I’ve spent several days reading through and teaching the work of the Harlem Renaissance poets and have been reminded, once again, how extraordinary an American moment for poetry—and for the arts in general—that period was. Some general markers of modernity—alienation, disenfranchisement, disillusionment, anxiety—are well documented in the work of the white moderns. Wallace Stevens believed that poets had to serve as contemporary mythmakers, filling the vacuum left by Darwin’s gutting of Genesis and the philosophical, economic and psychological bombshells hoisted traditional thought by Marx, Freud and others. But white America had already established a foundation of what it meant to be an American. There was no sense of having lost a homeland and culture; they had jettisoned those willingly, by choice and, besides, still retained many cultural markers of European whiteness. Ezra Pound wanted poets to “make it new,” but black poets had a more difficult task: they had to make it black. And they had to create a narrative of what American blackness might mean.
That is, with no real memory or identity associated with the countries from which their ancestors were torn and no connection to a dominant European culture, the project was to search for a way to be black in a country that continued to dismiss, belittle and ignore the plight of black Americans. “What is Africa to me?” writes Countee Cullen, but the implied question—what is America to me?—is the real query here. At the heart of the matter, though, as I read it, is a larger question: what am I? As ever, reading the work of these poets—Dunbar, Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Anne Spencer, Claude McKay and, of course, Langston Hughes—I’m struck by the variety of answers to the questions, the wide range of styles, appropriations and influences, rhythms and stances. One cannot truly know that period of American history—or any other—without examining the literature of the time. Always, it reflects what people dreamed for and what stood in the way of attaining it.
We live—as did those artists—in a time when the world is particularly difficult to fathom and assemble into a sustaining narrative. One need only examine the poetry of our time—a body of work immense and various—to understand we are, again, in a place where we are forced to define ourselves against the chaos and fragmentation. We need to make things cohere; we need a stay against confusion. The dearth of empathy and bickering that marks our civilization as botched has an antidote in the conversation that is poetry. The sheer number of poets of all stripes is staggering, as is the great power one can find in their oeuvre. We need to reimagine ourselves, the poems reveal, and find the courage to act upon the vision we assemble.
As I review this issue of A Poetry Congeries—indeed, as I consider the ten or so years of its attempt to represent our historical moment in poetry—I’m struck by the rich blend of its voices. Separately, the utterances are interesting and valuable, but it is the orchestral sweep of these voices together I find most moving. It is the music of a tribe bereft, often sad, angry and forlorn, but always beautiful, moving, provoking.
I don’t know about you, but spring cannot come too soon.