Earlier this week I had the opportunity to read Amiri Baraka’s criticism of Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, edited by Charles Henry Rowell, on the Poetry Foundation’s website. Baraka’s commentary provoked me to consider the individual responsibility of the poet and what, if any, debt the poet owes to those who have come before. This internal wrangling reminded me why I came to poetry many years ago. One reason was to develop conversations with the poets whose work touched me; one was to transcend the ever-present ache of reality by seeing myself in another’s experience. I found poetry, unbounded by human constraints of temporality, suited to truths that pull individuals together—a grand unifier, so to speak.
And it is with this personal belief in poetry as a unifier that I disagree with Baraka’s primary assertion that Rowell’s editorial choices are an “anti” to the Black Arts Movement. Understandably, Baraka takes umbrage with the omission of certain pivotal authors, like Nikky Finney, from the text. He also rails against what he views to be an ahistorical perspective of the Black Arts Movement’s significance. Baraka writes, “…distinctive about Rowell’s introduction is that just about every page mentions the ‘Black Arts Movement,’ ‘the Black Aesthetic poets,’ ‘the Black Power Movement’ — all like some menacing political institutions.” However, in my view, Angles’ logical advance illustrates the interrelationship between the works of Black poets from modernism to post-structuralism and thereby implies poetic inheritance. Each section offers an inextricable ancestral tie between the eras. There is no move, either overt or implicit, to sublimate the message or importance of the Black Arts Movement. Rather, Rowell invites the reader to consider the temporal linkages and, through the work, inquire why and how the Black poets’ voice and text corpus changed. These reflections suggest correlations between the poetic body and the political and cultural economy.
Certainly, one of the predominant ways in which cultural developments can be examined is through individual self-definition. Western cultures have long placed a higher value on the individual than on the collective. Conversely, one of the significant contributions of the Black Arts Movement was a poetic shift from an individualist to a collectivist paradigm for the sake of responsive action to the political landscape of the time. What we see and read and hear in the voice of the contemporary Black poet is an evolution, of sorts, in the relationship between individualism and collectivism; a new model presents itself in which they are peaceful, non-oppositional co-habitants. Essentially, for the contemporary Black poet, collectivism resides inside the many Black cultures birthed from the work of our poetic and political forebears. Meanwhile, individualism persists in the poet’s desire to be united with the fragmented and the frayed by understanding his or her own position within their context. More than anything, this evolution bolsters the Black Arts Movement’s importance in helping to disabuse monolithic conceptions of Blackness. If we fled from the imposition of the stereotype that all Black people look alike, then our poetic work will equally take part in that flight. And we will see, as we do, a natural migration from “movements” to “collectives” to independent self-construal.
At stake then is not the Black Arts Movement’s legitimacy, but rather a progressive shift in the poet’s gaze from allocentric to idiocentric. This goes far to explain Rowell’s position:
…the work of these poets [third-wave, contemporary, African
American poets] are the direct results of what such poets as
Yusef Komunyakaa, Ai, Cyrus Cassells, Rita Dove, Thylias Moss,
Toi Derricotte, Harryette Mullen, Nathaniel Mackey—the first
wave—write, which is whatever they wanted and in whatever
forms and styles they desired…
Baraka counters, “I cannot see any stylistic tendency that would render them [contemporary African American poets] a movement or a coherent aesthetic,” but I believe that is exactly the point. This seems a reasonable example of how cultural variation leads to individual “I”-based consciousness in the work. As an offshoot of that, each poet, as Paul Valéry stated in The Art of Poetry, “…lends his expression, adds and transforms, introduces local allusions, new incidents, and his own images. It is a life of a work developing from mouth to mouth.” Furthering this proposition, it is life and experience as lived through the imagination and mouth of the poet. Ultimately, the poem becomes the individual expression of