Among the literary arts, poetry is somewhere between okay and blech for me. At least most of the time. That doesn’t mean I hate all poetry or all poets. I fully appreciate the rhyme and meter (and lack thereof) of so many, from James Weldon Johnson and Archibald MacLeish to Phillis Wheatley and Langston Hughes. I love the emotional layering in the choice of the words, and in more modern times, the delivering of such words, with The Last Poets, with Gil Scott-Heron, and of course, Maya Angelou. Rap legends like Tupac, Nas, Eminem, Public Enemy have lyrics that are essentially spoken-word poetry put to bass, beats, and music loops. Heck, I’ve even enjoyed W. E. B. DuBois’ forays in the art in my scholarly research (when I more regularly did it) over the years.
But as a writer of prose (and often, long-winded prose), I also find the form of poetry ill-fitting. For me, it’s like being a home-run hitter in baseball playing hard-court tennis. It’s not that I can’t hit a baseline winner or an ace. But for every one of those, I could easily hit four tennis balls in a row out of the court, and literally onto the roof of a house half a block away. I prefer the ability to lay out my thoughts and explain them in full sentences, without worrying over every single word and the rhythm that a sequence of carefully chosen words may or may not bring.
I barely read any poetry during my Humanities years, unless my English classes forced me to. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Alexander Pope, all for 10th grade English, and with the exception of Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” not particularly entertaining. I was convinced after high school in ’87 that I’d never read poetry again.
What brought on a new interest in poetry came from my sophomore year at Pitt. I had to take a General Writing class in Fall 1988. I had to because if I wanted to take upper-level History classes as a History major, this general education requirement needed to be knocked off. But I had an enthusiastic graduate student as my instructor. When I say enthusiastic, I mean someone who knew their students wouldn’t be, but whose passion for teaching and literature of all kinds made the class and the readings more interesting. She told me early on, after reading one of my first essays, that I should’ve been able to pass out of General Writing through the diagnostic tests Pitt gave my freshman year. “I wasn’t exactly awake when I took it last year,” I said in response.
When we got to the poetry portion of the course, I thought at first I was going to die from boredom. But our instructor didn’t assign us the usual suspects. The main poet we read that week was Adrienne Rich. She was someone I’d heard of growing up, but that was about it. Until the assignment of reading both Rich’s poetry and her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” that is.
There were three things I’d never considered before reading Rich. One was the idea that writing was both art and craft, and that most writing was editing and re-envisioning one’s work. Two was the notion of transforming and being transformed through the writing process, and all as a proxy for a meaningful life. Three was the positioning of poets and other writers in literature, the privileging of men over women, of White males over feminists, of White heterosexual feminists over lesbian feminists, and especially Black lesbian feminists.
That last one about power, privilege, and positioning, it really grabbed me. So much so that I read more Rich that October weekend, in between pangs of hunger from lack of money and my Saturday evening shift at the Cathedral of Learning computer lab.
And the more I read of Rich, the more I decided to read about one of Rich’s contemporaries. I moved on to Audre Lorde the following week. She wasn’t among the long list of readings we had for General Writing, but she should’ve been. I couldn’t believe that someone who lived only miles away from my growing up experience in Mount Vernon and in New York could yet have such a vastly different experience with the city and the area.
I picked up Sister Outsider (1984) for the first time near the end of that fall semester. Lorde’s collection of essays about civil rights, about Black feminism (or womanism), about what we now call intersectionality, opened my eyes to how even Rich’s brand of feminism could be problematic. But more than that. Lorde, along with Rich, helped me realize, and not for the first time, that I didn’t care if the person I read or learned from was straight or gay, male or female (or later on, transgender), Black, Brown, or White. This despite what the Hebrew-Israelites and the evangelicals tried to teach me. They just had to be excellent in their work.
Sister Outsider also opened up my eyes to the possibility that even my poetry-loathing ass could appreciate a true master at work in the art. So early on the following semester, I read Lorde’s poetry for the first time, likely some poems from her Coal (1976). Lorde talking about her upbringing, her relationship with her mother, and her issues with her own skin color, resonated with me.
But that was it with poetry for me until I borrowed my friend E’s recording of The Lost Poets 1971 album, and then read Angelou’s poetry, both in the summer of ’91. By then, I knew that while I’d never be a full-fledged fan of it, I could still appreciate the work, the art, and the layering of ideologies, emotions, and ideas contained in the best of poetry.