Like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Poetry Month sounds the alarm for annual rituals, or daily ones. Thus, April is for
Remembering and forgetting.
Hurting from ancient injuries and healing whenever possible.
Smelling the skunk of blame and drinking palm wine of forgiveness.
Tracking down the terrorists and seeking the saviors.
Repeating rituals to confirm that we are motes of dust and grains of sand in an ever expanding universe of consciousness.
And what has poetry to do with this busyness? A great deal as it circulates without need of invitation in society. Nursery rhymes, adolescent “love” poems, ads that tax intelligence, and epics are all instances of a genre that defies consensual definition. So too are song lyrics and deft words jammed against the air on the spurs of moments. The uncertainty of knowing precisely what we are talking about, other than a process of talking about something, gives poetry a bad reputation among literal-minded readers who question its legitimacy and a trumped-up name among folk who offer hasty praises and subjective prizes. We are inundated with poetry. Even people who say they do not read or listen to poetry are affected by it. A to Z we have poetry. Poetry, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, inhabits mundane crevices of daily life. Even the kind produced by produced by artificial imagination and mechanical intelligence.
As Peter Middleton puts it in Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), the making “of meaning by a poem is an intersubjective process extended over time, many individuals, and only ever partially available for cognitive reflection”(xv). Middleton aptly identifies one of many reasons for contemporary anxiety about poetry in our cultures of reading. Under the influence of anxiety, the old chestnut that a poem shouldn’t mean but be looks attractive.
“The value of reading contemporary poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they’re up to,” according to Don Share, the editor of Poetry, “is that it gets us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, things we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction.” And it does require special skill to become aware of what poetry may distract us from, especially when the word “protest” enters the conversation.
For example, in June 2016 W. W. Norton will publish Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, edited by Phil Cushway and Michael Warr. According to what is advertised on Amazon.com
This stunning work illuminates today’s black experience through the voices of our most transformative and powerful African American poets.
Included in this extraordinary volume are the poems of 43 of America’s most talented African American wordsmiths, including Pulitzer Prize–winning poets Rita Dove, Natasha Tretheway, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tracy K. Smith, as well as the work of other luminaries such as Elizabeth Alexander, Ishmael Reed, and Sonia Sanchez. Included are poems such as “No Wound of Exit” by Patricia Smith, “We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen, and “Poem for My Father” by Quincy Troupe. Each is accompanied by a photograph of the poet along with a first-person biography. The anthology also contains personal essays on race such as “The Talk” by Jeannine Amber and works by Harry Belafonte, Amiri Baraka, and The Reverend Dr. William Barber II, architect of the Moral Mondays movement, as well as images and iconic political posters of the Black Lives Matter movement, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. Taken together, Of Poetry and Protest gives voice to the current conversation about race in America while also providing historical and cultural context. It serves as an excellent introduction to African American poetry and is a must-have for every reader committed to social justice and racial harmony. 75 photographs.
There is less fanfare in what is posted on Amazon.com regarding Resisting Arrest: poems to stretch the sky (2016) edited by Tony Medina.
An anthology of poetry addressing violence against African-Americans featuring work by Jericho Brown, Kwame Dawes, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, Martin Espada, Ross Gay, Jaki Shelton Green, Joy Harjo, Patricia Spears Jones, Allison Joseph, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jamaal May, Thylias Moss, Marilyn Nelson, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, Frank X Walker, Afaa MIchael Weaver, Mark Doty and more. Edited by Tony Medina. Proceeds from the sales of this book will be donated to the “Whitney M. Young Social Justice Scholarship” sponsored by The Greater Washington Urban League, Thursday Network. [[ quoted verbatim from Amazon.com, March 27, 2016]]
Although Medina’s anthology is already in print and is conducting a conversation about violence and is contributing directly “to social justice and racial harmony” by donating money to a scholarship, it is likely that so-called mainstream media will say little about Resisting Arrest and a great deal about Of Poetry and Protest. Medina’s anthology illuminates today’s American experience through the voices of our most transformative and powerful African American poets. Of course, the pronoun “our” here does not refer to exactly the same body of people (potential readers) as does “our” in the W. W. Norton description. The disconnection matters. The discrepancy constructed between protest and violence matters as much as does what can legitimately claim to be “an excellent introduction to African American poetry.” Does W. W. Norton wish for us to believe the excellence in the anthology edited by Cushway and Warr is somehow of a different kind or degree than that embodied in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013), edited by Charles Henry Rowell?
If you can smell the funk behind the hype, you can understand why Of Poetry and Protest, backed by big money, only makes IDEAL what Resisting Arrest makes FACTUAL by its transferring of proceeds of poetry to an admirable cause. If your sense of smell is not so keen, listen to the YouTubed voice of
Clint Smith III–“History Reconsidered”
Smith will open your nose and allow you to smell what needs to be smelled during Poetry Month.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. March 27, 2016