A Post-Racial Anthology?
Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry
Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, ed. by Charles Henry Rowell.
W.W. Norton. $24.95.
This is a bizarre collection. It seems that it has been pulled together as a relentless “anti” to one thing: the Black Arts Movement. Charles Henry Rowell’s introduction and many of the quotes he gleans are aimed at rendering the Black Arts Movement as old school, backward, fundamentally artless. He calls his poets “literary,” i.e., Black Literary poets.
The blurb from the publisher W.W. Norton says that the book
is not just another poetry anthology. It is a gathering of poems that demonstrate what happens when writers in a marginalized community collectively turn from dedicating their writing to political, social, and economic struggles, and instead devote themselves, as artists, to the art of their poems and to the ideas they embody. These poets bear witness to the interior landscape of their own individual selves or examine the private or personal worlds of invented personae and, therefore, of human beings living in our modern and postmodern worlds.
My God, what imbecilic garbage! You mean, forget the actual world, have nothing to do with the real world and real people … invent it all! You can see how that would be some far-right instruction for “a marginalized community,” especially one with the history of the Afro-American people: We don’t want to hear all that stuff … make up a pleasanter group of beings with pleasanter, more literary lives than yourselves and then we will perhaps consider it art!
This embarrassing gobbledygook was probably a paraphrase of the editor’s personal gobble. But the copywriters might be given a temporary pass because they know nothing about Afro-American literature;
it is the Norton “suits” that could be looked at askance because of their ignorant hiring practices.
To get a closer view of where Rowell comes in, look at the quote that he gives from the poet he constantly cites as poetic mentor and as an example of what great poetry should be. The quote is where Rowell got the title of the book, Angles of Ascent:
He strains, an awk-
ward patsy, sweating strains
leaping falling. Then —
silken rustling in the air,
the angle of ascent
— From For a Young Artist, by Robert Hayden
Rowell says this is an image for the poet’s struggle and transcendence. But Lord, I never did see myself or the poets I admired and learned from as awkward patsies! In 1985, Rowell had Larry Neal on the cover of his literary magazine Callaloo, after Larry’s death from a heart attack at forty-three. You can look in the magazine and see that Larry Neal was no “awkward patsy.” Or that after leaping / falling we would not be glorified by some unidentified “silken rustling in the air, / the angle of ascent / achieved.” Actually it sounds like some kind of social climbing. Ascent to where, a tenured faculty position?
Rowell’s attempt to analyze and even compartmentalize Afro-American poetry is flawed from the jump. He has long lived as the continuing would-be yelp of a Robert Hayden canonization. Back in 1966 I was invited to Fisk University, where Hayden and Rowell taught. I had been invited by Nikki Giovanni, who was still a student at Fisk. Gwen Brooks was there. Hayden and I got into it when he said he was first an artist and then he was Black. I challenged that with the newly-emerging ideas that we had raised at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem in 1965, just after Malcolm X’s assassination. We said the art we wanted to create should be identifiably, culturally Black — like Duke Ellington’s or Billie Holiday’s. We wanted it to be a mass art, not hidden away on university campuses. We wanted an art that could function in the ghettos where we lived. And we wanted an art that would help liberate Black people.
I remember that was really a hot debate, and probably helped put an ideological chip on Rowell’s shoulder….
(the rest (rest? these ideas aren’t resting, they are rotating, causing a friction!) of the article located at the URL provided)