Peter Dale Scott

Peter Dale Scott, poet, political scientist, diplomat, teacher (born 11 January 1929 in Montreal, QC). Peter Dale Scott is widely regarded as his generation’s most important English-language political poet. Offering influential commentary on American politics and history, Scott’s poetry blends autobiographical insights with the global themes that also preoccupy his non-fiction work.

Peter Dale Scott

Peter Dale Scott in 2009. (courtesy Jim Forest, flickr)

Education and Early Career

Peter Dale Scott is the only child of the painter Marian Dale Scott and F.R. Scott, an important modernist poet and law professor. Scott studied at McGill University, the Institut d’études politiques, Paris, and University College, Oxford, before receiving his PhD in political science from McGill in 1955. His dissertation contemplated the social and political thought of modernist American poet T.S. Eliot.

From 1957 to 1961, Scott was a Canadian diplomat serving at the United Nations General Assembly in Poland. Following this, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is now professor emeritus of English.

Political Writing

While teaching at Berkeley, Scott became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest,” refusing tax payments in protest of the war.

Scott has written or co-authored numerous books that critique American foreign policy. The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam (1966), his first book, is an early account of the underlying political factors shaping deepening US involvement in the Vietnam War. Crime and Cover-Up: The CIA, the Mafia, and the Dallas-Watergate Connection (1977) discusses the complexities of John F. Kennedy’s Cold War-era assassination and the backstory behind the famously incomplete Warren Commission report on his murder.

The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (1987) and Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America (1998)  both variously explore America’s complex proxy war with the Soviet Union in Central America. The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire and the Future of America (2007) explores America’s involvement in the Middle East following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Poetry

Scott has published ten books of poems, including Coming to Jakarta: Poem About Terror (1989), a book-length poem about the US support of anti-Communist rebels in Indonesia and the subsequent civil war massacre of 1965. Densely allusive, Jakarta is a work of richness and complexity, integrating the world of political violence with the growth of the poet’s mind. But while Coming to Jakarta focuses on events from 1965, when then-General Haji Muhammed Suharto wrested control of the government and endorsed what members of the CIA called “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century,” the narrative is interwoven with more personal recollections of political repression throughout the world. In one passage, recalling his life in Poland in the late 1950s, Scott writes:

We talked for two hours 
and I think of him often 
as I read in the papers 
of Solidarnosc suppressed 
how those must be 
privileged moments 
one can so transcend history 
how today he would not dare 
to have such a conversation 
nor I have the heart 
And yet those two hours 
in that ill-furnished precinct 
seem somehow more true 
than the street battles since 
My own life is easier 
no longer having to be consul 
I suspect that on our side 
officials of U.S. Steel

In Poetry and Terror: Politics and Poetics in Coming to Jakarta (2018), Scott analyzes Coming to Jakarta as an elegy for those who were killed in Indonesia, as well as “for the passing of the Sixties era, when so many of us imagined that a Movement might achieve major changes for a better America.” The book also includes a prose essay by Scott exploring the United States’ involvement in the 1965 massacre and discusses how the essay was banned by the Indonesian dictatorship.

Listening to the Candle: A Poem on Impulse (1992) is another book-length poem that chronicles Scott’s life. In 1994, he published two collections of shorter poems: Crossing Borders and Murmur of the Stars. Minding the Darkness: A Poem for the year 2000 (2000) is another ruminative, autobiographical poem.

Scott’s most recent book of poetry, Walking On Darkness (2016), is a collection of poems, many of them reflecting back on events in his life when he was still in Canada. In “Tavern Underworld,” he writes:

and what is this deficit in our daily life
that has driven us since Homer to seek truth
from the darkness of the underworld?
the Quebec tavern men’s room wall
where I had scribbled Daryl is a poet!
inspiring beneath it Is she? Well f—k a snake!
or those first all-night bouts on the waterfront
in Montreal with veterans from the war
who drank as if there was nothing now to learn
or all the useless foreign ships locked
in the winter ice of the Lachine Canal
seen by a boy at the top of Westmount Mountain
all now gone

Translations

In addition to writing his own poetry, Scott is also an accomplished translator, specifically from Polish, a language he mastered while working in the Canadian Consulate in Poland in the 1950s and early 1960s. Scott has translated the work of legendary post-war Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert with his colleague at Berkeley, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz.

Awards

  • Freedom Award, International Center for Development Policy (1987)
  • Sylvia Meagher Award, Coalition on Political Assassinations (1996)
  • JFK Pioneer Award, JFKLancer (1997)
  • Lannan Poetry Award (shared with Alan Dugan) (2002)