All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez

Article excerpt

Although Jayne Cortez is one of the most popular poets in the United States, few critics have examined her work in detail. Eugene B. Redmond devotes some attention to her poetry in Drumvoices (1976); Barbara Christian has published review essay (1985); Aldon Nielsen discusses Cortez's work in his seminal study Black Chant: The Languages of African American Postmodernism (1997); and Kimberly N. Brown has recently published a chapter on her in Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color (1998). The neglect of Cortez's poetry reflects an indifference toward poetry generally and, more specifically, the Black Arts Movement which shaped her approach to writing. Despite the recent attention devoted to Sterling Brown, the vast majority of critics continues to focus upon various prose forms. And while this attention has contributed a reassessment of the importance of African American literature, many black poets--Henry Dumas, for instance--have been all but forgotten.

The critical indifference toward the Black Arts Movement stems from bitter disagreements over the definition of literature between conventional critics, on the one hand, and Black Aesthetic proponents, on the other. Black Arts poets contended that they had become the new avant-garde in American literature, but critics like Henry Louis Gates countered that Black Aesthetic theorists were essentialist and chauvinist, and dismissed the poetry of the period as mere rhetoric. The adherence to cultural nationalism inhibited a truly revolutionary poetics because it fostered a manichean world view wherein poets often conceptualized representation as reactions to the colonizer. As Patrick Taylor argues m his Fanonian study of African Caribbean literature and culture, the inability of the colonized to act on her/his own terms reflects a world view shaped by slave ethics (55). The widespread rejection of the blues as submissive music reflected a sense of confusion not unlike the false consciousness to which the poets we re opposed, and their conceptualization of representation as a dialogue with the master undercut one of the primary objectives of the movement--to speak directly to the colonized.

Nonetheless, Black Arts writers were correct when they called attention to the potentiality of a sound-based poetics. As David Lionel Smith says, "Though Gates often assaults Black Aesthetic critics for having an ideological agenda, the real struggle is between an ideology that rejects the institutional status quo and another that embraces it" (106). While the academy has traditionally privileged metaphor as a universal sine qua non of the poetic, it is also important to consider the political implications of this viewpoint. Barbara Harlow has pointed out that indictments against much of Third World poetry as rhetorical are based upon attempts to create a universal idea--that genuine poetry is based upon metaphor--out of a locally based notion that follows Aristotle's ideas in The Poetics (50). "Who knows what a poem ought to sound like," Charles Olson writes, "until it's thar?" (79).

My contention is that Black Aesthetic poetic theories are best exemplified in the poetry of Jayne Cortez, whose work demonstrates the full potentiality of what I call a blues poetics; that is, the most profound manifestation of the tradition of African American Resistance poetry. Earlier poets like Sterling Brown and the Langston Hughes of the 1920s had resisted misrepresentation by transcribing vernacular forms onto the page. Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, and the Hughes of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) fused their fascination with vernacular forms with a concern for modem literary conventions. However, Black Arts poets, who were attuned to the impact of Malcolm X and James Brown on black audiences, realized that the sermon and song/shout could be utilized to create a popular people's poetry (Neal, "Shine" 20-21). In other words, rather than envisioning their work primarily as reading material, poets attempted to incarnate--that is, become--the black performer and thereby blur the distinction between poetry and song by using the voice as an instrument. …