Jay Wright Essay - Critical Essays

Jay Wright American Literature Analysis

In a 1983 interview, Wright stated, “For me, multi-cultural is the fundamental process of human history.” In this respect he differs from such other African American writers of his generation as Amiri Baraka, who in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s favored a black cultural nationalism. Wright looks for his spiritual roots not only in African traditions but also in the links between these and other cultural traditions of the West and East. This quest for intellectual and spiritual identity extends throughout his poetic career. It is his main theme.

In his early poetry, Wright uses conventional English autobiographical poetic narrative. As his search expands to the myths and traditions of other cultures, he integrates styles and allusions from these cultures into the poems. Some, because they use obscure references and rhythms, are difficult. These techniques, however, enhance the thematic material and emphasize the complex relationship between the African American present and past. Few writers have such an extensive background to contemplate cross-cultural themes as does Wright.

Readers get their first real glimpse of Wright’s magnitude in Soothsayers and Omens, where he looks for his personal roots in African tradition and culture. Poems such as “Sources” use both West African and pre-Columbian mythologies. Two poems about the eighteenth century African American scientist Benjamin Banneker integrate elements of Dogon theology, an African ritual Wright also works into many of his later poems. The Dimensions of History, however, is the book in which he fully explores the idea that all cultural traditions are part of the African American cultural heritage and collective memory. The book is arranged in the format of an initiation ritual involving separation, transition, and reincorporation. Wright delves into cultural traditions throughout time and space and explores how, in each myth, the dead relate to the living.

This awareness that the dead have something to say to the living propels Wright on his quest to find spiritual order personally and collectively. Many of his poems in The Homecoming Singer (1971) examine the relationship between his ancestors and himself, between his biological father and his foster father. He also grounds his search in the southwestern places of his early childhood as he explores Native American mythology. In “An Invitation to Madison County,” he looks to the American South for a sense of community with black tradition. In “The Albuquerque Graveyard,” he tries to find answers to his personal past by contemplating his dead relatives.

He also searches for his place in a collective past. His book-length poem The Double Invention of Komo is based on a male initiation ceremony of the Komo society of the Bambara tribe. Poetically describing this ritual, which has 266 signs relating to gods, enables Wright to synthesize its elements and values with other patterns he has found during his quest, thus making him individually a part of a collective community of like spirits. Feeling a part of a cosmology, he has the security to venture further into the unknown. The alienation he expresses in his earlier work is gone; by understanding the complexities of his past, he has regained his identity and come to realize his authentic cultural and spiritual heritage.

Wright uses more challenging references as he delves deeper into his quest and discovers cultural links. In “Homecoming,” from Soothsayers and Omens, Wright intersperses quotations from Dante with images from West African mythology. Later poems become even more complex. In the second part of Dimensions of History, Wright mixes allusions to Aztec, Egyptian, Mayan, Incaic, Arabic, Christian, Yoruba, Akan, Dogon, and Bambara mythologies.

He also incorporates rhythms from other cultures. He believes that a poem ought to employ the rhythm of the culture it portrays. In Explications/Interpretations, he makes poetic use of the beat of African American music. In “Twenty-two Tremblings of the Postulant” (“Improvisations Surrounding the Body”), he arranges a complex blues structure into twenty-two stanzas; each corresponds not only to a part of the body but also to a specific musical chord. This interest in music corresponds to Wright’s search for forms that embody the rhythms of all African American cultural groups.

In Wright’s poetry, music and dance forms open the way to understanding not only the African cultural heritage but also many other traditions. By recording his search for knowledge throughout cultures, Wright is unique in uncovering the links among cultures. These links imply kinship, and despite the difficulty of some of the poems, Wright’s explorations, built around the single theme of self-discovery, represent a unique perspective in African American literature.

“An Invitation to Madison County”

First published: 1971 (collected in The Homecoming Singer, 1971)

Type of work: Poem

Searching for his identity, the African American poet discovers links to his past in the traditions of a black family in rural Mississippi.

“An Invitation to Madison County” comes from The Homecoming Singer, Wright’s second book of poetry. In many poems in this work, he portrays places he has lived or visited. He uses these autobiographical materials as springboards from which to launch his search for identity. “An Invitation to Madison County” relates his experiences in rural...

(The entire section is 2294 words.)