Thursday, January 23, 2014
Death of Poets and Traditions
Poetry and Capitalist Cultural Entrapments
By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
The recent deaths of Wanda Coleman, Alvin Aubert, and Amiri Baraka led me to think about what we lose and what we inherit when writers die in a message
To Those Who Grieve the Death of a Poet
If you dream you are a star
More than a grain of dirt
Declare your poems to be
More than teaspoons of water
Dropped into a raving sea
You are more a fool
Than language has named you.
You worry death to death.
Your encrypted bones
Can, should you let them,
Lead you to bless the body
With the balm of love.
Recall. Spirit speaks
Echoes in the canyons of mind:
Struggle. Nothing has ended
Change. Struggle. No peace arrived.
Struggle until the end. The end
Qualifies you with death
To mourn and bury the dead.
16 January 2014
The message is a communication to an unknown addressee. I know that I intended to say we lose a unique voice when a poet dies and inherit an obligation to continue the work of rewriting the world in our own voices. Who listens? Who learns? I don’t know. Does the message only become a poem as the result of unpredictable engagements? I don’t know. If the latter is the case, I prefer that the message prevails, that it inspires a transformation of sorrow into altruism.
I remind myself that human beings are mortal particles of consciousness in our universe, necessary only for other human beings. We are at once subjects and objects to be loved or hated by human beings by virtue of what we offer in language and action. That is all. Other life forms and inert matter need neither us nor our speech acts, despite our bloated myths of human superiority and arbitrary beliefs about spiritual links with supreme powers that may or may not exist in time.
ISMs, especially planetary and cultural capitalisms, have addicted many of us to abject misery and primitive aesthetics. Flattered to embrace maximum ego and minimal reason, many particles of consciousness believe freedom is interchangeable with enslavement, that form trumps content.
I am meek enough to be tutored by poets who have departed for elsewhere. Coleman says brutal realities should be weapons. Aubert cautions that radical outbursts ought to be trimmed and nuanced. And Baraka tells me to disturb the blindness of peace until it can give birth to truth. They mentor me in traditions.
It is to Baraka’s language, Aubert’s language, Coleman’s language—all of it—that I can turn to reshape my sorrow for the death of poets into forms of literary and cultural work which do not apologize for being at once political and aesthetic. Some of that work depends greatly on my motions as a particle of consciousness.
The message ultimately is about literature in a world enthralled by capitalist cultural entrapments. By reinventing Marxism in his own image, Fredric Jameson theorized these entrapments two decades ago. Indeed, a few of his ideas about the always already changing present in “Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1991) deal appropriately with the malaise of the 21st century: the discovery of beauty in a photograph of a starving child.
The surrealism in Jameson’s premises about the status quo inspires genuine disdain for the bad faith of elitist assumptions. An exquisitely crafted villanelle about a roach is not more important than a less pristine sonnet on rape. Capitalist cultural entrapment argues the opposite is the case.
Jameson’s insights about the cultural pathology of late capitalism fail to convince me that human beings have abandoned primal agency in some fluke of evolving. His assertions are unfortunate but legitimate examples of the pink mentality at work. Poets who still have black fire know all too well what pink mentality spawns. It is in the best interest of amoral global capitalism that the bulk of the world’s population be unable to articulate the horrors of everyday life, so stoned should they be with doses of trivia and technical entertainments.
This best interest is the bane of poetry, so cultural entrapment tantalizes the least engaged poets with trinkets of achievement. This is not Jameson’s argument, but his work does make recognition of perverted motives possible. And he speaks more honestly than some intellectuals who dress their ideas in post-post-colonial garb and post-racial footwear. He had the decency to admit that his theorizing was an experiment not a truth. Jameson is not a poet, but he does inform us about the gravity of the choices poets make.
What engaged poets have the option of rejecting are postmodern suggestions that any iteration of history breaks the chains that bind us to humanity and responsibilities. Jameson spills the beans because his own immersion in capitalism is utterly translucent and rhetorical, remarkably Western. I have lived in the West most of my life and have intimacy with its foibles and motives. Innocence is not an option.
We are responsible for the surplus of evils we manufacture, for the paucity of good we produce, for our penchant to renounce our histories. We are free to sell our souls for bitcoins; free to author our own damnation; free to deny the burdens of tradition and to lust after the bliss of absolute innovation; free to smirk at the bearing of witness by those who value humility; free to pretend truth-telling efforts are prescriptive instruments of torture.
No doubt, prayer in the tradition of George Moses Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper or meditation on the outer limits of inner space “liberates” a small number of poets from slavish cultural entrapments. Blessed are those who pray, for they have epiphanies about the absurdity of being human. They may not be able to prevent "forgetting" from happening, but they do have the agency to retard its happening too rapidly. Poets who know what tradition means pray frequently.
23 January 2014
Alvin Bernard Aubert: Born March 12, 1930 in Lutcher, Louisiana, passed away on January 7, 2014.
He left school early and worked until joining the U.S. Army in 1947. He earned his GED, progressed to the rank of master sergeant, and started reading poetry seriously. Aubert earned a BA from Southern University in Baton Rouge and an MA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he was a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow. He pursued postgraduate work at the University of Illinois.
Aubert is the author of the poetry collections “Against the Blues” (1972), “Feeling Through” (1975), “A Noisesome Music” (1979), “South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems” (1985), “If Winter Come: Collected Poems 1967–1992” (1994), and “Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems” (1995). His poetry draws on his personal experience of growing up in a small Mississippi River town as well as his interest in African American cultural figures.
A career in teaching took Aubert back to Southern University, where he taught for ten years, to SUNY Fredonia and then to Wayne State University in Michigan, where he was professor and director of the Center for Black Studies as well as chair of Africana Studies. In 1975, he founded the journal Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, which was an early forum for African American literature and literary criticism.
Auberts’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Callaloo Award, and the Xavier Activist for the Humanities Award.
By Alvin Aubert
He is bound to make something happen
he is not quite sure what
but he is determined
he flits from flower to flower
he has more legs than a hive of bees
he takes everything out of them leaving them for dead.
It will be a long time before anything happen.
In the meantime he plies his adversary’s craft
on whomever is at hand and is useful to him
in that way, being bound as he is
to making something happen
something worthy of himself almost anything.....
Nat Turner in the Clearing
By Alvin Aubert
But warm still from the fire that cheered us,
Lighted us in this clearing where it seems
Scarcely an hour ago we feasted on
Burnt pig from our tormentors' in willing
Bounty and charted the high purpose you
Word had launched us on, And now, my comrades
Dead, or taken; your servant, pressed by the
Blood-drenched yelps of hounds, forsaken, save for
The stillness of the word that persist quivering
And breath-moist on his tongue; and these faint coals
Soon to be rushed to dying glow by the
Indifferent winds of miscarriage-What now,
My Lord? A priestess once, they say, could write
On leaves, unlock the time-bound spell of deeds
Undone. I let fall upon these pale remains
Your breath-moist word, preempt the winds, and give
Them now their one last glow, that some dark child
In time to come might pass this way and, in
This clearing, read and know....
a belated note to the editors of
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
If Winter Comes Can Spring Be Far Behind?
in memory of western new york
By Alvin Aubert
one could say, simply, everything,
everywhere, is white. but that
would strain the point.
one might just as well declare
affirmative action. instead,
one observes only, that, there are
snow banks still that, despite
the negligible precipitation, of
recent weeks, continue to grow,
mounting their stark precipices,
in the mind. mountains, and where
we are allowed to move at all
(one avoids saying "cliffs"), walls
of snow. deep white alleyways,
archeological in their alternate,
street plough shared layers of
dark and light dark and light,
of virginal snow and interim grime.
of solidifying all, the cold,
all movement whitely predetermined
and spring's inevitable advent
of minimal consolation.
"Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry"
Edited by Camille Dungy