Part Five: Eleanor Ross Taylor, Commodities Trading, Political Correctness, Handcuffs, Wolf Whistles, and “Client-Based”
Another Pre-Script: Blackbird, as promised in Part Three, has made available the audio version of the papers and talks devoted to Eleanor Ross Taylor at this year’s AWP gathering. Organized by Catherine Barnett, the panel’s participants include Jean Valentine and Kevin Prufer. Also on the site are a group of unpublished poems in manuscript and final form.
None of the writers in this essay, including myself, demand a poetry based on ideology or identity politics. Quite the contrary: we know that aesthetic endeavor seeking arguments with others, rather than the self, results in rhetoric—which might be described as the commodification of language—as Yeats, who knew its allure quite well and in whose London residence Plath gassed herself next to the refrigerator (“appliances,” “The Applicant”), pointed out nearly a century ago. This subject seems a currently provocative topic of discussion, thank God, for I’ve long wondered if certain writers’ choices of subject matter were based on political correctness, a superb selling point for poets of either race just now. What’s the difference, in the end, between such choices and the political speeches we hear—“Read Me!” “Vote for Me!”—intended to sell a candidate? There’s a superb recent essay that treats this subject, if seemingly aslant, by Robert Pinsky. (To refer back to my earlier discussion of Plath, racism, and anti-Semitism, I should point out that Seph Rodney, an African-American who read "Nick and the Candlestick" as part of Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, is also unlikely to have chosen a poem from Plath had he believed her racist, nor is Pinsky, proudly of Jewish origin, likely to have included Plath in the FPP if he thought her anti-Semitic, either.) At AWP, Michelle Boisseau, from that “northernmost city in the South,” Cincinnati, and most recently the author of A Sunday in God Years (University of Arkansas Press, 2009) and new work in Shenandoah, announced that “political correctness will kill us”; whereas the Poetry Foundation offers a highly provocative podcast by Reginald Dwayne Betts, who, like Baron Wormser, is a Baltimore native. What I’ve found most striking in Betts’s sole collection thus far, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James) is his uncanny adaptation of the ghazal—a tightly-linked form that involves couplets and repeating end-words. At first I thought of prison’s soul-destroying claustrophobia and bars, literal and metaphoric, but when I read the title of the podcast, I knew I’d reached for precisely the wrong trope: “A Name Like a Handcuff.” And yet he provides a key through his website, at which you'll discover that I'm not the only one who holds his work in such high esteem.
Betts, Wormser, and Randall Kenan—who will relate certain matters in fuller detail—have written in more than one medium, as did Plath. Even in her poetry, she exploited the third conventional genre of literature: drama. While less well-known than The Bell Jar, Three Women, her radio play, in addition to her absorption in Shakespeare,* perhaps offered a transition to her most notorious poems—"Daddy," "Lady Lazarus"—in which we see her ability to create boldly, with sometimes-droll, sometimes-sarcastic flair, characters.*
Before I quote Kenan, however, I feel the need to be straightforward. I’m certainly not among those who believe that Huckleberry Finn should be sanitized: being truthful in regard to historical accuracy is vitally important, and what’s more, I have deployed the “n” word in a poem myself, though making clear that it is “crooned” by white supremacists, many of whom are victims of hate speech themselves. I first heard the term “white trash” from black people and think I unconsciously had Auden in mind when writing “I’m a Steady Rolling Man”: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
While writing that poem and again now, I wonder—no, fret—about the unanswerable: do slurs of any kind perpetuate hatred of Otherness, and if so, how should they be addressed? As Boisseau stated boldly, polemics murder the artistic imagination through fear and self-censorship. But I don’t think I could read this particular poem aloud; indeed, as previously indicated, my initial reaction to Jackson’s “A Mystifying Silence, Big and Black” was so Pavlovian that Jackson’s primary point failed to register: fiction writers of both races have been quicker to tackle such issues than poets.
So how do we characterize Barry Hannah? “He was a man of his time and reflected the language he heard around him”? “He was a complicated man”? Simplifying matters here, at least somewhat, was the straight-shooting Kenan, another vital force behind the resurgence in James Baldwin, as well as an early recipient of the John and Renée Grisham Fellowships at Ole Miss:
I think a writer (Southern, Northern, Chinese, Dutch) has the right to write a character that is true. Did not Buddy Nordan use that word repeatedly in Wolf Whistle? [Yep. I checked.] Wasn't that justified and meet? I have and will continue to defend that book. When racist and derogatory language has come up in Barry's writing I never attributed such thoughts to BH — it's FICTION(!). Again, I remain confused by the objection.
Odd that the late Lewis—a/k/a “Buddy”—Nordan’s name should pop up, and for more than one reason. Wolf Whistle’s subject is the murder of Emmett Till, who also appears at the end of “I’m a Steady Rolling Man,” the poem I mentioned, and the crime lies at the core of two recent, highly commendable books: Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination, eds. Harriet Pollack and Christopher Metress (LSU) and Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, by Simeon Wright with Herb Boyd (Lawrence Hill). Moreover, I have a statement Nordan read at the Millennial Gathering, a massive undertaking on the part of Kate Daniels, that is eerily echoic of my own thinking on related matters:
I feel isolated and alienated when I watch Def Comedy Jam. I feel the same when I hear rappers refer to women as ho’s and bitches. This is only fiction, I try to tell myself about those rap lyrics. The narrator is not the artist but a realistic personae created by the artist. I tell myself that if I can’t participate in the narrative of this particular genre of fiction, if I’m so isolated by it and take it so personally, am I not lost? Are we not lost? As willing as I believe myself to be to opening my heart to the wide world, I often am frightened and ashamed to find it closed in fear and ignorance...
“Closed”: Till’s mother made the incomprehensibly courageous decision to allow her son’s casket to remain open so that the world could see what two men—who sold their story to journalist William Bradford Huie for $10,000 once acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury, knowing they were protected by the law disallowing double jeopardy—had done to her child. But as if he had not received sufficient torment at the end of his cut-short life, only a few years ago, Till’s coffin was found among detritus in a burial ground south of Chicago. A gruesome scenario in which funeral workers were exhuming bodies and caskets in order to make room to sell more plots was uncovered, so to speak, and Till’s coffin has now found a more befitting home at the Smithsonian.
“Blues for Emmett Till,” Cornelius Eady might have titled the poem that arose from the incident, “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket”, though “psalm” might be a better term. For if Eady’s work initially prompts the question as to whether we’re reading a broken-up prose poem or verses so KJB-derived they might well be numbered, successive readings have caused me to ponder whether or not “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket” makes such a distinction useless; there’s also the biblical combination of brutality and sacrifice. As for the “wild surprise” at the end, it mercilessly interrogates the Wordsworthian view of nature. Eady deploys a tactic not unlike Plath in repudiating the ur-Romantic by claiming language that should be remembered by everyone who has "Survey of English Literature, II” and making it his own. To give the full phrase from “There was a Boy,” a poem written earlier but incorporated into The Prelude (1799 version), “a gentle shock of mild surprise” appears in line 19, near the beginning, but the last line? “Mute—looking at the grave where he lies,” and without a jocund possum in sight.
Hate. Cruelty. Language. Prose. Poetry. Despite Kenan’s—“it’s fiction and a character speaking, stupid”—there is no definitive resolution to the questions that writing this essay has provoked in my own mind; nor, perhaps, should there be. Thus all I can offer by way of a conclusion is that Hannah later chose two other African-American writers as Grisham fellows, Shay Youngblood and Claude Wilkinson, which is unlikely to have happened were Hannah genuinely racist himself. And Wilkinson, a Whiting Award winner and the first black poet to hold the post, wrote most of Joy in the Morning (LSU, Dave Smith’s Southern Messenger Series) while at Ole Miss, after having won Michigan State University Press’s Naomi Madgett Award for his first collection, Reading the Earth. Since Wilkinson’s time in Oxford, he has devoted himself both to new paintings and a third collection:
Tentatively titled "Marvelous Light", [the book] explores 1 Peter 2:9 which states "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" with regard to the Scripture's linguistic ramifications evident in art and experience, but not necessarily, and certainly not exclusively in its biblical context.
Wilkinson alternates working on paintings and poetry, and presently, his time and energies are devoted to a cycle of poems—”Half Past Autumn”—inspired by the photographs of Gordon Parks. Sections appear in the recent issue of The Southern Quarterly along with essays on Lois Mallou Jones and the Alabama-born Zora Neale Hurston. Furthermore, a small visual treasury from a co-exhibit with the late William Gay, held about a year ago at Southside Gallery in Oxford, remains available for viewing on Facebook. While I knew Wilkinson taught in addition to his two other vocations (“Bridgforth Gin” is among my favorites of what I’ve seen thus far), I was wholly ignorant of the fact that he, too, has put in time as an editor, and an excellent one, judging by the current issue of Valley Voices, which includes contributions by Gina Ferrara, Laurence Hetrick, and Jean-Mark Sens; as well as Edward Bruce Bynum’s Chronicles of the Pig and Other Delusions, this year’s winner of the Madgett Prize. Of Wilkinson, Hetrick, the longtime editor of The Chattahoochee Review and the author of a new collection of poems, Derelict Tributaries (Anhinga Press), writes how a phrase like “Monet and Saul” in Wilkinson’s work would surely raise questions in this our secular age. The answer is simple, for Hetrick—the first is a painter, the second a follower of Yahweh, thus both are friends of the poet—but while the former hangs on the walls of every other dentist’s office I’ve ever visited, I lack his certainty as to the latter’s easy recognition. Though I’ve no argument with what follows:
There aren’t any appeals to broad perspectives in this poetry because the world of the poems is believed to be universal, and in the poems, it is so. This approach is quite different, and more natural, that appealing to a phenomenological or epistemological aesthetic, or beyond that, to “theory.”
[Wilkinson’s] work is not regionalist because it is not about his region. Rather it is from his region, his home.... His poetry comes naturally from his land and its creatures, it is naturally about his people, it naturally wears the values of its Christian outlook, and so on.....
Hetrick goes onto to describe the resistance Wilkinson’s work encountered when he showed it, in his days as editor of The Chattahoochee Review, to an African-American poet from Memphis, who objected to its lack of topical concerns, i.e., Civil Rights.
Arguments in this country about the relationship between politics and poetry get off to a false start when critics assume that political responses must be literal and obvious, or they don’t qualify as such. But the poems of Akhmatova and Mandelshtam that were considered incendiary and dangerous, for which they were punished, were not responses to political programs as such. They were “merely” honest expressions of how they felt in their world. Their challenge and their danger [think also of Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius”] were in their freedom.
Which, of course, is true of Wilkinson’s own poems, making them dangerous whether in Plato’s Republic or a totalitarian state, for in both, poets and other such apparently useless citizens must be kept under watch, while “in a democracy, casual freedoms mean nobody notices what’s going on.” Except results at the voting booth or cash register; and I’d argue that the Anglophone Indian writer Kunai Basu’s term “client-based” is applicable to either, while poetry “that has no palpable designs upon us,” to quote Keats’s famous phrase, is far more pertinent to each writer discussed in this essay, even if “client-based” is among the central urgencies behind both Robert Polito’s Hollywood and God (look also for the new volume he has edited for the Library of America on David Goodis, and an accompanying interview) and a recent poem by David Lehman, “The Models”; and then there’s Robert Pinsky’s early but canonical poem, “Shirt”.
*While Plath's journals, letters, and interviews contain references to Shakespeare, little has been done in the way of direct study of influence, even airy—or fleshly—habitation. Perhaps Baron Wormser's forthcoming essay, "The Valor of My Tongue," will increase the scanty dialogue we now have on the subject.