Monday, September 24, 2007

White Poets and Race


Major Jackson has a fascinating essay in the current (September / October, 2007) issue of The American Poetry Review. In "A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black" he asks why contemporary white poets do not write about racial issues in America.

Jackson writes:

"Whatever the reason, the mystifying silence around race highlights white American poets' unsettling and conspicuous unresponsiveness and ambivalence toward a very important aspect of social life in America, one given heft by our founding documents, our history of immigration and war, and by our being a beacon for so many disenfranchised peoples across the globe who arrive here with the hope of interweaving into the fabric of our democracy. At least Robert Penn Warren and the other Fugitives took a stand and compellingly wrote poems and novels, albeit at time reprehensibly, from the position of being white male Americans. We knew where we stood regarding the race question, which could allow us to substantively engage the tradition of white southern identity in American letters, and thus, each other quite candidly."

Jackson cites Sharon Olds, Ed Pavlic, Henry Taylor, C.K. Williams, Tony Hoagland and T.R. Hummer, along with several others, as exceptions to the silence of contemporary white American poets on racial issues. Here I think he is being somewhat generous; a gesture that does, in an odd way, underline the validity of his thesis.

6 Comments:

Blogger Talia said...

In my opinion, I think perhaps the reason might be because poetry isn't the best forum for such an issue. I wouldn't call the issue of racism a political issue, because it is certainly much more than that, and I wouldn't say it can't be done and done very well, but it seems rather random to me.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Poets have a tendency to shy away from any sort of actually controversial topic (obvious preaching-to-the-choir subjects like "war is bad" and "Bush's war is bad" don't count). Unfortunate given the amazing lineage of just the opposite in poetry.

12:29 AM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

Steven:

Yes, and I think that tendency to avoid giving offense--or even to place oneself in a position where one might be misunderstood--is a bad thing for poetry.

Are editors also reluctant to publish such poems?

10:49 AM  
Blogger Louise said...

Just a thought, but maybe for the same reason that men tend not to write about gender as much as women?

Unlike minorities, whites don't *have* to think about their race on a day to day basis-- so it may seem less integral to their identity in some ways, and therefore end up not being a topic in their poetry as much.

Not saying that's good, but I think it's part of the reason.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Nin Andrews said...

Oh I have written a bit about race issues in Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. I think it's partly a question of what you think of political poetry.

2:32 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

I have also written about racial issues in both "A Path Between Houses" and in "Figured Dark." But I think that Jackson is correct: few white poets are willing to deal with the racial questions in their work. As Jackson also notes, this does not seem to be the case with regard to white fiction writers. Why the difference?

I'm not sure.

7:54 PM  

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