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Monday, April 27, 2015


Toni Morrison: A Full Circle in Motion

 Abraham Lincoln’s surmising that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin begat the War Between the States is a folkloric salute to the power of language and imagination. Stowe used a lot of sugar to advance the cause of abolition. Superior to Stowe and members of her liberal tribe, Toni Morrison has avoided traffic in sugar or kindred flavorings.  She is a realist.  The proof is in the astringent quality of her fiction and nonfiction.  From the thick descriptions that lend heft to The Bluest Eye (1970) to the control of perspectives which justify the deceptive “thinness” of God Help the Child (2015), Morrison has challenged her fellow citizens to deconstruct historical process and its consequences. Morrison’s being true unto herself has been no balm from Gilead for the most sensitive, hypocritical, self-deluded nerves of the American body politic. She has earned respect, but not love, for exposing systemic ailments that are beyond cure.
 Great writers understand that (re)presenting a truth may require the rejection of love. Contemporary writers understand also that in the 21st century, ingratitude and entrapment have displaced genuine, multicultural communion and civil disagreement.  Writers who are smart do not try to walk on the quicksand of fame.  Unlike Stowe, Morrison has the literary skill and mother wit to escape being a target for the moral scrutiny of a James Baldwin.  And no American Commander-in-Chief shall surmise that she is complicit in promoting military warfare, no matter how much Americans hunger for political fakelore. Morrison knows how best to deal with epic absurdity by creating Lula Ann Bridewell (Bride),  Booker (an intelligent black man), and Rain, a scared and whitely abused little white girl.
With God Help the Child, Morrison comes full circle back to the core of pain in her first novel, thereby creating space for total reassessment of her work to date.  Perhaps her aims are better understood outside the United States than within our country.  For some Americans, her work can only be read under the influence of fear associated with a rapid ascent of post-human racism.  In short, as far as literary journalism goes, writers for The Guardian trump writers for the New York Times, although the UK is as besmirched by racism and fascism as the USA. British literary politics march to a different drummer.
In an interview with Hermione Hoby, published in the April 25, 2015 issue of The Guardian, Morrison asserts: “I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old girl from Lorrain, Ohio.  I don’t [write about white people] ---which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books.  The point is not to have the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”  The location of Morrison’s utterance provokes remembering that she and readers who are some shade of color( psychologically, physiologically, and spiritually) have the option of accepting or not accepting  Phillis Wheatley as a literary ancestor.  These readers might note a structural kinship between As I Lay Dying and God Help the Child, but they have no obligation to claim William Faulkner as a bastard cousin.  It is no surprise that Bernardine Evaristo concludes her  April 19 Guardian review of God Help the Child (Chatto & Windus edition) with a fine British tone: “Morrison’s characteristically deft temporal shifts and precisely honed language deliver literary riches galore.  And while this novel is very readable, the pleasure is in working for its deeper rewards.” Being obtuse is not the apex of aesthetic achievement.
The phrases “while this novel is very readable” and “its deeper rewards” may give us pause. The qualification in the first phrase suggests that a readable text is problematic.  Is Albert Camus’ very readable The Stranger somehow less good than James Joyce’s  convoluted Finnegans Wake?  Morrison’s novel is loaded with rewards. One is her naming the unjustly incarcerated victim “Sofia Huxley,” a clever alluding to wisdom and science; another, and one of the richest, is Booker’s saying to Lula Ann Bridewell:
Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it (GHTC 143).
Booker’s words  are a necessary and definitive indictment. They are related to killing a mockingbird and pimping a butterfly, because they cast light on the games Morrison’s American reviewers are hired to play.

In the United States, deeper rewards do not go unpunished, especially in the famous review pages of the New York Times and the more august pages of The New York Review of Books.  Under the ambiguous title “Growing Up Too Black,” -----is it possible to grow up too white? ----Francine Prose’s TNYRB review, May 7, 2015, is generally positive and correctly “literary.” Nevertheless, she thinks aloud “Does the heady atmosphere of the mythic free the writer from having to pay attention to the details that, if gotten wrong, can distract the reader and briefly cast us out of the novel?”(13)  Prose justifies her question by writing in the next paragraph: “In view of the scope and the gravity of Morrison’s themes and ambitions, why should such points matter?  They do, because plausibility depends on the writer’s punctiliousness about just details as these.” (13)  Hold up.  The message Prose sends may be either the color of sickness unto death or a nice turn of the screw in the back.
Whatever the case, Prose gives us a hint about critical literary matters at the middlebrow New York Times, which rarely hides its mechanics of cultural manipulation. Michiko Kakutani, who has a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, wrote, quite accurately, on April 16, 2015 [ ] that one of Morrison’s great themes “is the hold that time past exerts over time present. In larger historical terms, it is the horror of slavery and its echoing legacy that her characters struggle with.” Kakutani finds God Help the Child to be a “slim but powerful new novel,” one that “has a musical structure reminiscent of” Jazz (1992). She assumes, I guess, readers will know that the primary musical referent is Billie Holiday’s and Arthur Herzog’s “God Bless the Child,” recorded May 9, 1941. She also finds that the novel has  “touches of surrealism that may initially seem jarring and bizarre, but that gradually lend Bride’s story a fair-tale-like undertow” and that ultimately the novel is “a tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.”  Kakutani’s review is an antidote to the surreal gesture of Kara Walker’s commentary in the NYT Sunday Book Review, April 19, 2015, page BR1 [ ]

It is odd, given the impressive number of Toni Morrison scholars in the USA and abroad, that the New York Times overlooked them in favor of a visual artist whose literary achievement is a 2014 installation titled “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.”  I guess the NYT book editors thought the installation was reminiscent of Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981) and that readers needed to be more entertained than enlightened by a woman anointed and ordained by a MacArthur “genius award.” The kicker is Walker’s contention that
“The world of ‘God Help the Child’ is crawling with child molester and child killers –on playgrounds, in back alleys ---but they remain oddly blurry, like dot-matrix snapshots culled from current headlines.  When they join the scene, it’s rarely as full citizens of the narrative, and this is a loss.”
The real loss is that Walker seems not to grasp that moralizing is an intimate part of Morrison’s extraordinary storytelling.  She should have studied Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) before putting Domino Sugar in the bowl. Had the NYT editors really wanted us to profit from sweetness and light, they would have invited Jessica B. Harris or Mary Helen Washington to write the Sunday review. Such a decision, however, would have endangered their flippant status as guardians of the very culture Morrison critiqued in The Bluest Eye and excoriates, in a new key, in God Help the Child.
At the clichéd end of the day or of the night, our spirits can be rested that Toni Morrison has come full circle in donating her legacy to American and world literatures. Ultimately, it is not literary criticism of Morrison that counts.  What counts is reading her words to construct one’s own knowledge of how history revolves.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
April 27, 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poetry Month Exercise


Poetry Month Exercise

A few weeks ago, I invited some writers to join me in a poetry month exercise.  Each day we would alternate between writing a haiku and a kwansaba.  We would have thirty poems or drafts for poems at month’s end.   Charlie R. Braxton accepted the invitation. A few writers declined, arguing that writing kwansabas demanded too much work.

The exercise would have been nonsensical had much work not been involved.  What Charlie and I have written to date reveals much about our ideologies, our remoteness from the strictures of Japanese haiku, and our willingness to observe the rules Eugene B. Redmond set forth when he created the kwansaba.

It may be the case that haiku and kwansaba pulled more out of us than we put into them.  Only the poems know for sure.  The exercise empowered; it was a welcomed surprise to have two poems emerge on April 7.

Haiku 4.7.2015

Brilliant children
Exploding dots on blue film:
Well born novas shine.

Time Apart From Time 4.7.2015

Islands. Isolate the pieces thrown from water,
The still thirsty petals of a flower
Burning to sandy ash from the flames
The sun set in the pliant East.
We are late. We yet can isolate
Notes, perhaps a song to thus recall
How once real humans played the earth.

When writers work hard at craft, they may sometimes find themselves walking in balance through chaos.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Exploring Another World

Exploring Richard Wright’s Other World

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Haiku.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2014.
Zheng, Jianqing, ed. The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

                During the seventeen years since the publication of Haiku: This Other World (New York: Arcade, 1998), scholars and critics have been at once fascinated and puzzled by the fact that Richard Wright (1908-1960) composed slightly more than 4,000 haiku during the last two years of his life.  The magnitude of his output is impressive, very impressive for a writer plagued by illness and political surveillance.  It is now commonplace to claim that Wright’s experiments with a Japanese poetic genre were therapeutic, but such a proposition is not sufficient.  One of the outstanding features of Wright’s prose fiction and non-fiction was powerful, often jolting, imagery.  Something beyond therapy that we may not yet be able to name motivated his deep investment in the discipline of haiku.
                Recent books by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Jianqing Zheng seek to forge a critical discourse that can benefit readers who have a special interest in haiku or Richard Wright or both.  Within the limits that are perhaps innate in explanatory activity, these books do move us forward in a quest to understand more about Wright’s exploration in that other world of haiku. They help us to understand a little better the changing tensions between ancient Japanese and modern American ideas regarding poetry, poetics and aesthetics, and the cultural functions of haiku.  Hakutani and Zheng invite us to participate in crucial critical work.
                Hakutani’s Richard Wright and Haiku focuses primarily on Wright’s creativity within a specific genre.  One might expect that the study would illuminate Wright’s innovations as well as dialogues among haiku scholars about the consequences of innovation.  Hakutani is one of the leading experts on haiku in the United States and an esteemed Richard Wright scholar.  Along with Robert L. Tener, he edited the first edition of Haiku: This Other World and provided invaluable notes and an afterword. In Richard Wright and Racial Discourse (1996), chapter 12 “Nature, Haiku, and ‘This Other World’,” he provided a summary of points he has consistently made about haiku, Zen, an African view of life, Wright’s retreat from moral, political, social, and intellectual to find “in nature his latent poetic sensibility” (RWRD 261).  It is noteworthy that Hakutani concluded this chapter by assuring readers that “Just as [Wright’s] fiction and nonfiction directly present” the conviction that materialism and greed are “twin culprits of racial conflict,” Wright’s haiku “as racial discourse indirectly express the same conviction” (291). That Richard Wright and Haiku hesitates to engage implications of such a conviction is one of its shortcomings.
                Hakutani chose to divide the book into Part I History and Criticism and Part II Selected Haiku by Richard Wright.  Five of the chapters in Part I summarize the long history of Japanese haiku and the major work Yone Noguchi did in bringing notice of the genre to the English-speaking world of the early twentieth century; the remaining five chapters discuss Wright’s haiku as English poems and senryu, the relationship of those poems to classic haiku and modernist poetics, and Hakutani’s idée fixe about Wright’s discovering “a primal outlook on life” which might reveal what Akan religion and Zen Buddhism share in common. Let it suffice that Wright possessed a primal outlook independent of his visiting Ghana and writing Black Power, and more thorough investigation of Wright’s use of African American rather than African lore is desirable.  Hakutani’s failure to use a skeptical, multi-dimensional perspective on what has been called the cultural unity of African thought is a demerit. Part II reprints 145 of the 817 haiku published in Haiku: This Other World along with the corresponding “Notes on the Haiku” from that edition. The recycling does not escape notice.
                For readers who know very little about haiku or Richard Wright, Part I provides enlightenment, and Part II may encourage them to read all of the published haiku.  More advanced readers may use Part I to refresh their memories of the haiku presence in American poetry and to ask questions about what such poets as Lenard D. Moore and Sonia Sanchez have contributed to the genre.  On the other hand, some Wright scholars might dismiss the truncated repetition of Part II and invest energy in comparing Wright’s early proletarian poetry with his later haiku by way of a close reading of Eugene E. Miller’s Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990).
                It would have been politic for Hakutani to have acknowledged either continuity or discontinuity between Miller’s study and his own work in poetics.  He would have impressed his readers with greater attention to incongruities in the study of Wright’s haiku and minimized the sense that he is reaffirming overmuch the “official” perspective he and Tener established.  Hakutani’s choices in recycling so much in Richard Wright and Haiku are not fatal and certainly should not preclude a fair reading of the book. On the other hand, he does not satisfy a reader’s hunger for insights about Wright as much as does The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku
                It is exceptionally valuable to have complementary and contrasting views of Wright’s haiku, because only a few scholars have read all of his 4,000 plus haiku in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.  A complete analysis of the haiku with the aid of a remarkable database recently constructed by Toru Kiuchi will unsettle any comfortable ideas about Wright’s poetics. Jianqing Zheng has an uncanny sense of what is necessary; his anthology sets us on a journey toward future critical assessments of Wright and, indeed, toward expansive interpretations of the varying functions haiku can have in the contemporary world.  Zheng made good choices in publishing original essays in tandem with reprinted ones from such journals as MELUS, Valley Voices, Tamkang Review, and Journal of College of Industrial Technology (Nihon University). The ten essays in this anthology invite readers to contemplate Wright’s daring and discipline, his flaws and triumphs, his humor and use of the American South and racial histories in grounding his haiku, and his fidelity to 5-7-5 syllable structures.  Special notice should be given to Richard A. Iadonisi’s challenging argument that Wright’s haiku are not quite the escape hatches many believe they are and to Zheng’s belief “that nature, which fulfilled Wright and made him an integrated part of it through his haiku, is a fundamental element in his works” (TOWRW xvii).  One must entertain the possibility that Wright’s signature skepticism precluded any ideal, aesthetic integration with nature and exposed the mythopoetics of writers ancient and modern who assert they have achieved sublime enlightenment. Even as Wright submitted to the severe discipline of classical Japanese haiku, he was defiant in creating a body of poems that ultimately are projections in the haiku manner.
                Richard Wright and Haiku and The Other World of Richard Wright are commendable guides that point us toward a future in the study of Richard Wright’s poetics. They strengthen us to measure the merits of groundbreaking claims in Dean Anthony Brink’s article “Richard Wright’s Search for a Counter-hegemonic Genre: the Anamorphic and Matrixial Potential of Haiku,” Textual Practice 28.6 (2014): 1077-1102. In many ways our exploring of Wright’s other world is always a beginning, a fresh attempt to understand mysteries, those red suns that take our names away.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Subversive Journalism

Subversive Journalism

Bryant, Earle V., ed. Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015.
Such recent dedicated scholarship  as Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s and William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature serves as a warrant for thinking of contemporary literary and cultural studies as components of a mega-surveillance machine. Readers and critics cooperate, often unwittingly, with publishing conglomerates and official agencies of detection in panoptical activities that exceed the scrutiny imagined by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish or by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism.  Technological progress encourages us to abandon dreams of a liberated future and to accept dystopia as self-evidently “normal.” For Richard Wright scholars, the publication of Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright, Modern Indonesia, and the Bandung Conference (Duke University Press, Spring 2016) by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher will create an opportunity for more speculation about the function of journalism in Wright’s imagination as well as raising devastating questions about how the journalism of Ida B. Wells and Ishmael Reed assist us to understand what was and is African  American literature. We do need to explore Black print cultures more thoroughly in relation to the production of Black literatures.  In this sense, Earle V. Bryant’s long-awaited Byline Richard Wright has a significant mediating function.
Perhaps financial exigencies are responsible for the University of Missouri Press’s delayed printing of Bryant’s editing and commentary on a number of Wright’s Daily Worker articles from 1937 and the essays “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite” (1935) and “High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom” (1938) from New Masses.  Bryant, a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, had been working on this project, very quietly, for more than a decade. The delayed publication does not compromise his effort to map underexplored territory in Wright Studies.  It does, unfortunately, increase the likelihood that his work will get less attention than it deserves.
Giving notice to time and space, as Thadious M. Davis does in Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (2011), reifies the value of chronology in examining Wright’s growth.  Her methodological choices ensure that we link Wright’s emergence as a journalist with his assignments in subdivisions of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), especially the Illinois Writers Project, without diminishing notice of his simultaneous participation in Chicago’s South Side Writers group and brief membership (1934-35) in the John Reed Club. On the other hand, Bryant chose to arrange the Daily Worker articles by theme ---urban conditions in New York, war in Spain and China, heroism, Marxist interest in the Scottsboro case, and art in the service of life. By avoiding strict chronology, Bryant is able to foreground his insightful analyses of political implications and aesthetic qualities in Wright’s journalism, to tell us many things about the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s accomplishments. Byline is Bryant’s effort “to bring Wright’s early newspaper work out of obscurity and into the light where it can be read and appreciated” (10).
There is a mixed blessing in Bryant’s book being in our hands after the works by Washington, Maxwell, and Davis, because the rigor of their scholarship sets the bar for critical attention to Wright very high.  Bryant’s work provides an opportunity to think about how African American and left-leaning journalism has been necessarily subversive and critical of efforts to sell the American Dream.  To be sure, Byline encourages more thinking about how subversion operates under surveillance. The minor failure in Bryant’s scholarship, however, is his not supplying a full listing of all the Daily Worker articles Wright wrote and glosses or explanatory footnotes for the articles selected from the full range of what is available.  Yes, students and scholars who might use Bryant’s book can surf the Internet to get information about topical references in the articles, but Bryant would have enhanced the value of his book by supplying them in the text.  It is odd that Bryant chose to say nothing about what Wright might have learned from Frank Marshall Davis about the art of journalism.  It is even odder that H. L. Mencken is not mentioned in Byline, because Wright made a special point of acknowledging his discovery of Mencken in a Memphis newspaper and his indebtedness to the work of Mencken as one of America’s most influential journalists, prose stylists, and social critics. It is baffling why Bryant seems to attribute the claim “All art is propaganda” to Wright on page 215, when it is a widely known that W. E. B. DuBois used that wording in his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” in the October 1926 issue of Crisis. Shortcomings notwithstanding, Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses can quicken interest in exploring more profoundly the journalistic aspects of Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain and Richard Wright’s bracing subversiveness. Wright deserves more credit for his prophetic panopticism.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 11, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Note from Trayvon

Poem 4.10.2015 (A Note from Trayvon)

Debrief the mercy the false gods send.
Mercy kills more cleanly than does spite.

Behold.  Zimmerman, his wanton finger in shock
Of memory bullets prayer into my skin,
His Darwin-Strauss tongue drips “Amen, Baba.”

Beware of mercy. Fall not in sin.
Let gods forgive Zimmerman. I shall not.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

JEAL call for submissions

April 1, 2015

The Journal of Ethnic American Literature, a refereed scholarly annual dedicated to new research and criticism in ethnic American literature, is seeking submissions for the general issue (Deadline: July 30, 2015) and the special issue on Hispanic American Literature (Deadline: July 30, 2016).  Criticism on Sonia Sanchez’s haiku is especially welcome.  Scholarly articles using MLA Style can be submitted to or to The Editor, JEAL, Mississippi Valley State University 7242, 14000 Highway 82 West, Itta Bena, Mississippi 38941 with a SASE to guarantee a return of manuscripts.