It is surprising that few writing teachers seem to use work from the African American branch of the American literary canon. Or when they do, they rely on familiar poets such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks or on works based on popular culture, such as rap. They remain less than willing to familiarize themselves with the astonishing range of work that could well serve poetry students from beginners to advanced students of this great art. Just to give a writing instructor an idea of that range, one could work with the narrative and persona poems by Ai and Rita Dove, the linguistic investigations of Lorenzo Thomas and Nathaniel Mackey, and the blues-based work of Sterling Brown or spoken-word veteran Sekou Sundiata.
The Usual Suspect: Gwendolyn Brooks
A few years ago I taught a community workshop entitled "Approaches to Writing History in Poetry." My aim was to get the participants to use narrative and their own personal take on historical events. One of the poets whose work served to spark discussion and inspire students was Gwendolyn Brooks. I used her poem, "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock." An excellent introduction to Brooks's formal strategies and recurrent themes, this poem also gets students to look more carefully at ways to use formal techniques. In delving into the psychological and professional turmoil faced by the poem's speaker, Ms. Brooks uses elements found in her best work: well-executed rhyme scheme, unabashed Christian symbolism, and irony to undercut flourishes of sentimentality. The poem's narrator couches his outrage at the treatment of The Little Rock Nine, the Black students who integrated Central High School in 1957. In this poem, Brooks covers more ground than in the often used "We Real Cool." "The Chicago Defender..." inspires students to explore an array of methods to convey a speaker's voice and the complicated relationship of narrator to subject. In the penultimate stanza, the poet's control is well displayed:
And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harrassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)
I saw a bleeding brownish boy....
Gwendolyn Brooks uses formal poetic techniques in the service of difficult, occasionally radical ideas, thus providing quite a different model from many others who use the same techniques.
Point of View and Narrative: Ai
In collections with titles such as Cruelty, Sin, Fate, and Greed, Ai investigates the moral, historical, and spiritual crises of our times. Ai's work liberates writers from the prison that identity politics can become. Creating a persona, analyzing popular mythologies, and messing with historical fact to get to a greater emotional truth are Ai's gifts to contemporary poetics. And she does it with that most Victorian of vehicles, the dramatic monologue. An excellent example is her poem, "Knockout," told in the voice of a drug-addicted prostitute. This poem, which frames the Mike Tyson rape case in a poor and extremely vulnerable woman's voice, uses a raw, artful street language to highlight our society's am-bivalence towards rape in the black community and the woman's con-demnation of misogyny and class bias in society in general.
Persona poems are extremely useful for exploring the psychological in poetry. In developing persona, writers have to find "otherness" and empathy for characters real or imagined. Persona provides the perfect opportunity to experiment with levels of diction and helps students see how difference is evoked through language. It also allows writers the opportunity to explore challenging ideas and issues (ethnic identity, family difficulties, historical misdeeds) by distancing the writer from the poem's speaker—a historical figure, a distant relative (such as a grandparent or uncle from the "Old Country"), or the prostitute in Ai's "Knockout." This strategy can provide students with a greater in-sight into the human condition by having them get inside of characters that are only seemingly alien from their own.
Of course the sexual explicitness of some of Ai's poems make them suitable only for certain audiences. Use your good judgement.
Folklore, Folklife and All That Jazz: Sterling Brown and Ishmael Reed
All too often in school, ethnic dialect, mythology, and folklore are narrowly conceptualized and rarely connected to contemporary concerns. However, the folkloric can provide rich possibilities for today's students. Two poets who present contrasting aspects of this kind of work are Sterling Brown, whose Southern Road is a classic volume of Southern idioms, and Ishmael Reed, for whom the folkloric is clearly global in character. Brown and Reed use tales of tricksters and blues-based suites of words to convey the astonishing survival skills of African Americans.
In Brown's Slim Geer series, Slim Geer is the hero of many a tall tale, like Paul Bunyan or John Henry, but his is the story of the trickster, the hipster, the con man staying alive during the Jim Crow era. While Brown's work covers some of the same ground as Langston Hughes's, Brown's poems stay closer to the narrative of folktales, the rural equivalent of Hughes's urban ones. The poems in Southern Road achieve the haunting quality of a series of ghost stories.
The power of Brown's poems comes from his capacity to make ballads filtered through a blues sensibility. He uses dialect and well-selected details that further the poem's narrative, and he introduces irony, rage, and the occasional dark laughter, as in "Kentucky Blues," whose hard-luck narrator declares:
Tobacco land fine,
Can't raise nothin' On dis hill o' mine
De red licker's good
An' it ain't too high,
Gonna brag about Kentucky
Till I die. ...
The ballad can be an excellent starting point for poets with limited skills because its structure allows for narrative and invention while adhering to a set pattern. Use of folklore and folklife could provide students with appropriate subject matter and a way to integrate their own lives and the stuff of legends.
While Sterling Brown's work incorporates American blues still close to its rural roots, Ishmael Reed presents a more urban and urbane strain of the blues sensibility. Reed's work is founded on his knowledge of African American culture and on a knowledge of myth, ritual, history, and psychology that is transatlantic. Clearly a disciple of Brown, Reed incorporates the word play associated with the blues but with a modernist twist. In the "The Reactionary Poet"—in which he displays his talent for being the great contrarian of African American letters— he creates a terrific list based on early twentieth-century popular culture, such as: "Bring back suspenders! / ... Picnics in the park / Flagpole sit-ting / Straw hats / Rent parties / Corn liquor / The banjo / Georgia quilts / Krazy Kat / Restock / The syncopation of / Fletcher Henderson / The Kiplingesque lines / of James Weldon Johnson. ..." Reed's list creates a sense of the "colored" 1920s, a counter-narrative to the Lost Generation of Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and T.S. Eliot.
An excellent assignment for more advanced writers is to create ballads that flow from these two radically different voicings of the American experience as seen through the blues sensibility. Using twentieth-century slang, modernist concepts, and contrasting structures (ballad versus collage) provides an exciting challenge poets at any stage in their development.
Experience, Experiment: Lorenzo Thomas
If there is a common ground for African American poets, it is reflection, signification, and rage in response to the racism, hypocrisy, violence—"the high cost of living" as Angela Jackson has called it—faced by African Americans. Given these concerns, Black culture is sometimes seen from the outside as homogenous, even though African Americans are as diverse as any other group in America, a country that is partly defined by its African American roots. The irony of this cultural and occasional linguistic double bind [...] is artfully captured in the experimental work of poets such as Lorenzo Thomas.
For the student of contemporary American poetics, Thomas models great poetic behavior. His work is influenced by the formal structures favored by Brooks and poets of her generation; the folkloric aspects of African American culture, especially the blues quatrain of Brown; by the narrative strategies that Ai focuses on, as well as Reed's ironic response to cross-cultural issues and his creation of counter-narratives to official history. But Thomas has developed a unique voice over the past thirty years, one that engages and inspires writing students unafraid of form and content that are challenging.
In poems such as "My Office" and "They Never Lose," Thomas explores the trickster ways—part hipster, part hippie, always black—as his narrators observe cultural permutations, disruptions, and displacements. Any poet who can write lines such as "you want an apple or a wedding ring? / Paris my foot. The thought! That stuck-up / Sucker / One man, three women / Who he think he is?" from "They Never Lose" is a poet in touch with his own soul's power to withstand the daily absurdity that is modern life.
In many ways Thomas shares his ironic yet spiritual sense of daily struggle with James Schuyler. There is an offhandedness in Thomas's work that either confuses or beguiles students. What is at work is the risk in language, its obliqueness as well as its transparency. Sophisticated students of contemporary literature would do well to look at the way Thomas uses both popular culture and "high art" content, such as nineteenth-century European painting and ancient and modern African religions. And yet, like Frank O'Hara, Thomas has the ability to shift tone as quickly as he turns the corner from Fifth Avenue to Spanish Harlem.
The imaginative teacher of writing has a wide range of African American perspectives to share with students. The poets considered here offer students an opportunity to refresh and expand their concepts of writing and to respond to language in a new way. Poetry offers special opportunities for linguistic invention and the discovery of emotional truths. Gwendolyn Brooks, Ai, Sterling Brown, Ishmael Reed, and Lorenzo Thomas are a few of the African Americans writing in the twentieth century who have made and are making this exciting and sometimes perilous journey.
Born and raised in Forrest City, Arkansas, poet Patricia Spears Jones was educated at Rhodes College and earned her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Art and music inform her poems, and she offers portraits of individuals in transit, engaging themes of class and social change with wry...