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Honors Project Prep: Jim Daniels (ed.), “Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race”

May 25, 2014

The general idea for my honors project has been to use poetry to examine the political process and culture of contemporary America.  But I don’t want to restrict myself research to such poems and subjects.  For one, there is only so much written about a given topic; for another, I think consulting a variety of subjects and styles will give the final project more detail and texture and vague-sounding-terms.  Most of all, I just consider myself woefully under-informed about social issues.  For instance: I’m a white guy from New Jersey hinterlands; last I checked my home town is about 96% Caucasian.  My frame of reference for racial issues in modern America is quite narrow.

So, let’s talk about Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race.

An anthology edited by Jim Daniels (who, full disclosure, teaches at the school I attend), Letters to America collects about 200 pages worth of poems which discuss race in America.  These poets come from all different racial backgrounds: white, black, Latino, Asian-American, Native American.  Some express hope for harmony and understanding; others are enraged or dismayed by current disparities.  Some put race front-and-center in their poems, while some leave it simmering in the subtext.  All manage to convey their own perspectives and experiences through verse.

Going into this book, I was familiar with only a handful of the contributors: Langston Hughes, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, and T. R. Hummer.  (And of course Daniels, but I hadn’t read his work.)  So if nothing else Letters to America serves as a good introduction to writers I’d never heard of.  I’d sure be interested in reading more from Al Zolynas (“Love in the Classroom”) or Daryl Ngee Chinn (“Not Translation, Not Poetry” and “Skin Color from the Sun”).

Beyond that, I was struck by the humor present in many of the poems.  I had expected some satire, sure, but there are some straight-up punchlines in this collection.  I distinctly remember the end of “Powwow” by Carroll Arnett (Gogisgi).  When a woman asks the speaker whether the patch on her blanket was symbolic, she responds that it means there once “was a hole / in the blanket” (p. 26).  It’s a commentary on white attitudes toward Native American culture, but it also sounds like a joke from a chain e-mail.

Other poems forced me to put down the book in reflection.  Daniels’ contribution, “Time, Temperature,” describes a white speaker’s life in Detroit.  Take this memory of the speaker’s grandparents: “We ate early when they came over / so they could be home before dark. / The golden rule: home before dark” (p. 61).  That’s something I hear all the time and never really questioned.  Yet the implications are striking: are we to believe that muggers (read: minorities) magically pop up in the night to terrorize white people?  Or is night merely the external representation of fear and mistrust?

If I have an issue with Letters to America, it’s that the conversations between poems Daniels’ sets up in the introduction doesn’t quite come across.  Maybe it’s the result of reading the book over a period of two weeks, but I don’t quite hear the poems responding to each other so much as talking simultaneously, like in a TV adspot montage.  Sure, several poems are dedicated to other contributors, but it’s indirect conversation at most.

Then again, Daniels’ collection does call attention to the subject of race.  Had I read these poems in another context, I’d probably read them as reflections on their writers’ lives, rather than commentaries on society-at-large.  Placing these poems next to one another does bring the social commentary to the forefront.

In fact, I’m reminded of another anthology I’d read some years ago for another class: Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (ed. Nathan Irvin Huggins).  The anthology included several poems by Countee Cullen, now one of my favorite writers.  I’d seen his work before, and saw poems like “Yet I Do Marvel” as personal reflections on being black in early 20th-century America.  But when paired against Langston Hughes and others, I saw Cullen’s use of traditional European forms as a larger comment on African-American culture in European-American  society.  The context of an anthology does affect how a poem is read.

So, after reading Letters to America, it’s started to dawn on me how context matters to a collection.  I knew it intellectually already, but a collection is not just good poems tossed into one book.  The arrangement can matter greatly for the final product.

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From → Literature, Politics

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