WARNING: SUPER LONG POST!
This is an important question, also one which I am trying to figure out in the context of “heart-reading,” vibration, and other stuff, so I’m happy to take some time this morning/afternoon and explore it with you and whomever else is interested. But, I think it’s high time we move out of our theoretical perspectives, and move into actual works of art, which we weirdly haven’t done yet, which to me is probably some kind of evasion on our parts. So, I thought this morning in the shower: what poems should we look at? And, I decided I wanted to look at the work of two poets, also African-American, male and queer, both mostly 20th century (Reginald Shepherd passed away in 2008). Before we look at the poems, though, maybe a quick introduction, to explain why I chose work by these two poets.
I think it’s important, especially in our very intense “cultures wars,” which manifests in different ways in the various debates in the poetry and literary worlds, for poets from various backgrounds to discuss the work of poets from different backgrounds - with care, conscientousness, awareness of differences, but also awareness of authentic, actual (not wispy or too new-agey or assumption-laded or whatever else) commonalities . For some on IC, this might sound obvious; to others, it might not. But there is a very apparent cultural context in which such a decision, move, belief, value - to write about, engage with, deeply think about works by authors from different backgrounds and cultures, and write about such authors/people, whether in prose or poetry - is considered problematic, or appropriation in a negative sense. From my perspective (I would love to hear what others think), these interpretations are taken too far, and suggests sort of silos based on identity that I think are utterly counter-productive and even disingenuous in a way. Of course, such cultural crossings should be done with care. But also of course, they should be done, practiced, performed, etc., if we are to acknowledged the truth that there are very many commonalities that do ultimately unite us.
For people who are new to these issues around appropriation, it could be good to read something about these debates. For example, the “Open Casket” controversy - here is a link to the Wiki page, although of course that’s only the beginning. (The controversy involved a White (and Jewish) artist, Dana Schutz, painting a portrait of Emmet Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was horribly and tragically lynched in Mississippi by two white men in 1955.) For quick reference, here is the painting:
It would also be useful to have an awareness regarding the very intense controversy that happened in 2015 in the poetry world, involving the “Conceptual Poets” (link to a definition of conceptual poetry) Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, in the context of appropriation. Here is an article about these controversies in the Los Angeles Review of Books, an online magazine I personally like and find even somewhat rigorous, though I’m not sure I totally agree with the author’s take; here is another article by the poet and critic Aaron Kunin that I personally think is more accurate - he actually uses the term “aesthetic value,” thus relevant to @achronon’s invocation of value (ethical in Ed’s case) in his last post - though I’m always open to hearing what others think.
This framing can go on forever. I’m hoping these cases might be illustrative and somehow somewhat representative, at least for those who are new to these important controversies and debates in the art and poetry worlds and beyond. When I choose to talk about the work of two African-American poets, who are also male and queer (Hemphill also lived with AIDS), this takes place within the context of these debates. My choice should in some ways express where I personally fall in these debates - I do think artists and critics should be free to explore the world, the self, creativity, etc. through whatever lens they feel is appropriate, even if said lens involves the experience of a different person, group, culture, society, etc. I find the exclusive emphasis on identity politics and difference, without any recognition of real commonality, to unfortunately miss the point, and sometimes even devolve into its own vicious form of ethnocentrism. That’s my take, at least. (I just realized I haven’t stated that I am a white, Jewish, heterosexual, cis-gendered male, among many other things.)
So: we were talking about evaluation. Let’s look at two poems, so that I can show what I mean, instead of theorize about it. I’m going to share a poem first by Essex Hemphill. Here is a short introduction to the poet, performer and activist on Poetry Foundation’s website; here is a link to an anthology of writings by Black gay men that Hemphill edited, at Internet Archive (you can create a free account and check it out). Also, the poet Danez Smith recently wrote an essay in the NYTimes which is a moving love letter to Hemphill here.
I recently borrowed from the Internet Archive a book by Hemphill called Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. It is a collection of prose and poetry published in 1992. The book opens with a poem called “American Hero,” which can be read below. (Placements of poems in books of poetry, or poetry and prose (sometimes called sequencing), should be thought about it and taken into account, especially poems that open and close a book. As this poem opens Ceremonies, I think it’s a good place to start our discussion about evaluation).
If you’ve read the poem, what did you think about it? Did you enjoy it? What did you enjoy about it? Were there any formal features that stood out - word choice, enjambment (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza.), syntax? How did these features help or not help you to experience the poem? How did you experience the poem?
The poem is in both the present and past tense, and seems to be a memory (suggested by the past tense in “I scored / thirty-two points in this game”) of a thrilling experience during a basketball game (backboard, net, ball, score, etc.). Yet I think this poem serves as a good example of a few things, though here we can focus on aesthetics/ethics, figurative language, as well as (if we have time) the role sincerity plays and does not play in poetry. Let’s start with ethics and aesthetics. What are some aesthetic aspects of the poem? “Shimmering club light” is interesting, as a sort of transposition of the unmentioned basketball court into a new environment/context. Also, “Choke it” - the undertone of violence implied by the phrase - is an intriguing way of talking about a basketball sliding through the net. There is some alliteration - the “s” in “slick,” “sweat,” “squinting,” “slap,” “slam,” and so on. And there is a “volta” in the poem - volta refers to a shift or change in the poem towards or into a different direction, here signified by the word “But.” Here the volta involves a recognition, colored by a sort of sober sadness, even weariness, that the feeling of happiness, excitement, joy, aliveness, described in the above lines in regards to this experience playing sports and feeling a sense of community and genuine pride would, in a different context - “towns, / certain neighborhoods” - not actually happen, where no cheers would be heard if the speaker moved or lived there.
What are the ethical aspects of the poem? I think the volta is at the heart of this question - Hemphill is raising the important point that, in one context he feels happy, an “American Hero,” and in another context - presumably White, or heterosexual, or cis-gendered, etc., though this is not made explicit and left more open - he is not.
Okay, we have tried to offer a balanced reading of the poem - what is essentially an “analysis.” For those unfamiliar with analysis and evaluation, here is educational theorist Benjamin Bloom’s famous and ubiquitous-in-education-programs “taxonomy”:
Like Maslow’s famous hierachy, Bloom’s taxonomy is a movement from what is more fundamental to what is more significant. In this sense, evaluation is actually harder and more significant than analysis - it requires actual judgment, (judgment has connotations of prejudice, or “judging someone,” but that’s now how I mean it here). To actually evaluate a work of art requires some expertise. The person doing the evaluating - a critic or scholar, let’s say - must compare the work of art to pretty much every work of art he or she has ever seen, conscioiusly and/or unconsciously, and reach some sort of conclusion, even a tentatively authoritative conclusion, about the value or significance of said work of art. This essentially involves a deep, informed, wide-ranging and subtle act of comparison (depth and width), and the comparison is used in the service of a more conservative (another loaded word, though I am not referring to politics here - more in this sense of “conservation”) purpose, i.e. to make an argument about what should be essentially preserved, saved, returned to, because it has enduring aesthetic value beyond one’s time and place and culture. Now, of course this is in many ways a total crap shoot. In this way, it’s fascinating to read contemporary reviews of Whitman - in some ways, many people just were not ready for Walt’s poetry. But take Samuel Johnson’s estimation of Shakespeare - that, conversely, has endured. So it’s interesting to think about.
I should say now that evaluation is not really practiced very much today. It was in the past - F.R. Leavis is probably a good example of this, and of course Bloom - but postmodernism, and especially egalitarian postmodernism, resists hierarchy, so the idea that there are actual qualitative differences between works of art that makes one artwork better (and not just different) is often not talked about.
Now let’s return to Hemphill’s poem, through the lens of evaluation. Is it any good? Compared to what has been written in the past, in poetry, does it have value? Well, as we covered in our analysis, it has some aesthetic value and some ethical value. Does it have any lasting value? Here is where I would say, “no,” this poem does not have enduring aesthetic value. It is interesting and important as one gay Black man’s experience, but this is primarily a sociological and ethical valuing. Aesthetically, the poem is pretty unexceptionable. The language is somewhat staid and tired - “The crowd goes wild,” “I scored / thirty-two point this game / and they love me for it.” The form and content do not seem totally necessary - could this poem work in the same exact way as a prose poem, or just as prose? Is there anything really aesthetically new about this poem? Again, I’d have to say no - there have been many poems written just like this one - not identical, of course, but in the same sort of vein, tenor, mode, figuration, language, arrangement, formal concerns, etc. Perhaps its stands out sociologically, as a pioneering and very courageous queer Black man with HIV writing about an “American Hero.” And yes, of course, there is pathos there. But at the level of aesthetics, this poem is pretty run-of-the-mill. (Please feel free to disagree with me here.)
I need to leave soon to eat lunch, so I’m going to share a second poem now, but I might not have too much time to discuss it, at least for now. Here is a poem by Reginald Shepherd - an introduction to his work can be found here, as well as a great long quote from Shepherd himself about his poetics and poetry. Shepherd was also African-American and queer. Yet his poetry, unlike Hemphill’s (or at least what I’ve read of Hemphill’s, which is admittedly not much so far), does have some lasting value, I would argue. Here is a poem called “The Friend”:
Can you feel - do you experience - the difference between “The Friend” and “American Hero”? Shepherd’s poem is richer, more complicated, more demanding, more difficult, more intriguing. It demands more attention, and rewards more attention. For example, what does it mean for a queer Black poet to describe himself as “posthumous”? Not only once, but twice? What is happening in this poem? How do you understand it? I would argue, as should be obvious by now, that in this instance, Shepherd’s poem has more aesthetic value than Hemphill’s. I’d love to take some time and offer an analysis of “The Friend,” but unfortunately I don’t have time right now. Still, maybe this is a good thing - for, if you have time, whoever is reading this, really look at, read, experience, absorb, both poems. Think about what they are doing, how they are doing it, what they mean. Then, don’t be afraid of doing this - compare them. Are they different? Similar? How so? I think that if we are honest, we’d find that Shepherd’s poem, in the context of evaluation, is richer and more aesthetically significant than Hemphill’s. And, along with this, that this is an important insight, and that we should be able to make and argue for such evaluations, as we are all essentially custodians of culture, and what we save and judge as lasting will have an impact on our own culture, as well as those who come after us.