Critical Essays on Alice Walker

By Ikenna Dieke | Go to book overview

Alice Walker: Poesy and the Earthling Psyche

Ikenna Dieke

In what has now become one of the most significant books of essays in the rich repertoire of African American critical hypotheses-- In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens-- Alice Walker enunciates what amounts to a thematic and quasi ideological preoccupation of an artistic imagination that might well be dubbed the earthling subjectivity. Firing back justifiably at a reader's disparaging remarks that the daughter of a farmer (such as Walker is) could not possibly become the material out of which great poets are made,1 Walker insists that the grubstake out of which the poet constructs or entities the world of her art must have its essential provenance in the humble affairs of the common people for whom she clearly writes. Contrasting her humble, indigent beginnings with that of the young John Keats, whom the reader apparently cited in his criticism, Walker dismisses as baseless reverie the presumption that the only good poet is the one who salivates and mimics Keats or those of his privileged background. She concludes by insisting, very much in the spirit and tradition of Langston Hughes, that poetry written for and about the common people, for and about one's own people, is infinitely more ennobling, and therefore more satisfying, than that gaudy stuff composed exclusively for and about the stiff upper lip royal court of England ( In Search, 18).

If we put aside, for the moment, Walker's oblique and sardonic swipe at the English monarchy, the phrase "Queen of England" (royal court of England) should be construed as an intensive troping of the concept of art as the domain of the privileged aristocracy. By this phrase, Walker seeks to highlight the marked difference between some art, which grows out of an inspired response to the ordinary, the commonplace, the experiences of common people, and the other, which has as its primary donnée the high and mighty in society--the privileged elite. It is a distinction between the high mimetic art and that of the low mimetic.2 In other words, at least as Ms. Walker sees it, the enduring aspect of art is the artist's uncanny ability to hallow the commonplace, to imagine the limitless possibility of the extraordinary in the common run of affairs--in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to see the miraculous in the ordinary everyday reality (qtd. McNulty, 114-15). Barbara Christian explains what this means in terms of Walker's own "unique" populist conception of Art:

But Walker turned the idea of art on its head. Instead of looking high, she suggested, we should look low. On that low ground she found a multitude of artist-mothers--the women

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