A part of Respect Due: Symposium on the Work of Kwame Dawes
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Kwame Dawes’ Requiem—Or, A Defense of Narrative in Black Poetry 
In the beginning chapter of his 1990 masterpiece, Poétique de la Relation (published seven years later in the United States as Poetics of Relation), the Caribbean poet, writer, and critic Édouard Glissant, uses the metaphor of the “abyss” to describe the Middle Passage, the journey on which over twelve million kidnapped Africans embarked to their eventual destination as slaves. This section on the horrors of the abyss, strangely rendered with such poetic language within a critical text, ends with something like a manifesto: “This is why we stay with poetry.”
Appearing six years after Glissant’s book, Kwame Dawes’ Requiem: A Lament for the Dead, abides with his Caribbean compatriot, taking the Middle Passage as metaphysical text. Using the art of Tom Feelings as muse, Dawes writes/channels complex poems interrogating humanity at its most terrible, as in “Research,” a poem that seems to mock the intellectualization of spiritual trauma: “We enter your holocaust/with trepidation/and leave the stench.” There is no need for academic distance from this tragedy, Dawes insists, for there can be none for the descendants of this journey. There, in those waters of the Atlantic, Dawes connects with black ancestors.
For those of us who have read history and/or listened to old folks speaking of slavery, the stories of the Middle Passage and slavery are well known and to some, hackneyed, but in the collection’s title poem, Dawes directly addresses this exasperation with black history:
Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.
If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
The scattering of my tribe
Here, he speaks to an unseen critic, and as the reader, I’m curious. Who is Dawes talking to? Who challenges him? A guilty white person, who will interject and try to evade responsibility for his own ancestors? To wit: “But Africans were involved in slave trading, too. You wouldn’t be here on this side of the Atlantic is it wasn’t for them.”
Is Dawes speaking to another black person—a hardheaded young’un with no use for going back to the pain-filled days of slavery? Or, a scholar, such as Paul Gilroy, who both exalts the notion of the Black Atlantic but also, derides the nationalist inclinations of Afrocentrics? Or, is Dawes speaking to another poet, such as the ancestor, Robert Hayden, who declared that he didn’t want to be a black poet? (He only wanted to be an American poet.)
Dawes is a poet able to claim many places. That is to say, if we talk about place critically—as imaginary space, as geographical location, as moment where the quotidian and the highest aesthetic hold hands in peace—Dawes is the Poet’s Poet. Requiem is not his first foray into Diasporic matters, but more than a description of a subject, this book is an act of reverence.
Now, what does reverence have to do with narrative poetry? For me, a black poet concerned with the ancestral project, absolutely everything.
It’s going to take some time to explain. To finally say what I’ve been afraid to say in my own career.
But it’s only because of the model of Kwame Dawes, his courage, his artistic open- handedness, his stunningly beautiful poetry, and his amazing—and, sometimes to me, intimidating—artistic output, that I finally decided to write this piece.
So bear with me.
In the past two decades, there has been an aesthetic split between the “page and the stage,” with page poetry probably winning the intellectual battle, but stage poetry winning over the audiences, with much grumbling and shade-throwing from page poets as a result.
Page poets, we rule in academia. We get the reviews in the literary magazines—and definitely in The New Yorker and The New York Times—and we get the teaching jobs. Stage poets, they rule in performance. They get the audiences screaming like at a rock concert, but they don’t get respect for their brains.
I admit it: until recently, I never had much respect for spoken word poets. And those in the arena of Hip Hop who call themselves poets? Delusional, clearly.
One charge that I’ve heard thrown around very frequently is that stage poets write “accessible” poetry. Despite my (previous) sense of superiority about being a page poet, I never understood what was wrong with accessibility in a poem, with readers being able to comprehend what was on the page, but apparently, accessibility is supposed to be really, really bad. In order to be a great poet, one has to be very difficult to read; that’s the message I’ve received these days. And for the past decade, I’ve noticed that accessible has been used as a synonym for a “narrative” poem.
I write mostly narrative poetry myself, poetry that, like Dawes’s, tries to connect with the reader, that acknowledges there’s a reader in the first place. However, in recent years, I’ve been guilty of setting aside narrative poetry in favor of lyric poetry. I don’t mean “lyric” as “subjective emotionality”; I mean a poem that uses a dense, sometimes incomprehensible lexicon. Why? Because I want to impress editors and make people think I’m smart and growing as a writer. That I’m not stuck artistically. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true.
I don’t know what precipitated the domination of the lyrically dense poem. Perhaps it was the poets who studied poststructuralist theory as undergraduate and graduate students in English departments around the country. Or, it was the purist devotees of the Modernists Pound and Eliot who found it increasingly delightful to “make it new.” Or, maybe the preeminence of the lyric poem occurred after the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement of the 1970s, a movement that was and has been roundly decried by mainstream page poets, but which, at least to me, seems have had a lasting influence on the work of page poets of the twenty-first century. All I know is that folks within the academy don’t much like narrative poetry anymore.
To be honest, there have been black poets writing lyrically dense work for a while. Obviously, there is the Afro-Modernist poet Melvin Tolson, but there have been others, such as Kamau Braithwaite, Michael S. Harper, and Yusef Komunyakaa, to name a few. Yet what has emerged in interviews with these poets is the need to discuss in critical ways their lyric impulses, to provide clarity instead of shrugging their shoulders and declaring, “Good luck with reading my poem. I can’t help you, brethren.”
For example, speaking on Tolson’s epic poem, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), his son, Melvin, Jr., said that his father was aggressively trying to establish himself as a Modernist poet of his era, but he made sure to include footnotes to the poem. Braithwaite is a scholar whose critical work can be read alongside his poetry. Harper and Komunyakaa claim jazz as a strong, artistic influence; thus, the rapid movements and word variations in their poems display the musical genre’s improvisational tendencies. With these poets, we have their own explanations for their work, and the implication that they are aware their poems are hard to understand. They acknowledge and appreciate an audience.
As many younger black poets have drifted away from writing criticism about their own and other poets’ work, and gravitated toward highly specialized MFA programs, we don’t have a discussion or justification of the whys of lyricism in black poetry; we have left that to folks with Ph. Ds. Still, what has not been said is that the herding of black poets toward lyric density and away from narrative poetry—and narrative’s assumed twin, accessibility—is concerning in terms of the ongoing oral traditions in global black literature.
I’m not against language that performs the equivalent of a Yoga Crane pose (and maybe even a headstand). Every poet likes to experiment; I know I do. But if a black poet wants her work to be read before a non-academic audience, if a black poet wants to write poems for the liberation of black people—all the people, not just the ones with graduate degrees, if a black poet claims to be in service of the ancestors, doesn’t she need to be understood clearly, at least some of the time? What is so wrong with writing narrative—with being accessible? When did either of those become dirty words?
I didn’t ask, “Does a lyrically dense black poem have a right to exist?”
And I definitely didn’t ask, “Is a lyrically dense poem really a black poem?”
I’m asking, “Why wouldn’t a black poet want black people without academic degrees to understand her black poem, you know, just sometimes?” I think that’s a fair question. I don’t think that should cause a riot or sound like an insult.
In his blog essay, “Middle Passage: Robert Hayden,” Dawes provides a close reading on Hayden’s monumental poem and draws connections to other black poets of the African Diaspora: “And it occurs to me that the echoes I hear in Hayden betray what cannot be denied, which is that so many of the great poems of the New Work, poems of the Caribbean must have come out of some experience of reading Hayden’s Middle Passage.” Dawes goes on to mention other giants of Caribbean poetry: Derek Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite, and Glissant. Then, he gestures toward two luminaries of African (North) American poetry, Kevin Young and Elizabeth Alexander. In so doing, he implies and then outright states his argument: there is not only consanguinity among black poets, but for many, common ancestral and historical concerns.
As I read Dawes’s essay, I was struck about the role that narrative has played in black literature over the centuries. From the frequently offered and very misunderstood example of the West African griot (and its lesser-known female counterpart, the griotte) to the aunties and uncles who sat on porches or who perched on seats in dirt under tall trees, narrative—the accessible, oral tradition—has been important in the passing down of black culture to subsequent generations. It has been important to fiction and poetry.
Narrative is not limited to a stylistic device. In black poetry, narrative constitutes the reverential impulse, what Dawes clearly has mastered, and what I and many other black poets long to master but are cautioned against, lest we be labeled old-fashioned—too accessible. Yet consider these lines:
Ashantis, Mandingoes, Ibos, Wolofs, Fulanis, Coromantees
Buried in the hill country,
the swamplands, the forests
of this New World oven
the words of tribes linger
like old mystery songs
tracing us back to something
These lines are not recycled. They are undoubtedly fresh. Only the blood they refer to is ancient.
The “us” means the global community, the descendants of the survivors of the Middle Passage, the members of the African tribes listed—incanted—in the first line of the poem. There is much lyric beauty in “Language,” but narrative is the guiding force of Dawes’ poem. The story of this blood speaks to the blood in this audience, the kin of those different tribes.
With either narrative or dense lyricism, it is possible to tend ancestral altars. It’s not Solomon’s dilemma, but if one is interested in being understood by others outside an interior circle—the private communion of the poet-shaman with the ancestors—narrative is necessary. Through the use of narrative, the black poet commits an act of great generosity. He allows the reader to bear witness to this communion.
 I don’t limit “black” to “African American,” for I’m speaking of the entire African Diaspora all over the globe. I’m speaking of the descendants of African peoples who remained tethered to their ancestral origins in a huge continent that, at this writing, contains fifty-four sovereign countries. And by “origins,” I don’t mean essentialist, phenotypic identity, but rather the examples of cultural production that exhibit African influences but not necessarily Pan-African sensibilities.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a poet, fiction writer, critic, and the author of four books of poetry, most recently, The Glory Gets (Wesleyan, 2015). She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress, and she is an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society. She teaches at the University of Oklahoma.