What IS The Practice Of Poetry, Anyway?

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Hey Y’all:

I asked my mentor, Jerry Ward, Jr. to comment on what poetry should be, for National Poetry Month, and he was so sweet to send me something. It is, of course, brilliant.

By the way, have you been keeping track of Poetry Daily’s Poetry Picks? Remember what I said about poetic segregation just a couple of days ago? No, I was NOT lying to y’all. I just got my “Walt Whitman” Poetry Pick email this morning.

Dr. Ward’s piece is below.

Of Traditions, Canons, and Poetry

Some teenagers at John McDonogh High School in New Orleans are reading tributes for a seventeen-year-old classmate who did not survive.   She was murdered the week before along with her sister and her sister’s two children.  Four victims and no witnesses except God and the executioner.  God is silent.  Were the killer capable of guilt or grief, he might give words to the truth. The children were his first-cousins.  He is a silent, handcuffed image in prison orange on the television screen.

The teenagers are reading their poems for their slain classmate.  Ritual murder and poetry are endemic in New Orleans, in urban America.  Joining death and words is normal, as normal as the wounded consciousness that transforms pain into eulogy and elegy. The confluence of death and poetry is traditional.  It is an enactment of a people’s canon. Countee Cullen understood as much.

Most of us who write are not killers. But were we capable of absolute honesty, we might confess that we are accessories to metaphoric murders.  When our fellow writers go silent into night, we are like the teenagers who reach into the corners of their souls for the right words to speak about the now empty seat at the cafeteria table.  But even in the most sacred spaces there are no right words.  There are only words provoked and extirpated by the many guises of death.  And perhaps it is the absence of rightness alone that prevents our dwelling too long upon the fact of death.  It is a curious thing, nevertheless, that poems both mitigate our grief and amplify our guilt.  Many of us are so busy ego-tripping in our poetic gardens that we never say “thank you” to the writers we treasure until they are as cold as chiseled stone.

Poets have reason to examine the traditions and the canons in which they have located themselves.  It may be the case that the teenagers in New Orleans have the ability to make poetry when it is most needed without agonizing over aesthetic tradition or the major and minor sorting out that obtains in the secular canon.  For them, a poem is a matter of practice not of artifice.  It is an act of dealing with the ineluctable raw deals of life, of having blues with a feeling.  They are the heirs of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Langston Hughes, whom it might be argued were singers of broken dreams for their damaged but determined people.  They are in the tradition of culture-bound expression that defies the imprisonment of the anthology and the inquisitions of the gender-neutral literary priesthood.  They act and react within the frame of biocultural evolution.  What they do is deemed dreadful and quite beneath the dignity of criticism by those who insist on worshipping idols on multicultural altars.   Are the teenagers who make poems for real occasions not our primal and necessary iconoclasts?

In time some of them may attain the excellence of craft modeled by Gwendolyn Brooks, and we shall be blessed by their achievements. For the moment, let us applaud their seeing through stone as did Etheridge Knight.  They see through stone, provoked by death to articulate the poem as the universal link between earth and sky.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 13, 2010

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