Thursday, May 7, 2015
Poetry, bad men, and intellectual histories
Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination (2001), Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts (2001), Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005), Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke (2013), Tony Medina's "Broke" series, and more showcase bad or at least challenging black men. Even more, the volumes present the inner thinking of select figures and ultimately give us a sense of protagonists' intellectualism.
Eady's volume -- about the fictive black man that Susan Smith invented as the kidnapper of her children -- may have anticipated the many series of persona poems that we have witnessed over the last decade and a half. Eady's figure is a reflective, thoughtful black man, who was and was not "bad," a criminal.
In addition to utilizing aspects of persona poems, what drew me to several volumes and individual poems over the years has been the devotion among poets to the intellects and ways of thinking among a diverse group of black men. It's fascinating that poets chose to concentrate on bad men. Perhaps those figures served as generative poetic muses?
Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts is based on Jean-Michel Basquiat and his artwork. Although Young's volume includes some persona poems, the book offers poetic interpretations and ruminations building on Basquiat's paintings. Thus, Young is grappling with the work of an artist, but also with the artist's mind and apparent thought processes.
Tyehima Jess and Adrian Matejka deal with Leadbelly and Jack Johnson, respectively, two quintessential bad men. I've spent considerable time grappling with the implications of Leadbelly and The Big Smoke. It's clear to me that Jess and Matejka spent even more time working to transform their research on their respective figures into poems and full-length volumes. Taken together, their books stand out as poetic complements to the biographical works on Leadbelly and Johnson.
You can go to Wikipedia or some other online site to get biographical sketches on say a Leadbelly. But Jess's volume presents us with all these emotional and thought sketches of the legendary folk singer. It's fascinating to consider that poets are essentially writing intellectual histories of bad men.
Medina's trilogy featuring a homeless guy named Broke also fits within this conversation. Broke is funny, profane, and thoughtful. With that character, Medina produces important and entertaining satire. Broke is like some "organic intellectual" presenting us with these observations "from below" so to speak. The sheer volume of Broke's opinions, presented in three different books, suggests that he has quite a bit to say; he has much on his mind.
• The Intellectual Histories of Black Boys
• A Notebook on bad men in poetry
• Black Poets, Bad Men, and Creativity