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Friday, January 1, 2016

Emmett Till, Poetry and History

Poetry and History 2016

In the metaphysical philosophy of Martin Heidegger, poiesis is "the essential agency of primary truth." Seeking to rescue diverse human experiences from godlessness, Nathan A. Scott, Jr. noted in The Poetry of Civic Virtue (1976) that

Indeed, Heidegger considers any truly fundamental act of reflection to be an affair of "poetizing," for it is the poet (der Dichter) who is, in his view, far more than the thinker (der Denker), a proficient in the art of "paying heed" to the things of earth.  And it is just the capacity for this kind of attentiveness that he regards as the great casualty of those attitudes toward the world engendered by a culture so heavily dominated as our own by the general outlook of scientific positivism.  For, in such a climate, the sovereign passion controlling all transactions with reality is that of turning everything to practical account: the furniture of the world is approached predatorily, with an intention to manipulate it and convert it to use. (5)

In contemporary American culture, the sovereign passion is irrational, regressive and hate-driven, and how Heidegger positioned "paying heed" must be revised.  Poets and historians  and readers of poetry and history  (narrative reconstitution of verifiable facts) are also thinkers.  We have no necessary and sufficient evidence to prove that one camp or the other is more proficient in attending to the glories and horrors of everyday life.  The point is nailed  by Philip C. Kolin's Emmett Till in Different States: Poems (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015), and the coffin is nailed tightly should we compare Kolin's extraordinary book with The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), edited by Christopher Metress, or with Devery S. Anderson's Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015).  Navigating back and forth between history and poetry can't prevent the assaults of sovereign passion, but it can strengthen us, perhaps,  as readers to conduct  defensive combat in 2016.

Kolin's poems on the iconic tragedy of Emmett Till urge us to remember that acts of reflection can have the properties of a prism; they can split enlightenment into component parts.  Unless I am blindly misreading  Kolin, he is encouraging us to discover the pragmatic linking of history and poetry.

Emmett Till in Different States follows in the tradition of Gwendolyn Books, Julius E. Thompson, Langston Hughes, Richard Davidson, Audre Lorde, Bob Dylan, Wanda Coleman, and Sam Cornish  ---a few of many American poets who remembered 1955, who used art and their aesthetics to create a socially responsible prism or literature of everyday life to buttress cultural memory. Kolin takes us into the territory of abrasive remembering, the space where language gives birth to images of an iconic moment in America's violent past.  These morph into kindred images of a terrible present.  Kolin's poems deliver us into the dread of an existential future.  They demand that we abandon delusion, embrace common sense to eschew spinformation, and make our peace with the unending obligation of reckoning.   A life-promoting account of the furniture in our minds is a virtue not a vice.

As a title, Emmett Till in Different States refers at once to Till's life and death in Illinois and Mississippi and to the aesthetic states advocated by poetry and history in concert with one another.  We have options in how to read Kolin's book, but two of them intrigue me.  If one reads the forty-nine poems printed between pages 7 and 72 and delays reading paratextual matter, one may hear a long black song performed in many voices, a particular sonic remembering.  On the other hand, if one reads the book from cover to cover, one dwells on the architectonics of remembering, the structural machinery of engaging history through the poetic prism of a different consciousness.  In this case, one moves through the frames of Till's extended chronology (1902-2016), a prologue extracted verbatim from parts of The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, the multiple voices of the poems, the notes on the poems, and Kolin's concise biographical sketch.  These two states of experience are relevant for cultural literacy and cultural memory, for the "paying of heed" that the velocity of 2016 tries to deny us. Through the efferent and aesthetic reading so nicely theorized in Louise M. Rosenblatt's The Read The Text The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), our minds can give rise to a third state of awareness: the reconstituting in the dreadful contexts of 2016 of what Faedra Chatard Carpenter calls "the well circulated, yet never exhausted story of Emmett Till" and of how, as Devery S. Anderson aptly reminds us, the Till case "remains an open wound not only in the South, but throughout America."  Like the poems in  Frank X. Walker's Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of  Medgar Evers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), the poems in Emmett Till in Different States invites us to stare all the ghosts of America in the eye.  It is significant that in the final poem Kolin uses his Roman Catholic poetic sensibility to  canonize Till on the feast of St. Moses the Ethiopian, thus putting the domestic terrorism of lynching into the purview of eternal verities and sending us back  via poiesis to the continent of mankind's origins.

 For 2016, I urge those who say they "love" poetry to explore the territory of Kolin's poetry and be born again in a baptism of blood.  We can perhaps  manifest our "love" for poetry and the sanctity of  human life and have better transactions with reality by walking in the minefields of  American and world histories.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 1, 2016

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