Rachel Loden, writing in the last quarter of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st, has developed an approach to political poetry which is unique in American letters. Rather than writing poetry which pursues or supports a political agenda, she has found a way to inhabit the personae of some of the most controversial public figures of her time, in a manner which is partisan but strangely non-judgmental, probing but boisterously comic, in order to examine the social and moral soul of her country and her era.
Rachel Loden was born Rachel Edelson on 27 June 1948, in Washington, DC, at the same time that her father, an actor and radio announcer, was blacklisted. After her parents' divorce and her mother's mental illness, she spent time in foster families. She has been married to mathematician Jussi Ketonen (a second marriage) since 1973. Her great-great-aunt was muckraking novelist Rebecca Harding Davis, and she has credited this family connection with giving her the conviction that, even without much formal education, she could be a writer and produce meaningful work.
Her first book, The Last Campaign, won the Hudson Valley Writers' Center Chapbook Competition in 1998. Her second, Hotel Imperium, the Contemporary Poetry Series Competition winner for the University of Georgia Press, 1999, was named One of the Ten Best Poetry Books of 2000 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and was a Poetry Book Club selection of the Academy of American Poets in 2000. She received a Pushcart Prize in 2001 and a fellowship in poetry from the California Arts Council in 2002.
The American poetic tradition has always had a hard time with political poetry. Walt Whitman in the 19th century, Carl Sandburg and Stephen Vincent Benet in the 20th took on American history and the American character as their themes, but neither Sandburg nor Benet became a model for succeeding generations, and Whitman's expansive line and personal honesty were more of an influence than his approach to politics. Robinson Jeffers' polemical poems were perhaps more of an influence, but not always a positive one.
The lack of a distinctive American political voice became particularly apparent in the post-World War II era, when other cultures had produced poets like Pablo Neruda (strongly influenced by the political style of Whitman), Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Vladislava Szymborska, and most Americans were eschewing political engagement in favor of the personal lyric. The Vietnam era drove many poets to express opposition to government policies, and movements like feminism and Black Power produced strong poetic voices like Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka who found ways to blend the personal with the political. But there remained a sense that American literary culture and political poetry were antithetical outside of the polemic, although W. D. Snodgrass in the 1970s and Carolyn Forché in the last two decades of the century made significant contributions. Eastern European émigré Charles Simic is one of the few who, like Loden, has incorporated the political into a seriocomic world view.
Loden was a "red diaper baby"—a child of parents who came from the political cauldron of the 1930s and '40s. She has described them, in an interview with Lance Phillips, as having"a rather thoroughgoing political philosophy" which did not, however, "seem...to be serving them particularly well as people." She remembers seeing the FBI camped out on her doorstep when she returned from a day in second grade. She has described her childhood as a vantage point from which she could see normal middle class life (mostly on television) and the chaotic life of radical politics and mental illness, the boisterous Jewishness of her father's family and the refined WASPishness of her mother's.
Her own era for coming of age was the 1960s, where she substituted the street life and ferment of New York's East Village and Berkeley, California for formal education. At the same time, she became a fierce autodidact, reading what excited her over a wide range of traditions. She credits the variety of both her life and reading experiences with forging her style and sensibility, which began to coalesce in the 1990s. She was to write her first poem about Richard Nixon, "Premillennial Tristesse," in 1994, as the former president lay on his deathbed. The poet places him on that deathbed; her poem begins "Nixon is slipping / in and out of consciousness..." But Nixon was never to slip far from her consciousness. He appears in many of the poems in her first chapbook, The Last Campaign, and emerges as a fullblown troubled hero in Hotel Imperium. His presence is unsettling and challenging on a number of levels.
First, he's dead, but that scarcely seems to slow him down. He speaks from the grave, or beyond the grave, or in his will, which he writes while "reposing in the Borough/of disposing mind and memory." Loden gives him a humanity and individuality that he may never have had, but must have had. At any rate, he has it now.
Nixon was not a popular figure to the American left, nor to much of the literary community, but Loden never uses him simply as the butt of jokes or diatribes. She is his amanuensis, he her muse, her id, even her lover. In one poem, "Bride of Tricky D.," she marries him, letting neither his being dead nor already married stand in the way of their wedded bliss ("I find/his fierce beard lovely and the shadows/long. Asleep with Pat and Checkers/by his side ...")
If Nixon is not the comic villain of Watergate, nor the serious villain of the blacklists, who is he? Loden's answers, over a series of poems and books (he is also the hero of The Richard Nixon Snow Globe) make him ourselves as much as the other, demon lover as much as scourge of the zeitgeist. With Nixon at the center, Loden spins out her web to ensnare other icons of his era, from Jayne Mansfield to Svetlana Stalin (in the manner of G. M. Hopkins: "it is/the blight you were born for,/it is a century you mourn for") to Little Richard to Philip Larkin, a complex, interconnected and richly comic universe.