Conspicuous Erudition

The new black poetry

Jerome Ellison Murphy

Recently, a friend and I attended a celebration of the poet Yusef Komunyakaa convened by the black poetry organization Cave Canem. Komunyakaa was reciting his poem “A World of Daughters,” written in 2017. It begins with a series of sweeping imperatives: 

Say licked clean at birth. Say
  weeping in the tall grass, where
  this tantalizing song begins,
  birds perched on a crooked branch
over a grave of an unending trek
into the valley of cooling waters.
    The soil’s thirst, lessons of earth
  unmoor the first tongue. Say
I have gone back, says the oracle,
  counting seasons & centuries, undoing fault
    lines between one generation & next…

The poem is a consideration of humanity’s origins, of the “seasons & centuries” traveled as “hinged into earth, we rose from Lucy / to clan, from clan to tribe.” Starting with Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton uncovered in Ethiopia in 1974 by American scientists, Komunyakaa’s poem traverses the panoramic terrain of paleoanthropology. With its imperative address, it assumes a narrative authority over all “our” origin stories, including, by implication, those of white Westerners.

As recently as a decade ago, such authority seemed largely the province of poets who shared in white cultural dominance. You would see it on display in book-length engagements with natural history such as Darwin: A Life in Poems (2009) by Ruth Padel, a direct descendant of Darwin, or, farther back, in books such as Richard Kenney’s Invention of the Zero (1993) and Evolution of the Flightless Bird (1983). And so it was no great shock when in 2019 my friend, a Walt Whitman scholar, remarked of Komunyakaa’s poem: “It might be strange to say, but I was surprised it sounded so…white.” One element which probably made this poem sound “white” to my friend, who is white, was that this speaker was the definer, not the defined; the arbiter, not the recipient, of some specialized knowledge.

But in the current poetic milieu, it was the almost scholarly vocal register that made this speaker sound “black” to my ear. These days, work by younger black poets frequently flaunts its formal pyrotechnics and its spirited immersion in specialized disciplines. Thanks in part to the influence of trailblazers like Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, A. Van Jordan, and Tracy K. Smith, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars claimed the imaginative turf of speculative science fiction and space exploration for a black and feminine voice, one hardly opens a collection by a fellow black poet today without expecting some satirical torque on quantum physics or zoology, typically wrapped up in an innovative poetic form.

Indeed, conspicuous erudition is the lingua franca of the poetic black diaspora, an alternately subtle and vociferous avant-garde that has led a nonwhite poetic renaissance, identified as a new zeitgeist by The Atlantic Monthly, and lamented as such in print, with varying degrees of self-awareness, by several white male poets. Individual predecessors of this movement include Amiri Baraka’s flirtations with Afrocentrist myth-science in such works as Black Mass (1966), echoed by Major Jackson’s evocation of Sun Ra in Leaving Saturn (2002); Thylias Moss’s referential dexterity in Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler (1998), among other works; Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing explorations of Dogon cosmology; and the pyro-linguistics of Harryette Mullen.

On one level, then, what we might call the ethos of erudition (an Erudite-geist?) may be simply the latest iteration of a poetic tradition always seeking new ways to convey complex and disorienting experience; it is a tradition that has long stood in counterpoint to prevalent discourse, playing on its imperialist language. Black poets’ current zeal for formal innovation, manifesting as it often does in an urge to appropriate scientific lexicons, heralds the desire for an imaginative agency profoundly informed, but not bound, by its markers of identity. As Terrance Hayes, one of the preeminent figures in this movement, asks in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin: “In a parallel world where every Dr./ Who was black, you were the complex Time Lord, / When & where would you explore?”

And yet, Hayes’s invocation of a “parallel world” also points to a different and particular valence of scientific language in the ever more politically pointed work by younger poets, in which the vocabularies of science and protest, once strange bedfellows, are now allies. The prospect of some leisurely knowledge-gathering exploration that Hayes envisions goes hand in hand with that of liberation (as yet unrealized) from concerns much closer to home. When Danez Smith, a vocally and unapologetically capital-B Black, gay, HIV-positive, and nonbinary poet, became renowned for their confrontational voice—a voice unafraid of causing discomfort in the service of oft-dismissed “identity politics”—their lexical choices carried a specific political charge. Smith’s widely circulated missive, “dear white america,” from Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), opens with the declaration: “I’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole.”

This astronomical reference not only evokes escape; it comments on economic disparities as well. Who, after all, beyond white billionaires, can afford such excursions? (At the Apollo 11 lift- off in July 1969, five hundred black protestors suggested that the funds might have been more humanely spent on equitable medical care, food, and housing.) As such, the poem stands squarely in the tradition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” and James Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders,” with its dry reflection: “This flag has been planted on the moon: / it will be interesting to see / what steps the moon will take to be revenged/ for this quite breathtaking presumption.” What’s exemplary of our poetic moment, however, is the way this speaker partakes of that presumption, planting an imaginative flag.

Another poem from the same collection, “dinosaurs in the hood,” offers a parallel empowerment. Inviting its audience to collaborate on a film in which dinosaurs invade the inner city (“Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness”), the poem employs gallows humor that relies on our recognition of the dearth of fantasy narratives for our marginalized citizens—and, by extension, of the nation’s own moral poverty:

No bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills
the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. Besides, the only reason
I want to make this is for that first scene anyway: the little black boy
on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless

his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.

Jurassic Park’s fantasy, we recall, affirms the unlikely survival of a white nuclear family unit at the expense of conspicuously less “all-American” experts, including Samuel Jackson’s indelibly sardonic chief security engineer. Rewriting such narrative stereotypes, Smith’s poem concludes with an image (“his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there”) of liberation—from worn racist tropes and from the poem’s own hitherto unbroken five-line stanza structure. The lonely final line, in which a young black boy is allowed to dream without end, mimics science’s audacious steps forward into the unknown. Like many of the zeitgeist, Smith’s speaker seems to measure black liberation by the degree to which the black psyche is free to learn and to dream.

***

Such freedom, however, cannot be confused with mere desire for escape. What would it mean if we thought of such themes and formal gestures as inevitable outgrowths of that old “double consciousness” famously described by W. E. B. Du Bois, by which black citizens attempt to reconcile inner reality with external perceptions whose power is often paramount? As poets, these black citizens must engage in metacognition—seeing themselves seeing, imagining themselves imagining—not only as a matter of habit but as a daily necessity, a way of negotiating the stereotypes that would deny them such agency. Antiblack biases, continuing to find violent expression, have also become more insidiously subtle, inviting investigative techniques of commensurate subtlety: thus microaggression calls for the microscope. 

Opening windows on imaginative vistas, scientific lexicons can also serve to destabilize and render more abstract, though perhaps not entirely eliminate, the notion of a conventional white gaze. The astrophysics-­inspired titles (“Planck’s constant,” “Relations between planets and stars”) of Samiya Bashir’s Field Theories exemplify how black poets’ use of lexicon can realign social awareness and prompt reconsideration of what’s worthy of close attention. In her delightfully titled “Thin Filament Pyrometry / Or / Dag! We Ain’t Even In Detroit Yet? Sheeeit. Stop Here And Lemme Get Me Some Chicken,” a method of measuring heat with thin filaments is applied, metaphorically, to black American life, specifically to a series of events leading up to a fire. The characters include “two women one old and one young pulled aside / off the highway and into the poorly lit driveway of Popeye’s off I-­94,” as well as “the poor girl with the pockmarked-­up face and the torn / lace from panties caught up in her apron.” All of whom, Bashir’s title implies, are as worthy of our study as the laws of thermodynamics.

Bashir’s reclamation of subjectivity is analogous to Claudia Rankine’s renovation of the pronoun you in Citizen, yet it wields additional tools of psychological resistance. Where Rankine’s “you” experiences its subjection to wounding stereotype, Bashir’s “I” preemptively incorporates inaccurate modes of seeing into a more autonomous, knowing, and self-­satirizing awareness, thus turning colonizing lexicons against both themselves and the self.

What is perhaps most striking about these recent collections is how they foreground notes of defiance, mockery, or indifference, suggesting an abandonment of desire for the conventional white gaze of “mainstream” readership. When these poets confront familiar oppressions, their address to a presumably white individual (or power structure) is noticeably oblique or abstracted. For example, Bashir’s closing poem, “A Small Matter of Engineering,” could refer to the artist Kara Springer’s 2016 art installation of the same name, inspired by Black Lives Matter protests: an eight-­by-­thirty-­foot sign that reads, “white people. do something.” If Bashir intends the same injunction, it’s only by implication. Similarly, when her speaker describes a landscape “where our road splits between // opposing camps,” divided by their disparate access to infrastructural resource, her words carry powerful overtones: “Listen: You’ve always had the broadest / swath of the river, friend. Thing is: we’re // still here.” As readers, we assume this to be an address from the infrastructurally disadvantaged (black) citizen to some localized (most likely white) you; more generally, to all practitioners of latter-­day Manifest Destiny. Instead of explicitly identifying her addressee, Bashir allows structures of oppression to speak for themselves.

Indeterminacy of address is one way to deprive the white gaze of its accustomed importance—a democratizing gesture. The result is a poem that calls into question the lyric poem’s direct form of address, and reconceives of the lyric as an engine of ambiguity. Take Joshua Bennett’s “Taxonomy,” with its ticker-­tape scroll of identifiers:

as cormorant. as crow. as colon. as comma.
as coma. as shadow. as shade. as show.
as collards. as collection plate. as play cousin.
as dozens. as sea. as depth where light
don’t dare tread. as treason. as gun. as gullet.
as gully. as ghetto came to be named.
as Cain. as antonym. as animal ontology.
as analogy always. as anti-­matter.
as bullet’s best bet. as best friend. as bobby
pin. as bobby brown. as brown crayons
color everything in this house. as the inside
of a nap. as mama’s naps. as the hot comb
she used to lay them down like a burden.
as burden. as burial. as breath. as break beat.
as breaking: as anything that burns.

Declining to establish any dialectic of “you” and “I” makes Bennett’s poem all the more effective in its interrogation of the dehumanizing gaze. Its title satirizes colonialist acts of biological or cultural anthropology, implying that the speaker has internalized such traditions to the point of turning them on themselves. With deadpan irony, Bennett’s disembodied “speaker” establishes a self-­sustaining metacognition, one that can make a reader of any background feel implicated in the construction of stereotype—and, ideally, engage in a bit of self-­questioning.

***

However, these complex acts of negotiation do not exhaust the repertoire of contemporary erudite black poetry. Increasingly, one also finds many poets addressing their poems to an assumed black reader, one with knowledge of intracultural codes. Wearing their rhetorical hair more “natural,” scorning respectability politics, such poets may create for the white reader a newly intense experience of being othered, especially when whiteness comes under discussion.

Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency performs this othering with unabashed verve. True, one finds a Rankine-­like invitation to empathy in lines such as “You arrive at the university and stand out like a necrotic thumb,” along with what we might recognize in context as a poetically black use of medical terminology. But more often, Reed’s speakers are striving for a radical subjectivity, one embracing, sans diplomatic concern, the resentments attending upon negotiations of race, sex, or class. In “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel,” whiteness finds itself decentered, animalized, othered in the way that black readers (or their literary stand-­ins) have long experienced. When “a wasp’s nest of white men begins at daybreak / to break down and busy up the house next door,” the speaker tells us, “I hear them drone.” In contrast to the white “they,” “him,” and “them,” the poem’s only direct address (“their / buildup which you know has been / the longest breakdown”) implies a “you” who shares the speaker’s perspective. Ending by imagining a terrible fate for all predatory white men, Reed’s speaker takes ownership of the violent thought: “I don’t care what wanting this makes me / look like.”

Doth Reed protest too much? By knowingly inviting mistrust, Reed’s statement adds to a growing body of metacognitive effects and their formal encoding in contemporary black poetics. The poem understands that the reader understands that the speaker wants not to care. Addressing a presumed black reader, Reed dramatizes the layer of awareness needed to disregard the white gaze: sartorial choices that must become ever more nuanced and strategic. 

Indeed, one way of thinking about how Reed’s speakers in Indecency repurpose erudition is as a kind of drag. The verbal register throughout is radically and deliberately ostentatious, the speakers archly self-­aware. With titles such as “Porch Smoke: An Implication in Three Acts” and “Performing a Warped Masculinity en Route to the Metro,” and subheadings such as “in which all this white is my gaze” evoking the fastidious chapter summaries in eighteenth-­century novels, Reed’s poems convey the sense of a mind rampaging through its figurative wardrobe of scholarly references. And yet Reed’s linguistic choices aren’t simply ironic, piercing, satirical, exacting; rather, they are fabulous, in a particularly black and gay manner, one which reclaims high discourse to interrogate a system of hoarded capitalist spoils. (As Reed’s rhetorical specificities approach baroque degrees of elaboration, we are reminded of that scene in Paris Is Burning, in which Junior LaBeija calls out at a drag ball in Harlem, “O-­P-­U-­L-­E-­N-­C-­E. Opulence! You own everything. Everything is yours,” to the drag performers parading in pearls and furs.)

This is not to say, however, that undressed diction cannot perform a complex subjective layering of its own. Throughout The Tradition, a title redolent of ironic counterpoise, Jericho Brown pulls off the tightrope act of addressing a reader who is emphatically, yet indeterminately, racialized. “The Long Way” begins:

Your grandfather was a murderer.
I’m glad he’s dead.

He invented the toothbrush,
but I don’t care to read his name

On the building I walk through

To avoid the rain. He raped women
Who weren’t yet women…

This can be taken as both public address and overheard internal monologue. Defying (and thereby revealing) a tacit social decorum, the poem offers white readers the experience of watching a black speaker watching himself imagine your generalized (white) self and/or presenting this experience as relatable to a fellow black citizen. But honoring that black gay sensibility which understands identity as a kind of wardrobe, I prefer to read Brown’s “you” as rhetorically equivalent to a Shakespearean gender construct wherein the reader, depending on racial identity, becomes akin to the Elizabethan actor playing Rosalind in As You Like It, a man playing a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Multiple exposures of subjectivity, real and imagined, are layered as the poem’s tone and scenery darken and the syntax becomes starker (“Some don’t know / How dark. Some do.”). As a descriptor of Brown’s brand of American existentialism, and the risks it takes with readerly understanding, the term “identity politics” surely falls a bit short.

Brown’s Tradition is also striking for its acute awareness and subversion of existing poetic forms: an awareness many of these poets share. The traditional forms, after all, are small masters’ houses. The notion of stanzas (Italian stanze, “rooms”) as rooms invites us to consider whose rooms they are, who has been kept out of those rooms, and how the rooms might be made into rooms of one’s own. “Prior to the late sixties,” Toni Cade Bambara noted in 1973 in reference to the Black Arts Movement, “black writers invariably brought up the rear, so to speak, having to prove competence in techniques already laid down…writing ‘negro’ was not enough, not valid—not universal.” Black formal innovations seek to challenge any such remaining formal stereotypes, much the way that the Danez Smith poems discussed earlier challenge narrative ones. A lineage of formal mastery runs from Phillis Wheatley to Gwendolyn Brooks to Patricia Smith (perhaps our current grande dame of traditional form; in “Motown Crown,” for example, she has dazzlingly claimed the crown of sonnets to depict black girlhood in the sixties). There’s an implicit defiance in occupying established (and therefore Establishment) structures, abandoning that house via free verse or, an increasingly popular strategy, using Audre Lorde’s proverbial “master’s tools” to construct a more hospitable abode. While a black poet’s relationship to established forms is inescapably fraught, there seems to be a particularly empowering reclamation of mastery in taking the latter approach.

Brown has given bracing demonstrations of this reclamation with his invented duplex form, a riff on the ghazal and the sonnet with additional, tonal parameters (such as the second line’s thematically torqueing the first) informed by the blues. Reflective of a black, gay, southern self, Brown’s new form arose from his own act of self-­questioning: in this case, of his tendency to write ghazals, as he found himself “wondering if my rigid use of the form meant to mirror [the] end-­word, ‘prison’…[was] reifying the abhorrent and racist fact of prisons in our culture.”

For Brown, established form had become mimetic of the dysfunctional infrastructure from which the poet had to break away in both thought and expression. For other poets, however, it is precisely that sense of constriction that must be enacted. In the ekphrastic poem “Candelabra with Heads,” Nicole Sealey invents a form commensurate with her speaker’s emotional response to Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2006 sculpture of the same name. Hirschhorn’s installation suspends eight mannequins, wrapped in cocoon-­like slick brown casings, from a forked timber structure evocative of living wood. To depict the speaker’s circling attempts to find this sculpture as innocuous as a nonblack viewer might (“might be eight infants swaddled and sleeping”), Sealey invents what she calls an “obverse form,” in which the second stanza’s lines reverse those of the first, and the poem’s last line becomes the “thesis question,” separated by white space from the rest of the text. In this case, the question is: “Who can see this and not see lynchings?” The line’s visual separation enacts the breaking of a problematic social decorum, a willful ignorance—what Baldwin described as the crime of innocence—of black trauma. Taken literally, the rhetorical question’s implied answer mounts another ingeniously indirect challenge to systemic privilege.

Other new forms intend new directions even while surveying the past. The now popular golden shovel, devised by Terrance Hayes, takes each line’s last word from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, thus demanding that its practitioner look back to Brooks’s oeuvre in an even more direct way than the sonnet form demands acquaintance with Shakespeare. There is now a black poetic lineage, Hayes’s gesture insists: practicing this form becomes an exercise in alternative canon curation. Similarly, Hayes’s own recent sonnet project, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, acknowledges Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnets,” first collected in 1994, which played with the idea of the sonnet in formal and thematic ways expressive of a marginalized (black female) consciousness.

Insisting upon a black formal lineage means that poets need not choose their stylistic allegiances or else face pressure from more politically radical peers, as did Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, to abandon formal strictness; the false dichotomy is erased. Whatever choice you make, you’ve found a home. The kwansaba form, developed in 1995 by the East St. Louis poet laureate Eugene B. Redmond and now practiced more widely, uses seven lines with seven words, each word limited to seven letters, to embody the seven principles of the African American holiday Kwanzaa, among them Unity, Collective Work and Responsibility, and Faith. It’s no wonder that the contrapuntal form, whose columns of text can be read as separate or continuous and practiced impressively by younger poets including Ashley M. Jones, is now so fashionable; it almost seems visually to symbolize the counterpoise of black poetic lineage with the mainstream tradition, its very shape suggestive of ironic, multivalent commentary.

***

Of course, the poetic lineage of black poets is not exclusively black. In 2019, the bicentennial of his birth, Walt Whitman is hardly incidental to the flavor of our zeitgeist. We may regret or forgive Whitman’s extraliterary comments about “blacks, with about as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons”; we know he found phrenology seductive enough to donate his brain to the American Anthropometric Society. All of which prompts us to ask, How different might the national psyche appear if Whitman’s vision of “the learn’d astronomer” could have encompassed individuals like Benjamin Banneker?

Had it done so, the astronomer’s charts and diagrams might have represented more than merely a repression of sensual experience, perhaps even a vital form of liberation. The figure of the Negro in Leaves of Grass—wordless recipient of sympathetic abolitionist gestures, “picturesque giant” with polished black limbs and a gaze of calm command (over horses)—can pose no such complicating question. Today, however, an awareness of black intellectual accomplishment casts some doubt upon this text’s loudly proclaimed all-­inclusiveness. Ideals are one thing, their fulfillment another; we can admire Whitman’s reach while questioning his grasp.

It’s worth remembering, for instance, that the papers, patents, and attempted patents of such innovators as Alexander Miles, Lewis Howard Latimer, Edward Alexander Bouchet, Elijah McCoy, and Charles Henry Turner, among others, were contemporaneous with iterations of Leaves of Grass. Such inventors participated in the American expansion Whitman celebrated, contributing to both technological development (McCoy’s railroad engines) and pure science (Turner’s research showing insects to be capable of learning, and the rather poetic fact that honey bees can see in color and recognize patterns). They did so against incredible odds, including their society’s understanding of social roles as they were inscribed and passed down in its literature. For black Americans to be inscribed, so early in our literary tradition, as fully cognitive, let alone erudite, would have been an unthinkable liberation, and paved a vital way forward for innumerable successors. Whitman’s was the era not only of slaves whose ingenuity and perceptive grasp went unrecognized but of men like Robert Smalls, who famously commandeered a Confederate vessel to freedom, formed the nation’s first black-­owned railroad company, published newspapers, and became a U.S. congressman. Yet the American literary imagination, like its political one, has struggled mightily then and since to conceive of “the Negro” as a cognitive, not merely bodily reality.

Contemporary black poetry understands that for all the references to “black bodies” made while reckoning with systemic violence, the deeper, ongoing battle is for the recognition of black intellect. When Hanif Abdurraqib titles his latest collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, he is critiquing Americans’ relative devaluation (“a penny for your thoughts”) of black thinking. Titling twelve of fifty poems in this collection “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This,” Abdurraqib implies that indeed they must, not least so as to resist reduction to an all too vulnerable corporeal status.

For the black poet grappling with his unavoidably Whitmanian literary heritage, a dehumanizing lack of individuation has represented a long-­standing problem, one that James A. Emanuel decried in his 1961 poem “The Negro”:

Never saw him.
Never can.
Hypothetical,
Haunting man.

Eyes a-­saucer,
Yessir bossir,
Dice a-­clicking,
Razor flicking.

The-­ness froze him
In a dance.
A-­ness never
Had a chance.

Emanuel’s brilliant formulation posits “The-­ness” as a condition of imposed caricature, denying the individual his individuality, or “A-­ness.” The rhyme scheme mimics the marionette dance of a figure whose agency is elsewhere. The juxtaposition of “Never saw him” with “Eyes a-­saucer” suggests an investigation of the accuracy of perception, of see-­er versus seen.

Half a century later, Emanuel’s concern with generalizing forms of perception persists, yet with a difference. Partly, this is because of black poets’ new interest in foregrounding their own appropriations of learned discourses, but it also stems from the need to imagine a future in which liberation has been achieved. Sealey follows her ekphrastic “Candelabra with Heads” fifty-­two pages later with “In Defense of ‘Candelabra with Heads,’” whose appearance enacts how this reconsideration has been simmering:

If you’ve read the “Candelabra with Heads”
that appears in this collection and the one
in The Animal, thank you. The original,
the one included here, is an example, I’m told,
of a poem that can speak for itself, but loses
faith in its ability to do so by ending with a thesis
question. Yeats said a poem should click shut
like a well-­made box. I don’t disagree.
I ask, “Who can see this and not see lynchings?”
not because I don’t trust you, dear reader,
or my own abilities. I ask because the imagination
would have us believe, much like faith, faith
the original “Candelabra” lacks, in things unseen.
You should know that human limbs burn
like branches and branches like human limbs.
Only after man began hanging man from trees
then setting him on fire, which would jump
from limb to branch like a bastard species
of bird, did we come to know such things.
A hundred years from now, October 9, 2116,
8:18 p.m., when all but the lucky are good
and dead, may someone happen upon the question
in question. May that lucky someone be black
and so far removed from the verb lynch that she be
dumbfounded by its meaning. May she then
call up Hirschhorn’s Candelabra with Heads.
May her imagination, not her memory, run wild.

How much is contained in this one utterance: superimposed layers of consideration, critical ekphrastic engagement, an interrogation of incomplete seeing, a deliberately fraught relationship to form (the poem’s orientation on the right margin almost “mirroring” the original poem, thus enacting its thematic counterpoint), an insistence that black history become as intimately familiar to us as a “white” literary canon that includes Yeats, a satirical nod to scientific classification (“a bastard species / of bird”), and an explicit proposal of black liberation as that point at which the psyche can spread its wings, unfettered by familiar oppressions.

Black poetic cognition, wary, self-­examining, remains both present and tense. More than double, it reveals, in fact, a tripartite awareness: of poetic lineage, of current sociopolitical concerns, and of collectively unrealized aspirations. As Langston Hughes wrote in his 1954 “Old Walt”:

Old Walt Whitman
Went finding and seeking,
Finding less than sought
Seeking more than found,
Every detail minding
Of the seeking or the finding.

Pleasured equally
In seeking as in finding,
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
And finding.

The visionary seeking espoused by Whitman continues. “I say your vision goes as far as this,” Jay Wright wrote in “Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City,” one of many acts of recognition and rehabilitation belonging to the black poetic lineage. Today, black poetry, in search of its own expressive strategies, looks as much to artistically and morally complex forebears as it does to uncharted terrain that it maps out using highly specialized lexicons, “every detail minding.” Pioneering many of the techniques by which other long-­marginalized voices, such as Asian American, transgendered, or Latinx poets, have found their own expression, this ethos of conspicuous erudition raises a provocative question: Are what at seem at first to be gestures solely of resistance, partaking of traditionally “white” endeavors, more broadly indicative of cultural assimilation? In exploring these new directions, this poetic tradition may be reinforcing that full American citizenship encompasses the unlikely and quixotic endeavor as much as it does terrestrial practicality; and that American identities depend as much on dreams of the stars as on all too hard-­earned stripes.


Jerome Ellison Murphy received his MFA from New York University, where he now serves as Undergraduate Programs Manager. His critical writing and poetry have appeared in LARB, Lambda Literary, Lithub, Narrative Magazine, and more.

Image: Daniel Friedman, Zen Garden, 2017. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.