April, T.S. Eliot famously wrote, is the cruelest month; it mixes memory and desire — a reminder of things lost and a yearning for things yet to be. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that April is National Poetry Month. After all, poetry has long been the form of choice for lament, tribute, revelation, and meditation, whether in the voice of public address or private utterance. Long before country music, poetry was lyric.
As a faithful reader of poetry (it always feels as if I’m cheating on a gorgeous lover when I pick up a book of fiction), I’ve long been interested in the work of poets whose voices move the art form to the next stage of its evolutionary chain. Until recently, it was the poetry of a generation steeped in identity and movement politics that stirred the tranquil waters that were Poetry. Not surprisingly, it’s the work of poets of color that has regularly infused American poetry (in the hemispheric sense) with a striking urgency, as well as new ways of saying what must be said. But the leather-bound, hermetic world of mainstream publishing is still uncomfortable with certain forms of otherness; it still believes that this literature, which speaks to the universal through the specific, is not economically viable. And since the economic stakes are abysmally low in publishing poetry, we’re rarely introduced to these voices. It’s been racially and ethnically specific publishing contests, as well as competitions for women, and a number of university and small presses that have ardently championed poets of color.
A cursory glance at the contributors’ bios of most U.S. poetry anthologies will underscore the imbalance. This in no way reflects a dearth of such voices, but rather a manifestation of what Adrienne Rich has referred to as a form of cultural apartheid.
Last fall, the usually staid Poetry Society of America generated a storm of controversy when it awarded its Frost Medal to John Hollander, a highly acclaimed poet and influential critic, who also wields enormous power as an editor of poetry anthologies. The award resulted in the resignation of Walter Mosley, and poets Elizabeth Alexander and Rafael Campo, among others, from the Society’s Board of Governors. Why the shake-up?
Hollander, in a review published in The New York Times Book Review, wrote about “cultures without literatures — West African, Mexican, and Central American.” Apparently, Hollander couldn’t leave it at that. In an interview on National Public Radio, it was reported that Hollander believes “there isn’t much quality work coming from non-white poets today.” Scholar Adrienne McCormick notes that “with its focus on form and aesthetics and its long history of lyric reflection, poetry is often seen as the last bastion of a high-art sensibility. On the other hand, poetry is also a genre frequently utilized by contemporary American movements for social and political change.” The PSA’s Board President accused Mosley, Alexander, Campo, et al., of McCarthyism.
With this in mind, I pulled three relatively recent titles — anthologies of work by poets of color — off the shelf as my personal challenge to Hollander’s ignorance.
Here’s what I found: two of the three collections, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation and The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, were compiled by editors who struggled honorably with the anxiety of authenticity (Is the work Asian enough? Latina/o enough?). These anthologies, each of which presents several poems by a couple dozen “new generation” poets, leave the reader with the sense of similar landscapes, both shaped to a large extent by the MFA phenomenon ( i.e., by poets who trained within the confines of the academy). In her introduction, Victoria Chang writes that the volume “reflects a shift away from `the` ideal of a ‘recognizable Asian voice’ and toward poetry that transcends racial, gender, and cultural boundaries.” In a similar vein, Aragón succinctly explains: “The ‘new Latino poetry’ is simply poetry written by Latinos and Latinas.”
The third, and in many ways the most satisfying of the three, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, is an intergenerational sampling that is arranged thematically. The effect is that of eavesdropping on a thoughtful, candid, provocative conversation among the poets in each section.
However these editors and poets might indeed be moving toward a poetics of flattened identity, there’s no denying that people of color are different, dammit.
In his poem “Earth Cafeteria,” Linh Dinh writes: “To eat stinky food/ is a sign of savagery, humility, / identification with the earth.” The poem quotes Lin Yutang and Mikhail Bakhtin; it ends with lines that suggest the straddling of customs that recent immigrants confront daily, a reality that beautifully complicates U.S. identity, but one which the likes of Hollander do not regard as desirable DNA for poetry. Dinh’s poem ends: “To eat with a three-pronged spear and a knife./ To eat with two wooden sticks./ To eat with the hands.// Boiling vs. broiling.// To snack on a tub of roasted grasshoppers at the movies.”
In “Female Infanticide: A Guide for Mothers,” the speaker of Adrienne Su’s searing list-poem offers, “in order of expediency,” ways to banish unwanted daughters. It begins: “I: Ultrasound, abortion.// II: Drowning; asphyxiation.// III: Hilltop abandonment.// IV: Automobile accident.” It ends:
“XI: Raise her as one of her brother’s servants;/ marry her off at your convenience.// XII: Keep her unwed (use psychological torture)./ In old age a daughter is fine good fortune.”
There is, in poems like these and others, a stunning movement from the devastation of cultural alienation to quiet resignation, anger, or, in some cases, wholeness. While they may have the same outlines of angst shared by other poets, the cultural specificity adds a compelling texture to the language and its effects. Genuinely innovative? No. But these poems definitely expand the relatively restrictive boundaries of contemporary U.S. poetry. And that is cause for celebration.
María Meléndez, a standout in The Wind Shifts, also tugs at the borders, aesthetic and otherwise, rendering them elastic and more complex. In “Remedio,” Meléndez’ speaker, using the direct address so favored by many of the poets in these collections, exhorts her reader: “Take wolves, each with a soul full of scents:// asperine willow leaves/ and damp earth, willow-rooted. ` ... ` Recuerda…from the Spanish recordar/ which is at root not remember or re-mind,// but pass back through the heart—//let her pass back through your heart again,/ this wolf.”
Firmly rooted in the earth, Meléndez’s poems exist in a clearly defined cultural context. “Tonacacihuatl: Lady of Our Flesh” begins: “Fragrance of the rain in her breath. The dampness/ at the back of her knees smells like rain also ` ... ` Thirteen mirrors spangle her dress. For those sun-round mirrors,/ praises are chanted by thirteen thousand red-legged hoppers. ` ... ` So she is, Lady of Our Flesh, who is what is./ Is she not here, who is our mother?/ Huffing, with matted hair, she stamps a shovel blade/ to begin a small grave.
The music in these poems is intoxicating. Ditto much of the language in Richard Blanco’s work. Here are the opening lines of his “Varadero en Alba”: “ven/ tus olas roncas murmuran entre ellas/ las luciérnagas se han cansado/ las gaviotas esperan como ansiosas reinas// We gypsy through the island’s north ridge/ ripe with villages cradled in cane and palms,/ the raw harmony of fireflies circling about/ amber faces like dewed fruit in the dawn.”
The Ringing Ear is filled with a chorus of diverse voices that come together to talk story. Like the two other anthologies, the contents include various forms and plenty of free verse. (In an interesting example of cross-cultural exchange, where Asian American Poetry does not include even one haiku, The Ringing Ear is dotted with captivating examples, such as Sheree Renée Thomas’s: “lightning bug reflects/ a mason jar of silence/ gold dust in my hand.”)
Editor Nikky Finney’s challenge to poets in her collection was to write about the locus of much black history and culture, the South. But there’s little, if any, easy romanticizing. The inimitable Sonia Sanchez’ “On Passing thru Morgantown,” imagines difficult beauty: “i saw you/ vincent van/ gogh perched/ on those pennsylvania/ cornfields communing/ amid secret black/ bird societies. yes.”
The oral tradition is also carried on, and transformed, by poets such as Holly Bass (“seven crown man”) and Forrest Hamer (“Middle Ear”). Historical names tether many poems in The Ringing Ear to painful memories: Addie Mae Collins, Amadou Diallo, Susan Smith. There are, as well, names that evoke music — music that wails and rings eternally in the eager, hospitable ear: Marian Anderson, Dinah Washington, Duke, Coltrane, Nina Simone. Many poets sample extant texts to astonishing effect; others take received forms and restyle them.
In her introduction to The Ringing Ear, Finney writes: “‘Melting pot’ is a loose American term. The Black community has never melted. We have marched. We have organized. We have fought. We have been shot at, fired at, and spit at. We have been abandoned on rooftops in the middle of a devastating hurricane. We have migrated away and intermarried. We have been hanged for sport. We have stayed on these shores kicking, screaming, loving, forgiving, and writing, but we have never melted in this or any other country.”
In her scorching testimonial poem, “I Have Walked a Long Time,” Sonia Sanchez writes: “i have walked a long time/ much longer than death that splinters/ wid her innuendos. `…` i have walked by memory of others/ between the blood night/ and twilights/ i have lived in tunnels/ and fed the bloodless fish/ `…` you, man, will you remember me when i die?/ will you stare and stain my death and say/ i saw her applauden suns/ far from the grandiose audience?/ you, man will you remember and cry?”
You, John Hollander, will you remember and cry?
Here’s wishing you and yours an audacious National Poetry Month. •