James Baldwin Questions and Answers

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Do you agree that a poet’s responsibility is to “defeat all labels and complicate all battles” in order to bear witness to that “mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force that lives in the soul of man"? This is from "Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare." What do labels and battles have to do with being a human?

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The contents of this essay create an image of the task of a poet quite specific to Baldwin's own struggles with language and identity as a person who suffered from discrimination as a gay black man.

The statements in the essay thus should be evaluated from multiple perspectives: one of poets in general and one concerning Baldwin's own project. Not every poet needs to address the “mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force that lives in the soul of man." There are many different types of poetry, and the light verse of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear is a valuable contribution to literature, some would argue. Some poems may address great themes; others, perhaps, just present an acute perception of an image (as in the work of the Imagist school) or a humorous or incongruous situation. Different poems and different poets have different goals.

For Baldwin himself, grappling with Shakespeare and his language was an important step in his development as a writer. His understanding of the greatness of Shakespeare was a way of answering the question of how to contribute to the tradition of great African American literature. Thus, Baldiwn's claims were true and necessary for his own project as a writer, but might not be applicable to the aims of other writers.

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