Literary history, at least as far as race in America is concerned, is stuck, and the doctrine of separate but equal has to be overturned again and again, with every book published. If the doctrine were dead, then it would be common knowledge that Robert Hayden is at least as remarkable a poet as Robert Lowell, or that the Hugheses—Ted and Langston—run about even; or that it would be ignorant of a young poet to study Elizabeth Bishop to the exclusion of Rita Dove, or vice versa. It would also finally be possible to assess the claim that Amiri Baraka’s work—his early work as LeRoi Jones, anyway—outdoes them all.
Fortunately, poems aren’t written at the service of literary history. They’re written in the moment, often in ways mindful of tradition (which doesn’t rhyme with literary history), and anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to trick you out of your birthright. Poets who start out with one eye on literary history find out sooner or later that they need to focus both eyes—maybe all three—on the poem. In Skin, Inc., his complicated second book of poems, Thomas Sayers Ellis seeks a space apart from the demands of both history and the immediate moment, to protest the overwhelming conditions he finds, or as he puts it in the title poem, "To sit-in/in the sit-in/in the margins."
The problem is that, even now, if you raise your voice, people start expecting you to provide the answers, to be not one among the many but the one to lead and speak on behalf of the many. In "Marcus Garvey Vitamins," from his first book, The Maverick Room (2005), Ellis declaimed at the top of his voice that the one should not be him: "Don’t like it, don’t Pulitzer me." He was kidding, but don’t laugh. Consider this remark from 2003 by critic William Logan about Ellis’s colleague Kevin Young, whose first and second books had been nominated for big prizes:
It can be difficult to be a young black poet now. You’re courted by publishers and anthologists, by the halls of academe; yet post-colonial and subaltern and diaspora scholars, who fight turf battles over what to call themselves, tell you what to write and how to write it, questioning your language and your motives (or, worse, applauding them) before you’ve written a line. Easier, I suspect, to be a young poet everyone is ignoring.
Easier for what? To do what? Write a memorable poem that makes everyone around take notice? Then where are all the show-stopping thousands of young ignored poets? Is their game good enough to stand up to some of the best trash talk of our times, talk so dismissive it doesn’t even bother with the second person?
All their fences
All their prisons
All their exercises
All their agendas
All their stanzas look alike
I didn’t think so. Logan may have had a point about the pressure of premature attention, but just as the pressures of rhyme and meter can still lead to happy accidents of meaning, it might be good for a poet to learn early how to shape expectations as well as metaphors. Along with the difficulty of being the subject of attention comes the opportunity to be the subject of your own sentence, your own strophe, your own simile. Among poets, the anxious force of Ellis’s chains of equivalences could not go unnoticed:
All their tables of contents
All their Poet Laureates
All their Ku Klux classics
All their Supreme Court justices
Except one, except one
Exceptional one. Exceptional or not,
One is not enough.
All their stanzas look alike.