Letter to the Editor
Regarding Dan Chiasson’s dismissive review of June Jordan’s collected poems [“Eight Takes,” November 2005]: June Jordan is a poetic descendant of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda who aimed to distill many rhetorical modes of various world poetries as well as African-American traditions of protest and affirmation. Who we are in the world affects our aesthetics. It always has, whether one sees the world as a perennially violent place in need of forms in which to cry out and other forms to investigate a love ethic that can stand up to violence; or whether one sees joy and grief as atomized and private experiences rather than public ones.
There are some poets, like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Hayden, who leave behind relatively small, exquisite bodies of work wherein most of the poems are polished gems. That is one kind of poetic temperament. There are other poets, like Neruda and Jordan, who write big, sprawl, and declare. Within such bodies of work are, inevitably, poems that are weaker or stronger than others. Their aesthetic project is different from that of the Bishop-Hayden project, and should be read accordingly.
Black people (and so many others) have always felt the responsibility of “defending our names” against unreasonable attack, and that can be tiring work. Is it best to not justify arguments by refusing to dignify them? Best not to try to enlighten those who would refuse the gesture? Better to turn the pen to writing new words that illuminate rather than words that merely respond? Better to create your own terms of engagement than work with someone else’s? Alas, all the eloquence in the world has not given writers of color and women their fair shake in the literary world, not even close. But Jordan offered this line in her “Poem for South African Women”: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” The “we” in the case of Jordan’s work is not defined only by race, gender, sexuality, or geography but rather by the choice to hear beyond our own experiences and aesthetics. I know I am not alone in my profound appreciation of June Jordan’s poetry, in which she sought to find a poetics that could contain all she saw in an unjust world. That is a great artistic accomplishment.
Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York, but grew up in Washington, DC, the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, Clifford Alexander Jr. She holds degrees from Yale, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD....