Whole Grain: The Collected Poems Of James A. Emanuel
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/17/06
When thinking of overlooked contemporary books, I think of the novels of William Kennedy and Charles Johnson; but, on reflection, since they write prose and have won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, how neglected can they be? True, they don’t sell like Frank McCourt nor Dan Brown, nor get the praise lesser contemporaries John Updike and Toni Morrison do, but overlooked would have to be reserved for a poet, and a great one.
Skimming the dross of literary magazines, one will find acolytes of every masturbatory –ism declaiming an obscure poet they knew, slept with, or idolized, a ‘genius’, or ‘master’. But, as is the case with most self-conscious and delimited writing, a place as literary footnote awaits those poetasters. So, is there any contemporary published poet that fits the criteria of excellence and neglect, who will one day be canonized alongside Whitman, Frost, and Stevens? Yes. His name is James A. Emanuel, an African-American poet who has lived the last few decades in Paris, France. I met him a decade ago, in a used bookstore. No, I’ve never met the physical manifestation that is Emanuel, only the text of his greatest poems, from a book titled Whole Grain, Collected Poems: 1958-1989, published by Lotus Press. In this lowest common denominator age of American publishing that actively scorns excellence in writing, in favor of cronyism, and such deliterate movements as Political Correctness, Post-Modernism, or genre writing, it heartens one to know that while one can find any great book they’re looking for online, only at a used bookstore can one still find any great book they’re not looking for.
To read the work of a great writer is to fundamentally be where that writer was, and commune with that being. This is not weepy New Age nonsense, but the only essential truth about art. History comforts one, knowing excellence always eventually gets recognized. Dickinson, Hopkins, Hurston, and Whitman only became giants decades after publication and dismissal. Often the best and most prescient artists take time to have effect. Great art works very slowly and over very long periods of times- it does not end wars, nor does it cure ills.
Once the dross of currently published doggerel fades away, critics will look back and wonder of the great poets of the 20th Century, and seek out those they overlooked, like Emanuel. There are great poems of Emanuel’s I could quote from- like The Broken Bowl, To Kill A Morning Spider, For The 4th Grade, Prospect School: How I Became A Poet, I Touched The Hand Of A Soldier Dead, and a few dozen others, which put the stolid prose broken into lines that is published nowadays to shame, but I’ll just quote this, from A Poet Does Not Choose To Run:
A Poet is not yours.
Locked out, locked in,
He opens doors
But cannot stay
To speak for long
Or sit at bay
Unless—and this is strange—
He sits in silence,
His pledge to rearrange
The clues of some wild track,
Trail it lonely out,
And lone come back.
When was the last time any poem in the So And So Review left you with a thought as clarion as that? When one is moved by great words, one intimately knows the writer, for every artist ultimately becomes their art, as when one declaims a love for Shakespeare, it is no necrophilic urge for the stiff under Stratford they exult in. Every artist lives in their work, and comes to the individual percipient of their work alone. This most intimate of intercourses is when art is at its zenith, and those like James A. Emanuel touch greatness. That he is not in all major anthologies, living in luxury, nor on the short list for a Nobel Prize, is a crime against literature. Yet, all this greatness cost was $4.95 plus sales tax- what a bargain!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Simon website.]
Return to Bylines