Witherup’s “down wind, down river”

While doing some background reading on William Witherup, I noticed that several critics referred to him as a “Beat.” I’m not sure that I’d classify him as a beat, but certainly the title poem of this volume,


For Frederick Wayne Nelson, down river,
who was in the bio-path of the Green Run, 1949

Oh say can you breathe
By the dawn’s early wind
What so proudly we made
At Hanford Engineering Works:
Iodine-131, plutonium, ruthenium.

At the dawn’s early light
Irradiated meadowlarks
Filled a young boy’s heart
With isotopes of beauty.
Particle and wave shimmered
Over the river stones.

What so proudly we hailed.
Looking for arrowheads
After my morning paper route,
By the hot Columbia;
Bike sparkling with flakes
Of mica not mica.

“Roll on Columbia,” Woody.
Salmon smolt stunned
As they hit the outflow plumes.
At twilight’s last gleaming
1-131 sifting on sage and thistle,
On sweet, newly-cut alfalfa.

Plutonium in the hog swill,
Ruthenium in the jackrabbit’s eye.
The pure products of America go crazy.
By the dawn’s early light
Hiroshima flickers white-hot,
Nagasaki fuses with the sun.

Particle and wave,
What physicists proudly hailed,
Who used murderous intellect
To invent deadly winds; military
And scientific elite gassing their own
Workers, soldiers, and children.

Down river, down wind;
1-131, plutonium, ruthenium.

-Seattle, 1996

reminds me of the Beats with its shrill overtones. If I hadn’t been a down winder, I might even reject the poem as a failure. Since I’ve spent considerable time in these areas and experienced the same feelings, the poem works for me, though I suspect I would like it more as folk song than as a poem. Reminds me a little of Woodie Guthrie in its earthiness. One of the qualities that I did admire in many of the Beat poets.

As you might imagine, my feelings toward nuclear power don’t differ too much from Witherup’s. In fact, one of my greatest criticisms of President Obama was his shutting down of the nuclear repository in Nevada while still pushing for increased nuclear development. Anyone who has even a minimal understanding of the disaster that is Hanford should realize that it’s totally arrogant to continue to develop nuclear energy without first finding an effective way of storing the waste products.

That said, the poem seems too shrill to ever be a personal favorite or one that I’d return to repeatedly.

3 thoughts on “Witherup’s “down wind, down river””

  1. What makes a Beat a Beat, then?

    I like so much of this poem, but don’t care for (a fault of my own I know!) the anthem lines; I prefer more universal works, or, if universality is impossible, at least those that strive for such. Patriotism, these days, will almost always sound shrill.

  2. I’ve often wondered the same thing, Siona.

    Often times the two groups overlap. Both Snyder and Winthrop studied under Roethke so in that sense they belong in the Academic Poets mold.

    On the other hand, both hung out in San Francisco when the Beats were popular. A lot of them seem to have ties to Rexroth, and San Francisco in general.

    Personally, I don’t give much credit to “schools” per se. The best thing about reading poetry on your own is that you just pick up a volume and decide if you like it or not.

  3. P.S. I think the anthem lines work here because they’re actually an attack on the blind patriotism that says everything our government does is good, that it’s okay to pollute the land or sacrifice a few citizens if it’s for a “good cause,” in this case the nuclear bomb.

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