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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Poetry Month 2016


Like Black History Month and Women's History Month, Poetry Month sounds the alarm for annual rituals, or daily ones.  Thus, April is for

Remembering and forgetting. 

Hurting from ancient injuries and healing whenever possible.

Smelling  the skunk  of  blame and drinking palm wine of forgiveness. 

Tracking down the terrorists and seeking the saviors. 

Repeating rituals to confirm that we are motes of dust and grains of sand in an ever expanding universe of consciousness.

And what has poetry to do with this busyness?  A great deal as it circulates without need of invitation in society.  Nursery rhymes, adolescent "love" poems, ads that tax intelligence, and epics are all instances of a genre that defies consensual definition.  So too are song lyrics and deft words jammed against the air on the spurs of moments.  The uncertainty of knowing precisely what we are talking about, other than a process of talking about something, gives poetry a bad reputation among  literal-minded readers who question its legitimacy and a trumped-up name among folk who offer  hasty  praises and subjective prizes.  We are inundated with poetry.  Even people who say they do not read or listen to poetry are affected by it.  A to Z we have poetry.  Poetry, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, inhabits mundane  crevices of daily life.  Even the kind produced by produced by artificial imagination and mechanical intelligence. 

 As Peter Middleton puts it in Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), the making "of meaning by a poem is an intersubjective process extended over time, many individuals, and only ever partially available for cognitive reflection"(xv).   Middleton aptly identifies one of many reasons for contemporary anxiety about poetry in our cultures of reading. Under the influence of anxiety, the old chestnut that a poem shouldn't mean but be looks attractive.

"The value of reading contemporary poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they're up to," according to Don Share, the editor of Poetry, "is that it gets us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, things we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction."  And it does require special skill to become aware of what poetry may distract us from, especially when the word "protest" enters the conversation.

For example,  in June 2016 W. W. Norton will publish Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, edited by Phil Cushway and Michael Warr.  According to what is advertised on

This stunning work illuminates today’s black experience through the voices of our most transformative and powerful African American poets.

Included in this extraordinary volume are the poems of 43 of America’s most talented African American wordsmiths, including Pulitzer Prize–winning poets Rita Dove, Natasha Tretheway, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tracy K. Smith, as well as the work of other luminaries such as Elizabeth Alexander, Ishmael Reed, and Sonia Sanchez. Included are poems such as “No Wound of Exit” by Patricia Smith, “We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen, and “Poem for My Father” by Quincy Troupe. Each is accompanied by a photograph of the poet along with a first-person biography. The anthology also contains personal essays on race such as “The Talk” by Jeannine Amber and works by Harry Belafonte, Amiri Baraka, and The Reverend Dr. William Barber II, architect of the Moral Mondays movement, as well as images and iconic political posters of the Black Lives Matter movement, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. Taken together, Of Poetry and Protest gives voice to the current conversation about race in America while also providing historical and cultural context. It serves as an excellent introduction to African American poetry and is a must-have for every reader committed to social justice and racial harmony. 75 photographs.

 [[quoted verbatim from, March 26, 2016]]

There is less fanfare in what is posted on regarding Resisting Arrest: poems to stretch the sky (2016) edited by Tony Medina.

An anthology of poetry addressing violence against African-Americans featuring work by Jericho Brown, Kwame Dawes, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, Martin Espada, Ross Gay, Jaki Shelton Green, Joy Harjo, Patricia Spears Jones, Allison Joseph, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jamaal May, Thylias Moss, Marilyn Nelson, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, Frank X Walker, Afaa MIchael Weaver, Mark Doty and more. Edited by Tony Medina. Proceeds from the sales of this book will be donated to the "Whitney M. Young Social Justice Scholarship" sponsored by The Greater Washington Urban League, Thursday Network. [[ quoted verbatim from, March 27, 2016]]

Although Medina's anthology is already in print and is conducting a conversation about violence and is contributing directly "to social justice and racial harmony" by donating money to a scholarship, it is likely that so-called mainstream media will say little about Resisting Arrest and a great deal about Of Poetry and Protest.  Medina's anthology illuminates today's American experience through the voices of our most transformative and powerful African American poets.  Of course, the pronoun "our" here does not refer to exactly  the same body of people (potential readers)  as does "our" in the W. W. Norton description.  The disconnection matters.  The discrepancy  constructed between protest and violence matters as much as does what can legitimately claim to be "an excellent introduction to African American poetry."  Does W. W. Norton wish for us to believe the excellence in the anthology edited by Cushway and Warr  is somehow of a different kind or degree than that embodied in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013), edited by Charles Henry Rowell?

If you can smell the funk behind the hype, you can understand why Of Poetry and Protest , backed by big money, only makes IDEAL  what Resisting Arrest makes FACTUAL by its  transferring of proceeds of poetry to an admirable cause.  If your sense of smell is not so keen, listen to the YouTubed voice of  

Clint Smith III--"History Reconsidered"

Smith will open your nose and allow you to smell what needs to be smelled during Poetry Month.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            March 27, 2016

Friday, March 18, 2016

To a green body


Your rotting reflection,

wow, we have to agree with?

You or we are racists?

This is why you find us defensive:

you tell us all that we have

isn't due to our own work,

but only because we are not green.

And perpetuating racism conservatively.

You think we are sick

with chlorophyll of millions

on our hands

and then wonder why

we are not photo-sympathetic with you.

We don't have a problem with plants.

Plants have a problem with farmers.

Most breadfruits today

(and yes I attend the secret meetings)

don't think about your race.

We don't make plots to hedge you,

oppress you.

You get extra points for nutrition and on CDC reports.

We don't complain.

You have green-only stuff,

while we have to include you

in everything or be branded.

We don't complain.

You blame us for every single blight

in your plasticity

and wonder why we don't agree.

We are racist for holding plants

responsible for morphology?

You are the problem.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            March 18, 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

excellence in the Delta

Excellence in the Delta

                I am grateful to the administrators,  faculty members and students of Mississippi Valley State University for inviting me to speak at its 2016 Honors Convocation.  My topic is excellence in the Delta. Although my brief remarks are addressed especially to  students who will receive awards for achievement, to  young women and men who have  demonstrated that they made good choices in using time and  innate intelligence to strengthen their minds, my words are directed to everyone.  Yes,   I salute students who have earned special distinctions.  I commend their use of common sense to acquire uncommon knowledge. Their achievement, however, is not isolated from the efforts of their unsung peers who are preparing  themselves for a future in a world that is increasingly assaulted by global changes and uncertainties.   Remember that whether we are distinguished or quite ordinary our lives and minds do matter.

                After many decades , I have come to know that  excellence is often invisible, beyond measure, and hidden in individual and collective efforts.  Thus, we can speak of excellence in the Mississippi Delta and at Mississippi Valley State University  as part of a process of thinking and doing, of work,  of the being in the world  that we call history.  If we do not grasp that we all play various roles in the production of what is to be commended in life, in the production of excellence, we  display a poverty of intelligence and imagination .

                I use the word "excellence" to include the obsolete, 14th century meaning of a favor or a kindness, because  in the State of Mississippi and in the Delta we are obligated to read both between and behind the lines.  Excellence has many dimensions.  The living text or spoken (oral)  history of the Delta that unfolds year after year provides an external reference for the invisible states of being that consistently give shape to the indigenous music of the Delta  --- the blues.  It is in the lives of people who stayed in the Delta, who did not or could not opt to participate in the Great Migration, that we discover excellence as kindness. And  perhaps that kindness is a triumph of determination and will power.   So, on this occasion,  I speak of the  ancestors and relatives of those being honored today, of  the people who lived the realities of  American Nightmare that is a corrective  for the myth of the American Dream.

                 In my poetic imagination, the nightmare is a man and a woman standing in the middle of July in the middle of a field , their bodies glistening with sweat.  They look at the land from 360 angles and declare "Lord, Lord, there is no end to it."  Then, they resume chopping.

                 The woman and the man who haunt  my imagination are the creators of lore and  wisdom that exceed what those of us in institutions of higher learning spend years to understand.  They have been written about in  Kim Lacy Rogers's  Life and Death in the Delta, John Dittmer's Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History, K. C. Morrison's Aaron Henry of Mississippi: Insider Agitator, Chana Kai Lee's For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, and hundreds of books about the peculiar history of the State of Mississippi and its Delta.  The sacrifices, suffering, and moments of joy the woman and the man endured have been partially documented.  It is our obligation to  continue documentation and to continue remembering.  What we must research, speak and write about again and again, and transmit to a future  is the man and the woman saying "Lord, Lord, there is no end to it."  They did not define "it." They figured we would be savvy enough to figure that out for ourselves.  What I want Mississippi Valley State students to never forget is this: in their defiance of every ignoble effort to break and dehumanize them , the man and the woman illuminated what excellence in the Delta is in actuality; it is  the excellence of common sense and  will power.

I shall draw attention to the power of the will by noting a few facts about the life of


Dr. Lula C. “L.C.” Dorsey, December 17, 1938-August 21, 2013

She rose from the spirit-murdering poverty of Mississippi Delta plantations to spirit-giving national service by way of appointments from Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and William Clinton.  She never finished high school.  She earned a Doctorate in Social Work from Howard University.  Although she had purposeful experiences in South Africa, Israel, India, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China, she was primarily a mother of six children and a cultural worker who stayed at home in Mississippi.

She dedicated energy to improving health care and human rights in the Mississippi Delta.  She had the courage and genius to effect crucial prison reform at Parchman, one of the most notorious penitentiaries in America.

In special ways, her life was a response to the question Margaret Walker posed in the poem “Lineage.”

My grandmothers were strong.

Why am I not as they?

The life of L. C. Dorsey replied: My grandmothers were strong, and I am just like them.

In the rare chapbook Mississippi Earthworks (1982), an anthology of the Jackson Actors/Writers Workshop, Dorsey published “The Hunters/Executioners.”  The voice in her poem is that of a woman who offered “no apologies for the events that brought her /here to speak of love and determination.”  Her listeners  ---lawyers, professors and learned folk, fathers, hunters and men ---cried.  The speaker did not cry as she sketched a question of existential irony ---

And when she finished speaking

everyone knew why

this woman did not cry

for her tear well had run dry

as she had pondered this question many

times before

and was desperately trying to understand

the laws of God and man

that would let a bird escape death through


and a rabbit to out run death on the ground

while her sons could neither run or fly

and until she found an answer

she didn’t have time to cry.

Brave people do not cry. They ask diamond-hard questions.  They think. They act.

Dr. L. C. Dorsey is mentioned in a single sentence as one of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s friends in John

Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994):

During her last days she felt abandoned by all but a few old friends, movement colleagues like Owen Brooks, Charles McLaurin, June Johnson, and L. C. Dorsey, a woman who shared Mrs. Hamer’s background as a sharecropper and who, inspired by Mrs. Hamer’s example, became active in the struggle in the mid-1960s. (433)

Dr. Dorsey’s personality and voice emerged more vividly from Tom Dent’s Southern Journey: A Return to

the Civil Rights Movement (1997).  Dent asked “But what can we do to change some of this [rapid loss of

hard-won gains in the Delta]?”  Her answer was

All I can see…is that our salvation has to come from looking back at what we’ve done in the past that worked.  We’ve got to do something for ourselves; those of us who see what’s happening have to take more initiative.  For one thing, we have to put money back into the black community.  And we’ve got to do a better job with the education of our youngsters, both in and out of the public schools. (368)

In Kim Lacy Rogers’s Life and Death in the Delta: African American Narratives of Violence, Resilience, and

Social Change (2006), Dr. Dorsey’s importance as an agent of change in Mississippi is quite strongly

projected in what is quoted from interviews Owen Brooks and I conducted on June 21, 1996 and Brooks,

Rogers, and I conducted on July 18, 1997.

Dr. Dorsey’s accomplishments, her gifts to humanity, have been partially documented. There is more to be remembered, especially the standards she set for the women and the men  who would speak truth in the United States of America.  Future generations can document her achievements more fully.  They and we can give honor and respect by trying to be as brave, brilliant, and strong as she was. It is my belief that MVSU students know as much, whether they speak out loud or meditate in silence.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Distinguished Honorary Professor (2015-2017), Central China Normal University

Thursday, March 3, 2016

To trump or not to trump

To trump or not to trump

Many people would sleep better at night if Donald Trump were a cartoon character in an Aaron McGruder film.  To paraphrase Ralph Ellison, Trump isn’t one of our ectoplasms; he is a human being of substance, of flesh, bone, and liquids --- and he might even be said to possess a mind.  He is blond, loud, and militant in giving American flavor to a wonderful Middle English document, Ayenbite of Inwit (1340), a perfect mirror for the white-faced conscience.  Trump is an embarrassing gift to contemporary politics.  He is the voice that asks:  Why did I happen , and how does your outrage and your silence give substance to my shadow?

Whether they are well-educated or poorly-educated, obscenely wealthy or abjectly poor, American citizens follow instinct, custom,  perverse desires, and common sense as they gaze upon and listen to the sound bites of the Donald.  No politician in recent memory has been quite as inspiring as he is.  Thanks to him, many people have taken to purchasing weapons and ammunition and to rereading such classic texts as Democracy in America, Candide, Mein Kaumpf, and the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Fascism is back in fashion, along with Leo Strauss, Karl Rove,  Machiavelli,  Henry Kissinger and the romantic realism of Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum (Ayn Rand).   And no one worries overmuch that, according to intelligence from the Southern Poverty Law Center, we have 892 active hate groups and 998 antigovernment groups in the United States.  It would not do for the world to think the greatest country on the planet came up short in manufacturing terrorism. The great fear is that one who says Ave Trump rather than Heil Trump is politically incorrect. Or is it the other way around?  It is difficult to say.

Like Facebook, Trump is a universal friend.  He has a surplus of fury and sound.  He signifies ad infinitum on the dread and impotence of the proverbial average American voter.  Should the American democratic experiment come to an abrupt halt in November -----and I dare you to say it can't happen, we have the option of chewing bullets and drinking James Warren "Jim" Jones  Kool Aid in our self-fashioned temples. But that's not our only option.

Before resorting to bloodshed and cheap drinks, or Arkansas barbeque with Vermont syrup, free will  and our nation's frayed racial contract do allow us remember that the love of power and money is the only God that many billionaires opt to worship. And those billionaires clone their imaginations without a scintilla of guilt.  We can still recall that a trump is a playing card elevated above its normal rank in trick-taking games and that a trump, by virtue of metaphor, can be a person, a weapon, or the starting of a chain of events.

  It is meaningful to reconsider  how Michael Polanyi answered his rhetorical question --Are we to subscribe then to a theory of knowledge which allows the shaping of knowledge to depend on such ephemeral and parochial impulses? ---in The Study of Man (1958). The impulses Polanyi had in mind were moral and civic responsibilities, the shading of those responsibilities "into political obligations, and how these in their turn form part of the established institutional framework, or else are merely the expression of political partisanship" (42).  Polanyi's answer was quintessentially British:

Surely, a judgment determined by the outcome of a struggle for power and profit cannot be accepted as authentic; as some point the acceptance of moral responsibility for the shaping of our knowledge of man will inevitably turn into an acceptance of bias, prejudice and corruption.  Personal knowledge, as established by a responsible decision of the knower, degenerates here into a mere caricature of itself (42-43).

Why, we must ask, did it take us fifty-eight years to register the shock of recognition?  Are American voters retarded black holes?  The answer pivots on whether you decide to trump or not to trump.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            March 3, 2016