Greek Theater: a poem

Posted in poetry on February 28, 2013 by admin

UPDATE: a final draft of this poem has been posted here.

The following is a new poem by Peter Dale Scott, which he is posting on this blog in order to solicit public feedback for future revision. Here is his message to readers of this post:

For the first time in my life, I am publishing a Final Draft of a poem on the Internet, with an invitation to viewers to record, not just their likes or dislikes, but also specific comments on the poem where they think it could be improved. The period for possible changes will continue for a few weeks.

Eventually I hope to post a hypertext version of the poem with the sidenotes and other parts of the poem linked directly to relevant source or background material.

My very great thanks to my friend and collaborator Freeman Ng, creator of this website.

— Peter Dale Scott

Note: a second draft of this poem has now been posted, here.
And a third and probably final draft here.


How Mario Savio Changed My Life

But in diverting the city’s desires another way instead of complying with them…
that is the only business of a good citizen.
— Plato, Gorgias 517 B-C
It has taken weeks
of unsettled half-awareness
for me to recognize
the student wrestled to the ground Cohen Freedom’s Orator 213
by six policemen in uniforms
a baton menacing his neck and tie
(an arm across his throat
to keep him from speaking) San Francisco Chronicle December 9 1964
on the cover of this book
about how J. Edgar Hoover
slipped lies to the San Francisco Examiner
advancing the career of Ronald Reagan Seth Rosenfeld Subversives 212-13, 227
is Mario Savio
on the stage of the Greek Theater December 7 1964; Rosenfeld Subversives 224
wrecking the well-planned closure
of the assembly called to proclaim
an end to the protests and sit-ins
of the Free Speech Movement
and the inauguration
of a new era of freedom under law Rosenfeld Subversives 223
by an ambitious professor Cohen Freedom’s Orator 213-14
hoping thereby to become
our next Chancellor
who defended the war on TV
and is now less googled
than his daughter a language poet Leslie Scalapino
The anticlimax when Mario
came back out to announce
there would be a Free Speech rally Cohen Freedom’s Orator 213-14
on the Sproul Hall steps Rosenfeld Subversives 224
up-ended my own planned life
I was just a few yards away
at the same camera angle
one of those who had urged
the students to trust
the decency of those in power
my head then filled with Anglo-Latin
verse from the ninth century
why the return of a cuckoo in spring
spoke to the heart
expressing aspirations of friendship
more deeply than Virgil could Scott Alcuin’s Versus de Cuculo
and did more to invent Europe
at a higher level —
Christianus sum I am a Christian
non possum militare I cannot make war – Acta Maximiliani 1.3
than the battle stopping the Moors
on the banks of the Loire
two different kinds of power
as I had seen in an iconic moment
alone reading Plato’s Gorgias Plato Gorgias 503-21
in the Ambassador’s huge bed
when I was chargé d’affaires in Warsaw —
the power of persuasion
and that of the nightstick – Cf. Arendt Between Past and Future, 93
the first a traditio
so precious and fragile
I gave up all those frills
(my chauffeur        that flag up ahead on the limo)
to help preserve it in a university
Well – little could I foresee
how Mario in an instant
had changed me from a Latinist
into an activist
no longer a mere spectator
(as I had been five days earlier
when the students filed into Sproul Hall
singing We shall overcome) December 2 1964; Rosenfeld 216-22
that same evening I spoke
at the crisis faculty meeting Cohen Freedom’s Orator 214-15
and only one month later
my first public appeal
to get troops out of Vietnam
which though I could not know it
was doomed to help end
my evenings with Milosz
debating the right English
for what is poetry
that does not save
nations or peoples? Milosz New Collected Poems 78
a heartbreaking loss at the time Haven An Invisible Rope 69
but not one that deterred me
as much as the crazy violence
that broke out on all sides
the gates opened
to a decade of tear gas
from Filthy Speech to Prairie Fire Smelser Reflections 30-38
and the struggle between
two kinds of decency
one struggling for an end
to racial hiring
in the local supermarkets Rosenfeld Subversives 176-77
one that of the U.S. middle class
who did not want their kids dropping acid
or cursing Amerikkka Ruether America Amerikkka
and so when given a chance
voted for Ronald Reagan
the great persuader Broder Washington Post 6/7/04
(who bankrupted Gorbachev) Mann Rebellion of Ronald Reagan 248
while Richard Aoki
as a paid FBI informant
armed the Black Panthers Rosenfeld Subversives 418-19, 421
But once one has seen
a student’s cheek under a boot
as an example of freedom under law
and a vivid pantomime
on a political stage
of the two kinds of power
one has to choose between
the power of the Internet
versus the killer drone
either the troops with DEA equipment
who massacred dozens of students
at Thammasat University in Bangkok Scott American War Machine 127
and the cop who thanked Howard Zinn
for his talk to the Police Academy
then pled with him desperately
to please leave the antiwar blockade
before a little later
battering him with an outsized club Ellsberg A Memory
or the power of nonviolence
which changed the American South
and expelled Russian troops from Poland Schell Unconquerable World 227-31
encouraging me to search
at the limits of language
in the spirit of Mario
for new Socratic energies
(grounded on those hints
of human freedom
encoded in our DNA)
at a higher level
than the Occupy movement
still struggling to break free
from the habits of the past
that less than a year ago
led the UC campus police
to arrest my colleague Celeste Langan
after dragging her eight feet
by her hair Robert Hass New York Times November 19 2011



Acta Maximiliani, ed. H. Musurillo. The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.Hannah Arendt. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

David S. Broder, “The Great Persuader,” Washington Post, June 7, 2004,

Robert Cohen. Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Daniel Ellsberg, “A Memory of Howard Zinn.”, January 27, 2010,

Ralph J. Gleason, “The Tragedy at The Greek Theater,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 9, 1964,

Robert Hass, “Poet-Bashing Police,” New York Times, November 19, 2011,

Cynthia Haven, ed. An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011. Contains Peter Dale Scott, “A Difficult, Inspirational Giant.”

James Mann. The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. New York: Viking, 2009.

Seth Rosenfeld. Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Rosemary Radford Ruether. America, Amerikkka : elect nation and imperial violence. Oakville, CT : Equinox, 2007.

Jonathan Schell. The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2003.

Peter Dale Scott, “Alcuin’s Versus de Cuculo: the Vision of Pastoral Friendship,” Studies in Philology, LXII, 4 (July 1965), 510-30,

Peter Dale Scott. American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

Neil J. Smelser. Reflections on the University of California: From the Free Speech Movement to the Global University (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).


16 Responses to “Greek Theater: a poem”

  1. Dear Peter,
    Thank you for this beautiful and important poem. I love the voice of the poem and how you juxtapose the history and the immediacy of the clash between the “two different kinds of power” (are there just 2?), as well as the deep politics in the background. “human freedom/encoded in our DNA” between Socrates and Occupy is unexpected and wonderful. And thanks for humanizing the cop who beat Howard Zinn.

    • Thank you, Cassie.
      As for how many kinds of power — it is like animals. There are thousands of species, but one can still make an important distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates.

  2. Murray Silverstein Says:


    This is particularly moving to me, as I, too, was there at the Greek Theater that day, with Marsha. Yes, that moment was transformative. That was the day when, for many of us, the wheels came truly off the wagon. And to be young, etc, as Wordsworth says….

    Thank you for remembering and using memory so powerfully. You, like Mario, “encourage me to search…”

    The several stanzas after “my head then filled…” are especially wonderful.

    I don’t have much to offer by way of specific critique, except, perhaps, to say that the end (of the poem) came abruptly, left me wishing for a little more, perhaps linking some detail again from that day, “in the spirit of Mario…” with the recent dragging by the hair.

    Much love and all best,

    • Hi Murray,

      Thank you, especially for your choices of what to like.

      As for the abrupt ending, your phrase “left me wishing for a little more” gratifies me. (Others agree with you, by the way.)

      It reminds me, and hopefully might remind you, of explications of Brecht’s alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt), defined in Wikipedia as a “distancing.” leaving the dissatisfied audience “empowered on an intellectual level both to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world, which was Brecht’s social and political goal as a playwright.”

      But I may be just rationalizing the abruptness. What do you think?

      • Murray Silverstein Says:

        Peter, Re my quibble about the ending, its needing more closure: I love the way you put it in your email: “…whether I am fulfilling a justifiable creative poetics, or just giving an excuse for a shortcoming.” What a great, delicious question! And who can tease out such things? My predilection (in a poem) for a little more closure, a little more snapping the lid down with a click–is that my fear of the messy, the real, the ongoingness of it all? Perhaps. Shakespeare’s audiences (and readers) experienced deep and vibrant closures and maybe that’s why, per Brecht, there was never an English Revolution. And yet I’ve sometimes wondered if today’s restlessness today with closure, with strong musical endings, that is to say, the desire to leave the poem open via B’s “distancing” is an evasion of the simple fact that while language itself is an ongoing open system (one prays), individual utterances within a language, our poems, are better mirrors of our lives if they too like us begin, middle and end.

        What think? Am I off the track here? Maybe its the mirror, the mimetic, vs the flame of hope, of What Could Be. What’s art for, in other words.

        Anyway, it’s great that you’ve opened your poem in this way—may it add to and enrich its making!

      • I agree with Murray about the ending, but don’t think it’s a question of closure or Brechtian alienation. Rather, my problems with it are far more mundane.

        The first is with the simple rhythm of it. It just *feels* too abrupt, and I think this is an issue independent of what it actually communicates. Whether or not you decided to leave the reader wanting more, the lines would still have to have an appropriate flow. (Or to put it another way, there’s a difference between lines meant intentionally and skillfully to sound unfinished – like the end of Coming To Jakarta III.x – and lines that aren’t quite polished enough yet.) Of course, this is a very subjective judgement, and it’s already beginning to fade from my awareness as I read the poem over and over and get more used to its rhythms as they are, but I think I have to trust my initial take.

        My second problem was that the Celeste Langan incident wasn’t the best one to end on. Of all the examples of that kind of power, I felt it was the weakest, and that it didn’t do anything to sharpen or deepen or even undercut or otherwise do something interesting right at the end of the poem. I think you mentioned in an email that it did function to show the old kind of power hadn’t disappeared yet, but that revelation seems small and even obvious to me. (i.e. the poem as a whole does nothing to really work toward it.)

        • This is worth thinking about, but not easy. Both of us deem to have gut feelings about the ending, and this time, for now, our gut feelings don’t seem to be in sync. I plan to ask my poetry group again about this. MEANWHILE, I’D LOVE TO HEAR IF ANY OTHER READERS HAVE AN OPINION WHETHER THE ENDING IS TOO UNFINISHED, OR NOT.

        • I woke up at 4 AM this AM, and thought about your inspired comparison
          of the ending with that of III.x in Jakarta. Very helpful.

          How about something like:

          still struggling to break free
          from the habits of the past
          we saw just a year ago

          the UC campus police
          and my colleague Celeste Langan
          a Wordsworth scholar

          dragged across the grass
          by her hair Robert Hass New York Times November 19 2011

          (last three lines all in italics)

  3. Hi Murray,

    Your provocative comments have tempted me to hang another bauble or two on this overloaded Christmas tree, as follows (interpolating between Reagan and Aoki). What do you think? What does anyone else think?

    voted for Ronald Reagan
    the great persuader Broder Washington Post 6/7/04
    while I discomforted

    by the screeds of the Situationnistes’
    plans for Paris 1968
    plastered on the outer walls

    of Cody’s bookstore
    You have to kill a horse
    on stage to remind these people Scott Rumors of No Law 43

    and began to write like Brecht
    whose Entfremdungseffekt alienation effect
    leaves you wishing for something more

    while Richard Aoki
    as a paid FBI informant
    armed the Black Panthers Rosenfeld Subversives 418-19, 421

    And this is why.

    Did Brecht really say that –that because of Shakespeare’s resolute closures, there was never an English Revolution?
    There was such a revolution (in my book) in 1688, and Shakespeare may have influenced it, just as Milton is said (in someone else’s book) to have influenced the American Revolution. But it remains true that Shakespeare both raises powerful voices of dissent (even regicide in the case of Hamlet – a very dangerous topic then) and then also puts them behind us in his closing scenes.

    Compare the endings of Hamlet, Lear, or The Tempest with the ending of The Good Woman of Setzuan. With Shakespeare there is closure; we are satisfied; the work becomes internalized in us; we become wiser. With Brecht the end is unacceptable; we are dissatisfied; we csnnot identify with what the actor says; we feel left outside somewhere else; and we become angry. For this reason I much prefer “alienation effect” as a translation of Entfremdungseffekt, rather than the softened academic rendering as “distancing.”

    I was much more influenced then by Brecht than now. The English Revolution of 1688 now seems to me a better model for the future than anything that ever came out of East Germany (or Paris) in the Savio years.

    But maybe I should prepare in this way for the ending of the poem in the middle, by confessing how Brecht did influence me then.

    • Murray Silverstein Says:

      To Peter (and Freeman)

      I’m finding both the poem and discussion very interesting!

      No, Brecht did not say that about Shakespeare. I made it up, with your, Peter, having reminded me about Brecht’s desired alienation effect which I recall learning about, too, years ago. I haven’t ever thought about it in these terms, as it relates to poems, so thank you for pointing the way. I now want to see Mother Courage and King Lear back to back!

      And, yes, I do think the new section, mentioning Brecht etc works: I like the way it sets up the end.

      I also have to admit I didn’t know about the significance of 1688 in England. So now I want to argue that Macbeth left its audience thinking there’s got to be something better than monarchy! I guess, contra Auden, I want poetry to make something happen!

    • My thoughts on the addition:

      – It brings in more of your personal intellectual history, which I like.

      – On the other hand, it kind of “orphans” the Richard Aoki stanza, and while I don’t understand the politics of this stanza enough to know how essential it is, my poetic impulse would be to just cut it. The resulting transition from the end of the Brecht section to the beginning of the final rhetorical section of the poem would be quite pleasing:

      and began to write like Brecht
      whose Entfremdungseffekt
      leaves you wishing for something more.

      But once one has seen
      a student’s cheek under a boot
      as an example of freedom under law

      – It doesn’t really address any of my concerns about the ending, which I’ll post in a separate comment since they aren’t really relevant to this new material, which I generally like.

  4. Dear Peter,

    I read your Mario Savio poem, glued to each line. For me you do at least two things — recreate the courageous awakening of conscience that was going on at Berkeley in the Fall of 1964 and also describe how a change of heart, a radical change in perception, can occur as quickly as a flash of lightning.

    It could be a poem about watching Christians under attack by wild animals in the arena in second century Rome. The quote from St Maximillian summons up those times.

    Re the comments from others: The sudden ending — the image of your colleague being dragged by her hair — is not too abrupt for me.

    I have my own memories of the Sproul plaza once it became a space for speakers and rallies (1966 or 67?). I spoke there one afternoon about refusing to be part the Vietnam War. All I can clearly recall is that I ended with the words: “Resist, resist, resist!”

    A question: Why did the change that occurred in you in that period damage your relationship with Milosz?


  5. Dear Jim,

    A short answer to your question about Milosz is that he disliked my antiwar activism, and perhaps even more my participation in ghe counterculure of that period. See my essay in the cited book by Cynthia Haven, An Invisible Rope, of which the following paragraph is an extract:
    “Then in the fall of 1967 Milosz attended a rally where I spoke on the same platform as Noam Chomsky. At our next meeting he said stiffly that he could understand my remarks, but he could not forgive Chomsky’s — meaning, I suppose, Chomsky’s broad-brush denunciation of all American foreign policy. Chomsky, he said, was “the kind of intellectual who weakened Weimar.” In those days I still believed in the robustness of American democracy; thus to compare America with Weimar seemed far-fetched to me; and I brashly said so. Since then I have become more concerned by the divisions in American civil society to which left-wing intellectuals have contributed. “

  6. Dear Admin:
    I’ve just realized that if people link to this first site for Greek Theater, there doesn’t seem to be any alert or link to the second.

    • I added a note that linked to the second draft at the same time I posted it. You’ll find it at the end of the introduction above, just above the poem. The second draft also have a link back to this one.

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