Bad Poetry Will Not Save Black People

Dwayne had an excellent post earlier this week on the passing of the great Lucille Clifton. I think he basically said it all, but I'd like to add one personal note on what I took from Clifton's work. For obvious reasons, as a young person I was attracted to African-American poets who tended to be more political in their work. I think, like a lot of young people, I was attracted to a kind of loudness, the sort of poetry that screamed--"I'mBlackI'mBlackI'mBlack." That didn't last long though, because after a couple years, it became clear to me that the work that gripped me most--politically--the work that I thought said the most about black people, tended not to be didactic and loud, but understated and quieter.

I'm going to get the details of this wrong, but I'm pretty sure that in the 60s there was the feeling that a poet like Robert Hayden should be more political in his work, that he wasn't reflecting the kind of urgency that young black folks were feeling. My roots are in the Black Arts movement. Specifically, I'm a big Larry Neal Hoodoo Hollerin Bebop Ghosts fan. (I also love Etheridge Knight.) But I don't know that any poet coming out of the BAM really wrote a more enduring statement about the black experience than "Middle Passage."

Hayden would do a lot of weird shit. "Middle Passage" is almost entirely told from the perspective of whites, and yet it says so much about the hypocrisy and impossibility of slavery, and, really, the indomitable will of black people who, in their minds, never really became slaves.In another poem he examines the paradoxes and hypocrisies of America from the perspective of an alien. But Hayden was always a craftsman. When I first read him back in college, I thought that his poetry was political, that it said quite a bit about black people. But most importantly--more importantly than anything--it was beautifully rendered and respected poetry as a craft.

I felt the exact same way about Lucille Clifton. There are politics and blackness all through her work. She's roughly contemporary with a lot of the BAM poets. But I deeply suspect, with a few exceptions, that her work will endure in ways that much of the BAM stuff just won't.The lesson to me, as a young black dude, even then as a quasi-nationalist, was that you had to learn to write. Railing against the white man's aesthetics is useful to a point. Still, there comes a time when you're faced with a pen and blank page. What a terrifying moment. But you have to go there. Like, constantly.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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