Alice Walker Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Alice Walker writes free verse, employing concrete images. She resorts to few of the conceits, the extended metaphors, the Latinate language, and other common conventions of poetry. Readers frequently say that her verses hardly seem like poetry at all; they resemble the conversation of a highly articulate, observant woman. Although her poetry often seems like prose, her fiction is highly poetic. The thoughts of Miss Celie, the first-person narrator of The Color Purple, would not have been out of place in a book of poetry. Boundaries between prose and poetry are minimal in the work of Walker. Her verse, like her prose, is always rhythmic; if she rhymes or alliterates, it seems to be by accident. The poetry appears so effortless that its precision, its choice of exact image or word to convey the nuance the poet wishes, is not immediately evident. Only close scrutiny reveals the skill with which this highly lettered poet has assimilated her influences, chiefly E. E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Graves, Japanese haiku, Li Bo, Ovid, Zen epigrams, and William Carlos Williams.
Walker’s poetry is personal and generally didactic, generated by events in her life, causes she has advocated, and injustices over which she has agonized. The reader feels that it is the message that counts, before realizing that the medium is part of the message. Several of her poems echo traumatic events in her own life, such as her abortion. She remembers the words her mother uttered over the casket of her father, and she makes a poem of them. Other poems recall ambivalent emotions of childhood: Sunday school lessons which, even then, were filled with discrepancies. Some poems deal with the creative process itself: She calls herself a medium through whom the Old Ones, formerly mute, find their voice at last.
Some readers are surprised to discover that Walker’s poems are both mystical and socially revolutionary, one moment exuberant and the next reeking with despair. Her mysticism is tied to reverence for the earth, a sense of unity with all living creatures, a bond of sisterhood with women throughout the world, and a joyous celebration of the female principle in the divine. On the other hand, she may lament that injustice reigns in society: Poor black people toil so that white men may savor the jewels that adorn heads of state.
Walker’s first collection of poetry, Once, communicates her youthful impressions of Africa and her state of mind during her early travels there and the melancholy and thoughts of death and suicide she felt on her return to United States, where racism persisted. Perhaps the epigram from French philosopher Albert Camus, which prefaces the book, expresses its mood best: “Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn’t everything.”
The title poem of the collection contains several loosely connected scenes of injustice in the American South, small black children run down by vans because “they were in the way,” Jewish Civil Rights workers who cannot be cremated because their remains cannot be found, and finally a black child waving an American flag, but from “the very/ tips/ of her/ fingers,” an image perhaps of irony or perhaps of hope. There are meditations on white lovers—blond, Teutonic, golden—who dare kiss this poet who is “brown-er/ Than a jew.” There are memories of black churches, where her mother shouts, her father snores, and she feels uncomfortable.
The most striking poem is certainly “African Images,” an assortment of vignettes from the ancestral homeland: shy gazelles, the bluish peaks of Mount Kenya, the sound of elephants trumpeting, and rain forests with red orchids. However, even when viewed in the idealism of youth, Africa is not total paradise. The leg of a slain elephant is fashioned into an umbrella holder in a shop; a rhinoceros is killed so that its horn may be made into an aphrodisiac.
Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems
Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems is divided into two parts. The first is titled “In These Dissenting Times . . . Surrounding Ground and Autobiography.” She proposes to write “of the old men I knew/ And the young men/ I loved/ And of the gold toothed women/ Mighty of arm/ Who dragged us all/ To church.” She writes also “To acknowledge our ancestors” with the awareness that “we did not make/ ourselves, that the line stretches/ all the way back, perhaps, to God; or/ to Gods.” She recalls her baptism “dunked . . . in the creek,” with “gooey . . . rotting leaves,/ a greenish mold floating.” She was a slight figure, “All in white./ With God’s mud ruining my snowy/ socks and his bullfrog spoors/ gluing up my face.”
The last half of the collection, “Revolutionary Petunias . . . the Living Through,” begins with yet another epigram from Camus, reminding the reader that there will come a time when...
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