Nothing would be more fitting to inaugurate this blog than to note that this past week, one of the most innovative and visionary poets in the American and African-American traditions, Jay Wright (b. 1935-) received the Yale University Library's extremely prestigious 2005 Bollingen Prize . The judges noted that, "Daring to extend the tradition of the prophetic voicework, Wright's poetry has for more than 40 years been nothing less than a sustained meditation on the various aspects - historical, spiritual, mythical - of which humanity is woven. The great ambition of his work has not only been to weave these strands into rich, complex, allusive poems but also, in his own words, 'to uncover the weave.'" (Let me add that the judges included two of the finest younger poets we have, Elizabeth Alexander and Carl Phillips.) Though Wright has previously received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the 2000 Lannan Literary Award, and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, his poetry has not received widespread critical attention or acclaim. Previous Bollingen Prize winners include many of the most highly regarded American poets, including W. H. Auden, e.e. cummings, Louise Glück, Howard Nemerov, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, Laura Riding, Gary Snyder, and Wallace Stevens. Wright is the first African-American to receive the award in its almost 60-year history.
Indeed, because critics and readers have considered Wright's poetry "difficult," and because he often has published with smaller presses, he has been mostly passed over with silence (to echo Wittgenstein), though "difficulty" and/or small-press publication have in themselves not always barred public critical appraisal, as the cases of John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, e.e. cummings, Jorie Graham, Charles Olson, and Wallace Stevens make clear. Nor, I believe, is race the central issue either, though it factors in; Wright's chronological peer Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), for example, has not only received extensive critical examination (and rightly so), but is now considered a "canonical" American poet, particularly within the framework of the American, African-American and experimental traditions.
The key issues in Wright's lack of critical attention are the lack of a consistent critical champion (either from the scholarly or creative worlds), and in the nature of his poetry itself. With regard to the latter issue, his poetics are even in their earliest incarnations highly distinctive and original (yet accessible), though they connect in language and theme (family, African Diasporic traditions, spiritual grounding, and cultural hybridity and transformation) to Anglo-American and European poetic traditions (I see elements of authors as diverse as Herbert, Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, Rilke, and Eliot in his work), as well as to a wide array of African-American and African Diasporic writers, including NoLangston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Countee Cullen, Nicolás Guillen, Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, Henry Dumas (for whose posthumous collected poems Wright wrote an introduction), Clarence Major, Nancy Morejón, Ishmael Reed, Michael Harper, Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, and even Baraka himself. His poetry's aesthetic qualities, which include lyric dialecticism and rigor, and the employment of what would become his poetic signatures, historical, mythological, metaphysical, spiritual, linguistic, historical, and philosophical motifs and allusions drawn from a wide range of cultural traditions, including the pre-Columbian and sub-Saharan Africa (the Dogon, the Bambara, Yoruba, etc.), however, have made it hard to read his poems as transparent representations of the contemporary African-American (or more broadly) American condition, as expressions or statements of personal confession, or as experiments that might be solved or categorized by a simple or ready-made hermeneutics.
Nor are Wright's poems, his poetic opus in general, we might say, political or ideological in the usual sense, though their intense and extensive engagement with the "cross-cultural" imagination, to use the Guyanese novelist and critic Harris's term, is utterly political in the most profound sense, by which I mean that they plumb the very depths of language's capacity to represent being and becoming. But they do so insistently in a framework that draws directly from the experiences of African, Native, and even European peoples in the Americas, as well as from across the globe, from our rich and often mis-understood history. The poetry is capacious in its catholicity of reference, of forms, of statement: it is truly "liberal." One might respond then that few people out there possess the breadth of knowledge necessary to appreciate the work fully; and yet who among us, other than Harold Bloom or a few other extraordinarily erudite figures, for example, possesses the range necessary to grasp the range of allusions in Shakespeare, or Ezra Pound, or Gertrude Stein, or in the work of more recent poets such as Charles Bernstein, Ann Lauterbach, and Charles Wright? Has that stopped critics from reading and praising them?
Some scholars, such as Robert Steptoe, Vera Kutzinski and Harold Bloom, have championed Wright's work, and Kutzinski, in her important study Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Nicolas Guillen and Jay Wright, links Wright correctly, I believe, to the great modernist American and the pathbreaking Afro-Cuban poets. Nathaniel Mackey, an extraordinary writer and critic in his own right, mentions Wright (though without devoting a chapter to him) in relation to such figures as Wilson Harris and Kamau Brathwaite, in his important study Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing. (Mackey's text also crosses the usual racial boundaries by discussing within its pages figures such as Major, Baraka, Creeley, and Robert Duncan). In addition, Charles Rowell quite admirably has devoted much space to Wright's genius in the journal Callaloo, featuring essays by Stepto, poet Gerald Barrax, Isidore Okpewho (an authority of African oral texts and Diasporic literature), Vera Kutzinski, and Wright himself. There have been some non-scholarly critics of Wright's work; I definitely hope that the upcoming issue of Obsidian III devoted to Wright includes critical appreciations and readings some of these writers and artists. But for the most part, Wright has lacked the sort of sustained scholarly or non-scholarly champion enjoyed by other "difficult" poets such as Ashbery (Bloom), Major (Bernard Bell), or Graham (Helen Vendler).
Lastly, Wright's work has hardly been static. As I have mentioned, the earliest work, which appears in the Homecoming Singer and Dimensions of History, is quite accessible, in terms of both form and content; the poetry of Wright's middle period, in the 1970s and 1980s—which includes the books Soothsayers and Omens; Explications/Interpretations; and The Double Invention of Komo, can appear at first glance forbidding. Some of the poems in these collections seem to work better to me than others, though I remain in awe at their overall magnificence and the aesthetic system they create. Beginning with Elaine's Book, and most especially in Boleros and the most recent poems that appear in Wright's collected volume, Transfigurations: Collected Poems, the work synthesizes Wright's philosophical and transcultural explorations with a dazzling and indelible linguistic music. Or, to quote Helen Vendler, in her recent New Republic review of John Ashbery's newest book:
John Ashbery, in a youthful review of Marianne Moore, cited what he called the 'almost satisfactory definition' of poetry given by the nineteenth-century French poet Banville: "[Poetry is] that magic which consists in awakening sensations with the help of a combination of sounds ... that sorcery by which ideas are necessarily communicated to us, in a definite way, by words which nevertheless do not express them." Poetry expresses ideas, the poet claims, but not by means of propositional statements. Instead it relies upon an underlying 'sorcery' dependent on a combination of sounds (arranged rhythmically, needless to say) that awaken sensations. If the sentences of the poem were written differently, the evoked ideas would disappear.
Certainly this is as true of Wright's unforgettable seguidillas and boleros as it is of Moore's or Ashbery's influential and beguiling lyrics. Wright's music not only aspires to, but achieves "the condition of music," to use Nietzsche's formulation.
All of which is to say, "Congratulations, Jay Wright!" I am not sure that this award will provoke a spike in new readers of Wright's work, but perhaps it might nudge someone at Princeton or some other prestigious institution with connections to the Swedish Academy to give Wright a closer (re)view. In my opinion, a Nobel Prize (and there are many deserving candidates, I admit) would not be out of the question.
I also want to note: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the fulgurant Cuban wordsmith whose skill at punning in multiple languages always struck me as unsurpassed, passed away this past week. Cabrera Infante's works include the novels Three Trapped Tigers (in Spanish Tres Tristes Tigres), Infante's Inferno, and A View of Dawn in the Tropics, and the non-fiction works Mea Cuba and Twentieth-Century Works.