Some recent tweets by poet Dwayne Betts have been reminding me about the history and value of what I'll call "skeptical poets," that is, poets who are skeptical about the perceived sanctity of poetry.
There's been quite a bit of commentary over the past week about Common's appearance at the White House poetry event. Some folks in poetry circles have expressed disdain that Common, a rapper, would be viewed a a poet. I imagine some poets are fearful or frustrated that thuggish rappers might disrupt the genteel nature of poetry and belle letters.
[Related content: Blogging about Black Poetry--2011]
Betts ain't one of them poets.
In one tweet, he noted that "poets are no more complex than ghostface, jay z, Nas, lil Wayne - poets are just complex about what we dont care about."
Here, he makes it clear that Ghost, Jay, Nas, and Weezy are as lyrically skilled as poets. He adds the comical critique that poets often get complex about irrelevant things. (The irrelevance idea sends my mind to the title of David Orr's new book on poetry: Beautiful and Pointless.)
At another point, Betts wrote "If poets believe their is an audience and pretend to want to talk to that audience I think someone will listen, remember field of dreams." His point here was part of a larger discussion about poets addressing a decidedly small audience and how they might expand it.
Finally, Betts noted that "Say what you want about BAM but they werent writing to other poets."
I certainly agree. Poets associated with the Black Arts Movement (BAM) were concerned about reaching a broad range of audiences in ways that is less common in the more influence sectors of contemporary poetry--where poets are often inclined to direct their work at other poets.
Throughout Betts' tweets, you can get a sense that he's reluctant to place poetry or poets on a pedestal as the most ideal communicators. For me, Betts's skepticism toward poetry is even more credible because he's a talented and published poet. That is, he's not an aggrieved outsider.
Instead, he displays an awareness of the limits of poetry.
Betts's skepticism about the limits of poetry echo ideas expressed by figures such as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, and so many others associated with the Black Arts Movement who were sometimes suspicious about poetry.
They even regularly wrote poems that were skeptical of poetry. In the opening of his well-known piece "Black Art," Baraka wrote that "Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth." That is, they are useful when they bite or have bite. In the closing of her poem "For Saundra," Giovanni notes that "maybe i shouldn't write / at all / but clean my gun / and check my kerosene supply."
Beyond the poems, black arts poets often wrote essays where they challenged traditional ideas of poetry. They even rejected the idea of presenting themselves as only poets. They were poet-activists. Poet-scholars. Poet-playwrights. Black arts poets.
Poet-essayist, Larry Neal was especially committed to encouraging poets to become more than poets. "Listen to James Brown scream," he wrote in the afterword to the anthology Black Fire. "Ask yourself, then: Have you ever heard a Negro poet sing like that?"
The links between music and poetry, which black arts participants advocated for so much, get us back to Betts. I read his tweet about complex rappers and irrelevant poetry and imagined him remixing Larry Neal with something like: "Listen to Nas and Ghostface spit verses. Ask yourself, then: Have you heard contemporary poets rhyme like that?"
What's valuable about Betts's skepticism, what's valuable about skeptical poets in general is how such positions and poets dare fellow poets to be more than how poets and poetry are traditionally defined. Skeptical poets, who are in fact commentators on poetry of a sort, unsettle things a bit. They keep things usefully unresolved.