Catching Holy Ghosts: The Diverse Manifestations of Black Persona Poetry
Rambsy, Howard, II, African American Review
You can refer to Amiri Baraka as a poet if you like. But truth be told, he's a conjure-man of sorts. His inclinations for black magic are quite apparent in his live performances. What are billed as poetry readings actually become opportunities for Baraka to invoke the spirits of the dead. He eschews conventional epigraphs and introduces many of his poems through hummed melodies of jazz tunes. Baraka regularly, or perhaps ritually, summons Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and, of course, "the heaviest spirit," John Coltrane in his readings by dramatizing their music. And when Baraka is really feeling it, as he was during a performance with musicians Archie Shepp, Andrew Cyrille, Reggie Workman, and Roswell Rudd, he departs from the printed text of his poems, moves his body dramatically, and shouts and screams wordless phrasings. (1) Who knows what conventional academic discourse would make of Baraka's presentadon? But in the cosmos of black church-talk, his acts would more than likely be classified as a form of catching the Holy Ghost.
Interestingly enough, catching holy ghosts or embodying the spirits of others has become as integral to the tradition of black verse as jazz poetry, though without the critical fanfare. Typically referred to as "persona poetry," these poems are written from the first-person perspectives of characters other than the poet-authors. According to M. H. Abrams, "persona was the Latin word for the 'mask' used by actors in the classical theater," and by referring to the speakers in poems as personae, "we stress the fact that they are all part of the fiction, characters invented for a particular artistic purpose" (131). The entry on "persona" in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that the "mask permits the poet to say things that for various reasons she could not say in her own person" (901). Epic poetry regularly features varied personae and dramatic monologues, and persona poems by John Milton, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and Robert Browning hold an important place in English and American literature. Although African American persona poems relate in a general sense to these broader, largely Eurocentric traditions and writers, black poets tend to also fulfill alternative and distinct cultural imperatives in their works.
Notably, the personae or masks that black poets regularly choose to adopt allow them to provide commentary on African American history and society and participate in a longstanding tradition of speaking in the tongues of various black people. Unlike epic poetry, most individual persona poems by black writers are relatively short, usually focus on a brief episode in the lives of central speakers, and often appear in venues that privilege African American writings and audiences interested in black personalities and topics. Persona poems or poems with prevalent masking elements by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name just a few, have become their more canonical texts, an indication that generations of publishers, editors, and general readerships have actively participated in the increased circulation and favorable receptions of these types of poems. As a result, an examination of persona poetry by black poets would need to move beyond conventional Eurocentric traditions and definitions of verse in order to appreciate fully the acts of masking, passing, catching holy ghosts, speaking in tongues, and sampling that occur in the compositions of African American artists.
Black poets of the contemporary era have advanced the practice of wearing the masks of varied characters and historical figures in their works. Camille Dungy explains in an article in Black Issues Book Review that several poets, including A. Van Jordan, Natasha Trethewey, and Tyehimba Jess, utilize persona poetry in their volumes published at the beginning of the twenty-first century: "These young black poets often employ personae to create more fully fleshed out characters, and they frequently include explorations of the past and various ties of kinship or community" (16). …