On Poems by Clint Smith
One of my friends who protests, much to my amusement and my dismay, that poetry should be plain enough for lumpenprolitariat readers to understand would like
Smith, Clint. Counting Descent. Los Angeles: Write Bloody Publishing, 2016.
He and Smith are natives of New Orleans, and they share cultural kinship from the angles of tradition and attitudes. Smith's poems would seem at first glance to satisfy my friend's demands for transparency and easy recognition. Smith and my friend seem to be brothers. "Seem" is the operative word, because Smith's poems are not scripts for greeting cards. They do not confuse respect for integrity with deceptive sentiment. What my friend would assume is the inviting easiness of Smith's work is the complex simplicity that informs the genuinely American poems of Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Smith's poems, like those of Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, are tools for actual rather than passive thinking.
Unlike the poetry of some modernist and post-modern writers, Smith's poems can be read and understood without referring to dictionaries and encyclopedias or obscure texts and unfamiliar belief systems. They are vernacular for our time, without resort to artificial neo-dialect, in the very sense that Paul Laurence Dunbar's late nineteenth century poems were affirmations of unconditional humanity . I have yet to figure out why people like my friend think they must broadcast misinterpretation of Karl Marx's definition of lumpenprolitariat in order to say they like vernacular literature. Their comments strike me as a pretentious blending of radical desire with stereotyped laziness, a vulgar embracing of low valuation of Self. Many of Smith's artfully constructed poems in Counting Descent, especially those which focus on the subjectivities of black boys, are aesthetic instruments to counter an uncritical embrace of nihilism and psychological destruction. He uses wit, the epitome of complex simplicity, to reject the temptations of despair. His book contains poetry for everyday use rather than innovative fossils for a canonical museum.
Two companion poems in this collection, "James Baldwin Speaks to the Protest Novel" and "The Protest Novel Responds to James Baldwin," are touchstones of Smith's prescient imagination as well as his superior knowledge of African American literary history. They are forecasts of the brilliant writing, plain and not so plain, that Smith might contribute to a future for the republic of American letters. Read Counting Descent to fight before you fiddle, to empower your mind to rise and take control.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. July 6, 2017