Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Douglas’

“Poets form each other”: Hollis Robbins on the African-American sonnet

Friday, August 7th, 2020
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Sonnet fan Robbins.

We’ve written about Hollis Robbins before, here and here, but only in her connection with the late great Prof. Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University, who died last year. Now we have a chance to blow our ever-so-tiny horn about her new book, Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition, published this summer with the University of Georgia Press. 

Robbins, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Sonoma State University, writes in her introduction about this intriguing subject:

Ralph Ellison argues, “while one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives, one can, as an artist, choose one’s ‘ancestors.’ African American sonnet writers have clearly seen in the sonnet tradition a literary past that speaks to the black experience, a past involving shackles, desire, protest, memorial, the possibility of play and subversion, and a long genealogy of practitioners… Few scholars ask why white poets write in the sonnet form; the answer comes best from sonnet-writers themselves: the sonnet is the valued coin; the sonnet is permanence; the dead leaves of the past are ever present to be overwritten, signified upon, contended with.

She notes that Harold Bloom, scholar of influence, claims that every poem “is a misinterpretation of a parent poem.” “Poets form each other, which means, in practical terms, that strong young poets must ‘wrestle’ with their poetic forebears in order to ‘clear imaginative space’ for fresh new poetry.”

Robert Hayden knew a thing or two about sonnets.

Here’s one example from the Jamaican poet Edward Baugh. He shares an ancestor with James Baldwin. Remember Shakespeare’s sonnet 127?

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.

Here’s Baugh’s rejoinder, in his 1965 poem, “There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring”:

When I speak of this woman I do not mean
To indicate the Muse or abstract queen
But to record the brown fact of her being,
The undiluted blackness of her hair
And that I lightly kissed her knee
And how her feet were shy before my stare.
It may be that I praise her memory here
Because she is indeed but allegory
Of meanings greater than herself or me
Of which I am instinctively aware;
But may such meanings never be a care
For that fine head, and may my glory be
That blood and brain responded well to slim
Shy feet and smoothest knees and most black hair.

Another indispensible sonneteer and his poem: Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Frederick Douglass,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1947:

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to our children,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered—oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the needful, beautiful thing.