Concepts of race in 21st century poetry: a reflection

One characteristic that both critical readings for this week share is that they focus on how 21st century poetry attempts to center experiences and works of BIPOC poets that previous poetic frameworks might have marginalized or relegated to lower status due to perceptions of race, politics, and subjectivity.  Yu explains, “Rather than seeing the work of such writers as voices from the margins that have gradually been incorporated into a traditional poetic canon still defined by white writers, recent scholarship has increasingly argued for placing the work of African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native poets at the center of discussions about contemporary American poetry” (4).  And in “The Future of Poetry Studies,” Wang makes a case for a poetic understanding that is grounded in a deeper investigation into the ways form reflects racial realities and outlooks: a “deep, non-surface…historicizing” (224) that accounts for things like the racial and imperialist perspectives of poets and critics who touted them, the impact of privilege on tone as well as content, the assumptions about what in poetry is “universal” (and how these assumptions allow critics to continue centering White, straight, and/or cis male experiences to the exclusion of oppressed groups), and the dangers of tokenism in generating or publicizing canons of work.

Many of the works we read for class this week embody this shift in thinking.  For example, Zamora’s “Second Attempt Crossing” uses idioms in the Spanish language (not translated or explained) to provide context for the events described in the poem, indicating that the intended audience won’t need to have these words—or concepts—translated for them, and centering Latinx immigrant experiences while requiring outside readers to do the work of familiarizing themselves with the poem’s cultural context before being able to access the work.  Rather than assuming a White, English-speaking readership, the poem adopts the bilingual, Latinx perspective as the “universal” reality against which alternate perspectives are Othered.

Danez Smith’s “Acknowledgements” does similar work, nodding to specific moments in the Black, Queer experience which chip away at the idea of one (White, straight) reality as being “universal.”  Words and phrases in the poem that may be cryptic to a reader assuming this “universal” White voice, like the “bag of skins” in the first line and the reference to “yo ugly ass” immediately after a tender moment at the end of the poem, and crucially the use of the n-word in the middle of the poem, make sense in the context of a Black poem intended to be performed within Black spaces, in which White people are excluded from participation except as listeners and silent readers.  (References to Goldsmith’s appropriative rendering of the Michael Brown transcript in Yu’s article indicate, however, that White performers often can and do dip into these spaces as participators in ways that are unwelcome and harmful.)

21st century poetics also give us new ways to read White writers in reference to systemic racism, White supremacy, and the flaws of assuming a universal worldview from a White perspective.  In Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” the speaker claims, “The world is at least / fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative / estimate, though I keep this from my children.”  Within a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between voice and race within today’s poetics, it’s impossible to distance Smith’s language from her Whiteness here.  The belief in keeping the harshness of the world a secret from one’s innocent children is not a universal one, as many Black families and other families of color have to inure their children to a dangerous reality, fraught with racist violence and police brutality, from which their innocence can’t protect them.  And her central metaphor, in which the world is compared to a run-down house with “good bones,” makes a whole host of assumptions, filtered through a White, middle-class lens, about property, security, and leisure—who has time and resources to “fix up” this house? Who has been historically excluded from the housing market due to restrictive covenants, redlining, and generational poverty? How do gentrification and late-stage capitalism idealize the notion of the “fixer-upper” for middle-class Whites? Who determines what it means to “make this place beautiful” in the first place, when standards of beauty are determined by race, ethnicity, class, and a whole host of other identities that preclude the notion of a universal beauty?  Keeping the work of contemporary poets and critics of color in mind, it’s easier to read Smith’s poem not as a wholesome and widely relatable tale of motherhood, as 20th century critics may have assumed, but as a single point about motherhood within a much broader range of human experiences, none of which is to be “normalized.”

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