Masters and Master Works: On Black Male Poetics
Black Male Poetics as a title begs and defies definition. Langston Hughes set himself the task of being the architect of a culture’s literature, a culture that developed against the antagonism of racism. In the Harlem Renaissance, some black artists were achieving the unthinkable, but on the whole, they were a curious subset in the eyes of the dominant culture. So does black male poetics suggest an examination of the obstacles in a black male poet’s career? Perhaps. Does it suggest there is still a choice to be made regarding the role a black male poet should choose? Perhaps, but that implies the ideal of leadership, which is a problematic holdover from centuries of male domination. The black poetic tradition is defined, to a large extent, by the accomplishments of black women, accomplishments that never came to black men. Phyllis Wheatley published the first book. Gwendolyn Brooks received the first Pulitzer. Rita Dove became the first Poet Laureate of the United States. Hughes might have been the architect of the first half of the twentieth century, but the first major award for poetry went to Brooks at the end of those first fifty years. Brooks was encouraged by Hughes during a reception she attended with her mother as a teenager. Brooks notes in her autobiography just how significant that encouragement was to her.
So in a poetic tradition figured by racially-based political oppression and distinguished by the achievements made first by black women, what is a black male poetic? I would like to consider this question in terms of "Masters and Master Works," alluding to the tradition exemplified by Pound but referring to the black male poets Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright. Hughes believed in the necessity of affecting the whole of African-American culture in a manner echoing Joyce’s annunciation in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Hayden arrives as the craftsman more concerned with his immediate and intimate connections in lyrical expression, and Wright resumes the role of speaker to a culture but to the whole of human culture out of a spiritual wellspring that moves out of an African-American base to multiple cultural references in multilingual expressions. If we pose the question of what constitutes black male poetics, we might also offer a circuitous response in quoting the title by Wright, namely "What Is Beautiful."
In the first volume of his seminal biography of Hughes, Arnold Rampersad notes the poet’s inability to express anger. Rather than do so, Hughes internalized the emotion until he became physically ill. That in conjunction with the fact that no one knew Hughes as a person speaks to the price of being an architect, a denial of intimacy to one’s self for martyrdom in poetics. Had it been Rilke or Neruda, or even Stevens, we might have the poet’s work as a suggested intimacy, but Hughes’ self-denial was deeper. He opted to serve black folk and write out of his imaginative and empathic force, however accurate that might or might not have been to the people he observed. The lyric content he thus denied himself so he might experience giving love to black folk and enjoying whatever signs of adoration from reading audiences, however imaginary it might have been. It is too easy and simplistic to say that racism denied him lyrical expression as we really can only surmise what Hughes would have written had the quotient of freedom in American society during his lifetime been much higher than it was. He may not have had that gift. His gift instead might have been just what he gave to African-Americans, a hero’s faith in all our ability to be creative, which translates as an enhancement of the will to live in a world that all too often would have us die.
Hughes subjected himself to a rigorous honesty as much as he could, and that challenge is part of a poet’s life, no matter the race, ethnicity, or gender. Those who would parade a lack of talent as instead a self-chosen leadership role have, I argue, failed the test of this necessary and rigorous honesty, brutal as that test may be.
Langston Hughes was not pretentious about the tenor of his work. In choosing to be an architect, he had to imagine his role. That imagining is never accurate. All too often any poet will simply not know who cares whether he lifts pen to another page ever again in life. How else was Hughes to be famous given the exigencies of the blatant racial hatred during his lifetime? What are the requirements for fame today?
If American society has progressed, it should have done so such that fame has other requirements and, concurrently, poets such as Hayden who are more interested in simply being poets have more space to be, although there is no such thing as "simply" being a poet. Critical specificity requires more. Hayden and Wright are poets who write with less concern to the complexities of race and racism, and some consideration of this choice of theirs might illumine this idea of black male poetics.
Conversely, there is the black constituency that believes the urge to use one’s gifts with a focus on craft is whiteness and cultural betrayal to an ideal of blackness.This notion of betrayal is nonsensical and steeped in a lingering anxiety born in the space between black and white as evidence shows that the desire to have fame and greatness extend over the globe, even as they manifest differently according to cultural difference. The urge does live. The more sensible line of questioning out of all of this, I maintain, is whether we as citizens in an increasingly smaller and complex world need poets to continue with phallic notions of conquest inherent in greatness or aspire to newer notions of community, notions made possible by concentrating on one’s own development first, that kind of selflessness. The desire to fame and greatness is exploration of the opportunities to extend one’s self, which is not ascension to the sublime. If we look at the movement from Hughes to Hayden to Wright in this way we might see a journey toward selflessness in this thing we call black male poetics, selflessness as opposed to the quest for greatness that is more an earmark of patriarchy than anything.
Of the central conceits in Hughes’ work, that of the "genius child" is more useful to a discussion of the poet’s need for an audience and his desire for greatness in choosing such a challenging leadership role. As much a grieving over tragic failures in his relationships with his parents, a father who disliked black people and a mother who gave an envious rather than a supportive love, Hughes’ was orphaned into the vanguard of the black poetic tradition with an undeniable literary gift in a society ripe with blatant abuse and hatred of blacks and blackness. A poet has no way of shaping and shifting such tectonic plates surrounding his life, and he can be so unlucky as to be helpless over his own personality, that is personality and not self. I take the two entities to be quite different. In fact, I suppose personality to be an obstacle to realization of self and that realization of self prerequisite to a poet’s ascension to the sublime.
Greatness can bloat and in that way enlarge the personality, or it can lead to a distillation of the same.
So Hughes’ petitioned America, his white family, for membership in poems such as "I, Too," where he writes "They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed—." Forty years later, the strategy of shaming America would be abandoned by many poets who saw it better to arm the culture and engage in constructive combat, however metaphorical, rather than constructive conversation. The 60s afforded a perverse path to fame, which is to say poets were caught in the nuclear breaking open of over three centuries of separation and cast into this space of supposed opportunity that was as much confusing as it was exciting. The shift in generations is often full of the kind of anxiety where the young people cannot readily assume strategies set forth for them by their elders because the elders could not see the societal shifts in which they themselves were often unconscious participants.
One of the pinnacles of Hughes’ work as a leader, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," contains his prophesy of a self-confident poet arising from the masses to be the first manifestation of the great black poet. However, Hughes could not foresee the birth of an entire generation of poets from the working classes as a result of opportunities afforded their parents and thus themselves by the post-war industrial boom of the 1940s, the tireless work of A. Phillip Randolph and others, and, of course, the Brown decision. Whereas postal workers had been a solid line in the black middle class despite working class appearances, the 1950s would see the rise of the children of sharecroppers whose families flooded America’s major cities as late as the 1960s. All this was beyond Hughes’ vision, and the inability of most people to fully comprehend this at the time that it was happening left black male poets to once again consider leadership as greatness.
Considering the level of confusion at that time in American history, leadership seemed the only logical choice for several of the key players.
The word "perverse" might apply to the 60s literary circumstance for black men as per Hughes’ legacy. Societal pressures created such an enormous anxiety that the composure needed to maintain Hughes’ genteel positioning was nigh impossible. In the wake of the illusory opening of the gates and the illusory "freeing" of black people, such genteel demeanor looked too much like whiteness. Poets moved to cradle the culture in their arms. It was a time of actual combat, the police and military in gun battles in black neighborhoods, helicopters overhead, black children shot dead in the streets, underscored by Johnson’s deployment of a unit of the U.S. Airborne soldiers to Detroit in 1967. Poets born in the late nineteen sixties and afterwards, who are now in their mid to late 30s and early 40s can only imagine this history, and that experiential gap makes for some of the current anxiety.
The 60s contained a literary moment that was perverse inasmuch as the choices made by these revolutionary poets made them famous, a fame that troubled and confused them more than it excited and fulfilled them, a cruel fate.
Hayden made different choices. Born thirteen years before the publication of The Weary Blues, Hayden was approaching his sixties in the 1960s, a poet with his feet firmly planted in the fields of craft. If his work invoked shame in the dominant culture’s literary community, it was due more to the power of his craft, poems well-wrought, carefully conceived and painstakingly revised. There is the classic photograph of Hayden in his very thick eyeglasses as he examines a poem during the time that he was the first black consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that later became U.S. Poet Laureate, to be assumed by Rita Dove two decades later.
In what seems to be a supreme understanding of charity, Hayden constructed "Middle Passage," the African-American epic commemorating the African holocaust. With a publication date of 1962, this towering poem is the annunciation of a prophecy yet to be fulfilled. Hayden approaches the subject with a courageous forgiveness and a level of self-awareness not available to Hughes, whose forgiveness was evident but troubled, mired in the tragedy of his childhood. "Those Winter Sundays" is a balm for Hughes’ terrible wounding. As an adopted child, Hayden had a more concrete break perhaps. Whatever the interstices of his mind, it gave us "Middle Passage."
"You cannot stare that hatred down," he writes. Hatred is a terrible and seductive force, and the younger poets who surrounded Hayden in the 60s had to hold this force in their hands, as one would hold a fire. Earlier in that same section of the poem Hayden writes, "…the dark ships, the dark ships move/their bright ironical names/like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth." The 60s was likewise a time where irony was raised to exponential dimensions, and only one gesture could have a predictable outcome. Hatred brought more hatred, and the quality of the writing was sacrificed as much as Hughes sacrificed his chances for genuine love and intimacy in his personal life.
Hayden had no pretensions to leadership. He simply wanted to write, but there is never such a thing as simply wanting to write, or simply wanting to be a man. Hayden was crucified by some of the younger revolutionaries, but to some degree it was only in effigy as Hayden would never be bound actually to anyone’s cross. As much as some of these revolutionary poets wanted a Cultural Revolution of their own, it was not possible in America, another and completely "other" country. Although Mao’s little red book was popular in the sixties, the sixties’ activist poets had little access to a realistic understanding of Marxism, let alone China’s specific and unique problems.
Despite their different choices, Hughes and Hayden had one thing in common. They loved living the life of the poet. No matter his political consciousness, Hughes saw himself as a poet and artist, and his life is a blessing still unattainable to many living poets, namely enjoying a life based on one’s writings, sans teaching with its limitations and yet full of all the excitement and indeed romance of that life, the travel, the joy of being in the midst of exciting times. When it comes to living in exciting times, we are all bound to history’s roulette wheel of chance.
Jay Wright lives another life of the poet. In the 20 years that I have had the privilege of knowing him, I have made several meccas to his private home, full as it is with books and all the matter one would expect the most erudite living African-American poet to possess, all in the most overwhelming lack of pretension. Respectfully, I refrain from any surmise about his inner life and take minor liberties in discussing his work as it pertains to my exploration of what this thing might be, black male poetics.
In an early interview in Callaloo, Wright commented that if black poets have any "mission" it is a spiritual one. I offer that as insight alongside what I know to be his aversion to envisioning reality along the lines of race. It is, therefore, a bit of an entanglement to include his work in this essay, but I take the risk. Wright’s opus has been my primary mentoring light over these twenty years. My meditations on the works of Jay Wright and Sharon Olds have been my guides through my own project.
One of the few contemporary poets who still subscribe to the ideal of masterworks, Wright’s poetic project is conceived in total, which is to say he moves along a path to the completion of a work as a painter or sculptor or composer might organize his various opuses around a core piece or set of principles. This is in opposition to the poem by poem investigations of confessional and more solipsistic projects, or the silly mistake of writing to trends and thus chasing stardom. The masterworks ideal requires an envisioning or omniscience that can consume a lesser poet.
For example, Wright explains his series "Love’s Dozen" as the reconstitution of love in the world, a global project. Wright’s graduate preparation in comparative literature and his facility in several languages secure the inner structures of his works, and his grounding is distinctly different from Jean Toomer’s. Toomer’s Blue Meridian is more of an escape from race than a conscious working through the same.
In this comparison it is possible to glean also an understanding of self as I attempt to use it here in the context of selflessness.
For Toomer, the escape from race made it all the more inescapable. His selflessness was complicated by an obsession with wanting to be free of self, and this is a comparable paradox to that of revolutionary 60s’ poets whose commitment to ideals of justice caught them in the ironic mire of the time. Whatever they saw as the achievement of selflessness through a compassionate commitment to community proved to be only a compounding of the same. Selflessness could only have come in the complete turning away from the traditional ways of literary life, a more cruel fate and thus impossible.
America’s northeastern cities were no place to live a real revolutionary’s life. New York and New Jersey were galaxies away from Cuba and Angola. It was in those areas during the 60s that Wright attended seminary and did graduate work at Rutgers in comparative literature. His understanding of charity was already profound.
In "What Is Beautiful" Wright names beauty as the body of love, and love as the realization of the divine.
He writes "Here, there is no form untuned by eye, or voice/there is no body waiting for its metaphor."
Imagine this as the critical space that has confounded those living in the stream of black male poetics. Imagine it as the awesome weight Hughes assumed, the painful and solitary path Hayden chose, the tragic and ongoing loss suffered by revolutionary poets. Imagine it as those things, but see it as Jay Wright’s naming of a place of genuine selflessness, a commitment to language and learning with a willingness to tackle the inhumanity of racism, to throw a larger net over the thing, a net capable of dissolving this social construction it catches, of erasing the spaces where it might opt to live, knowing the first space to be removed is that inside one’s own heart and cranium.
Later in "What Is Beautiful," he writes ‘This is the gift of being transformed/the emptiness that calls compassion down." The charity we see in Hughes is deepened in Hayden and taken to levels approaching the sublime in Wright. Charity informed their choices as it did the choices of Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti and Askia M. Toure. I see them all as noble.
However, the choice now for black male poets is to embrace this space where they can ask themselves this question of what constitutes beauty and ask it in terms of their own lives, and not those lives weighed by the suppositions of group identity. Time has moved on, and if black male poetics is to assume a more manifest place, even as poetry itself is marginalized in exponential leaps in every waking second, then black male poets must explore the beauty of the quality of being human. Assume that humanity and not the task of proving the same. Black male poetics must upend and suspend the idea of race.
There is now no more greatness for a black male poet to assume other than a commitment to reality and the investigation of that reality arising from a deeper self-awareness. Racism is not dead, but we are now in a vortex of confluences, where the black male poet can opt to free himself from freeing the race. The first person he can save is himself, perhaps the only person. Another set of literary choices waits for black male poets as a prize, not a predator in the grass, if they can see the current vortex or junction in time as an invitation to be free to be poets and to have a greater freedom as human beings.
This essay was originally delivered during the AWP Conference in Vancouver, B.C., March 30 to April 3. 2005.