Wednesday, May 25, 2016

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project #19 - Looking Into The Measuring Cup. The role of the critic.

Q: Is the critic of African American poetry an endangered species?

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.

I’ve always been leery around the species analogy, feared it might be specious, worried a bit about its potential connotations.

Critics of African American poetry, who are often themselves poets, certainly do not hold the same socio-cultural position today that they held at the height of the Black Arts Movement. I saw Stephen Henderson’s photograph in a copy of Black World I bought from a drug store news rack well before I’d ever met Henderson in person. In those days, Ron Welburn and Nikki Giovanni would get into it in the letters column over a review of Robert Boles’s novel Curling, and thousands of readers outside the academy could feel part of the conversation. Today it would be a miracle if I saw any poetry critic’s photograph in a magazine on a drug store news rack (unless one of us committed a spectacular, and extra-aesthetic crime), but then, there are precious few news rack magazines that would feature literary criticism today, in part because there are very few magazines, very few news stands. Book review sections have dwindled, replaced, if at all, by webbery. We go online for most such things today, or to academic journals, which generally do not feature photographs. What non-academic journals call criticism is in many instances just blurby reviewing. There’s a fair amount of that to be had now as then. (“Blank’s new book stands as an extraordinary meditation on time, a luminous, seductive new collection.  Every new collection is at once a deepening and a revelation. You enter the world of this spellbinding book through one of its many dreamlike portals; Few poets deliver more pure pleasure. His erudite comic poems are backloaded with heartache and longing, and they function, emotionally, like improvised explosive devices. He captures a sense of our culture in a way unlike any other contemporary poet. To say that the powerful poems in this book are unique, and layered with both psychological and spiritual dimensions, would be an understatement.” – YES, that’s pretty much what passes for criticism in most of our lit journals, and what wins the criticism award from the National Book Critics’ Circle.)

But the Black Arts era was exceptional in so many ways. Go back to the time when Saunders Redding was one of three Black professors on the entire George Washington University campus (and he wasn’t in the English Department) and, to return momentarily to the species analogy, you see what a rare bird the critic of African American poetry was as the Black Arts took off. Before that . . .?  I’ve written of the strange conversation that transpired at the end of the Gwendolyn Brooks / LeRoi Jones panel at the Asilomar conference, one of the earliest critical conferences on Black literature. As disheartening as the interventions of Robert Bone and Kenneth Rexroth were on that occasion, at least there was a discussion, with Rexroth’s after word appearing in the popular press. Black poets addressed the situation by taking on the critic’s role themselves. And just as Baraka had earlier seen the need to create new venues for new poetry, Black poet/critics of the era created new journals, theaters, conferences, etc.

Some of those still exist, and new ones arise from time to time. Hoodoo Review was there for a time; Nocturnes (Re) View of the Literary Arts appeared; and Nathaniel Mackey’s Hambone defies the averages by continuing over decades. Alvin Aubert’s Obsidian is now living its fourth incarnation, and looks better than ever.

The challenges come and go and change, as do the poets and the critics. When I began my work, the number of critical books that had been published that dealt solely with African American poetry was small enough that one person (myself among them) could read all of them. And while poetry has been increasingly marginalized in the American academy (the number of jobs advertised for scholars specifically in poetry, let alone Black poetry, is so tiny that the vast majority of poetry scholars in universities today were hired under some other rubric – My own jobs have been in ethnic literature and American literature), there has been a rush of high quality criticism that is well on the way to establishing a new ground for the study of Black verse. A short list of valuable publications (leaving out many relevant and exciting texts) would include Meta Jones’s The Muse is Music, Keith Leonard’s Fettered Genius, Anthony Reed’s Freedom Time, Jean Philippe Marcoux’s Jazz Griots, Evie Shockley’s Renegade Poetics, T.J. Anderson’s Notes to Make the Sound Come Right, Tony Bolden’s Afro Blue, Fred Moten’s In the Break, Howard Rambsy’s The Black Arts Enterprise . . . the list could be so much longer.

But to get back to the question, what is endangered is the institutional support for Black literature and its critique.  “When America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.” That’s what the old folks said when I was young. When academia is under attack, literature is in deep trouble. When literature is in deep trouble, the study of “minority” literatures, even after three decades of critical scholarship demonstrating their centrality to any adequate understanding o f American culture, becomes increasingly precarious. All ethnic studies are constantly under attack. Near the beginning of my life’s work, Harvard’s Black Studies was nearly erased. Then they decided to reverse course and made some spectacular hires. But everywhere you look, ethnic studies departments are under pressures to make programmatic cuts, to conjoin with other fields, to absent themselves.  Three decades of “political correctness” discourse in the media and in politics has made Black Studies its main target. Senior faculty at my own university have been known to advise white graduate students not to study Black literature.

Add to that the sorry job of recruiting young Black graduate students and faculty and you see where the dangers lie. The number of African American PhDs in any branch of American literature has held fairly steady, and at a ridiculously small number, for decades now.  If students can’t see themselves as being able to live decently while practicing as critics, they will not commit themselves to the years of necessary study. If they are not actively encouraged by their own teachers, they will not see teaching and writing as a viable route in their own lives. If the graduate programs of America do not increase the number of Black graduate students, historically White universities and colleges can continue to get away with the excuse that there is a “small number of highly qualified Black candidates” as their reason for seemingly being unable to recruit any.

So we live in a time when the theory and practice of Black literature criticism is flowering and producing powerful arguments and great discoveries (just look at the discoveries of poems by Wheatley and Hammon, the rediscovery of Frances Harper’s first poetry collection, etc.), but support for such work is dwindling and institutions are steadily subjecting the field to a campaign of “benign neglect.”

And despite appearances, we don’t have much of an “outside” for the criticism of Black poetry. With the disappearance of newspaper book sections and the steady shrinking of magazine coverage of literature, we might look to the internet for solace. There is a proliferation of blogs devoted to literary subjects, and larger online journals, like the Los Angeles Review of Books, often give space to Black poetry, but there is, none-the-less, an overall shrinkage in the public sphere for poetry critique which no amount of online blurbing can replace. (This at a time when there are more practicing poets than ever before.)

It is hard for me to be sanguine about the public space for criticism in our time. I take great heart in the powerful work I see every day coming from younger writers and scholars, but I worry about their prospects. We have proven over and over again that Black poetry criticism can survive even the greatest of precarity, that so long as one person somewhere can create an online zine open to the more serious philosophy of poetics, this thing will never die, any more than Black poetry will ever die.

So no, the Black poetry critic is not an endangered species, but, to quote an old song, they’re getting so god damned hungry they could hide behind a straw.

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