Today would have been James Baldwin’s 88th birthday, and we should celebrate the fact with sweetness and light and the gentle moral irony that informed Baldwin’s writings. I am feeling anything but genteel today. My thoughts are informed by David Walker rather than Baldwin, by indignation rather than civility.
When Baldwin screwed up enough courage to confront the horrors of the Atlanta Child Murders, he was only able to behold cosmic evil through a glass darkly. Walker, on the other hand, saw cosmic evil up close. He saw cosmic evil kidnap people, champion ignorance and wretchedness, rape and dehumanize women and men, slash and brand skin, dislocate children from their parents, and dissolve human spirits as effectively as certain acids dissolve flesh.
Having a privileged view of cosmic evil’s progress in American life and letters, I must follow Walker and save my soul.
Poetry in America was far from a state of bliss in the early years of the 21st century, but it was possible to believe that a Walt Whitmanesque evolution was in progress with avatars of Emily Dickinson crispening and critiquing the boundaries and margins of growth. Anti-democratic snobs and democratic clowns, lamb-like conservatives, ferocious liberals, the filthy rich and the dirt poor, ordained thugs and wannabe saints, and gothic unnameables -----virtually all registers of sound and sense and nonsense were being published and read, performed and heard. Poetry was poetry was poetry. Credit Robert Pinsky for doing much to nurture such a progressive atmosphere.
Suddenly in 2011, defecation hit the air-conditioning. Cosmic evil tore off its Gucci and Calvin Klein underwear, exposed its androgynous genitals and opened the doors of the brothel of high-ground criticism. Suddenly, the satanic prostitutes and demonic pimps began advertising their wares in some elitist and high-brow venues.
What had happened? Nothing vulgar , reprehensible or lurid. Rita Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate had edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. But for the poetry pimps and prostitutes, Dove had not edited an anthology. She had committed the unpardonable sin of broadcasting that the dreadful hegemony that enslaved the American poetic imagination was dead. The devotees of race-inflected hegemony made haste to teach her and the masses of people who favored the Whitmanesque evolution that the power of cosmic evil should prevail.
I am far too indignant to call names and kick the private parts of the pimps and prostitutes who have made such a critical and unpatriotic spectacle, such a public black mass/masque. I am too angry in knowing the children of the Devil have prepared a cesspool before me in the presence of the enemies of genuine poetry. It is not in anyone’s best interest that I should try to be a serial killer of the American whorehouse nightmare, that antithesis of Whitman’s dream of inclusion.
The people for whom I write are intelligent. They do not possess race-blind, castrated mentalities. They think.
To them I suggest the following:
Read Helen Vendler’s “Are These the Poems to Remember?,” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011
Read Rita Dove’s “Defending An Anthology,” New York Review of Books, December 22, 2011 [Vendler’s single sentence reply (page 99) is more than precious: “I have written the review and I stand by it.”
Read Honorée Fannone Jeffers, “The Subjective Briar Patch:Contemporary American Poetry," Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2012
Read Honorée Fannone Jeffers, “The Blues: A CraftManifesto,” Kenyon Review, Summer 2010
Read Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” Boston Review, May/June 2012