Don L. Lee Critical Essays

Lee, Don L.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lee, Don L. 1942–

Black American militant poet, author of Don't Cry, Scream! and Black Pride.

Don L. Lee … forges his strident, occasionally guttural verses out of the coarse sights and sounds of the tenements and streets and soul dives that middle-class Americans never see. "I write for and to black people," he told me the first time we met at Cornell. And if others, who don't speak the language, stumble over his slang and nonwords and sentence fragments and sounds made of strung-out letters, well, the poet can't be bothered.

Daniel Greene, "In Prose and Poetry, the New Black Voices," in National Observer, July 14, 1969.

As [Gwendolyn] Brooks points out, Lee is "at the hub of the new wordway." Don L. Lee is a technician, poet-linguist continuing the development of a new language for black poetics, the language of familiar experience, the same language black readers have grown up speaking….

Lee effectively constructs extended run-on phrases into a myriad of thought. The total idea is expressed by letters that become words, and contractions correspond tonally to the diction of black speakers. These mark Lee's style, in the graphic sense. The technique is not an innovation, of course; the Umbra poets, LeRoi Jones, and Norman Pritchard have utilized it successfully since early in the decade. Lee is not doing his thing as imitation or emulation, but to express his distinct voice as a poet of the black revolution….

That life in America is already absurd is no secret to Lee; but the absurdity is of the grotesque inhumanity of the "unpeople," not the configuration of their existential limitations. Lee is thematically unpretentious, straight-forward, and sarcastic. He is not burdened by the kind of "ironic vision" that plagues white existentialist poets.

Ron Welburn, "Don't Cry, Scream!," in Negro Digest (© December, 1969, by Negro Digest; reprinted by permission of Black World and Ron Welburn), December, 1969, pp. 91-4.

The relevancy of Don L. Lee as a contemporary Black poet revolves around his awareness of a growing apart of the Black and white races in America….

The titles of his collected poems—Black Pride; Think Black; Don't Cry, Scream; and We Walk the Way of the New World—reflect his chosen language; they coincide with his recognition of the task of a Black poet in that they absorb Blackness rather than negate it, impart a segment of his whole message, summon Black people, his intended audience, invoke the intended response in that they incite action to change practically everything rather than choke with passive acceptance of the way things are.

Lee's response in poetry is revolutionary, as it demands that the Black poet, in a mutual alliance with Black people, interchange, formulate, communicate, possess, and strengthen values apart from and completely unrelated to the white American society….

In considering the whole of We Walk the Way of the New World, there is likeness to music, especially jazz music. Bearing kinship to jazz, Lee's works have a message of good news. The good news is the Black man's self awareness, the Black woman's beauty, and even more important is the far-reaching redemptive power of Blackness in its rawness, newness, cleanliness and boldness. Also like jazz, Lee's poetry has an unpredictable nature. Lee as poet presents his audience with the unexpected. He carries his audiences in and out of language structures and presents his readers with the unexpected abbreviations and at other times with the longer versions of the same words. Like many modern songs, Lee's poems are didactic. The didactic message is to enter into the newness of Blackness. Furthermore, as Lee responds to America's duality, he also represents it in his works. He writes in a combination of two languages. He creates the positive by dealing with negative terms much as Black Americans of 1972 must work with a partly negative past to build a wholly positive future.

Annette Oliver Shands, "The Relevancy of Don L. Lee as a Contemporary Poet," in Black World (© June, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Annette Oliver Shands), June, 1972, pp. 35-48.

I've not seen poetry in Don L. Lee. Anger, bombast, raw hatred, strident, aggrieved, perhaps charismatically crude religious and political canting, propaganda and racist nonsense, yes; and utterly unoriginal in form and style; humorless; cruel laughter bordering on the insane. There may well be justified insanity, as there is justifiable homicide; in poetry it means the poems cohere neither to things nor to people, not even to themselves. That they arise from reality, misery, and reflect human longings and aspiration to humanity, may be true; but in Lee all is converted to rant. He pays homage to musicians, poets, and novelists, his gratitude for having been shown the way to words and thoughts; but I can't conceive any of the artists he names in his pages recognizing his own influence on Lee. That he has ambition, a fanatic, exalted vision aimed at raising his brothers and sisters out of the burning swamp of the black ghettos of Newark or Detroit or Chicago, is evident; that he is indignant at the destruction, oppression, evil and sheer helplessness of self-destruction of so many for so long, is laudable; if he can raise black consciousness for a moment, for a millimeter, that will be something achieved—there's also a bonus if he can reveal suffering and disaster to the white mind for its sake too. But poetry? Lee is deluded in thinking he has it. What he has is street language, common enough to most of us; the rest is a farrago of anybody's W. C. Williams and rehashed and rancid LeRoi Jones, mixed with editorials out of Elijah (Muhammed) Speaks. Since Lee isn't concerned to address those beyond his claque, he can make up his history, religion, business, politics, anything; but that won't help us much. If he woke up in the nation he calls for, he could appoint himself minister of culture, and might last a while in the job by dint of eliminating everyone else; he's got the gall for that. A real poet couldn't last, though, and never has for long. Lee is outside poetry somewhere, exhorting, hectoring, cursing, making a lot of noise. But you don't have to be black for that, and, if you are, it's hardly an excuse.

Jascha Kessler, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1973, pp. 292-93.