Dimensions of Jay Wright: An Appreciation

Neil Arditi

Vol. 33, 2011

 

Like any really interesting poet, Wright both is and is not of his generation. Born in the same year as the notorious Amiri Baraka, he came of age in the early years of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), the aesthetic arm, as it’s often called, of Black Power. In his study of BAM, James Smethurst considers only Wright’s first book relevant, and observes that he has sought to distance himself from the movement. But that oversimplifies the matter. Around 1965, when Baraka (then still known as LeRoi Jones) moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theater, Wright made his own turn toward Africa. He did this largely by studying the cosmology of the Dogon and Bambara people of present-day Mali, which he began to deploy in his poetry with shamanistic intensity. But that is to get ahead of the story, if only a bit.

Wright had already written a virtual declaration of independence from BAM in The Homecoming Singer, in the epistolary poem “Idiotic and Politic.” I can only assume that it is addressed to Baraka, for it follows a poem called “Variations on a Theme by LeRoi Jones” and addresses a fellow poet who has entered politics and become “a ghetto Solon.” Neither Wright nor Baraka (if he is indeed the poet addressed) escape the charge of being both “idiotic”—a corrosive cipher for “poetic”—and “politic,” terms that Wright recycles like the teleutons of an abandoned sestina. Always the gentleman, Wright begins by ridiculing his own high poetic aspirations, portraying himself as an overwrought, self-deluded Romantic stomping about his garret:

Your letter reached me
in the darkness of my fever,
when all my dawns
were some corrupt play of shadows,
when I was pulsing with the banal discoveries
we come to with such idiotic exhilaration.

“Your candidacy is a fear I never held,” Wright adds, with the precision of a paradox—not “fear” but “hope” is what we expect. He later returns to the word “fear” as he will often do with central words in his poems: “Now I fear your timid power / brushing against the locks of our diffidence.” “Timid power” is a biting oxymoron, and soon Baraka’s afflatus is fully in the crosshairs:

Holding your last statement
I see your flippant breast cocking its way
into the canons of a careful city,
certain now of the creed’s flexibility,
taking the ordered gestures as some sign
of consent.

 

 

 

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