Wednesday, February 08, 2006
I have been waiting for Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone for damn near 40 years. The subtitle of this brand new book, co-edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen & Lauri Ramey & just out from the
I’ve known for a long time that when this volume finally got edited and published what my own personal test of it was going to be – does the book include William Anderson?
This book is a cornucopia alright, yet it’s also disturbingly imperfect. The editors acknowledge & address this, albeit a little obliquely, in their introduction:
Anthologies may be read as simultaneous gestures of greeting and exclusion. While the editors make no pretense to encyclopedic coverage of avant-garde, black poetics from the decades following the Second World War, we continue to feel the deepest regret as we reread poems that we are not able to include here. Some artists elected not to be included. Some bodies of work are surrounded by legal difficulties of considerably greater complexity than the verse itself. Some readers will no doubt think that we have elided a crucial candidate. The gathering assembled here might best be regarded as a preliminary sketch….
Which is exactly the right way to read this book. I regret only that the editors pulled their punches and failed to name names in the passage above. Or at the very least suggested who else they would have wanted to include. I have my own list, which would have pushed this anthology to just over 50 contributors – doable at 400 pages, tho pretty cramped if
There are all kinds of other questions that might be asked, as well, and almost no doubt will be: a book of this sort – and this important – is almost by definition ONE HUGE TARGET. One series of important questions might be about the organizing principle throughout. The editors have taken the most passive approach, the alphabet of surnames, but even if they had followed a standard historical method, using birthdates (Tolson appears to be the oldest, born in 1898, Jodi Braxton & Eloise Loftin, both born in 1950, the youngest), the problem remains that for some poets – like Anderson, whom I believe was born sometime in the second half of the 1920s – there just may be no surviving biographical data, no way to fix his position. It would have been difficult if not impossible perhaps to have tried to group these poets, to cluster them, even in the crude half-fictitious fashion of the Allen anthology. But it might have been instructive to try, if only to underscore just how many of these writers have had to struggle in some form of isolation.
While I’m sure that there are quibbles one could make throughout, the editors show their rigor in their selections within poets as well as among them. The obvious test here is the selection for Amiri Baraka, whose life has been one of constant reinvention. At 28 pages, his contribution here is the longest (Steve Jonas is the one other poet to get more than 20 pages) and, yes, maybe half of them are devoted to the early writing, poems dedicated to Robert Creeley & Charles Olson among them. But the longest piece of Baraka’s – indeed in the entire book – is reserved for “The City of New
So this is a great collection & an important moment in the history of American poetry. Period. But it is also I hope the start of a great conversation. Not only just about this book, but about the condition of African-American poets and the role of diversity of American poetry per se. Like just how is it that this book comes out eleven years after Walter Lew has edited an equivalent volume for North American Asian poetry, Premonitions? Or even why are there so few African-American bloggers writing about poetry & poetics? You would think that this medium could go a long way toward reducing the isolation someone might feel who’s testing out innovative writing strategies. Lets hope that all the questions get asked. And that everybody listens carefully.