American Political Poetry in the 21st Century

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1 American Political Poetry in the 21st Century

2 American Literature Readings in the 21st Century Series Editor: Linda Wagner-Martin American Literature Readings in the 21st Century publishes works by contemporary critics that help shape critical opinion regarding literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century in the United States. Published by Palgrave Macmillan: Freak Shows in Modern American Imagination: Constructing the Damaged Body from Willa Cather to Truman Capote By Thomas Fahy Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics By Steven Salaita Women & Race in Contemporary U.S. Writing: From Faulkner to Morrison By Kelly Lynch Reames American Political Poetry in the 21st Century By Michael Dowdy

3 American Political Poetry in the 21st Century Michael Dowdy

4 AMERICAN POLITICAL POETRY IN THE 21ST CENTURY Michael Dowdy, Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings by Martín Espada, from Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction (1987) reprinted by permission of the Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ. Parts of this book have appeared in different form in the following publications: Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters Popular Music and Society Also by the author: The Coriolis Effect: Poems (Chapbook), Bright Hill Press (forthcoming 2007) All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. First published in 2007 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y and Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England RG21 6XS Companies and representatives throughout the world. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN is the global academic imprint of the Palgrave Macmillan division of St. Martin s Press, LLC and of Palgrave Macmillan Ltd. Macmillan is a registered trademark in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries. Palgrave is a registered trademark in the European Union and other countries. ISBN ISBN (ebook) DOI / Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Dowdy, Michael. American political poetry in the 21st Century / by Michael Dowdy. p. cm. (American literature readings in the 21st century) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN (alk. paper) 1. Political poetry, American History and criticism. 2. Hip-hop Influence. 3. American poetry 21st century History and criticism. 4. American poetry 20th century History and criticism. 5. Politics and literature United States History 21st century. 6. Politics and literature United States History 20th century. I. Title. PS310.P6D dc A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Design by Newgen Imaging Systems (P) Ltd., Chennai, India. First edition: March

5 To the poets of the fields, villages, mountains, city streets, stadiums, bars, clubs, prisons, rallies, and marches

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7 Contents Preface Acknowledgments ix xiii Introduction: Political Poetry in the United States 1 1 Embodied Agency 35 2 Equivocal Agency 77 3 Migratory Agency Contestatory Urban Agency 153 Conclusion 189 Notes 201 References 213 Index 227

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9 Preface When I began reading, writing, and studying American poetry seriously many years ago, I happened upon Adrienne Rich s poem North American Time and the particularly bold, provocative lines, Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history (33). Reading these lines and the other poems in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) set in motion the process from which this book emerged. I started considering how poetry can be political, and I began to see the ways in which poems can engage public debates about political, historical, social, and economic concerns. As my academic interests often tend, this initial inquiry led me back to my early teenage years and the development then of latent political and intellectual interests. In other words, I saw immediately the connection between the varieties of poetry I was studying in graduate classes and the poetry of my youth hip-hop music. Listening to the hip-hop poets of the late 1980s and early 1990s set the foundation for my later understanding of how poetry can be and why it should be political. The dual genesis of this book thus reflects my conception of American poetry as a dynamic collection of startling different, yet overlapping, methods for transforming the world in verse. I feared initially that it would be difficult to articulate points of convergence for the two controlling imperatives of this book printed poetry and hip-hop music as potentially sociopolitically engaged texts but I soon realized that these forms are bound together intimately. My dedication to contemporary American poetry, hip-hop music, and international political issues reaches a critical juncture under the broad designator political poetry. Despite the opinions of some scholars, colleagues, and friends that contemporary poetry is obsolete except in a few isolated conclaves and that hip-hop music is ephemeral and vacuous, I believe that poetry both in printed form and in hip-hop performance is not only a powerful cultural form in the United States, but that it is perhaps the best means for exploring contemporary American culture and the ways artists make their work political. In this book I analyze the poetics of

10 x PREFACE late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century poets, including those who perform on stage and on record, as well as on the printed page. Their strategies for confronting complex political, social, and global contexts in an era of globalization, war, human rights abuses, increasing economic inequality, and a prevailing uncertainty about the future help illuminate how artists negotiate between creative purposes and real-world constraints. I began listening to and thinking and talking about hip-hop music and culture long before I became a serious poet or critic. I went to my first hip-hop concert when I was thirteen years old, but did not read my first full-length volume of poetry until I was an undergraduate. If, therefore, I sound occasionally like an ardent fan or passionate defender of hip-hop, my stance is a product of this history. I trust that my growth from fan to critic-fan does not prevent my analyzing hiphop music and culture in an illuminating and disciplined, scholarly way. Printed poetry, on the other hand, does not have fans in the same way that hip-hop does. Hip-hop is both a youth-dominated and performance-based culture, whereas the most exalted and celebrated poetic traditions in the United States have been passed along in printed form and are generally more intellectual and less accessible so the story goes than popular youth culture forms. This dynamic has led many observers to view hip-hop as an evanescent art form with little long-term value. In hip-hop culture, after all, fans often think of music made prior to 1994 as old school, whereas scholars often periodize contemporary poetry as any work produced from the 1960s to the present. Printed poetry, at least what critics and scholars have determined is the best, tends to mature and gain in cultural value over time. I have come to believe that these opposite trajectories are a key to understanding contemporary political poetry and the different political potentials of printed poetry and hip-hop. Hip-hop artists are capable of accomplishing what active contemporary poets often strive to create a public space of collective agency, potential change, and community. They have a larger stage on which to interact with their audience, to create alternative images of justice, and to build potential political movements. Printed poetry, though, appreciates more slowly. Its impacts are often not as immediate as they are in hip-hop; thus, it is often difficult for many to see printed poetry as a political form. I have thus come to think that any extensive study of contemporary poetry, especially political poetry, is incomplete if it does not consider the politics, poetics, and rhetorical strategies of hip-hop. Such a study has never been published; consequently, critics have missed the opportunity to explore what hip-hop can teach us about

11 PREFACE xi printed poetry and what printed poetry can tell us about the world s most popular, dynamic, and often confounding art form. Years of attending hip-hop shows at night while reading, writing, and studying printed poetry during the day have compelled me to consider the shifting roles of both poets in society and of hip-hop as a powerful form of political poetry. I have also been grappling with the apparent desire of many critics, readers, and poets to make lyric poetry since the Romantic period associated with introspection and isolation, and since the Modernists with an unapproachable difficulty political. Poetry, these observers hope, should be capable of making a difference in the world. Further, although romantic and modern poetry, for example, are rightly and seriously studied, I discovered that I was drawn more to contemporary poetry s inextricability from current political and social contexts, partially, I believe, because of what Robert von Hallberg pointed out in 1987, a dictum that applies nearly twenty years later: the need of humanities scholars to make the study of poetry obviously important (Politics and Poetic Value 2). Printed poetry can be obviously important in the classroom, for instance, when it reverberates beyond the narrow confines of the classroom in confronting issues of social justice, war, and foreign policy outside, between, and within the walls of the individual heart and mind. In my view, it is unnecessary to style hip-hop as obviously important ; Patrick Neate s recent, Where You re At: Notes from the Frontlines of a Hip-Hop Planet, for instance, shows that hip-hop music and culture are a fascinating combination of local and global forces, what he calls glocal, and they have sociopolitical implications in places as dissimilar as Tokyo, Cape Town, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. Throughout my years of graduate study, I wrestled, often inconclusively, with the same question from friends, family, and colleagues. After being asked about my research interests and responding with American poetry, especially political poetry, I often received blank stares, as if to say, I know what poetry is and I know what politics are, but what is political poetry and who writes it? Who ever thought that poetry was political? This book, then, is my extended answer. As Michael Bérubé discusses in Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics, there is a great need for a more accessible language and a better articulation of political positions in humanities scholarship so that it has greater potential to reach a broader audience (171). As such, I hope this book contributes to academic discussions of contemporary printed poetry, cultural studies, literature and politics, applied theoretical studies of agency, and discourses about

12 xii PREFACE hip-hop music and culture, African American culture, and Latina/o culture. Further, I hope what follows will be capable of reaching a broader audience those who enjoy reading poetry and those who grew up with hip-hop music, those who follow global politics, and those who are interested in art s engagement with sociopolitical conditions. As such, in this book I attempt to negotiate the constraints of scholarly literary criticism with a more accessible style. Although I employ various extant theoretical terms and devise quite a few theoretical terms of my own, I trust that these terms will challenge and engage rather than confuse readers. Also, my theoretical and stylistic approach to the material is similar to hip-hop artists approaches eclectic and pragmatic. I do not hesitate to borrow from a variety of academic disciplines and scholarly approaches. Like hip-hop sampling, I sample a variety of approaches to poetry scholarship and cultural studies. When Helen Vendler writes that poets who use more than one language or register employ a macaronic aesthetic ( Poet of Two Worlds 31), she derides them for their unsustainable voices. However, I believe that these voices are dynamic and creative even if they appropriate and revise previous voices and traditions. I hope that this book s macaronic critical approach is the best one to elucidate the complex landscape of contemporary poetry in the United States in both printed poems and hip-hop songs and performances.

13 Acknowledgments In writing this book I received encouragement and advice, directly and indirectly, from the following colleagues, professors, and poets: Barbara Baines, John Balaban, David Davis, María DeGuzmán, Marcia Douglas, Nick Halpern, Trudier Harris, Robert Hass, John McGowan, Elaine Orr, John Thompson, and Linda Wagner-Martin. The Welton, Holliday, and Kirkpatrick families were kind and generous during the years of writing, and my own family has been supportive and patient with me. My parents, Janie and Dennis, and my brother, Ryan, have been more interested in my work than anyone else, and they were always careful to point out that it wasn t simply a familial obligation. I want to thank as well the entire Dowdy and Small families, especially my grandparents, for their support and inspiration. Finally, I want to thank Shelley for challenging me and championing my work.