A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Nigger, your breed ain’t metaphysical.
—Robert Penn Warren, “Pondy Woods”
Beginning in earnest his long and preeminent literary career in the 1930s, it is safe to say poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren never envisioned a black readership, then or today. Yet, the above excerpted line of verse from his poem “Pondy Woods,” inspired by the 1926 lynching of Primus Kirby in Todd County, Kentucky, has prompted over the years varied responses from black readers, literary artists, and scholars, if not oft cited as an example of the workings of racist ideology in 20th-century American literature. Writing for the African American Review, critic Mark Sanders remarks, Warren “compressed into five deceptively economic feet nearly a half-millennium of white hegemonic philosophy, both its rhetorical strategies and underlying presuppositions.” In an interview for the Washington Star, nearly half a century later after Warren penned his infamous rebuke, poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown famously retorted, “Cracker, your breed ain’t exegetical.”
Warren could not have imagined or predicted such posthumous and contemptuous come-backs from such distinguished and alien quarters as a black literary critical establishment. The question of the poem’s audience, interesting enough, belies its irony; although the admonition, farcically spoken by a buzzard, is addressed to a fugitive black man on the run from a posse after apparently assaulting a white woman, more likely than not Warren had in mind as his ideal audience for his poem-fable that notorious gang of poets and scholars known as the Fugitives who launched New Criticism from their perch at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee: Donald Davidson, Randall Jarrell, Merrill Moore, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, in short, white, literate southern men like himself. The provocative poem is a performative argument that attempts to deify and consecrate the dominance and superiority of white, intelligent men over perceived instinct-driven black men.
However, were Robert Penn Warren writing in today’s highly policed culture and exchange of ideas, and thus, to a more ethnically diverse and politically sensitive audience of readers and critics, rest assured he would be hard pressed and most likely excoriated for such retrograde beliefs about black folk and explicit representations of white racist thought. A reading public today, despite the author’s intention, would likely receive the speaker in the poem as an embodiment and mouthpiece of the author’s own narrow-minded ideas about nonwhite peoples. I confess; I am among that censorious group, yet wonder, if such a hypercritical vigilance actually endangers writers’ freedom to fully characterize with great candor the complexity of their full humanity? Does it not benefit us to have even the most disdainful beliefs and opinions represented in our art? I wonder how much self-censorship or ambivalence is at work among white poets with respect to writing about race.
Last year in June, my inaugural teaching semester at Bennington Writing Seminars found me very ill and bedridden for a few days due to food poisoning. Laid up in the Alumni House, while the activities of creative writing workshops, lectures, and readings swirled about me, I groaned in my upstairs bedroom. I had to reschedule my poetry reading to a later date in the residency. Originally I was slated to present with the famed Southern writer Barry Hannah. Being the younger and emergent writer, likely I would have had to read first.
My illness turned out to be a mild blessing; Barry began his reading without any contextualization or prefatory remarks with an opening paragraph which contained this sentence from his classic short story collection Airships (1978): “This nigger was eating a banana, hanging his leg out the front seat on the curb,” which evoked a hesitant then hearty spurt of nervous laughter from those in attendance in the humid barn on the pastoral Bennington campus where readings are held in the summer, and as one could have predicted, roundly alienated the few black people in the audience. Too often and still, all across corporate boardrooms, military barracks, and college dorm rooms in America, women, poor folk, gays and lesbians, and people of color are expected to exhibit “a sense of humor” and to quietly laugh and joke along when the very core of their humanity is being assaulted.
The rational, appreciative writer and collegial humanist in me would have recognized that the Alabama-born and Mississippi-bred Pulitzer prize nominee, novelist, and short story writer with the languorous Southern lilt in his voice was simply accomplishing what any fiction writer worth his ink would execute in constructing his story, the building of character through diction and setting, but this would not have prevented me, especially in my younger years, from wanting to open up a can of kick-ass and whip some Barry Hannah butt.
Regretfully (and, at times, proudly), I have a history of reacting violently to being called the N-word; once, in Columbus, Ohio, the hip-hop dancer and choreographer Rennie Harris and I found ourselves crossing six lanes of highway traffic one late morning, fleeing after I punched a beefy, white guy in the nose for hurling that all too familiar and uninventive epithet across a counter at me; the other occasion occurred when I was eighteen years old in a fraternity house on a college campus in Philadelphia as rap music was being played.
Fortunately, I was spared the self-conscious awareness and dilemma of wondering if somehow Barry and the roomful of largely white, aspiring writers at Bennington who revered him as a model man of letters were in cahoots and making me and other black people in the barn the recipients of some cruel, inside literary joke. Having matured somewhat from my more explosive, younger self, truth is, had I been present for Barry’s reading, I likely would have been, in the end, grateful for his representation of a white southern racist (which I hear, he renders well), even if it struck me initially as offensive, provided the story were artfully written and elegantly sought to earn my empathy. However, I would not have laughed.
Contemporary fiction writers, it seems to me, are more willing than poets to take risks and explore reigning racial attitudes of today and yesterday; of late, among them one thinks of Susan Straight, Richard Ford, Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers, and Edward P. Jones. In my opinion, fiction writers anticipate less severe criticism and aim for an enviable verisimilitude that allows readers to survey and delve into the interior motivations and psychic terrain of their characters. Poets, in contrast, are content to create “speakers” in their poems who merely serve as stand-ins for their interior selves. Evident in the most experimentally driven poems, even there one detects the construction of an alter being. Only a few poets consistently and consciously avoid this strategy, but they strike me as mere monologists.
Whereas Robert Penn Warren under-envisioned his reading audience, contemporary poets lag precisely behind fiction writers because we over-envision a readership. I do not mean by this that we give great consideration to whole groups of people different from us or as our audience, but that we are less willing to be repulsive and repugnant in our poems, so caught up in our quest for linguistic and emotional beauty and earnestness—so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create “speakers” in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable. Add to this our knee-jerk desire to hide our faults or the less admirable parts of our own lives in our poetry. There’s a little racist, sexist, classist, ageist, homophobe in all of us. So, we expose ourselves in more acceptable and overly mined areas of embarrassment and shame, even then, seeking the redemptive glow of self-reflection and the post-epiphanic splendor of personal triumph and enlightenment. If we do not suffer from any of the above -isms, we definitely do not write poems that reflect our personal growth. But more importantly, the readership we envision prevents us from wanting to offend, not a group, but the overwhelmingly progressive times in which we live and write.
Some might inaccurately allege that such a self-guarded and disapproving milieu is the result of writing for a recovery /therapy-driven culture against the backdrop of “political correctness.” I disagree and contend that poets and writers, when away from their pencils and writing pads or laptops, like everyone else, have the option of behaving as decent human beings, of being thoughtful and considerate, which is not a question of “politics” or “correctness,” or even the invisible forces that make one self-aware about one’s moral groundings or lack thereof. It is quite the cliche to assert some of America’s most superb writers leave much to be desired in their social interaction with their families and others; at least, the shadow of their lives is not eclipsed by the false appearance of normality. Yet, as artists, endowed with gifts and the responsibility of giving full expression to the range of human beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and possibilities, the yellow, lined legal pages or the blank screen is fair game. The imagination should know no moral bounds—only seek its greatest aesthetic heights. The formal demands of writing poetry will naturally resolve the moral questions.
In his winning book Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, poet Robert Pinsky asserts, “Poetry is not the voice of virtue and right thinking—not the rhyme department of any progressive movement.” Maybe some of that unacknowledged legislating Shelley speaks of as poets’ work involves acknowledging and giving form to the dark impressions of which we are constituted, including the quiet moments in which we enact our bigoted beliefs and fears. The success of the Lions Gate film Crash directed by Paul Haggis, which grossed $54.5 million in box office receipts in 2005, owed its success, supposedly, to tapping into those uniquely American prejudices.
All this to say, in a country whose professed strength is best observed in its plurality of cultures, what seems odd to me (and this I find most appalling about contemporary American poetry) is the dearth of poems written by white poets that address racial issues, that chronicle our struggle as a democracy to find tranquility and harmony as a nation containing many nations. Why is this? How it is that poetry does not reflect and serve as a record of the evolution of our racial attitudes and progress much like American fiction from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain? Well, it does to some extent, but the canon is severely lop-sided and asymmetrical. And without that complete, wide-ranging and far-reaching racial dialogue as a literary and cultural legacy reflected in our poetry, discussions of race and ethnicity will forever be a spectator sport. [continue reading]
Copyright 2007 Major Jackson. First published in American Poetry Review.
— Major Jackson