Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Lyrical, but Not Necessarily Musical

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Lyrical, but Not Necessarily Musical

Article excerpt

Lyrical, but Not Necessarily Musical

Haki R. Madhubuti initially made his reputation as a seminal Black Arts Movement poet during the late 1960s and early 1970s with books such as Don't Cry, Scream, and We Walk the Way of the New World. Since then, he has devoted much of his time to community organizing, and helping to build Black institutions such as Third World Press, an independent publisher he founded in 1967.

In the interim, his talent for creating fearless, provocative essays -- best displayed in books like Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions and Enemies: The Clash of Races -- began to overshadow his renown as a maker of poems. Although Madhubuti continued to publish occasional poems and enliven his public lectures with recitations, admirers of his poetry had to wait more than two decades for the arrival of another collection. Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors appeared in 1987, his first such volume since Book of Life was published in 1973. Ground Work: New and Selected Poems appeared in 1996.

His latest volume, Heart Love, shows Madhubuti continuing to examine the issues that have occupied his attentive gaze throughout his career: the necessity of sustaining loving relationships; honoring the strength and wisdom of our ancestors; and the danger of indulging in complacency, however fleeting.

Like many of his poetic contemporaries, Madhubuti makes frequent allusion to the musical styles that paralleled his own development. As he, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and others called for poetic approaches that kept pace with the urgent ascendancy of Black life, their musical counterparts such as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Marvin Gaye were working to fashion new musical forms that blended strains of cultural nationalism with street-spawned rhythms and technically demanding performance. Hence, it's not surprising that references to artists such as Nina Simone, Coltrane, and various Motown mainstays pop up in the poems included here.

What is surprising is Madhubuti's failure to approximate the rhythms and harmonies found in the music he mentions. Despite the allusions, much of HeartLove is decidedly unmusical. In the first sequence, titled "Wedding Poems," phrases like "conscientious givers," "abandonment of weakening habits," and "your unification is the message" slow down the rhythm of otherwise muscular lines, resulting in leaden stanzas that read more like paragraphs from essays than careful poetic constructions. Madhubuti's spare use of metaphor and other poetic techniques adds to the prosaic quality of this section. …

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