Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems 1961-1985

by Ed Sanders
   For Ed Sanders, the phrase “thirsting for peace in a raging century” was definitive of any act that questioned the myriad inconsistencies and injustices of its age; thus it becomes the unifying theme to the six sections that make up the volume. Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century poetically challenges areas of social control, from missile carrying submarines to sexual repression to an investigation of control and rebellion in ancient cultures. In 1988 this volume won the American Book Award. The first section, “Poem From Jail,” was written during the poet’s 1961 incarceration after attempting to board a missile-bearing submarine off the coast of Connecticut. Written on toilet paper and transcribed to sections of cigarette packages, it had to remain hidden because paper, pencils, and, of course, poetry were strictly forbidden in prison. Many of the themes carried through in this volume are established in this first poem.
   As a “sort of secular version of the rather more mystic crawl at the end of ‘Poem From Jail,’ ” “The V.F.W. Crawling Contest” continues the idea that was later articulated in “The Thirty-Fourth Year” that the poet “can’t face life like a fist fight / must crawl down lonely arroyos.” One of his most popular poems, it depicts an epic crawl past vast spaces of American mud, through dumps and fast food restaurants, along litter-strewn highways in the fumes of “rusty monsters roaring past.” At the poem’s end, though near dead, limbs reduced to stubs, the poet has declared victory over the pervasive American cultural machine, saying “I crawled / I groveled / I conquered.”
   By 1973, just as Sanders was working on the first volume of tales of Beatnik Glory while writing many of these poems, he had also just begun his poems for Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Thus, many of the poems also illustrate Sanders’s interest in ancient cultures, specifically the artist rebels of dictatorial Egypt. He explains in the notes that he “was looking for Lost Generations, for sistra-shaking Dadaists in tent towns on the edge of half-finished pyramids, for cubists in basalt, for free-speech movements on papyrus.” As David Herd suggests in “ ‘After All What Else is There to Say’: Ed Sanders and the Beat Aesthetic,” Sanders was looking “for a genealogy of dissent, for a historical angle of vision that shows the Beat project to be not a momentary aberration but a further eruption of a vibrant radical tradition.” He then continues this “genealogy” through to New York’s Lower East Side and on to “a.d. 20,000.” As a final theme that was articulated in Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century, in such poems as “Homage to Love-Zap,” “Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side,” and “The Time of Perf-Po,” Sanders encourages the power of the poem as a historicizing device, where all history should be caught in “sweet nets / of barb babble” to create a “poem zone” used to “love-zap” injustice and “make a New World / inside the New World.”
■ Herd, David. “ ‘After All What Else Is There to Say’: Ed Sanders and the Beat Aesthetic.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 1 (1999): 123–137.
   Jennifer Cooper

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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