Innovative in her use of language to convey provocative themes, Sonia Sanchez explores the various forms language takes. Using anything from street language to lyrical haiku, she confronts and takes the reader on a metaphoric journey through both black and white America. Her political activism born in the 1960’s is fused into her poetic voice and vision, as she stated in a 1999 interview: “All poets, all writers, are political.” She further contends that her work has been built on her desire to change the world “for the better.” Influenced by Malcolm X, a political activist along with Sanchez in Harlem, she asserts that she learned a great deal from this African American leader about language, presentation, and keeping the audience’s attention. Moreover, she uses her poetry to share her vision of the world, both past and present. Integrating important figures in African American history such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., into her poetry, she dramatizes significant periods for her readers, both young and old, black and white.
Sanchez’s poetic voice is always revealing and instructive. Elemental to her work is the articulate, engaging voice of the teacher, who with humor and technique labors to guide her students toward understanding and even revelation.
Homegirls and Handgrenades
The critically acclaimed Homegirls and Handgrenades is divided into four sections: “The Power of Love,” “Blues Is Bullets,” “Beyond the Fallout,” and “Grenades Are Not Free.” The thematic opposites of rage and love, cynicism and compassion, and pain and joy coalesce in this volume.
The varying rhythmic style of the poems reflects the forms language takes in articulating diverse, sometimes conflicting, views. For example, the language of the street, often labeled by Sanchez as “black English,” spoken by her stepmother and her beloved grandmother, is used to describe “Poems Written After Reading Wright’s ’American Hunger’”: “such a simple need/ amid yo/easy desire.”
Four poems take the form of haiku, a Japanese lyric form that represents a single, concentrated image in three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Aptly named “Haiku,” each poem conveys a single impression of a scene in motion: “your love was a port/ of call where many ships docked/ until morning came.” In the section “Beyond the Fallout,” the haiku exhibits raw anger: “I see you blackboy/ bent toward destruction watching/ for death with tight eyes.”
The visionary quality of Sanchez’s poems is articulated in poetic language that projects versatility because American life cannot be reflected in one homogenous voice. Sanchez uses the English vernacular to apprehend the complexity of human existence, as she states in a 1985 interview with Herbert Leibowitz: “Playing with words, as I used to, was like going outside and running and jumping over walls.” As she explains further in the same interview, “A lot of my poetry expresses what it means to let people taste and feel sweetness and power running together, hate and love running together, beauty and ugliness also running together.”
We a BaddDDD People
In We a BaddDDD People, her political voice resonates in her poems as a way of protesting about how she could grow up in a country that did not “tell me about black history” and yet “ma[d]e me feel so inferior.” In many ways, her poetry becomes a way of answering those questions for herself. The discovery is certainly thematically addressed in the poem “Questions” and in the section titled “Survival.” Depicting the political unrest of the late 1960’s, the collection has been criticized for being unoriginal in its political diatribe. However, the importance of the work in posing the political and personal questions of black existence for the poet and her readers is articulated in the following lines from “Questions”: “we suicidal/ or something/ or are we all bugalooers/ of death:/ our own???” and “why they closing down/ prisons as they close off/ our blk/ minds.”
The structure of the poems often represents the urgency of the poetic voice. For example, lines are fractured and split off by slashes and spaces. In “right on: wite america,” the first stanza uses virgules and abbreviations:
starting july 4th isbring in yr/guns/down/to
(The entire section is 1861 words.)