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Poetry Corner: Ray Bremser's 'The Dying of Children'

Updated: Mar 25

"and change your life to death as soft / As dawn"

Ray Bremser was born in 1938 and died at the tail-end of 1998. Despite the relative neglect by fans of the beat generation, he was widely considered a master poet by his contemporaries. It is important to note that Bremser had no idea what his earliest publication actually was until two months before his death. This was (and remains) a monumental piece of work from the poet, one that he discarded whilst working in Bordentown Reformatory Library. The poem is called 'The Dying of Children'.

Ray Bremser with a full beard in a flannel top
photo c. Allen Ginsberg Estate

Ray Bremser's Early Career

Whilst still serving his sentence for armed robbery, Bremser would begin conversing with Allen Ginsberg.

“I was corresponding with Allen before I got out of jail, about a year before I got out of jail, and that’s how I came on the scene. Allen arranged it all. He asked me in a letter, “send me some poems, kid”

When he got out of jail they threw him a party, a big party full of all the familiar names and flowing with jazz bands and wine. The first person he met was his publisher LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka]. Bremser had no idea he was going to be published (for the second time), mind. Ginsberg gave no indication of what he was doing with the poems sent to him, the whole thing was a surprise. After years in prison, as pleasant a one as an aspiring could get, I imagine. What would come would be called Poems of Madness, and was his first known (by himself) publication.

Despite his close associations with the Beats, he considered himself a Jazz Poet more than anything, and claimed to be a disciple of Jack Kerouac, whom he hailed as the 'First Jazz Poet'. But when he spoke with Kerouac he said the basis of their conversations centred around wine and girls. Bremser himself was never troubled by his ego (unless he was congratulated by poet's he considered far greater than himself), and was quoted as saying that his troubles only really began when Ginsberg died in 1997. He is stated as saying that he doubled down on his drinking, that he 'let everything go'. Other than this (and the themes of 'The Dying of Children', which are based on a true story he was told by a friend he made in jail) he is not a character known for being particularly melancholic. Grief is potent.

The Dying of Children

The initial discovery of this poem remains unknown, with no credit given to anyone but 'Raymond Bremser'. It is though an inmate or guard came across it in the prison library and thought it good or important enough to send to a broadside. It was rediscovered by Jeffrey H. Weinberg who was put in charge of Bremser's literary estate and forthwith published it with Water Row Letterpress in its own beautiful letterpress pamphlet. A limited run of 200 books were printed in 1999. I have been lucky enough, thanks to the efforts of my own publisher Lucy Wilkinson at Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers, to get my hands on number 12.

As the title suggests, the poem is about the last days of a terminally ill four year old, and is written from the perspective of her beloved uncle. It forces the reader to question mortality at the same pace as the narrator, who is quick and seems to fumble across the lines along with his emotional state.

"That would shake the marrow loose, / And snap the sinews up the upturned arm"
"And do not grow, nor comprehend the long / Pain, if there is pain. Accept it though, / As if it were a toy."

In a letter from Ray to Jeffrey, addressing the discovery of the poem, Bremser said that it was the "[...] surprise of all time," and that he genuinely had 'no idea' how the poem wound up published considering he'd made a concerted effort to destroy the original copy. The Dying of Children was written in prison during the summer of 1956 when Ray was just twenty-two years old, and saved by a complete stranger moved enough to see it published.

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