Meta DuEwa Jones
DESCENT AND TRANSCENDENCE IN AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY: IDENTITY, EXPERIENCE, FORM
“To submit, just follow our regular guidelines, and include a note that you are of African American descent.” This was the compelling compulsion Rattle issued to writers submitting to this tribute to African American poets. Such a request seems simple and self-explanatory. We readers and writers all know what that means, don’t we? I heard the editors’ call as them frankly asking: Tell us, dear poet, who you are, or in the racially coded version, who you be. The goal of this identity-based caveat was not to police or politicize black bodies, as if the body could ever be free of such external or internal scrutiny. Instead, I imagine the editors hoped, through this prescreening, to distinguish between poetry written about African Americans, and poems written by them. They sought to insure that the racialized group of writers celebrated in this issue actually authored—created, authorized, and served as an authority on—the writing celebrated. This aim is important, especially for a journal such as Rattle, which has a predominately (though not exclusively) white readership. It helps to insure that black writers maintain positions as subjects and agents of verse concerning their individual and collective lives and avoids positioning them as objects passively acted upon or written about.
But what does it mean to be of African American descent? What does it mean to be an African American poet? More than a century ago poet Countee Cullen* told the world it was “a curious thing/ to make a poet, black, and bid him sing.” Paul Laurence Dunbar also implied that black poets, whether singing, speaking, or scribbling verse, “mouth with myriad subtleties” through a feigned smile, wearing “the mask that grins and lies.” (Dunbar) If truth is the poet’s province and lies are the domain of the storyteller, then Dunbar’s lament led me to wonder what blackness might mask and mark in American poetics. This essay seeks to explore contemporary African American poetry and the relationship between identity, experience, and form. I am, like Dunbar, curious about the relative importance of lines of literary, racial, and cultural descent, and how those lines become racialized into boundaries, and how poets transcend them.
Is “Black” mama’s baby but “Poetry” papa’s maybe? Is race a determining factor in one’s poetics or is it an accident of birth with no correlation to the concerns of black poets? Can one write about race in a manner analogous to writing about vocation, as a poet in a previous Rattle tribute to nurses did, that one is a poet who happens to be black? History indicates that distancing oneself from an inscribed blackness by evoking race as a coincidental or incidental matter is not so easily accomplished. Poets such as Toi Derricotte illustrate why we should not only ask what blackness means but how we learn its meaning from birth. In her poem “Workshop on Racism,” a child rails against other children taunting her as “The Black Briana!” to distinguish her from another classmate with the same name. Derricotte reflects: “Already at five the children understand,/ ‘black’ is not a color, it is a/ blazing skin.” (Derricotte, 30) This concern with the politics of pigmentation as a distinctive feature of African American identity is also signified in Tracie Morris’s scrambled haiku, “Why I Won’t Wear a Tattoo: skin color marks me/ been paying for it/ indelible already.” (Morris, 35) If the meaning attributed to blackness in these two examples seems to be primarily punitive, this is because both poets are speaking to the historical contexts of racial identification and indoctrination through personal and collective experience.
But when black poets choose to explore how notions of race are formed and informed by history and experience, they risk being aesthetically and artistically compartmentalized. In the U.S. context, racialized others, especially, though not exclusively, African Americans, are believed as possessing (a) race, and also being possessed—that is haunted, consumed, obsessed—by race matters. By contrast, Anglo American writers are often perceived to be primarily race-neutral in their writing. Even in instances when poets such as Tony Hoagland engage in explicitly self-reflexive meditations on white masculinity, white writers are not viewed as being obsessed with writing about “the European American experience” in a representative or politicized fashion. All too often, blacks bear the burden of racial representation, hefty as a ton of coal.
In poems such as “Coal,” however, the poet Audre Lorde, an alchemist of the word, transforms the sedimented rock of race, which she pictures as “the total black/ being spoken/ from the earth’s inside,” into a gleaming diamond of a poem. The terse couplet in the penultimate stanza flowers into acute imagery:
Love is a word, another kind of open.
As the diamond comes
into a knot of flame
I am Black
because I come from the earth’s inside
take my word for jewel
in the open light.
At its core in “Coal,” the changing same of blackness, earthy and dark as the underbelly of the Mississippi River, creates an essential and essentialist racial origin myth. Reading poems such as these penned by black poets during the ’60s, one might say that African American poetry chose to descend from racial concerns, while other mainstream American poetry strove to transcend, if not altogether ignore, racial issues. But I don’t find such gross oversimplifications satisfying. They obscure the very complex creative process through which all artists combine language and experience, intellect and emotion to compose poetry. While Lorde affirms the power of black identity, she equally affirms the power of poetic imagination. While Lorde mines the English language to uncover its etymological linking of the color black with evil and evil with blacks, she also uses that same language to create new vistas of racial and human perception. While Lorde says “some words/ bedevil me,” she concurrently sings: these words will bejewel me. “Coal” illustrates her deft handling of the base materials through which poets work their will and their wares: word, sound, and image.
“It is never to be forgotten that it is the business of poets to make poems, justas it is the business of readers and critics to appraise them,” Paul Fussell says in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, (Fussell, 155) and I hear him. Or rather, I hope more readers of African American poetry will listen to this advice. Regardless of its apparent themes or social contexts, the best poems written by African Americans are first and foremost that, poems. As such, they should not be mined for racial, political, and cultural ore. When I read criticism of some black poets’ work, I notice how much critical light shines on a poet’s subject matter, identity, history, politics, culture, and/or personal biography. Comparatively less limelight is given to illuminate the writer’s meticulous work with form in metrical or free verse: his or her line integrity; penchant for assonance, alliteration, parataxis or punctuation; dense or sparse stanzas; use of syllabic or anagrammatic patterns; subtle or stark use of volume, intonation, and cadence to amplify or mute their performances; or crafting of tension and release through these and other poetic devices.
But attending to contemporary black poets’ engagement in the freedoms and restraints of vastly different poetic forms yields profitable insight, providing potential answers to a query I posed earlier: What does it mean to be an African American poet? To practice poetry. To write. To read. To speak. To publish. To produce. To perform. To work with forms. As the poet Terrance Hayes asserts about his own aesthetic, “it can be limiting to put certain kinds of constraints on subject matter. But I also think it’s completely liberating to put other kinds of restraints on the form, so there’s sort of that tension—if I’m going to make any boxes for myself it’s going to be around the form and not around what’s inside the form.” (this issue, 172) Without getting mired in the form/content conundrum, I suggest many African American poets just might have experience with the dangers of making assumptions based on an exterior form (say, for instance, physical appearance) as revealing aspects of an individual’s interior motivations (say, for instance, potential behavior). Blacks’ experiences with racial profiling by police have led to this dilemma’s coinage in terms such as DWB—“driving while black;” I propose that its literary, if not literal, corollary, WWB—“writing while black” is also an insidious form of racial profiling by readers, editors, and publishers. The price of the ticket for trafficking in strategies that chain-link a poet’s race to her subject matter without fully considering her formal or formally innovative approach is high. It can lead to false divisions, interpretations, and identifications of the artistic arc, ambitions, and achievements of contemporary black poets.
Instead of writing poems that lift every line and sing with unassailable
certainty, “black is…black ain’t,” instead of constantly declaring, “I’m an African American and this is what it means to be an African American,” instead of articulating a single black poetic voice, emerging and established poets have created a kaleidoscopic poetics by employing a complex and colorful variety of literary forms, themes, and styles. As the poetics scholar Keith Leonard affirms, “the triumph of the African American formalist poetic tradition is the fact that African American poets from slavery to Civil Rights did indeed resolve the opposition of [the] binary logic of race politics in their best poems by combining the aesthetic power and social validity of traditional formalist artistry with the complexities of African American experience, culture, and heritage.” (Leonard, 3–4) Since the Civil Rights era, poets such as Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, Yusef Komuyakaa, Wanda Coleman, and Cornelius Eady have continued the tradition of formalist excellence, writing finessed sonnets, syllabics and sestinas, as well as fine-tuned tercets, terza-rima, and triolets. The contours of formal innovation and graphic experimentation have also been expanded by artists such as C.S. Giscome, Ed Roberson, Harryette Mullen, Ronaldo Wilson and Dawn Lundy Martin. In her prose poem suite, “Negrotizing in Five or How to Write a Black Poem,” for instance, Martin inscribes the embodied and intangible interstice between race, reproduction and poetic form. She announces in the first sequence: “One. Formlessness./ One enters an unforgiving, inchoate world. No mold to make, fossilizing… Some castigating black marks condition the body, soften the skin, open into sepulcher. But the body will not be buried there. It will put down a thing on a page.” (Lundy, 11) Other poets’ adept manipulations of form lift lines and lyrics from the page into visual or oral performance. Poets with divergent aesthetic and performance sensibilities such as Carl Phillips and Patricia Smith illustrate how even the same metrical choice, like trochaic meter, can run very different routes. Phillips’ sophisticated use of trochees harnesses this galloping meter’s sense of abandon to meditate on the body’s hunger and the tethers of love, the desires of the flesh, and the fleshing out of the word through subtle shifts in syntax and punctuation. His high lyrics shape stunning semantic and erotic possibilities. While Smith’s strong and savvy fashioning of poems completely in trochaic meter demonstrates in print and performance how well the trochee’s accentual-syllabic lilt accommodates the skip, slang, and prepubescent rhymes of girls jumping double-dutch. Her disciplined use of trochaic form reveals a skilled and seasoned poet at work.
The base, the beat, and the groove booming through funk, rap, and hip-hop music has also influenced the forms of scripted and sonic performance by current artisans of the spoken word such as Saul Williams, Carl Hancock Rux, Duriel Harris and Crystal Williams. Yet this has not meant that poets have abandoned jazz or blues as sources for poetic inspiration. Across generations, poets such as Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Major Jackson, and Linda Susan Jackson have trumpeted different genres of jazz vocalists and instrumentalists through their own verse suites, idioms and individual riffs. Where Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Alvin Aubert, and Shirley Anne Williams unleashed the power of the blues as music, iconography, and an enduring indigenous poetic form on 20th century readers, in the 21st century, contemporary African American poets as stylistically varied and accomplished as Sterling Plump, Harryette Mullen, Tyhemba Jess, and Honorée Jeffers have taken the blues, its pain-tinged whines and pleasure-teased moans, and played its changes. In Jeffers’ “Muse, a Lady Cautioning,” the blues form informs the cultural frames of race and gender; the blues muse croons her cautions through a channel of rich metaphors. She sings, “She’s aware—yeah, I’m going to kiss some man’s sugared fist tonight.” Jeffers’ “tableau” of Billie Holiday’s vocal “horn blossoming into cadenza…hollers way down dirt roads.” Yet it is not gravelly roads, but shapely little rooms, stanzas, that bring such terrible beauty into scenic view; taut quatrains retune the (vocal) chords bruised by one too many “predictable fifths” of cognac coating the musician’s dark throat. (Jeffers, 3–5) Nor have these and other poets taken the blues and gone down the disappointing path of cultural dilution, as Hughes bemoaned in earlier times. Rather, black poets have transformed the blues through an enthusiastic embrace of multi-ethnic cultural hybridity, churning out blues ghazals, blues villanelles, and blues sonnets with lyrical sensitivity and technical agility.
Still, work within the current crop of poets warns readers against the too-convenient correlation between black poetry and blues poetics, with good measure. The itinerant poems’ speakers in Thomas Sayers Ellis’ grandly geographic The Maverick Room, for instance, travel from Northwest quadrant to Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. His evocative and precise quatrains are not quarantined in the District’s Blues Alley; rather, they break out the percussive pulse of “Go-Go” music till “The Break of Dawn” at “The Black Hole and block parties/ In hard-to-find-inner-city neighborhoods.” Ellis’ “family discussion of percussion” in persona poems such as “Cowbell” put the “tambourine, vibra-slap, ratchet” on display; metallic pings and rings are “what gets heard” as “a prayer above crowd noise and soul.” (Ellis, 52) In an arresting counter-example, Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s elegant Gravity, U.S.A highlights what does not get heard on various sonic frequencies. In the opening poem, the speaker declares, “I cannot hear you/ You are speaking/ to my bad ear,/ my right side” where “a hushed mumbling,/ the refined titter of bored parishioners/ interrupts the message of light…” That light in LaMon’s powerful poetic lexicon beams through the fire of soul and R&B balladeer Chaka Khan’s voice, which the poem’s speaker, absorbed by “a single kiss,/ pale green and translucent…paisley chiffon and gossamer” ignores in “Muting Chaka.” LaMon’s lyric refinement calls readers to listen to “the glorious chord of refrain” beyond the blues, to hear “a dirge for cello and voice,/ soprano lilt, and tympani” as equally instrumental to black poetics. (LaMon, 13, 39, 59)
In a different sonic and lyric register, seasoned poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Eugene Redmond have created new forms bearing both individual imprint and ethnic cultural import, such as the sonku, the bop, and the kwansaba, respectively. Weaver debuted the bop at a Cave Canem summer writing retreat for African American poets. Despite the form’s relative youth, it has blossomed in the full flowering of its adolescence through its popular circulation, and importantly, publication, in several first-book collections. Incorporating lines from song lyrics, G.E. Patterson begins his debut collection of verse, Tug, with “Green,” a bop that opens the (lyrical) heart of the “hard love” between black men. (Patterson) In contrast, a fine example of how to blues the bop is evident in Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s “Bop, A Haunting” in which tensions between mother and daughter haunt the poem’s speaker. She transforms the grief over amorous love described in “St. Louis Blues” into a filial mourning by using the familiar refrain: “I hate to see/ that evening sun/ go down” to evoke her parent’s passing. While Mendi Lewis Obadike hip-hops the bop in her poem “What You Are,” hooking GrandmasterFlash and the Furious Five with the refrain “roaring as the breezes blow.” (Van Clief-Stefanon, Obadike) In many cases, poets employ forms that may or may not emerge from within racial or ethnic cultural expressive modes. By doing so, they transcend the boundaries implied by racial imperatives to draw their ink only from the well of black experience.
Nevertheless, some readers—and writers, too—still expect one’s racial identity to reign over and rein in a poem’s subject matter. As Alan Fox observes, “some people think African American poets should stick to the African American experience. Others think, no, you’ve got to be universal.” (this issue, 171) Advising black poets to embrace or eschew writing through the colored lens of racialized experience is not a new phenomenon. During the late ’60s and early ’70s when black cultural nationalism and the correspondent Black Arts movement were in full swing, the tilt “towards a black aesthetic” demonstrably influenced writers and critics. In his landmark essay, Hoyt Fuller argued that to foster “black cultural community empowerment” a black writer’s work must “reflect the special character and imperatives of the black experience.” (Fuller) In the wake of critical articulations of these aesthetic and socio-political modes and movements, more plural and expansive concepts and practices in contemporary black poetry have emerged that supplant the notion of a commonly shared singular
racial experience. Decades later, critics began categorizing creative work by artists who grew up after the civil rights era as “post-black,” “post-soul,” and even “post-race.” Considering that the current president of the United States is an African American man, the catch phrase “post-Obama” may be added to the series of periodic signposts for developments in black political, cultural, and artistic expression.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander, bestowed the honor of reading a poem at President Obama’s historic inauguration, for example, favors a poetics that subverts attempts to quantify and codify race and celebrates the elastic nature of African American identity. In the second stanza of “Today’s News” she explains:
I didn’t want to write a poem that said “blackness
is,” because we know better than anyone
that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things
Not one poem We could count ourselves forever
and never agree on the number…
(Alexander, “Today’s News”)
That the search for color everywhere can be found anywhere the writer chooses to focus her gaze, is evident in veteran poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ response to being asked to define the “black experience,” in a late ’90s interview. Brooks insisted that “[t]he black experience is any experience a black person has.”(Brooks, 275) While Toi Derricotte put it this way: “Everything you write has something to do with your whole experience, if you’re white or black or whatever.” (this issue, 152)
Derricotte suggests that writers have traveled a long way from the time and place in which universality was a language, mode, form, truth or claim about writing that “had nothing to do with race,” but I am not so sure. The inadvertent implication of Fox’s observation of the opposition often placed between black experience and the universal—the fact of that constructed dichotomy—gnaws in the back of the black writer’s mind. Or at least, admittedly, this black writer’s mind. The sense that black people and black poets are somehow still not considered fully part of that category that comprises the allegedly race-neutral “universal,” and by extension, the category of the putatively race-neutral but historically racially biased “human” still endures, if in more subtle guises, in American poetics. Derricotte implies that this perceived gulf between black experiences (note the plural) and universal ones can lead to racial essentialism and exceptionalism in literary publishing. As she tells Alan Fox:
You know, [Rattle’s] doing a special section on African
American poets… In some ways, that’s good that you’re
doing that, but at some point, of course, we’re hoping
that that doesn’t happen anymore. I mean, when I was
growing up, there were special sections in books called
“Negro poetry”…as if it wasn’t the same, as if it’s a
different poetry… [W]hen I was at NYU—I graduated in
’84—a professor, when I asked why he had never read
an African American poet, said, “We don’t go down that
low.” (this issue, 151)
Derricotte’s retelling of her decades-old exchange with one of her former creative writing professors is telling. His casual dismissal of African American poetry, and the implicit claim that black poetry was beneath the purview of one pursuing mastery in the fine arts at NYU, was delivered with confidence in his ignorance of these poets’ verses and assurance that their writing was beneath him. Quoted a quarter of a century later, the unnamed professor’s commentary still reeks with the stench of racial supremacy; its musty odor has fanned through centuries of enlightenment, imperialist, and colonialist ideologies which held that the art, music, philosophy, and yes, writing derived from European cultures was “Cultured”—with an uppercase “C”—that is, reflective of intellectual and artistic refinement and ethnic cultural superiority. By contrast, not only were indigenous writing systems by Africans unacknowledged, but also Africans, and their descendants in America, were viewed as beneath the biased barriers of “Culture” and “Civilization.” As such, they were seen as incapable of yielding the fruits of such cultured civilization, unable to produce imaginative art. The division between so-called elite or “high” and popular or “low” art forms is a racial, gendered, and class-based legacy of this history.
So, too, is the tendency to associate the most authentic forms of artistic expression (e.g. spirituals, blues, hip-hop, and before its ascendance into the realm of the high, jazz) in African American culture with the vernacular, with the “low.” Vernacular, of Latin origin, “vernaculus,” meaning “indigenous,” and the meaning from which that meaning descends, my dictionary tells me, is “homeborn slave.” And if the vernacular is the language of the everyday, if it is the common speech, if it is the voice of the slave, if it is polarized against the language of the literary, if it is the foil through which formalized diction distinguishes itself, then it is no wonder that African American poetry was outside the scope of that professor’s course syllabi. From his biased perspective, reading black verse meant descending from the heights of the high brow into the depths of the low. Such history-laden logic pits the rough against the refined, the slave against the master, and, to invert the dichotomy, the seasoned professor against the young, gifted, and black MFA student.
I have read or heard Toi Derricotte retell versions of what I refer to as the “we don’t go down that low” story in different venues; each time it makes the (black) writer, professor, and student of poetry within me wince. The increased visibility and variety of African American poetry today leads me to believe, I hope not naively, that no professor teaching any genre of literature would have the gall to reject all of African American poetry a priori. Yet personal and professional experience tells me that traces of bias against African American literature—indeed against literature or art by members of other historically maligned or marginalized groups—still seeps through, within, and beyond the university setting.
How many readers of Rattle, I wonder, not only host or attend a reading, purchase books by, and read African American poets, but teach their verse? How many include whole collections of African American poetry in their creative writing or literature syllabi—beyond a token week or two, or during Black History Month? How many teach in a way that both engages and transcends a specialized ethnic or racialized context? How many teach poems and books by black writers that don’t contain explicitly “ethnic content?” How many use a poem by a black writer to illustrate an adept execution of poetic craft, form, or performance technique? How many teach black poets who are virtuosos of the pantoum, the sonnet crown, or the prose poem as well as those who write fiercely formally innovative anagrammatic scat or engage in performatively accomplished poetry slams? I hope, dear readers, that many of you already do go up that high. I hope, too, as a result of the fine quality and diversity of contributions to Rattle’s tribute to African American poets, that many more of you will find fitting poems in an array of forms by writers of African American descent to read, relish, recite, and teach.
*Note: In the original version this quotation was mistakenly attributed to Paul Laurence Dunbar. The lines are actually from Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel.”
—from Rattle #31, Summer 2009
Tribute to African American Poets
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Today’s News,” The Venus Hottentot (Graywolf Press, 1990).
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Conversation with B. Denise Hawkins, ed., Joanne Gabbin,The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry(University of Virginia Press, 1999).
Derricotte, Toi. “Workshop on Racism,” Tender (University of Pittsburg Press, 1997).
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear The Mask,” ed., Joanne Braxton, The Collected Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, (University of Virginia Press, 1993).
Ellis, Thomas Sayers. “The Break of Dawn,” and “Cowbell,” The Maverick Room (Graywolf Press, 2005).
Fuller, Hoyt. “Towards A Black Aesthetic,” The Critic 26.5 (1968).
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (McGraw Hill, 1979).
Jeffers, Honoree. “Fast Skirt Blues,” and “Muse, A Lady Cautioning,” Outlandish Blues (Wesleyan University Press, 2003).
LaMon, Jaqueline Jones. “Bad Ear,” “Muting Chaka,” “Calling All Grace Notes in Pianoforte” (Quercus Review Press, 2006).
Leonard, Keith. Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet From Slavery to Civil Rights (University Press of Virginia, 2006).
Lorde, Audre. “Coal,” Undersong: Chosen Poems Old & New (Norton, 1992).
Martin, Dawn. A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007).
Morris, Traci. “Why I Won’t Wear a Tattoo,” Intermission (Soft Skull Press, 1998).
Patterson, G. E. “Green: A Bop,” Tug (Graywolf Press, 1999).
Van Clief-Stefanon, Lyrae. “Bop: A Haunting,” Black Swan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002); see also, Mendi Lewis Obadike. “Bop: What You Are,” Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press, 2004).
META DUEWA JONES is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses exploring formal innovation in American poetry, gender and sexuality in jazz performance, as well as visual culture and African American literary theory. Her articles, interviews and poetry have appeared in African American Review, Souls, Callaloo, American Book Review, AWP Writers Chronicle, Black Arts Quarterly, PMS: Poem-Memoir-Story, and The Ringing Ear, among others. She is co-editing, with Keith Leonard, a volume for MELUS on “Multi-Ethnic Poetics,” expected in 2010. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University as well as fellowships from the Mellon, Rockefeller, and Woodrow Wilson foundations. Her book, The Muse is Music: Jazz, Poetry and Gendered Performance, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.