In the annals of American poetry it is difficult to conceive of a more neglected great poet than James A. Emanuel. Born in 1921, I believe in Detroit, he has spent most of the last 2 decades apparently living in Paris, France. Words like believe & apparently are used because the truth of the matter is the man is almost a cipher- in American Poetry, in Black-American poetry, & on the Web. Using the best search engine around- Google- I could come up with only my own Cosmoetica link, a few mentions in articles on black poets, & American Parisians, & this lone poem which gives no real indication of the man’s poetic depth & breadth:
Never saw him.
The-ness froze him
In a dance.
Had a chance.
Yet a search for black poets will give you dozens of sites for noted black trash-poets like Sapphire or Wanda Coleman, or an Emanuel search brings up 100 times more links for noted white academic wannabe doggerelist Lynn Emanuel. The truth is were it not for my habit of troving through used bookstores I never would have plucked this gem of a poet from ½ Price Books. There I found the hardback version of Lotus Press’s “Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958-1989” [$25.00 retail] marked down to a mere $4.95! 396 pages topped by a ½ page of biographical info. Along with my $1.95 “discovery” of Australian Judith Wright’s Collected Poems I rank the neglected Emanuel as my top find. Again- why?
Before getting to the neglect of this poet, who has published in the New York Times Book Review (according to the bio), let me first state the literary case for Emanuel’s poetic greatness. The tripartite qualification for GREATNESS, in my view, comes down to quality of poetic output (the most obvious part), quantity of great poetry (not the random great poem put up by an otherwise mediocre-bad poet; the best example of this being Edwin Markham’s The Man With The Hoe)- to show an actual understanding of what makes for quality, & the ability to reproduce its effects; & diversity of poetic output (i.e.- not just being good at love poetry or political rants, formal verse or poems told from the 1st person)- this gets to the center of the poet’s vision- a quality very few have, but most great poets (& artists) do possess. I will quote from poems found in both Emanuel’s Collected, as well as many other books published by Lotus Press, & distributed by Michigan State University.
Emanuel has mastered both formal & free verse. Look these 2 masterly sonnets:
For A Farmer
Something slow moves through him, watched by hills.
Something low within each rock receives
His noonday wish, then crumbles rich; so fills
Each furrow that the prairie year upheaves.
His arm has lain with boulders. His copper hand
Has mused on roots, uncaring of barbed wire.
His fist has closed on thistle, and dug the land
For corn October snows have whelmed entire.
Something flows within him in stubborn streams,
And in the parted foliage something lives
In upright green, stirred by the rhythmic gleams
Of his hoe and spade. From worn-out arms he gives;
The earth receives, turns all his pain to soil,
Where he believes, and testifies through toil.
A video of this sonnet can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZRXJGpuFNk&list=UUN5kTfj5u8XcTBg51Z65EKwSonnet For A Writer
Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art's control.
To stray across my own mind's half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame's recline.
The latter sonnet (likewise Shakespearean) was penned 10 years earlier & also takes on a classic theme- the artist & his art. As with the first example Sonnet for a Writer is marvelous. The technical excellence is similar to For A Farmer yet this sonnet ends with the terrific couplet, “Far better to create one living line/Than learn a hundred sunk in fame’s recline.” Again, note how Emanuel plays off a familiar trope (especially given the subject matter)- the “living line”- i.e.- art as divine, spiritual, etc.- & contrasts it in such a unique way. Many poets could have written the penultimate line- in fact one could probably find 100s of examples of similar phrasing & sentiment (thus why they are cliches) in any online search- yet only a great poet could have hammered the home run that ends this poem. The end couplet both “tells” & “shows” what greatness is- something recliners like a Donald Hall, James Tate, Nikki Giovanni, nor Maya Angelou could not even imagine. Look how he twists familiarities as “chaff for grain”, “hunger in my soul”, “the dark”, “painful, lonely flight”, “earthbound”, “glorious light”, & “living line”. Ask yourself this: were someone to tell you that 7 such clichés would inhabit a sonnet- that’s 1 cliché per every 2 lines- & the sonnet would still be good, much less great, would you snicker? This then is what greatness is & can do- subvert clichés by using them in differing patterns, & not being afraid to use them to do so in the first place! See how he accomplishes it? Words & phrases as “search my chaff”, “(suck the polished [wheat) another brain refurbished]”, “mind’s half-hewn stone”, “common self….excels the mimicry”, & “sunk in fame’s recline” thus become the fancy clothes that rehabilitate the shabby bum’s appearance! His play with, & insertion of, these words which are vibrant with ideas which cast at & under familiarities to re-energize them. All this from a love of words, & the familiar is recast; the cliches thus made not cliches because they are forced to act as inversive & subversive agents of each other & the other elements in the poem. Please, now, imagine the 4 aforementioned doggerelists trying to nakedly & clumsily jam those 7 cliches into 14 lines. See? The defense rests on Emanuel’s formal excellence.
Let me turn to a free verse masterpiece. Yet another Emanuelian dare- if you will. Again, the subject matter is familiar- bear in mind Robert Frost’s own classic sonnet Design. Here is To Kill A Morning Spider:
He quivered once, in a paroxysm
seized his stomach, gripped something there.
A tiny thing hopped from him, whirling-
just as my foot, clutching at itself,
smashed his eight legs.
The wheeling little thing, in pausing,
my shoe, an engine on its own,
crushed what was there.
Such is surprise, is destiny:
a spider in disguise,
an insect fleeing,
and we watchers from our sleep awaking
to close their being.
This is from
1986 &, obviously, is free verse. Yet note the similarities in approach.
Familiar subject matter, a familiar- if not clichéd- phrase- yet look at its
subversion: the “black pencil-mark”
gets “whipped suddenly”, & the
past tense of “quivered” & “seized”
sandwiching the present tensed “in a
paroxysm”, while perfectly logical, seems disjunctive on 1st
read. And look how the whole trope of the poem utterly goes against the more
traditional Frostian stance- echoed endlessly by lesser poets. In stanza 1 we
are not even sure this beast is spider, even if it is “angering”-
great twist into verbhood- for such recognition. The “spider” then seems to
succumb to something smaller even as the speaker hovers his own doom-inducing
shoe- itself a player in this now- fourfold- drama. Yet both speaker & shoe
triumph over the spider & insect. One only wonders if the spider was merely
a dead prop used by a camouflaging predator insect. Either possibility is
superfluous as both beings are closed. Note “being” can refer to the 2-as-1 individual- a noun. Or to the
duo’s act of “being”. Also how
the watchers can refer to the speaker & his killer-shoe or to we sentients at large, opposed to lesser nonsentient beings. Such plotting is the work of a very
intricate mind, especially considering the simple language it is conveyed by.
Such a denouement entices us backward to ask questions as: Why the watchers are awaking-
not merely waking, & what that
difference can imply? Why the spider &/or insect, later referred to as their
(implying some sort of individuation- which is on-again/off-again in the poem)
are, when crushed, merely what- not who? Why the spider’s presumed parasite pauses? Why it (or the
spider?) angers for recognition? And why this all takes place in the morning- is
this mere hypnopompic dream? All of these factor in to a tight, great little
poem- one whose manifest greatness of idea, scope, & narration almost make
mere mention of its excellent enjambment, alliteration, assonance, & music
seem superfluous, if not showoffy. And not to diminish Frost’s archetypal,
& great, sonnet- but which poem bears up under reread better? Which can
unfold in more ways? My vote goes for this poem. True- it had Frost’s poem to
play off of, but then Design was not
without precedent. It was merely the culmination of lesser takes in the same
vein. It takes a great artist to both give
& subvert an archetype- especially in a single stroke. Emanuel does.
He is a great poet. He trusts the intelligence of his readership. His work looks
you level in the eye, it does not glower down from on high. Space concerns limit
me to these 3 brief marvels, but don’t take my word for his greatness. Get any
of his books for yourself. Over the decades Emanuel has excelled in formal &
free verse, long & short poems, long lined & short lined, personal &
impersonal, political & private poems. Most impressive has been his refusal
to be- as Countee Cullen derided- merely a “black poet”. In these 3 examples
we have seen quality, quantity (if but a slice- if 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, then
3 for 3 should rate as great!), & diversity. Emanuel is a GREAT POET-
The real point of this piece however is not Emanuel’s recognition as a great poet (however long overdue), rather why his near-total obscurity. Let’s now examine what is known about him & how it may relate to this puzzling fact.
The few books that I have of Emanuel relate bare bones factoids: born in 1921, spent early youth in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, & Colorado doing various farmwork, then various governmental jobs- both military & civil, teaching posts in New York City, France, & Poland, various writing gigs as critic & essayist, a 1967 biography: Langston Hughes, 1968’s Dark Symphony: Negro Literature In America, & a dozen or so poetry books published by small presses (including his Collected). “Presumed facts” one might glean from his poetry are that he has been married & fathered children. I cannot even say with certainty that he is living as of this essay’s writing. Rare is the Black Poetry anthology with a mention, much less a poem; & I’ve yet to see a single General American Poetry anthology (rife with forgettable poetasters Jorie Graham, Cathy Song, Thomas Lux, & David Citino) that acknowledges him with a single word! And aside from some mentions on the web, & from other black poets cognizant of his existence, he is a virtual Invisible Man- either by choice or happenstance.
Given the social nature of art, & Emanuel’s seeming self-chosen expatriation, it would be probable that his lack of name-appeal is not of his choosing. Even a Robert Hayden (also woefully neglected in the USA, & most shamefully by young black hiphopsters) has a presence in African-American culture denied Emanuel. My feeling is that this is a tripartite effect of these factors: 1) his near-uniform poetic excellence- in an age predicated on intent & content of art trumping skill & effect, 2) that excellence being mostly of a non-academic nature- especially coming from a black man of the Civil Rights Generation, & 3) his refusal, amongst Black PC Elitists, to be merely a “black poet”- i.e.- he views himself primarily as an artist first.
Let’s tackle these 3 presumptions 1-by-1; & they are presumptions, I grant. I do not know much of Emanuel’s life, never met the man, but years of dealing with the arts communities around this nation give me some insight enough to draw reasonable conclusions from the given effects.
Excellence (&/or greatness) is difference. It is superiority- a positive- but to those not on a par it is an especially disturbing thing to encounter- especially when that difference’s main effect on others is inferiority! Ask anyone great at anything & while they will surely admit natural talent’s part, they will probably trump that with the necessity of dedicated & hard work. Yet their work looks so easy- especially to those ungifted- “It’s goddamn unfair that that &%#@**!& has it handed to him/her! Why not me?” DO NOT tell the mediocre or bad that hard work is behind it. The ungifted certainly do not care that (as famed portraitist J.M. Whistler once retorted), “It takes me only 2 or so hours to paint a great portrait- but it took me 40 years to learn how to paint a great portrait in 2 hours!” Even more resentful than those void of talent are those who have the requisite talent, but lack the drive. These are the excusemakers who constantly tout the avant-garde, claiming their lack of recognition is that they are tritely charting new waters, etc. To them, mastery is merely backward taming of since-settled lands. What challenge could there be in expanding classic thema & forms, subverting the expected? Yet, contrast the 3 poems I spotlighted earlier with any of the bloated, ill-formed, meandering, clichéd, unmusicked verse of supposed avant-gardists- from Breton through L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, Symbolism through Michael Palmer, Beatniks, Hayden Carruth, A.R. Ammons, Blues/Jazz poets through Nuyoricans. Not only is Emanuel consistently better- but consistently more inventive & probing. But unlike an admirable adventurist (say Thomas Hardy) who fails, & is thereby safe to hail (albeit backhandedly), for the Literati can truly hide their animus behind the warm condescension of a grin, an Emanuel is a threat. Imagine The Academy Of American Poets- home of such deeply anally-ensconced poets as Gerald Stern, Sharon Olds, & Mark Strand that they resemble hemorrhoids- actually “dealing” with a man such as Emanuel! He is their antithesis. He is a man who values his art first. Contrast the dull didacticism of a Stern, the abysmally constructed, screeching 6th rate Plathian pottymouthings of an Olds, or the torpid familiarities of a Strand, with Emanuel’s work. Imagine any of that trio’s ham-handed handling of such a finely balanced & nuanced poem as For A Farmer: Stern would drone on for 2-3 pages of the “unfairness” of his plight inevitably troping toward screed but missing even that end with a typical blasé rebuke. Olds would write a formless, cliché-ridden rant that would screed from line 1, & end with the farmer convulsing under the Carolina sun as some Legreevian racist’s mastiff chews off his genitals- only after letting its master molest them first. And Strand? He would get lost in endlessly describing the color of the land, the day, & the cricket that eyes the farmer under “puffy” clouds & “golden” sun, etc.
So, Emanuel is an outsider merely by his excellence. But what of his mostly non-academic past, & more importantly his race? The two surprisingly go hand-in-hand. While the mid-90s saw some non-academic minority poets get published books- most notably Dana Bryant & a smattering of Nuyorican Wunderkinder (not including those “oppressed peoples” habitually published by smaller, formerly-rebel, presses as City Lights, Black Sparrow, & a few dozen other “occasional” presses), the truth is that most African-American, & other non-white, poets are deeply enmeshed in Academia. They are the modern literary equivalents of Antebellum Dixie’s House Niggers- purveyors of faux dramas where no rational being could have a dissenting view- politically, at least. It is a searing, nonetheless true, reality. They are the Butterfly McQueens of the new millennium: give’em a little tenure, let’em whine about the eternal & unresolvable injustices, applaud when necessary, & then let’em retire, nicely muzzled in their senescence. Recall a few years back when some black poets threatened insurrection at The Academy Of American Poets? What was the answer? Get some nice, academic Negroes on board- i.e.- Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, etc. Anyone who is not “in the system” is either ignored (if inconsequential enough) or co-opted (if not). Think of ANY Beatnik you can name who lived past 1970- excepting perhaps Bill Burroughs. Think of Nikki Giovanni, Michael Harper, Quincy Troupe, Clifton, etc. None of whom lacked talent (of varying degrees), but all of whom were tamed(/broken). Even the fiery old Black Bad Ass himself- Amiri Baraka- is tamed by a few nubile Caucasian coeds. Go to any liberal arts program in the country & there will surely be a black face on board- especially a poet- be it Maine, South Dakota, Idaho, or Alaska! & I’m not decrying the gesture- per se- merely whom these gestures are offered to. Wanna bet a Sapphire or Wanda Coleman- 2 poets with no real talent, who have been co-opted, will be further feted long before the unknown 35 year old “next James Emanuel”, slaving away at some factory, farm silo, or small family business, is?
Which brings us to the final- & perhaps most damning- strike against Emanuel. His utter shunning by the black literati- simply more PC Elitists who unrealizedly mimic the dismissive arrogance & very practices they’ve long condemned in the Good Ol’ Boys Network of Dead White Maledom. Of course, some of the same reasons white academia shun him apply: Does an Ishmael Reed really want his poems held up against Emanuel’s? Does a Rita Dove resent his sustained excellence in face of her stunning decline of poetic powers? You bet- although neither would ever admit to such declasse thought! But look how Emanuel packs so much political punch from restraint in For A Farmer. Even in overtly political, & BLACK, poems as his lone non-Cosmoetica Web presence, The Negro- written in 1961- skill & real thought conquer mere anger. Other poems as I Touched The Hand Of A Soldier Dead (1958), Stop Light In Harlem (1966), Emmett Till (1963), Eichmann, Slide No. 6 (1962), or Accident, From A Wajda Movie (1981), likewise show intelligence & craft in many forms & lengths, & all have more depth, intellect, & emotion than the more stridently POLITICAL poems which, once the incident/spark passes, fade to pifflery. BUT, just from the titles of the last 2 poems mentioned you could not actively surmise a black poet’s hand at play. This is heresy to PC Elitists- is the man not PROUD of who he is? It is the old & sad conflation that All art is political!- especially to minority/oppressed artists!
That Emanuel has not given in to such artistic suicide is another credit. The refusal to simplify his art/worldview to such dualistic patter is amply demonstrated by substituting the words about poodles for political. Note how the statement is every bit as true, & every bit as absurdly reductive; for even art that is not overtly about poodles IS REALLY about poodles in its very refusal to engage the question of poodles in our time!
Yet, Emanuel’s poems have power that resonate strongly. Poems written in the 1950s & 1960s that are as powerful & provocative as the day they were written- because their quality of craft propel their evercurrency, while the spew of Nuyoricans (merely regurgitated Beatnik flavored with 1990s minutiae) seems as distant in language, & effete in thought, as a somnolent John Dryden poem on courtly intrigue- & every bit as political as anything that came from the pen of a Kenneth Rexroth, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Tom McGrath, or Ntozake Shange.
Usually time is availing, & poetasters as an Ai or Jane Kenyon fatten obscurity’s girth, while their vile promoters & defenders incur a just ridicule in hindsight (& often by that generation’s own version of themselves!). The real question is who will be holding the foul crowd who damned Emanuel’s work accountable years hence? Hopefully such photons as this essay can help start to expose the recreant evildoers while coaxing the work & reputation of this slumbering Titan into his & its proper place in American (& World) Poetry’s (& Literature’s) photosynthesizing gaze. If not, then prepare yourself with several gross of barf bags for MFA courses (circa 2040) on the wit & wisdom of Wanda Coleman. God wot!
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