Poetry & Race

by Arlene Weiner

Ought poetry to address, or embody, important subjects?

Louis Simpson wrote, in “American Poetry”:

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Is race important?

In an essay in American Poetry Review in 2007, “Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” Major Jackson wrote, “Contemporary fiction writers, it seems to me, are more willing than poets to take risks and explore reigning racial attitudes of today and yesterday.” and “Luckily, a few contemporary white poets writing today, even at the risk of criticism from contrarian black poet-critics such as myself, actually do exhibit great hubris and are willing to take the risk of censure and disapproval.” One of the poets he includes is Tony Hoagland. “I would rather have his failures than nothing at all. At least his poems announce him as introspective in a self-critical way on this topic. Self-censorship should never be an option for poets.” Jackson writes that Hoagland’s poems provoked the organization of a “conversation” at the Geraldine Dodge Festival on the topic Race & Poetry, which featured Lucille Clifton, Terrance Hayes, Hoagland, and Linda Hogan in dialogue.

At this year’s (2011’s) Associated Writing Programs conference, Claudia Rankine spoke passionately about Hoagland’s poem, “The Change,” its hurtfulness, the phrases that “stuck in her craw” and pushed her out of the collegial space she had assumed that she shared with Hoagland. Hoagland wrote a brief response. Rankine then posted an Open Letter posing questions about how poetry might or must address/include race and identity. She asked for responses and said that she would post all the responses she received before March 15, 2011. She has done this. There are about a hundred responses–some posted after the deadline, so more may be coming.

AWP speech, open letter, and open letter responses: http://www.claudiarankine.com/

–Arlene Weiner

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