A Forum on the Role of the Poet and
Recently (24 January 2009),
Marvin X, a well known
writer and founder of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) sent
out by email a provocative piece titled "Poetic
Mission." On the surface the concern was the
controversial investigation of the murder of the Oakland
Chauncey Bailey. But "Poetic Mission" goes farther and
makes an argument about the role of the poet and poetry.
Here are some excerpts from "Poetic Mission.":
mission of the poet is to express the mind
of a people, a culture, a civilization. He
extends the myths and rituals, taking them
to the outer limits like a
Eric Dolphy tune, stretching, transcending all
that is, was and will be. His tool is
language, from which he cannot be limited by
political correction or submission to the
culture police on the left or the right.
poet is a healer in the time of sickness,
inspiring wholeness and celebrating the
positive. He must point out contradictions
and lies. . . .
poet's mission was well defined in Mao's
classic essay "Talks on Art and Literature at Yenen Forum." The poet is either part of the
problem or part of the solution—is he with
the oppressor or the oppressed? Or we can
recall the words of ancestor Paul Robeson,
"The artist must become a freedom fighter."
For whom does he write? Does he write to
satisfy Pharaoh and his minions, or is his
mission to liberate the suffering masses
from ignorance, although he should never
consider himself superior, since the teacher
always learns from his students. If he
listens, the poets will come to know the
pain and trauma of his people and his duty
is to relieve the pain and trauma with
visions, plans and programs for the
poetic challenge is to take people to new
vistas of consciousness that reveal the
soul, individual and communal, which are
one. Language is a communal experience that
is not the property of the poet. He can add
to it with his imagination, but is there
imagination without myth-ritual? What is the
source of imagery except the collective myth
of a culture or civilization.
of struggle and crisis, the poet must become
a propagandist who whips defeat into
victory, sadness into joy. Truth is
paramount—there are lives at stake, hence
this is no game, no job for money, no
position for public adoration, no ego trip.
Call it revolution, change of the most
radical form. Marvin
X, "Poetic Mission." 24 January 2009
Reading Marvin's "Poetic
Mission" provoked a slew of questions, which I emailed to
him and others in my address book. Poets Jerry Ward,
Jr., Mary Weems, and
C. Liegh McInnis (with a poem)
responded. Marvin responded to a number of my questions,
directly. Below I will I place them in a Q & A format.
After which, I will present the other responses.
* * * *
Maybe the subject should be "poetic
missions." The heart of the problem for the poet is to
discover what is the
Mission, isn't it, if there is such a thing?
Marvin: Everyone, whether
poet, scientist, lover, street sweeper, dope fiend, must
ultimately define his/her life’s mission or purpose.
This is why brother Ptah suggested and I included the
13th Step in my How to Recover from the Addiction to
What is the mission
of the poet—words can kill or heal. Sonia Sanchez says,
“Will your book free us?” Apparently not since the
stores are full of black books and we still ain’t free.
The dope fiend must come to
understand recovery is only a step—once clean and sober
then what? Only to sit in meetings claiming sobriety
while still drunk on recovery—so after recovery, then
discovery of one’s mission.
Remember that Nancy
Wilson song, “I Never Been to Me”? So we can be poet,
mother, wife, husband, yet never discover our true
mission in life, and even when we discover our mission,
we may be too fearful to execute it.
Is the audience "the people" or is it the
poet's sense of the people? Or is the poet's audience,
his choir? Is the poet really a "truth sayer"?
people are real live people who we should encounter in
their/our daily round, thus we hear their cries if we
listen, for they will tell us all, if we listen. It is
not some echo in our head, life is beyond imagination
(the poet’s sense of the people). They will tell you
their joy and suffering as they have told me while I was
“selling Obama T shirts. The “people” told me again and
again the ritual they planned for inauguration day, they
told me their joy and happiness, no matter what
intellectuals think. So it is my job to express their
joy in this world of sadness and dread.
It was the same
with the murder of Oscar Grant. The people told me of
losing their loved ones to homicide, yet received no
attention because it was a black on black crime. They
said even the police showed no real concern. Thus we
must be guilty of selective suffering. If a white man
kills us, we protest. When we kill us, nothing happens.
The murderer still walks the streets and everybody knows
he’s the killer, but we say nothing out of fear, so
families suffer grief and trauma alone, in silence.
These people are not some abstraction, some imaginary
sense of the people, not his choir. The poet is either
about truth or he is about lies, the choice is his.
Rudy: Does not
the poet often obfuscate (or exaggerate) the truth,
maybe for good reasons, maybe for awful consequences? I
suspect that neither poems nor poets have a special
Mission. It is a romantic notion that has outlived its
art is exaggeration. What is music but the exaggeration
of natural sounds, birds, bees, water, wind, rain,
thunder. The poet often takes poetic license with
events, especially for dramatic effect. The poet, the
musician, the painter must decide to join the
revolution, as they did during the 60s and earlier,
throughout time. This is not a romantic notion. How can
the conscious poet ignore the suffering of his people
when he sees they are ignorant, suffering poverty and
disease? The poet must decide to aid them or leave them
alone and praise the king, pharaoh or whomever he
decides to clown for, shuffle and dance. For thousands
of years the poetic mission has been to cry for freedom
and justice. We know the source of art for art’s
sake—simply art of the master class, the rulers and
oppressors who pass by the man on the roadside, robbed
and half dead.
Rudy: Poems can
be sledge hammers (hurtful) or they can be subtle (very
subtle), like Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, Praise
song for the day? Which ones indeed
carry more truth? Which ones are more effective in
getting us where we want to go?
is well known, my style is the sledge hammer (Kalamu ya
Salaam) or to write with venom (Dr. Julia Hare). The
youth on the streets of Oakland who have read my books
say, “You’re very blunt.” Indeed, it is a style
reflecting my lifestyle (you’re too rough to be a pimp,
said a prostitute).
And yet I am in awe
of the feminine style. It is so gentle, subtle, smooth
like a razor cutting to the heart. I am amazed at the
feminine approach or style, especially in writing. But
Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem was too soft for
me, bored me to tears. Alice Walker’s as well. Now the
poetic message from Rev. Lowery was great. It moved the
soul, my soul, it had the language of the people, not
that academic bullshit language of Alexander’s. See my
“A Day We Never Thought” on the inauguration. But all
these poems are a matter of style, not truth. Some like
it soft, some like it hard. Some like Miller Lite, some
like OLE English 800. We can get to the truth many ways,
just get there.
the same as propaganda, which some associate with out
right lies and distortions? How do we reconcile the two?
Marvin: All art is propaganda of one class or
another, one group or another. Alexander’s poem is
bourgeoisie art to me. Would I be allowed to read my
poems on such an occasion? The bourgeoisie runs from me
on sight, no need to say boo. Although the Oakland
Post Newspaper claimed they were going to run “A Day
We Never Thought.” I did not try to be the sledge hammer
with this poem. I wanted to express the joy of the
ancestors, the living and the yet unborn. Oh, Happy Day.
Finally, the poet is not limited to one approach. He is
able to don the feminine persona when necessary. It is
his duty to know the spirit of male and female, and the
non-gender of the spirit world?
As you know many of the poems of the BAM period are
relics and say more about the mindset of the period or
the poet, for instance, some of the poems of Nikki
Giovanni or poems of Sonia Sanchez. The poets themselves
might argue that they are not relevant for today. Or
they would denounce or apologize for them as the
expression of youth, and not really the Truth.
mission of the Black Arts Movement was truth. There is
still truth in the BAM poems, yes, forty years later.
There is truth in Baraka’s Toilet, Dutchman, and the
poems of Nikki and Sonia. Yes, these poets might say
their poems are not relevant but they are not truthful.
The Dutchman is real. “If Bessie Smith had killed some
white people, she wouldn’t need to sing the blues. She
could have talked very straight and plain about the
world—no metaphor, no innuendo….”
And Sonia’s lines
are still relevant even if she finds them distasteful,
such as “What a white woman got cept her white pussy?”
Are the above words
youth or truth? Of course time causes a maturation of
thought. All the things I thought at twenty, some of
them I no longer think, but there is still much truth in
my early writings. Khalid Muhammad used to tell me to
hell with my current writings, he loved my early books
such as Fly To Allah and Woman, Man’s Best
Friend. These are the books that awakened his
consciousness, he told me more than once.
Baraka, the man who
taught me how to say motherfucker, now objects the use
of the term, except in a moment of passion. As for
myself, all words are holy and sacred, none are obscene.
What is obscene, saying motherfucker or actually fucking
your mother, sister, daughter, son? There are those
persons here in the Bay who object to my language, yet
they have been indicted for incest and child
these/us BAM poets have reached old age does not negate
the truth of our early writings. Of course the rappers
took our language to another level that may indeed
transcend truth for pussy and dick nonsense.
Rudy: Is poetry
not also a personal statement that says more about the
person at the time of writing, than it does the Truth?
Take for instance your poem in response to the slaughter
poem “Who Are These Jews” is basic truth. And if it’s
true for me, it’s true for you. But the essence of the
poem was said by Jesus 2000 years ago, John 8:44. Was
Jesus lying then, am I lying now? At what point do we
come out of denial and admit we got some devils up in
here? Why should Hamas recognize the existence of
Israel, does Israel recognize the existence of Hamas,
the democratic victory of Hamas?
Rudy: How do
the "people" really know when the poem or the poet has
really failed to speak to the real needs of the people?
Are the people deaf, dumb and blind? Have you not read a
poem or book that changed your life? The people tell me
all the time my writings transforms their lives. Truth
transforms, lies do not, not for the better. Lies lead
to destruction, truth to construction and people and
* * *
THE TRUTH is not an entity but a conflicted set of
conditions, phenomena which our human minds might
envision or speculate about but never fully grasp. In
that sense, poetry seeks to represent an insight about a
truth. What is made of a truth in a poem varies among
readers and most certainly between different generations
of readers, particularly if the poem is topical.
You are right in suggesting that we ought to talk about
the missions of poetry. When I write a poem, I do
have a mission in my head, but my readers
may or may not perceive what that mission
was intended to be or to do.
Knowing that poems have both limits and unforeseen
consequences, I believe my work is designed to move
readers to have fresh thoughts. The act of reading a
poem involves change, of course, but whether the reader
gets the point is a matter of chance.—Jerry
* * *
Poetry is an art
and like all art its success/impact/power is up to the
interpretation of each audience member who engages it.
What constitutes a good poem or a powerful poem or a
truth telling poem varies based upon interpretation . .
. there is no one meaning, no one way of expressing
whatever inspires a poet to write.
Also, poets write for a variety of purposes . . . some,
like me (Harlem Renaissance poets, Black Arts Movement
Poets, Socially conscious Spoken Word artists), use our
poetic voices most often as political acts to speak out
against the injustices of the day, to speak truth to
power—historically, this is one of the reasons many
poets have been considered dangerous to various power
regimes resulting in imprisonment, exile, and
Some poets believe the role of the poet is to make the
mundane memorable, to record various degrees of beauty
based upon their interpretation of what that is, to
describe the world they are living in for future
generations, without regard for politics, protest, or
Some poets believe it's all about performance, giving
the audience what they want to hear for popularity
purposes, to win Slam poetry competitions.
Some poets are introspective to the point of confessing,
zeroing in on their personal trials, tribulations, and
I am not one to publicly dis a poet because a poem that
says nothing or little to me, could mean the world to
someone else who is able to step inside the poem and
make meaning based upon the experiences they bring to
what the poet has written. A poem that doesn't make me
feel anything, though it may be technically flawless, is
not a good poem to me, but—
There is no one way
to be a poet, there is no one purpose, there's only
folks who have a gift for metaphor, simile, rhyme,
rhythm, imagery, trope, allegory, for seeing the world
through a particular lens—doing our best to do what we
do because we have to . . .
* * *
Good Are Poems?”
C. Liegh McInnis
Can a poem be as affective as a .357?
Can the images of a poem spray buck shot
into the body of a greenback stuffed sheet
Can a poem be thrown as a brick through the
of a grocery store so that we may pillage
its shelves for food for the hungry?
Can a poem be laid on top of a poem,
be laid on top of a poem, be laid on top of
until we have built a shelter for the
Does a poem need a million dollar war chest
or a foundation grant to be mightier than
What good does a poem do a spoiled, bloated
Can a poem clothe the naked?
Can a poem improve an ACT score?
Can a poem pay the rent?
Can poems assassinate Negro turncoats
who have sold their souls to racist rags?
Can poems cut short the lives of serpentine
who slyly suffocate African babies in
disguised as Caucasian curriculums?
Poems are the sperms of revolution.
We need poets to stop adding extra syrup and
to their sonnets so as to appease the pale
palates of people
who have not the stomach for the truth.
We need poets to stop
masturbating away their talents into
We need poets to start impregnating thoughts
Black magnolias bursting through white
into the minds of Raven virgin souls who
toil in the reproductive process of
Poems are the sperms of revolution.
Are you making love to your people,
or are you fornicating
away your existence?
Da Black Book of Linguistic Liberation
posted 26 January 2009
* * *
Hunger for a Black President /
Introduction I Write What I Like
Speaks on Africans / The Fact
of Blackness (1952) Black World and
* * *
* * * *
Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The
Permanence of Racism
By Derrick Bell
nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell,
the black former Harvard law professor
who made headlines recently for his
one-man protest against the school's
hiring policies, hammers home his
controversial theme that white racism is
a permanent, indestructible component of
our society. Bell's fantasies are often
dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis
rises from the ocean depths, sparking a
mass emigration of blacks; white
resistance to affirmative action softens
following an explosion that kills
Harvard's president and all of the
school's black professors; intergalactic
space invaders promise the U.S.
President that they will clean up the
environment and deliver tons of gold,
but in exchange, the bartering aliens
take all African Americans back to their
planet. Other pieces deal with
black-white romance, a taxi ride through
Harlem and job discrimination. Civil
rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the
heroine of Bell's
And We Are Not Saved (1987), is
back in some of these ominous
allegories, which speak from the depths
of anger and despair. Bell now teaches
at New York University Law School.—Publishers
* * * *
A Life of Reinvention
in the making-the definitive biography of
the legendary black activist.
Of the great figure in twentieth-century
American history perhaps none is more
complex and controversial than Malcolm X.
Constantly rewriting his own story, he
became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and
an icon, all before being felled by
assassins' bullets at age thirty-nine.
Through his tireless work and countless
speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands
of black Americans to create better lives
and stronger communities while establishing
the template for the self-actualized,
independent African American man. In death
he became a broad symbol of both resistance
and reconciliation for millions around the
Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm
is a stunning achievement. Filled with new
information and shocking revelations that go
beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds
a sweeping story of race and class in
America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and
the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the
civil rights movement in the fifties and
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 22 March 2012