Academic journal article MELUS

Editors' Introduction: Verse Center: Form, Multiplicity, and Subjectivity in Multi-Ethnic Poetics

Academic journal article MELUS

Editors' Introduction: Verse Center: Form, Multiplicity, and Subjectivity in Multi-Ethnic Poetics

Article excerpt

In the essay collection Multiethnic Literature and Canon Debates (2006), coeditors Mary Jo Bona and Irma Maini situate the contested yet canonical status--at least for a select few authors--of multi-ethnic literatures historically, politically, culturally, and institutionally. They remind readers that the reprinting of books by authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zora Neale Hurston, John Okada, and Jose Villarreal, among others, did not happen organically; their recovery resulted instead from efforts by activists, artists, and academics--especially feminists--to expand the curricula beyond European-descended male writers. Substantial sociopolitical and curricular changes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s mean that today, authors such as Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Ernest Gaines grace the pages of many college and even some high school syllabi (Bona and Maini 2-3). As scholars trained in reading and teaching multi-ethnic writers, we celebrate the significance of this curricular shift. As specialists in poetry and poetics, however, we note that virtually all of these authors chiefly write fiction.

Where are the poets? What is the place of poetry in both the marginalized and canonical history of multi-ethnic literature in the United States? This question is not merely rhetorical, but also material. Too often, "literature" becomes synonymous with prose fiction or nonfiction in mainstream scholarly periodicals as well as in studies of literary traditions marked by differences in race, ethnicity, and culture. Many high-quality books and worthy writers are thereby excluded from this important conversation; the poets' works receive little notice, insufficient marketing, and few prizes. Moreover, even our conception of cultural difference as a site of resistance is compromised by overlooking such a central aspect of literary and ethnic culture. The poets and scholars in this issue of MELUS push us to move beyond the long-standing modes of reading that have, until recently, emphasized social divisions based on color, the bounded notions of selfhood in identity politics, and the analytical tools of narrative--in other words, literary and cultural theories of the political meaning of race and ethnicity with little, if any, attention to poetry and poets. This special issue on poetry and poetics, by contrast, resists the tendency of some scholars, editors, and teachers to marginalize not only different ethnicities, but also different genres. We aim to contribute materially and conceptually to the egalitarian goals and practices of scholars, activists, and activistscholars.

This guest-edited issue places theories and practices (note the plural) of verse at the center of discussions concerning the relationship between identity and ethnicity, culture and politics. We seek to rectify scholars' neglect of important writers who are poets and, more importantly, their failure to understand fully enough how poems affect us aesthetically and politically--both in terms of individual poetic effects and in terms of how those effects inform larger cultural meanings. Indeed, when poetry by writers of color accentuates sociopolitical aspects of racial or ethnic experience, the poets have often been charged with devaluing poetry's "true" function and form, creating propaganda but not poetics. This seems a dangerous corollary to what Bona and Maini historicize as a decades-old dilemma: "[T]he marginalization of minority literature was yet another way to dismiss and invalidate it on the grounds that it lacked aesthetic value and had a purely political and ideological agenda" (6). Politics and ideology exist within all literature, regardless of whether that belief system and its attendant social power or authority is consciously articulated or unconsciously implied. The allegation that the ideal poem is not political betrays itself as a political ideology, of course. Even worse, it exposes an inattention on the part of verse's advocates to the dynamics of form and meaning in social contexts. …

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