Hidden neatly in the hyperbole of Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “All Their Stanzas Look Alike” (The Maverick Room. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2005. 114-115.) is a truth of sorts. There is a boring “sameness” in a substantial amount of contemporary “canonized” American poetry. Perhaps the alleged excellence of how MFA programs teach the making of poetry is partially to blame. MFA is an acronym for an unprintable phrase. In my scandalizing opinion, MFA programs promote craft as technical excellence and ego-interiority, minimizing the option of craft to speak with engaged boldness of the painful messiness of life and world affairs. To be sure, aesthetics can evoke bright moments of pleasure or eargasms, even a bit of knowledge. But the best poetry uses aesthetic properties to intensify the pragmatic, the always present need to deal with how people manufacture horrors for themselves and others. Jazz counts as some of our best poetry, and certainly John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor and other jazz people direct our minds to the “sound” science and physics of existing. Metaphysics for real. How refreshing it is to read John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) edited by Leonard L. Brown. Abstain for a time from the sameness of poetry and look for practical and critical stimulation in the differentness of fictional and non-fictional narrative. Find alternative spaces where furious flowers bloom. We do not need to construct and deconstruct a bogus war between poetry and non-poetry, because in certain remarkable instances it is poetry and poetic equations that cut a pathway to narrative. Consider the importance of how poets Brenda Marie Osbey and Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers excavate histories, of how Rudolph Lewis employs the poetics of orality to craft fiction.
Yes, we have many lines to straighten and many “lost” narratives to read. And now is the time for the Project on the History of Black Writing (PHBW) to resume its leadership in recovery work by way of the 2015 Margaret Walker Centennial; PHBW can increase awareness of a humanistic tradition implicit in how the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival (1973) was conceptualized and executed, in why Walker’s novel Jubilee initiated a call for rigorous examinations of histories. In one sector of American letters, Joyce Carol Oates has responded to Walker’s call in The Accursed (2013) and Larry McMurtry has done so in The Last Kind Words Saloon (2014). In another sector, Kiini Ibura Salaam, James Cherry, Jesmyn Ward, Keenan Norris, and Anthony Grooms make answers in the tradition. I am noticing a need, however, to use the treasury represented by the PHBW novel database to say more about orality/orature and fiction from the Civil War/post-bellum period to the present. PHBW’s planned GEMS retrospective on John A. Williams can open up many issues about who gets taught in the academic world against who gets read by the non-academic public. Credit must be given to Ishmael Reed for suggesting some years ago that we pay tribute to John A. Williams by reinvesting effort in trying to understand the present relevance of Williams’ noteworthy but under-examined body of work. Let us not forget the importance of revisiting Reed’s own anthologies, novels and essays, his thoroughly multicultural conversation with America.
The reception of genres at any given period is central, of course, in recovery work, but so too is the matter of how themes can encourage or discourage discussion and examination in the public sphere. Kenton Rambsy’s work with short fiction for his dissertation is bringing some aspects of what I see as a major discursive problem in how we deal with literature to the foreground/ Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) and Keith Clark’s The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2013) ask us from very different angles to reexamine "social realism" or socially/politically engaged fiction in light of what happens in American life beyond "literature."
I find myself generating questions in my writing about how Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring might connect us with the preoccupation in mass media with the antics of Jay-Z and Beyonce, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Or how his The Blacker the Berry obligates us to deal with the color-blindness of people of no-color who have 20/20 vision of racial colors as they project their unacknowledged pathologies on the screen of the American mind. Narratives by Waters Edward Turpin, Sutton E. Griggs, Oscar Micheaux, Lorenzo Dow Blackson, and Albert Evander Coleman may occasion a fresh vision of what the world is or wants to be in 2014.
As I see things, PHBW has maximized attention to poetry and some twentieth-century fiction writers through its NEH-sponsored institutes and larger projects. Now is the time for PHBW to do more with non-canonized fiction and non-fiction. It is only fitting that more be done with the holistic, politically astute vision Margaret Walker Alexander had in nurturing African American humanism.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
May 24, 2014