Loud Men: The Poetic Visions of Robert Bly, Ice Cube, and Etheridge Knight

By Seelow, David | The Journal of Men's Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Loud Men: The Poetic Visions of Robert Bly, Ice Cube, and Etheridge Knight


Seelow, David, The Journal of Men's Studies


This paper describes three poets, Robert By, Ice Cube, and Etheridge Knight, and their poetic representations of masculinity. Their works are examined using the theoretical frame of "loudness." Each poet's work exemplifies both a positive quality associated with loudness as well as a dangerous "silence" masked by their respective loudness.

I need only remind you that the contradiction between these noble ideals and the actualities of our conduct generated a guilt, an unease of spirit, from the very beginning, and that the American novel at its best has always been concerned with the basic moral predicament. (Ellison, 1972, p. 164)

We have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. (Wright, 1993, p. 540)

Few academic works have achieved such mass popularity as Robert Bly's (1990) Iron John. The book's appeal outside of academia speaks to a need within men's lives. The men's gatherings and self-help groups have less to do with the women's movement than with the crisis in masculinity brought about by the end of the Vietnam War, the decay of the nuclear family, and a general collapse of America's manufacturing industries. Thus Susan Faludi's (1991) trenchant criticism of Bly is partly misplaced. She sees Bly as a reactionary force and situates him in the general social backlash against feminism. This criticism reinforces a gender dichotomy that sees the masculine term as transparent. Ironically, feminism has contributed to the de-centering of masculinity into the status of an enigma (Wiegman, 1994). Jonathan Rutherford's (1992) superb work attempts to elucidate the silences a monolithic view of masculinity leaves behind. Yet, both Bly's and Rutherford's texts produce their own silence. This blindness became evident when showing an undergraduate class Bly's famous conversation with Bill Moyers (1990). My students were moved by the poet's quest for the future and his privileging of older men. These students were bothered, however, by the glaring absence of black men in the audience. Bly's workshop did not appear, on the surface, to be speaking for the African-American male.

The failure to speak about the black male, nonetheless, requires his presence as a shadow image. Toni Morrison (1992) describes how the concept of whiteness depends on an Africanist presence: "as a metaphor for transacting the whole process of Americanization, while burying its particular racial ingredients, this Africanist presence may be something the United States cannot do without" (p. 47). Following Morrison, my essay will discuss how the African-American male breaks this silence. I analyze the poetry of Robert Bly and his valorization of the "hairy male" in relationship to the Africanist presence of Ice Cube and Etheridge Knight, whose works emphatically destabilize any monolithic conception of manhood.

This brings me to the essay's central theme or the dynamic relationship between "loud men" and their respective silences. The loud male proclaims himself like the Walt Whitman (1980) of "Song of Myself" and articulates the buried feelings American society proscribes for the male. This shout, however, carries its own dangerous silence. Bly is certainly loud, and he consciously shapes a public persona. The value of the men's gatherings is indisputable. However, Bly's poetical shifts and the rapid exchange of archetypes from great mother to powerful father suggests a need for celebrity status or loudness for the sake of loudness. This dialectical relationship between loudness and silence also applies to the African-American poets under study.

Extremity is rapper Ice Cube's specialty. As Public Enemy announces, rap "brings the noise" via boom boxes (not the walkmans of privileged youth and jeeps equipped with massive sound systems) to often unwelcoming citizens. Ice Cube is a self-proclaimed prophet of black rage, public speaker of hip-hop gospel, film star, and advertising icon. …

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