"The Poet in the World, the World in the Poet": Cyrus Cassells's and Elizabeth Alexander's Versions of Post-Soul Cosmopolitanism

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The opening chronicle of Nelson George's Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture (1992) includes a small but notable stream of literary and academic figures such as Ishmael Reed, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Cornel West. Yet poetry--as written on the page or as practiced by writers who identify themselves primarily as poets--is significantly absent (9-40). (1) Likewise, Mark Anthony Neal's Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), despite Neal's insistence on including poets and academics under the post-soul umbrella (104) and an extended analysis of spoken word artist Paul Beatty's first novel (about a poet), provides no close reading of poetry as an important genre in the post-soul era (131-74). The absences of poetry and poetic analysis seem important because of the crucial and prominent role of poetry during the black arts movement, the literary period preceding what Trey Ellis and Greg Tate have termed (in 1989 and 1992, respectively) "the new black aesthetic" (Ellis, "The New Black Aesthetic" 234-42) and a "postnationalist black arts movement" (206). Ellis's and Tate's versions of the emerging period also fail to include poets or poetry. (2) If we agree with Cheryl Clarke on two points--that "the African-American literary tradition begins with poetry and poets" (12) and that poetry "was a principal instrument of political education about the new blackness" during the black arts movement (2)--then it matters a great deal that poetry studies, including a critical examination of poems, has gone missing from the contemporary cultural landscape of the post-soul era.

One possible explanation for this supposed absence is that contemporary black poetry is often represented through spoken word and, by extension, hip hop, in which the oral and performative elements of the African American poetic tradition have come to the fore. But such an explanation overlooks the fact that there have been a number of black poets producing written, on the page, poetry in the 1980s, 1990s, and today. Additionally, in literary-academic circles, this period has witnessed the establishment of the George Moses Horton Society for the Study of African American Poetry by Trudier Harris at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the founding of the Cave Canem Poetry Workshop for African American Poets by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, and two Furious Flower conferences organized by Joanne Gabbin. The omission of poetry from George's chronicle, Neal's chapter on the post-soul intelligentsia, and Ellis's and Tate's manifestos brings into question written poetry's and poets' relevance to post-soul black culture. If post-black arts movement poetry is flourishing, why are black poets not represented in early articulations of this period? Can their poetry be seen, like that of the preceding black arts movement--as an instrument of political education about the new blackness? And if we include them in the post-soul aesthetic, how does that shift our understanding of the defining themes of the period?

While I cannot provide in this space a full survey of the many important and fine contemporary African American poets and the wide range of their aesthetics, I will focus on Cyrus Cassells and Elizabeth Alexander as a pair of poets working in different ways with one dimension of post-soul aesthetics: cosmopolitanism. (3) Including them under the umbrella of post-soul refuses, as post-soul culture itself does, a high versus low culture binary. Keeping black poets such as Cassells and Alexander within the fold of post-soul aesthetics is an inclusive stance that considers cultural hybridity, as evidenced by university degrees, international travel, and professorial positions, an aspect of contemporary black life that is, as Trey Ellis would argue, just as black as any other. As George expresses it, one feature of the contemporary period is "tales told not from the belly of the beast, but from the barely integrated mountain tops of academia, law, and mainstream journalism" (108); therein is chronicled the "tight space where cultural mulattoes reside" (107). …


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