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The Subjective Briar Patch: Contemporary American Poetry

ISSUE:  Spring 2012
The State of American Poetry
“As a writer reading, I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer.” —Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

Sit in any poetry workshop in any Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program, except perhaps Chicago State University (which has a ninety-nine percent African-American enrollment) and at least once a semester, your professor eventually will shout Ezra Pound’s Modernist exhortation of “make it new!” For all these programs’ defense of their “diverse” enrollment, and for all the “racial inclusiveness” of today’s journals, anthologies, and prize recipients, one glaring issue remains: What does it matter if the faces of contemporary American poets are different colors if ultimately the writers of the “best” poetry in American literature—the Modernists—are all white and overwhelmingly male? If a poet cannot make her literary god in a subjective image, how can someone who isn’t white or male pray at a poetry altar of her own making? The answer is: she can’t.

Nearly twenty years ago in a graduate creative writing program, my professor passionately lectured in a poetry workshop class about the importance of reading the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the undisputed king of Modernist poetry. His king-maker was, of course, Pound. I told her I didn’t like Eliot, and there was a bad scene. I didn’t speak out of ignorance, but from my personal aesthetic. I started reading Eliot back in high school. My father was a Black Arts Movement poet of some stature, as well as a tenured English professor who’d earned two degrees from Columbia. He was crazy for the Moderns and Eliot in particular, though my father was a black nationalist who favored a large, uncombed Afro and the wearing of dashikis. You wouldn’t have thought he’d lean so much in Eliot’s direction. When I entered graduate school, I carried my father’s marked-up copy of Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922). In the margins were exclamation points my father had drawn, which were meant to indicate brilliance. That Eliot was brilliant I did not dispute, but I couldn’t understand why his poetry was supposed to be so revolutionary. Surely, Eliot’s highly allusive work draws upon vast knowledge that only he seemed to access internally, but he wasn’t calling for a destruction of his own power structure as a white, highly educated male. Reading about his life, I found his worldview very conservative in many ways, despite the layered index of references in his poetry.

Since then, I’ve found Anglo-American Modernism a greasy concept to grab and hold. In my years-long reading (which includes both Robert Martin Adams’s and Harry Levin’s essays entitled “What Was Modernism”), I can’t say that I ever located when Modernism started and ended, especially since certain literary critics like Marjorie Perloff seem to be saying that Modernism never did end. I can’t say I’ve identified concretely what qualifies a poem as Modern. For example, though critics and scholars have stressed time and again that Modernism requires throwing off tradition and establishment, it has become obvious to me that some traditions are not discarded in pursuit of Modernism: race, monetary influence, and hierarchal institutions that exist in both real and abstract American sites.

Virginia Woolf famously said “in or about December, 1910, human character changed.” Well, that’s certainly true. Human character definitely changed for the worse in the case of southern white males in the early twentieth century. They lynched African Americans, just as they did during slavery. They invented the exploitative sharecropping system. Finally, in order to get another free black workforce, they instituted peonage, which amounted to the re-enslavement of thousands of African-American men. Teddy Roosevelt was the president then; he didn’t do much to improve the plight of black folks or other people of color, and his successor, Woodrow Wilson, with his southern white supremacist ties, turned a blind eye to southern racial terrorism as well. I didn’t see resistance to the American racial status quo in the poetry of Anglo-American Modernists, and as a result of my close readings, I was forced to agree with scholar Houston Baker’s assessment in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance that, “What really seems under threat [in Modernism] are not towers of civilization but rather an assumed supremacy of boorishly racist, indisputably sexist, and unbelievably wealthy Anglo-Saxon males.”

I should have informed my workshop professor that I’d been spoiled for the Anglo-American Modernists because I’d approached a different form of Modernism, that from the point of view of African Americans. I was the daughter of two highly educated, middle-class people, both of whom taught college. A child of privilege, I had taken on the frivolous career goal of writing poems for the rest of my professional life, and I had been encouraged in that enterprise by my mother. (My father had passed away by that time). Because I was a thoroughly middle-class person, I did not long for economic revolution; some would call me black bourgeoisie, and probably, rightly so. I didn’t want to tear down society; I wanted good credit, and I wanted everyone to have it, too. I felt very strongly (and still do) that the way to success in American society was through access to higher education, regardless of race or class. In the same way, my approach to art has been practical yet undeniably passionate.

I had entered an MFA program to obtain academic credentials so that I could write poems and support myself by teaching college, because I knew I’d die if I couldn’t write, but I didn’t want to die because I couldn’t eat. As any good black bourgeoisie girl, I didn’t start out as a student of Eliot or Pound. No, initially, I approached Modernism from the points of view of New Negro / Harlem Renaissance writers W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Reaching back even further, I approached Modernism from the stance of Bruh Rabbit [see author’s note at the end of this piece], the trickster hero of African-American folktales, stories that were transcribed in the late nineteenth century by Joel Chandler Harris, a southern white journalist. Bruh Rabbit was a truly American hybrid, the conflation of Africans’ Anansi the Spider and the Native American (Cherokee) rabbit trickster figure, Tsisdu. By the time Harris transcribed and published the Bruh Rabbit stories in Uncle Remus (1881), they had been part of African-American oral tradition for at least one hundred years.

Now, I just seem silly, right? This is crazy talk. For how can the “lift as we climb” economic and creative aesthetics of the Harlem Renaissance writers even nudge, much less push over, Modernism, which again, is about newness? And how could some stories about a small, harmless animal really influence Modernism?

Setting aside for a moment that not one of the white male Modernist poets ever gave up their racial or class privilege, consider the fact that black folks in the early twentieth century attempting to gain political, economic, and intellectual parity with Anglo-Americans was about as revolutionary as any colored person could get. When Pound began cultivating a group of young white Modernist poets on the pages of such journals as Poetry, Du Bois published his Double Consciousness racial theory, contained in The Souls of Black Folk:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Consider that in 1909, Du Bois helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the midst of the racial terrorism in the American South; Du Bois midwifed a new generation of African-American poets and writers by publishing them in the pages of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, and published his black artistic manifesto “Criteria of Negro Art” in The Nation, twenty-three years after The Souls of Black Folk.

Consider that in their mutual correspondence, Pound and Eliot began calling themselves nicknames they picked up from the Bruh Rabbit tales and used their (admittedly bad) versions of the black vernacular to write to each other. Pound was “Brer Rabbit” and Eliot was “Possum,” another character in the tales; Eliot once signed a postcard (sent to Pound) as “Tar Baby.” Any southern black person of a certain age knows the story to which Eliot’s postcard alludes, when Bruh Fox tricks Bruh Rabbit into embracing a silent, jet-black female figure sitting in the middle of a dirt road. Then he gets stuck and can’t get loose. When Bruh Fox begins to verbally torture Bruh Rabbit by describing the violence he plans to inflict on him, Bruh Rabbit begs not to be thrown in the briar patch because it would be the worst torture of all, but after Bruh Fox throws him into the patch, Bruh Rabbit brags that it’s his home, a place of singular creature comforts.

By using these black vernacular terms, Pound and Eliot made fun of black folks, but they also were exploring a new (to them) metaphysical worldview, one that they had appropriated from southern African-American subjects. This worldview utilizes improvisation, a quintessentially trickster’s and Modernist pose. What’s interesting is that it was entirely possible for this appropriation to take place while a simultaneous dismissal of the implications of this appropriation occurred. And what was and has been dismissed? For starters, that the Anglo-American creators of Modernism not only had black “help,” they had African-American co-creators. Toni Morrison discusses this issue in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination:

There seems to be more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars that, because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius, and power, those views, genius, and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States. This agreement is made about a population that preceded every American writer of renown …

In other words, there has been an abiding scholarly attitude, and now, an abiding artistic attitude that Modernism took place at the same time, in the same American society, and sometimes, using the same language and artistic strategies used by African-American subjects, but somehow, those African-American subjects of that time, society, and language weren’t full participants in and contributors to Modernism.

Yet the creators of the Bruh Rabbit tales were African-American slaves who were the ancestors of the creators of the Blues. Those creators were disenfranchised, racially terrorized, African-American sharecroppers. And consider that the Blues is the parent to Jazz, America’s first truly Modernist and classical musical form, which is both a formal and improvisational cultural hybrid. Further, let’s close that circle: you can’t get much more improvisational than being an African-American slave in pursuit of your survival and that of your children.

Begging your pardon, how you gone say American black folk ain’t done been “new”?

In December 2011, I wrote an essay on my blog about scholar Helen Vendler’s review of Rita Dove’s edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. I’ll admit, I was angered when I read the review, since Vendler attacks the racial makeup of the anthology’s table of contents. She does not hide this attack, but comes right out with it. She actually counts the number of poets of color versus the number of white poets in the anthology. (Okay, wow.) However, to use a word Bruh Rabbit might employ, I had to “cogitate” on my anger a while.

Although I hesitate to defend Vendler, I find that I must on one small point: I can’t argue with her racial tally of the table of contents, because I always do the same thing whenever I read a poetry anthology, too. But I should add that, as a black poet, I tally more because I’m happy to see poets of color included, not because I’m outraged at their inclusion.

Child of rigorous southern home training that I am, I was bewildered by Vendler’s review, and her confidence in attacking Dove, an established American poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner as well as a two-time Poet Laureate of the United States. And this was the poet she had earlier praised and included in her critical treatment, The Given and the Made (1995). When Dove wrote a devastating rebuttal to Vendler’s review, Vendler simply replied, “I have written the review and I stand by it,” the well-heeled equivalent of the hip-hop response, “What?”

In my blog essay, I outlined three events in literary history that provide context regarding continual attacks on black poets and black poetry, going back to Thomas Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, coming forward to Louis Simpson’s dismissal of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems, and ending with Vendler’s harsh criticism of Dove’s anthology, and by extension, Dove herself. I will summarize my argument here.

In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, an unfree Black woman, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry and shook the foundations of philosophical, scientific, and literary notions about people of African descent. For example, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, the philosopher Immanuel Kant ranks different races, and going further, argues, “Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”

There were plenty of readers who, while fascinated with Wheatley’s racial (and presumably to them, exotic) background, still spoke and thought highly of her. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a poem and letter to George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington responded to her on February 28, 1776, and he referred to her as “Miss Phillis” in his heading. These two written acts were revolutionary in their own right; given the social status of black people in the colonies at that time, it was bold of Wheatley to write Washington, and it was a transformative act on the part of Washington to consider—and record— a black woman as a lady.

Yet when Thomas Jefferson, a key intellectual architect of the Revolution, chose to write about Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia, he dismissed her: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s contemptuous assessment of her poetry occurs in the same section in which he implies that black women engage in bestiality:

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white [skin tones] … preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.

During Wheatley’s time, her work was not just proof of Africans’ intellectual capability, but their full humanity when placed alongside that of their white counterparts. By placing Africans in the great ape’s embrace, Jefferson attempts to take away the gains that Wheatley’s poetry accorded an entire race of people. This may seem to be an unrealistic claim—until we take Kant’s assessment of Africans into account.

Since Jefferson’s dismissal of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, there have been too many attacks to count over the years on black poetry, but two more stand out, because the attacks focus not just on critical analysis of African-American poetry, but also, on “canonical” black poets, in particular those who are revered in the black community.

In 1963, the poet Louis Simpson wrote a review of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in the New York Herald Tribune Book Week. Thirteen years before, Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen; she was the first African American to do so, and instantly, Brooks became one of the “Great Black Firsts,” one of the numbers recorded by the African-American community in its battle against the continual onslaught of racism. As a “First,” Brooks came to represent black achievement—and, like Wheatley, an example of black humanity.

It would seem that Simpson was aware of Brooks’s importance to black cultural production and the connection of that cultural production to Black America in general, for he begins his review with a dismissive assessment of the entire Black Poetic Body: “Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.” He then goes on to say, “Miss Brooks must have had a devil of a time trying to write poetry in the United States, where there has been practically no Negro poetry worth talking about.” And in those few short sentences, Simpson attempts to make quick work of a tradition of black poetry that (in 1963) went back over two centuries.

Simpson went on to publish several books of criticism, and apparently, his attempt to dismember African-American poetry did not affect his career in the least. When Simpson’s review was reprinted in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (2001), it included a statement by Simpson that he was “glad” to have the review reprinted “because this gives me an opportunity to set the record straight … I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well.” Here, Simpson acknowledges that he might have hurt some folks’ feelings—presumably black folks’ feelings—but will not acknowledge that, in the same way that he assumes that the inferiority of black poetry speech acts should be taken prima facie, his contemptuous speech act detailing what he views as the inferiority of Brooks’s poetry and the entirety of African-American poetry should be taken in the same way.

And now we have Vendler’s review of Dove, the second African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1987, thirty-seven years after Brooks). In the past, a review might have taken months to make the rounds among poetry circles; now, it takes a matter of days. There have been poets on social media such as Facebook discussing Vendler’s review and Dove’s subsequent letter in defense of it. Many, if not most, of the white poets that have discussed the review have been outraged, but they have missed the context in which most black poets take Vendler’s review—as part of a centuries-long, ongoing attack on the Black Poetic Body.

All critics view themselves as experts. In order to argue something, the arguer must view himself or herself as an expert on the subject. But there’s a difference between arguing about a subject and arguing based upon one’s place in the world. Vendler’s arguments against Dove’s editorial choices are based upon what could be called White Privilege Literary Largesse. She doesn’t mind that Dove includes a few poets of color—what she calls “minority” poets—in the anthology; what Vendler minds is that Dove has the audacity to place those poets on the same level as the white poets.

Vendler hasn’t always had a problem with Dove. As I noted, she included positive assessments of Dove’s poetry alongside Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Jorie Graham in The Given and The Made. However, once Dove started making her own canonical gestures by editing her own anthology, Vendler moved from being Dove’s champion to her attempted vanquisher.

First, there’s an attack on Dove’s choices, as when Vendler states, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and then she proceeds to tally up pages given white—all male—poets versus black poets. This already shows that Vendler isn’t engaged in the usual pedestrian criticism of the table of contents, and it becomes even clearer when she moves from page counts to an attack on Dove’s person, as evidenced by the following: “How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?”

This passage is telling because it shines a light on the issues Vendler has with Dove-the-Black-Woman and not just Dove-the-Editor. Vendler wants to know how Dove could be so ungrateful, because she was “rewarded” so much. “Awarded” would imply that Dove deserved her many accolades, simply because she’s a brilliant poet and hard worker. However, “rewarded” implies that Dove was given advantages in exchange for something. And what exactly does Vendler think that something should be? Ignoring the fraught history of this country? Pretending that black poets besides “Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa”—the two black poets of Vendler’s choosing who don’t need “special defense”—don’t exist?

But what remains unspoken speaks volumes: Vendler really means, how is it that an Uppity Black Female Poet dared to get out of her place? How dare she make her own editorial—intellectual—choices without checking with anyone first? And that anyone would be Vendler.

And finally, there is this passage, the ultimate attack on the Black Poetic Body:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one.

In other words, the best black poets can’t ever tangle with the best white ones. And it’s ridiculous for anyone to assert that—especially another black poet.

This condescending critical assessment of black poetry has been in place since Jefferson first took up his pen and informs the sort of contemporary scholarly / intellectual condescension of Simpson and Vendler, because when one attacks African-American cultural production, that attack goes to the heart of an issue that is both moral and intellectual, and which goes back to Enlightenment philosophy. Now, it’s not that black folks aren’t human; only the meanest person would say something like that. But what’s implied is that cultural production assumes humanity from the start. It also assumes something else: privilege.

In Dove’s introduction to her anthology, she assumes her own kind of privilege, intellectual privilege, and her right to claim that privilege galls Vendler, for if poets of color are included in Dove’s anthology not because of multiculturalism, but rather, on their literary merit alone, then the whole American literary landscape not only changes in the present, it also reconfigures the past.

After I finished writing my essay and posted it on my blog, there was a lingering issue with Vendler’s review, one that I couldn’t identify. As I reread the review, I decided to set aside my anger over Vendler’s more obvious racial polemic. There was a reason for this. I grew up in the upper and deep South, and yes, I’ve experienced racism. I’ve been called That Racist Epithet, and I’ve been belittled and humiliated in other racist ways, but these days, I don’t try to hop into the head of someone to figure him out. It’s too tiresome to sit and rub my hands together and try to discover why someone hates or why he pushes the subject of his love forward. There’s also the issue of intent, and these days, with a lack of frequent lynchings, black church bombings, and racial epithets thrown toward black folks by non-black non-rappers, who can really say what someone intended, except for Rush Limbaugh and his strange, motley cohort? Instead, I wanted to understand Vendler’s championing of Modernism and her anger over what she viewed as the short shrift that Modernist poetry had been given in the anthology. I realized that Vendler was upset that more pages by the poets of her choosing weren’t included. Those poets would be Modernists and later contemporary poets who could draw a direct line of aesthetic ancestry to Anglo-American Modernists.

While looking for other reviews of Dove’s anthology, I happened upon an online essay by Harris Feinsod on a Stanford University literature blog, Arcade, entitled, “The Tolson Exception: the Anthology in the 21st Century.” Feinsod addresses Vendler’s review of Dove’s anthology, the fact that she champions Modernism, but that nevertheless, she remains upset that African-American poet Melvin Tolson was granted so many pages. I had noticed this myself in the review, and I found Vendler’s reaction curious, since historically, Tolson is granted the distinction by non-black scholars and poets as being the one “true” African-American Modernist poet.

As I read the comments beneath Feinsod’s essay, I came upon a stunning statement by Marjorie Perloff. She, too, was disappointed in the Dove anthology; in fact, she found it to be “disgraceful.” Strong words, but Perloff didn’t fall back on the old chestnut of the racial tally:

But I don’t want to play the who’s in, who’s out game, which is always trivial. As Harris [Feinsod] says, every inclusion means an exclusion. I have no objection AT ALL to an anthology that contains a large amount of Tolson’s poetry; my quarrel is with the utter lack of larger vision, concept, idea that we find in the Penguin anthology … What’s wrong is that Rita Dove’s is a celebrity anthology: Penguin evidently decided to let her do whatever she wants because, folks, she’s a celebrity! One can see her ballroom dancing on the PBS News Hour! She can get away with omitting Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath from an anthology of 20th C poetry on the ridiculous grounds that it costs too much to reproduce their works and anyway you can get them at the public library! As if Penguin couldn’t have afforded the fee! And she can get away with an Introduction so badly written (here Helen is right!) that it takes one’s breath away … It’s a disgrace. And so the real question is not whether Helen Vendler was right or wrong to criticize Dove but what it says about a culture (2012!) that produces such an anthology and with a major commercial publisher? “It’s time we had something new,” says Harris, but there isn’t going to be a satisfying classroom anthology before we try to understand the current discourse radius when it comes to poetry and poetics!!

Perloff is far more erudite than I am and I’m positive she can explain in great, brilliant detail why she chose to write these comments about Dove. And I’m positive Perloff can explain how, if she were given a Penguin anthology to edit, she would make different choices than Dove, and why, as a “non-celebrity” she would have been a better choice, although I’m a bit confused about the use of the word “celebrity.” Certainly, in my opinion, Dove is an extremely beautiful woman and she has worn fabulous outfits whenever I’ve seen her in person or on TV, but I’ve never heard her name spoken in the same breath as Beyonce’s. What I will say is that, if given a chance to edit a Penguin anthology, Perloff’s choices would be choices, not godly pronouncements.

What is disappointing about Perloff’s comments is her assumption that she knows best, and that certainly she knows better than Dove, a woman who in Perloff’s opinon can be relied upon to wear cute outfits while dancing on TV, but not to make critical choices about what might be considered the canon of twentieth-century American poetry. Perloff’s stance is made clear when she insists that “we try to understand the current discourse radius when it comes to poetry and poetics!!” That current discourse radius is Modernism, and the bright lights of that discourse are overwhelmingly white and male. Thus, although she’s not as unsavory in her racial directness as Vendler, in much of her scholarship Perloff places American poetry and poetics in an aesthetically narrow lane. The fact that American poetics continues to exclude poets of color from foundational literary history (instead of mere tangential history) is, to Perloff, an unspoken coincidence and an issue that I haven’t seen her address with any abiding concern in her work (which I was introduced to in graduate school). Again, like Vendler, she seems to be saying, “What?”

In her introduction to the anthology, Dove makes clear that she included poetry that didn’t stroke her own personal taste because she knew those poems to be important even if she didn’t like them very much. In fact, in a December 2011 interview with Jericho Brown, Dove explains, “As poets, reacting artistically with, to and against our environment, we tend to look at poetry both from the intimate perspective of the insider as well as from the vantage point of the observer who needs to take in the whole picture.” This seems a very fair, even-handed attitude, but I suppose it’s not a very Anglo-American Modernist attitude, where the individual can ignore what is going on right in front of her, hit the restart button on American literary history, and dismiss the history—and people—as messy and inconvenient.

I admit that I have my own preferences when it comes to poetry. I like my poems unabashedly emotional, with no waste of words, and a clear, “Western” ending that makes obvious what is necessary about a poem. And I like a poem to hit me in my gut, which is a hard quality to explain. I will give a poet some wiggle room, but by the end of a poem, I must be pleased.

I suspect I’m not the only poetry reader out there who wants to have my pleasurable way. Yes, tastes can be cultivated, but no matter our cultural backgrounds, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we believe our tastes are the best because they are, well, ours. There is no such thing as what is universally best, only what we believe to be so. We poets and critics learn the words to prove our beliefs by acquiring certain vocabularies, and later, we use these vocabularies to argue our taste in erudite essays that call upon some particular literary forebears to speak their subjective truths. Literary forebears of whatever race or whatever class or whatever gender, because don’t we all pass our tastes down to a new, younger set of apprentices? Those tastes prevail until someone successfully wields a bigger knife, Big Daddy Modernism finally falls, and we bemoan that a glorious past has died.

But is this moment modern—or Modern with a capital “M”? Or is this a variation of what has been going on since the beginning of any culture or tribe, just with different sets of vocabularies and practical applications of those vocabularies? When it comes to poetry, subjectivity is just a briar patch. Prickly on the outside, but once we travel to its center, it scratches our itches just the way we like. It’s the place where every critic or every editor jumps into, sooner or later. It’s where she tries to find her own relative comfort and privilege in a seemingly uncomfortable, inhospitable place.

Author’s note: I use the word “bruh” because this is the actual oral pronunciation of the written “br’er.” Specifically, my ancestors are from Eatonton, Georgia, the home of Joel Chandler Harris. I grew up with my mother—who was born in 1933 and reared in Eatonton—telling me these folktales, and she used the term “bruh” instead of “br’er.” She maintained that her father, born in 1909, used the term “bruh” in his oral renderings of the tales.


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