Academic journal article MELUS

Jay Wright's Poetics: An Appreciation

Academic journal article MELUS

Jay Wright's Poetics: An Appreciation

Article excerpt

Since the mid-sixties Jay Wright has intensely pursued an absorbing study of West African cosmologies from which he has extrapolated metaphysically the intangible qualifies that make an impact on the New World's multifarious cultures and also how we look upon them. In the interview editor Charles H. Rowell conducted with him for the special Jay Wright issue of Callaloo in 1983, we encounter the artist-maker, intellect and poetical theorist confident about the criteria of his discourse and the aims of his art. Whatever rationailzations one may advance to explain his relative obscurity as an American poet, his stature as a creative intellect deserves periodical appreciation to remind us of his work's magnitude. My intention in this essay is not to indulge in an exhaustive critical study of Wright's poems and their nuances--Vera Kutzmski's discussion of Soothsayers and Omens and Dimensions of History demonstrates an astute assessment of those works (Against the American Grain 45-130); and Gerald Barrax's essay about his early poems, published in the Callaloo special issue, is also well worth reading. I will, however, retrace this ground to offer another perspective on the historical and metaphysical codes that energize his poetry. If I appear to take his later collections, Elaine's Book (1986) and Boleros (1991), for granted, this is not intentional although it will prove obvious that Wright in these is moving around in Mexico and other places in the Americas with the sensibility he attained as the initiated in the remarkable book-length poem, The Double Invention of Komo (1980).

Any attempt to discuss lay Wright's poetics must sooner or later confront the matter of audience. As an American poet of color, self-referenced as a "black African-American" (see Rowell), Wright endures being dismissed or challenged in ways all too familiar at one time to Ralph Ellison and to Derek Walcott, when members of their communities of origin have variously accused them of being "too intellectual" if not socio-politically uncommitted. While Wright may have eluded some such public challenges, he could easily be describing himself in a 1987 essay where he mentions Robert Hayden, several of whose poems he finds to "instruct, delight and lift us":

 Hayden's exemplary historical imagination appears and works, as it
 must for a poet, in his language, which is a most virtuous arrow of
 analysis and criticism. Hayden's language has led many of his younger
 contemporaries to talk down to him. Their language is supposed to be
 public, "Black" and "of the people"; his is reputedly private,
 inaccessible and wholely western. We should by now have seen enough of
 these opinions to see through them. (17)

Wright is a contemporary of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, leading expressionists in the Black Arts Movement of the sixties and seventies. Hardly any of his poems are about the urban topicality of experience. Going to the African source of his sensibility never became lip service and posturing rhetoric. His poems are fully detailed as they embrace historicism's inquiries, perceptual fusions involving Africa and the New World, and international voices. Jay Wright's poems are historically and mythically expansive. They dispense with temporal limitations through a language that contains the past and the present while offering scenarios for prospective circumstances. Wright's technique freely indulges in temporal-historical references active in simultaneous locations. His point of view predates postmodernism's multiple voices, for he simply reaffirms indigenous tribal ways of thinking and seeing. On one level his points of view, shifting around between personae, are of a kind familiar to Native American writers like Leslie Silko, Gerald Vizenor, and in recent poetic discourses of length, Maurice Kenny and Ray Young Bear. Hayden and the West Indian poet Edward Brathwaite also use this technique successfully in what amounts to poetic drama and meditation achieved through transcultural and transhistorical ontology. …

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