What about author intent? What happens when poets who specialize in the vernacular are assessed by poets who disdain it? What happens when the blues or sophisticated jazz rhythms are presented to the tone deaf, those with tin ears, or those who prefer other kinds of music? What happens when the poet who writes in tongues or religious fervor has that work presented to an atheist? The centuries-old arguments about the permutations of language, a contentious discourse which underwent American rebirth in the late 1970s will most likely not be resolved here if anywhere.  These days, when I encounter such, I’m likely to dip into my store of anecdotes to illustrate the testy complexity of the apparently persistent “language poets.”

In the early 90s, I sat on a local panel evaluating the poetry, fiction and nonfiction of Los Angeles writers from its Black communities. Of the judges, I was the sole African American. However, to everyone’s dismay, 95% of the poetry submissions were largely essays, diatribes and polemics decrying slavery and racism—to the letter—using the pedestrian language and tired expressions long made commonplace to the subjects during the civil rights movement. Many of the works, written by different individuals, were strikingly the same! It seemed strong commentary underscoring the power of Black Studies and cultural awareness. But no matter how righteous or right-thinking the point-of-view, the renderings were numbingly banal.  It took all the fairness we judges could muster as we awarded those who exhibited marginal originality or talent in their approaches to the poem, story or remembrance.

Some years ago, I approached Carl Rakosi, who was graciously receptive, and attempted to establish a dialogue on meaning and being. When I posed my thesis, he shrugged and answered: “I know what you mean, but I don’t have the problem.”  I was left to sort it out on my own, as I continue to do in rare contemplative moments. My “issue” involved the social constructs of language centered on race—generated by a duel conference I attended of Asian-American and African-American literati in San Francisco circa 1995.

Language has a historical, philosophical and cultural context—even a class context—and a physiological one, the latter usually sidestepped if mentioned.  Having fun, “encoding” messages, playing word games, being “painterly,” and being solipsistic may bore and/or infuriate the outsider, or the casual reader too busy to spend their time unraveling knots, but there are no rules outlawing literary cliques and fads or those who want to make writing careers out of being inaccessible or parasitic. The extent to which meaning may be wrenched from a poem largely depends on who is doing the wrenching, reading and/or listening, and, I suspect, how their brain operates. In short—to not understand a certain type of poem, and the urge to write a certain type of poem, may have as much to do with how one’s language center processes text as it has to do with one’s education, one’s class, one’s gender and one’s ethnicity. The inability to appreciate a poem may not necessarily make for stupid, but for difference.

An avid reader of literature demystifying the brain and its functions, I was excited when a professor at one of our top-ten universities claimed to have written the definitive book on human intelligence. After seeing him on a national talk show, I rushed to the nearest bookstore. Upon thumbing through his contents page, I realized the man was a fraud and had simply repackaged the 7 parts of an ancient yogic practice, regurgitating it in pseudo-scientific academese abstruse enough to impress the uninitiated. There was no apparent outcry that I could detect either from scientific or literary quarters. That aside, I agreed with the general principal that there are several different kinds of human intelligence, and that each defines and perceives the world in ways yet to be tallied. But to date, the best-written analysis of how the brain works, my emphasis on the language center, is to be found in the work of Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen (Brave New Brain, Oxford University Press).

Andreasen’s work led me to reflect on and reassess years of readings, and confirmed my lay observations that anomalies of the brain, regardless of the cause, but especially disease process, can and do affect language—what one means when one uses it, what one hears when it’s said, and what one reads on the page—fake profundities and fake meaning aside, although the real “normal” phonies may, indeed, contribute to a muddling of the difficult-enough discourse and raise feelings of inferiority in those who prefer their literature straight forward and conventional.

Five years ago, I was invited to present my poetry at an event in Columbus, Ohio. In one poem, a character utters the word “bitches.” However, since the poem is set in South Central L.A., and the character was stoned at the time, I pronounced the word as he pronounced it in real life, and made a litany of it: “bitch-chez,” drawing out the “ch” sounds and stretching the “ez.” After the reading ended, I was approached by a gentleman and his friend and asked about the word I had used so repeatedly. What was it? I had no idea what he meant. I was proud of my vocal skills and knew I had enunciated well. He tried to explain, stating that he thought that the word I had used was French. I responded that I appreciated his directness, but that there were no French words in the poem. Finally, he gave up, thanked me and left.  Two days passed before I realized what he had meant. Of another race, place, and time, he had never heard that junk-drunk pronunciation of the word and therefore could not understand my distortions of it. He simply had no ear for it!  I wondered, then, how many poetry lovers in my seemingly enthusiastic audience, on that trip, or others, had silently, secretly, reacted that same way to that poem, despite their laughter, applause or amens?  To what extent were poems I thought accessible truly understood by those who did not have the social, philosophical or musical context?

Originally Published: April 9th, 2010

Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not...