francaise. It was on this trip that Potamkin came to see cinema as an art form thoroughly distinct from the literary and theatrical precedents of narrative that it had been forced to mime. From the same circle of artists and writers that he had sought out in Europe came early contributions to an artists’ cinema, in the films of René Clair, Fernand Léger, Man Ray and others. The artistic integrity of filmmakers such as Jean Epstein, Abel Gance and the Soviet formalist school of montage further provided evidence of an aesthetic cinema coming into its own as an art form. Criticism could celebrate and encourage its most artistic manifestations.
Potamkin was, in this sense, reborn alongside the arrival of The Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatization of the Soviet uprising which would serve as a foundational work of an international art cinema. Faced with his new calling to film criticism, Potamkin’s ambitions to the life of a poet, a constant from his childhood into adulthood, began slowly to fade, helped along in its decline by the indifference of literary editors. While he would continue to write and publish poetry, he would do so with less frequency, but the poems that he produced in his final years demonstrate the brave new directions and necessary provocations that he had always aspired toward. He was a man who carried around an excess of reflective learning in a time that demanded action, and he knew it.
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In 1920, Harry Alan Potamkin published his first poem, “Shantung,” written while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. The poem is a response to the May Fourth Movement, a scathing critique of Woodrow Wilson for his role in the negotiations between Japan and China in the territorial disputes surrounding Shandong. It establishes the theme of fatalism that would recur throughout Potamkin’s poetry (the Chinese are “rescued from the lion to be thrown as meat again”) as well as allusions that tie the contemporary event to a more ancient order of heroes and villains. These aspects of his poetry would be further cultivated in his treatment of the Haymarket Affair, the fatal 1886 bombing of a labor demonstration at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant (“four workers slain — / by McCormick the Reaper!”) In “Haymarket” (1932), he condemns those masters of industry, charging that their commitment to iniquity and their rush to conspiracy and murder has caused such strife that they must be forcefully rejected, commanding them, “balance your ledgers and take your rewards, / these are the days of liquidation!” His response to the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, “The Infamous Ritual” (1927), is likewise commanding in tone, a moral redressing of American society for indulging in politically-motivated execution.
His poem on the Holodomor, a man-made famine in the Ukraine fashioned by Joseph Stalin, written in the famine’s first year (in “Fruit of the Strife,” 1932), seemed to prematurely commemorate a coming windfall from austerity that never materialized, in what has in years since been roundly condemned as a brutal Soviet genocide. Potamkin’s obscurantism combines with his ideology to create a tangle of Marxist optimism, religious mysticism and celebratory propaganda. Even if his admiration for such austerity were sincere, there is admission of distrust of “the young man from the Party,” who insists that there is water underground—“dig on, dig in, (…) there is water / to well into sustenance and flower”—there is distrust of he who demands devotion without evidence, he for whom agronomy is not science but prayer and miracle. While these poems are written about events that fall beyond the realm of Potamkin’s immediate experience, they have a desire for relevance, as a form of documental reportage, enhanced by the poet’s allusive tendencies, his ability to draw parallels between labor struggles and other moral conflicts that haunt our histories and myths.
In the mid-1920s, at the same time that Potamkin set film criticism as his primary focus, he began a series of short poems focused on his and his society’s imaginings of Black life and culture. These poems were published serially, in a number of different periodicals, but according to his correspondence with publisher and social critic W.E.B. Dubois, they were intended as a collection.(4) They first appeared in Black newspapers in the late 1920s—The Crisis, Opportunity and The Messenger—through the patronage of poet Countee Cullen and Dubois, among others. Blackness, and specifically, the graphic forms of Black humanity, fascinated Potamkin. In his work as a film critic, he witnessed the widest range of misrepresentations, including grotesque portrayals of fear and stupidity in many “race” films of the era. His writings on the subject, beginning in reviews of poets such as Cullen and Langston Hughes, and later refined in aesthetic criticism of films and art, were where his aesthetic and social beliefs were most entangled. Potamkin saw the social conditions and aesthetic character of blackness as largely indivisible, and as such, his take as a poet fluctuated between radical, liberal and paternalistic. Consequently, the poems, though no less a result of earnest fascination and blazing empathy, still formed out of humanistic love, are often less effective than his Marxist ‘reportage’ poetry. Spectacle Negre adopts a tone of praise, even envy, of blackness as something nearer to godliness. The poems are most effective when they are portents and hymns; at their most compromised, they are too well-intentioned to incite contempt.
But that rage that haunts Potamkin’s reportage poetry, in which we as moral beings stand united against the predators—Pinkertons, company men and their ilk—is often present in Spectacle Negre, with Potamkin serving as a self-appointed revolutionary agent on behalf of Black humanity. The strongest of these poems, such as “Black Prophet,” carry that same fatalistic sensibility that began in “Shantung”: the poet sees in the other the certain and deserved reckoning of an oppressive society. Thus, blackness bears simultaneous wisdom and innocence, attuned to the knowledge of the ancients by suffering and faith. Potamkin traces Black suffering from lynchings and plantations to the darkness of the African jungle, dreams of pagan gods and the exotic threats of lions and snakes. The misfortune of Spectacle Negre, and the likely reason that many of its component parts were left unpublished and are now lost, lies in Potamkin’s necessarily ambiguous, unresolved ideas of blackness, which alternately engage the ‘noble savage,’ the image of a distant, alien tropic, and the plastic qualities of both the African totem and the Black body. While these aspects of the poems allow Spectacle Negre to collapse into gross exoticism, ultimately Potamkin sings out, here as elsewhere, the inherent, neglected humanity of the oppressed. It is surely for this power that the Spectacle Negre poems found their first audiences and publishers in Black intellectuals such as Cullen and Dubois.
The political dimensions of Potamkin’s poetry would reach their apogee in his final year, 1933, when he completed two poems, “Merchant Marine” and “Mecklenburg County,” for The Daily Worker. These poems indicate a direction Potamkin may have taken in his poetry had he been able to continue. Both were examples of what he called Workers’ Correspondence Poems, a style of found poetry that Potamkin had begun to develop, with text drawn purportedly from letters to the Daily Worker and the Marine Workers’ Voice, reshaped with the unmistakable articulation of Potamkin’s bookish revolutionary.(5) Both poems are anchored in anecdotal narratives, each a story of injustice, the vernacular and vividness of each account providing a formal position from which Potamkin extends and contemplates their themes. “Mecklenburg County” is inspired by a letter from a Black farmer from whom a promise of ownership over the land he has been tending has been revoked by the White landowner. Through balladic repetition of the site of this dispute, “In Mecklenburg County, in North Carolina,” the conflict is made immediate, contemporary and as unmistakably American as the slave plantation. “Merchant Marine” takes as its source a letter of complaint about the misdirection of employers over the compensation of a ship’s crew, culminating in a call to arms, that men of all colors and tongues unite in Red Corners to make these harbors home to their philosophy, to oust the capitalist accountants who would deny an honest wage for honest labor. By choosing as his source the passionate yet casually phrased correspondences of workers, Potamkin had found an approach to poetry that would allow him to chant slogans in a borrowed voice, changing his role as poet from creative actor to creative assembler, presenting these accounts in their own vernacular, locating and exploiting their intrinsic structures and motifs.
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Potamkin’s approach to difficult, mystical modernism had bled into and enriched his labor anthems and race poems with allusions, dynamic structures and a certain stiffness of voice. But there remains a distinct body of poetry that took as its ideal the path of aesthetic exploration and rumination, following in the steps of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, drawing upon the gods and politics of the ancients, literary history and the more arcane obscurities of autobiography and intimate experience. While many of Potamkin’s politically explicit poems were published in leftist newspapers, the bulk of the remaining poems were published in little magazines like The Fugitive and Tambour, and in the Jewish literary magazine The Menorah Journal. They often appeared alongside writings by other American and European poets and writers of the Lost Generation, and as that term implied, the journals were radical in their diversity, moving in many directions, a cauldron of shifting influences, moral and spiritual fascinations and bruised dogmas. It is in these poems that Potamkin cuts a lonesome figure, writing in the borrowed tongues of aesthetes, deeply in the shadow of Pound and Eliot, out of step with his comrades and fellow travellers.
His poems do not fit naturally with the movements that had clearly influenced him—writing in the tall shadow of the Imagists, and in the midst of the new-forming Objectivist poetry—largely for the unpredictable perpetuations of style throughout the texts, shifting within poems from metronomic, rhyming structures to free verse, and drifting in his debts between earnestness and parody. The strongest of these poems follow Pound not only in their deep obscurity and stylistic construction, but in Pound’s debts, to Fennalosa, to the Spanish Provencal poets, to the faults and inventions of vernacular diction. In other words, Potamkin writes not only as a poet indebted to a slightly older order of poets, but in the path of the critic-poet, after Pound and Eliot, in an era when that role was increasingly ceded to the past, and the reigning order was becoming, at least in his Red corners, that of open protest, unambiguous language and eternally accessible meaning.
There is an unmistakable sadness and isolation in his tongue, which in the pages of Black and Marxist newspapers stands at such certain odds with the poems that keep it company: plain odes to labor, fastened against injustice, tending toward literalism. However, it is also by this debt that Potamkin later makes such powerful integrations of slogans into his poetry, for he had already mastered the rousing, declarative tone so studied and profound in Eliot, specifically Eliot’s Prufrock, and in other championed modern poetry of the 1910s. That Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), with its harmonies of myth and contemporary life, arrived early in Potamkin’s life as a poet had an undeniable impact upon Potamkin’s ambitions. So often, these poems mirror the despair of The Waste Land, its classicism, its mixing of heroic couplets and enjambed lines, pitched between certain and broken syntax.
It is neither Potamkin’s politics nor his style alone that set him at odds with his peers and editors. The Objectivist movement in poetry of the early 1930s had in its ranks many poets, such as George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky, who shared a great deal of common territory with Potamkin: their interests in classics and myth, their Jewish heritage, their Marxist politics, their formal structures evolving out from under, among other things, the ideogrammic approach and other methodological inventions of Pound and his peers. What is more, the Objectivists, like Potamkin, were met with open hostility by literary society for not fitting the mould established by their contemporaries. The major distinction that set Potamkin out of step with his contemporaries in the tradition of difficult modernism was his divided loyalties between popular and classical renderings of experience, as well as his stylistic inconsistencies that trade voice from line to line, not necessarily by design but by a distinct splitting of the poet’s perspective between academic exercise and earnest force of will. It is useful, therefore, to consider Potamkin’s poems not only as evidence of his inner life, motivations and aesthetics, and as evidence of his shifting and ambiguous idealism and morality, but as acts of love and outrage often unmoored from the comradeship of a scene.
The Malidon poems (1923–24), published in The Fugitive, describe a figure, Malidon, first as the picture of vitality, “Singing Life Noble and Complete,” subject of the narrator’s admiration; and then, as a husk of his former self, “ensnared, betrayed” by vitality, sunken into sterility and awaiting death, defeated by “mischievous element / that twists all meaning to its own defeat.” In “Malidon,” the contrast between narrator and Malidon is stated plainly: “Singing his large, eager Yea / To my small, flaccid No.” Potamkin followed “Malidon” a year later with “Disintegration of Malidon (Post-Mortem),” concluding that “Malidon said Yea, but in a quiet voice, the voice of praying.” The poems are cautionary and observational, making pointed distinction between narrator and figure, to declare this invention not as a double of Potamkin, but as an ideal; that ideal is destroyed by the forces that fell those of curiosity and preternatural grace, “wonder wise,” vessels to the muse of poetry. An appetite for beauty fades to inner doubt and desperation. The former poem casts Malidon as an outspoken, eager force, and the latter, as silenced by disillusionment, awaiting slaughter. Such disillusionment is sustained by the heroes of Potamkin’s poems to follow, for instance, in the titular “Hubert” (1928) who tells his gallows choir at the hour of his judgment, “My heart, singers, is an empty church.” The ideal, as given in “Malidon,” is elsewhere echoed in “Aesthete” (1927), which presents the poet as cursed with the burden of aesthetic experience, a force of epic transformation.
Among the most difficult and experimental aspects of Potamkin’s work arrive in speech forms, often in direct derivation from Pound and Joyce. For example, “Collyridian” (1929) takes its name from an early Christian heretical movement in Arabia, which worshipped the Virgin Mary as a goddess. It is a poem of goddess imagery, both Christian and Hellenic, but it also bears out the vulgar speech forms that people Pound’s Cantos, a strong Irish brogue, stuttering rites. A similar use of vernacular speech occurs in “Between the Sheets” (1925) collected here under its revised title, “Will Craigie to Will Craigie (Between the Sheets),” first published under the pseudonym Will Craigie in the Potamkin-edited little magazine The Guardian. The poem uses Irish vernacular consonant with—perhaps in tribute to—Ulysses. Its revised title implies it as self-directed monologue, that the narrator declaring “Will Craigie the boy!” is Craigie himself, an invention of Potamkin’s, who through the course of the poem speaks as a phantom of sleep, of ambiguous menace.
Those of Potamkin’s poems that are joined definitively to the Jewish intellectual tradition (for the most part published in The Menorah Journal) are of the most heightened mystical and historical obscurity, with cabalistic and medieval allusions mixing with contemporary reflections on faith and wisdom. For example, the titular Radanites of “Cargoes of the Radanites” (1924) were a class of Jewish merchants who served as neutral messengers between Asia and Europe, and as trade operatives between the Christian and Islamic worlds, in the early Middle Ages. The Radanites maintained a monopoly on the spice trade until their disappearance in the tenth-century, when the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the destruction of the Khazar Khaganate made trade routes unstable. Potamkin offers the Radanites as paragons of the worker, as they voice a proud declaration of the mercantile life, trading in goods and slaves, an anthem that gradually assumes the form of a list of goods. The everyday stuff of their trade routes thus combines with a romantic portrait, one that casts the tireless labor of the Radanites as heroic in itself. In “Susskind of Trimberg” (1925), Potamkin casts a multi-planar portrait of Susskind, the thirteenth-century German-Jewish poet whose Jewishness is a dominant theme in his own poetry. Potamkin’s poem is one of dramatic shifts that set the figure of Susskind at odds with the abusive demands of Christian society, responding to their commandment for a “war-cry” by singing instead “of the planets, the wonders of space, / God that is glory and God that is gleam.” In one of his first published poems, “Malachi” (1922), Potamkin likewise turned back toward Hebrew iconography. Malachi, whose Book aimed to direct the Israelites toward grave austerity and devotion, gave his prophecies as a corrective to the declining social and religious values experienced in post-exilic Jerusalem. Potamkin’s poem offers a Malachi whose contemplations have plucked his beard clean, to be reassembled as a shroud, woven by “the ladies / who loved to smooth / the soft and silken / swandown.” His citations to prophets and poets are in hand with his fascination with esoteric, theosophical method: “Cabala” (1928), like “Malachi,” returns to the stroked beard of the mystic—the beard of Macroprosopus, which bears the principles of divine mercy—as an act of contemplation and of semi-comic self-destruction, with ‘the young cabalist’ stroking his beard in violent agitation. His act of stroking his beard defies its principles, and his prayers are eventually met by the “voice from the pools of Paradise,” in which wisdom entwines with mercy.
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In the early 1930s, Potamkin began to supplement his income by editing and writing texts for socialist publishers aimed at a young audience. This work resulted in two books, Our Lenin, a biographical account of the revolutionary leader written for children, and the Pioneer Song Book, for the Young Pioneers, a communist youth organization, which is reproduced here in large part. The illustrated component of these publications links them to the poetry captions that Potamkin had begun to provide for editorial cartoons in the early 1930s. Included in this volume are one for an Abe Birnbaum cartoon on the occasion of Herbert Hoover’s medal to crooner Rudy Vallee (for ‘prosperity’), and another, a series of Valentine’s Day ‘jingles’ of ironic address. Both were written for the New Masses. While the captions demonstrate Potamkin’s timely wit, the lyrics of the Pioneer Song Book show another dimension to Potamkin. The project involved, for the most part, the writing of revised lyrics to traditional children’s rhymes (“Jack and Jill,” “Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son,” “Hickory Dickory Dock”), a mission for which Potamkin could draw from his considerable experience as a social worker and teacher. The Pioneer songs are songs of joy and confrontation, ranging from the pleasures of brotherhood and togetherness to rage at oligarchs, cops, scabs and strikebreakers. Like so many lyrics written for children, they are cautionary songs, to strengthen the sentiments familiar from the homes of the pioneer youth, that cops and capitalists did not have their best interests in mind, that to be a scab or strikebreaker was an irreversible betrayal. While the lyrics of the Pioneer Song Book do not reflect the heights of Potamkin’s artistic ability, they do show his humour, the humanity with which he taught children, and the passion of his beliefs. Without the ramparts of obscurity that had characterized his strongest poems, and saddled with prescribed rhymes and rhythms cribbed from the oral tradition of nursery rhymes, Potamkin’s Pioneer lyrics nevertheless demonstrate his playfulness with language, at once clowning, savaging capitalism, and fortifying the social bonds of youth through that primary communion, song.
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Harry Alan Potamkin died in the summer of 1933, at age 33, in the aftermath of a hemorrhage that had kept him in hospice for the final month of his life. He had been suffering for three years from an ulcerated abdomen. Upon his death, an obituary notice credited to W.E.B. Dubois noted that “because of his devoted and understanding service to the cause of the working class, he received a Red Funeral … the first time a non-Communist Party member has been given a Red Funeral.” At the time, he was not only a prominent critic with Marxist sympathies, but also served as the secretary of the John Reed Club in New York, a major socialist organization with strong organizing and publishing activities. Kenneth Rexroth, then an emerging poet, five years his junior, was in attendance at Potamkin’s funeral. Rexroth had been a peer of Potamkin’s, had known him not only for his work as a film critic, but as a fellow poet, one whose contributions to the field of modern poetry had been routinely rejected by the Left press, who dismissed the allusive and mystical obscurities of his poetry as anti-populist. Potamkin’s Red Funeral was attended by hundreds. Rexroth later wrote that “small-minded intellectuals who had accused Potamkin of obscurity, who had called him a metaphysician, who had said he was incomprehensible to the workers, were dumbfounded at his popularity.”(6)
“What happened to Potamkin?” Rexroth asks this question in “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1953), a poem composed in response to the death of Dylan Thomas, a reckoning against those forces in society that are “killing all the young men […] every day.” Though Thomas’s death offered the occasion, Rexroth reflects broadly on the fates of the many artists destroyed by society, dying in poverty, ravaged by addiction and illness, their blunt deaths in tragic contrast to the force of their inextinguishable character. This question about Potamkin is put to the reader blankly, posed alongside many names. Potamkin was a fellow traveler, one who, like Rexroth, had devotions to the obscurities, codes and myths of art, as well as to the empowerment of the worker. These devotions hold within them contradictions to many—the perceived ‘elitism’ of allusion and indirection, the demand for populist expressions to support people’s movements—but Harry Alan Potamkin understood both humanitarian concern and aesthetic experience as not only equally worthy of his commitment, but inextricable from one another; that in his odes to Jewish mystics, his songs of Black experience, his semi-autobiographical inventions and his ballads of labor activism both historical and contemporary, there is an overarching, common gesture, a collision between language structures and social structures. In his poetry, the reason for this equation becomes clear: the dread tidings of workers at the hands of ledgermen, and the ethos to strangle the ambiguity and depth from art, are related impulses, acts against love, a market phenomenon that benefits only the greedy and selfish and that punishes the vulnerable.
After his death, Potamkin’s “Proposal for a School of the Motion Picture” was discovered among his papers. The Workers’ Film and Photo League organized the school and named it for Potamkin as the Harry Alan Potamkin Film School, offering courses in theory, production, history and criticism. The instructors included Ralph Steiner, Lewis Jacobs and Irving Lerner, among others.
Virtually all that is known of Potamkin’s life is charted by Lewis Jacobs in his introduction to The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin (New York: Teachers College Press, 1977).
Louis Filler, “Play and Circumstance: A Reminiscence of Harry Alan Potamkin,” Midwest Journal 3:2 (1951), 22-27.
Among the poems submitted for Dubois’s consideration (to be published in The Crisis) was one titled “Dahomey Potentate,” the typescript of which is now missing. Potamkin, Harry. Letter from Harry Alan Potamkin to W. E. B. Du Bois, February 21, 1927. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
Potamkin’s workers’ poetry was credited, in The Daily Worker, as the first to use workers’ correspondence as its basis. Other examples include anti-modern Bolshevist poet Mike Gold’s ‘proletarian realism’ poetry, such as “A Report from the Dakotas,” and Tillie Olson’s “I Want You Women Up North to Know,” efforts dwarfed by Charles Reznikoff’s epic Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative and Holocaust (1934–1979). The gesture of absorbing a common voice is also found in the myth of Joe Gould’s An Oral History of Our Time and in the texts of Harry Partch’s Barstow—Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow California (1941).
Kenneth Rexroth, “The Function of Poetry and the Place of the Poet in Society,” in World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, ed. Bradford Morrow (New York: New Directions, 1987), 2.