(Poets and Poetry in America)

June Jordan was not an academic, ivory-tower poet given to abstract speculations about the nature of truth and beauty. She was a self-avowed anarchist activist who considered all poems to be political. Indeed, she stated that to her, William Shakespeare’s sonnets were examples of status quo politics, mirroring the ideology of an idle leisure class. Her poetic ambition was to be a “people’s poet” in the fashion of Pablo Neruda, particularly a black people’s poet.

Jordan’s early poems are autobiographical and self-reflective, attempting to come to terms with her relationships with her parents and with her son Christopher. Yet even these early poems transcend the purely personal and illustrate her attempt to cope with being both black and a woman in a society that looks on women of color with indifference, if not with outright hostility. In Who Look at Me, she withstands the gaze of the white observer and finally even returns the look defiantly. Over the years, this defiance became increasingly characteristic of her poetry, even as the causes in which she engaged herself proliferated.

Her poetic output was to a large degree a running commentary on the social and political life in the United States, with allusions to sociopolitical events such as the 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and subsequent trial, and even the controversial events surrounding boxer Mike Tyson. Poems that deal with personal topics, such as being raped and coping with illness, reach outward and become expressions of anger and sympathy for other sufferers of injustice and violence: lesbians and gays, victims of police brutality, or the people of sub-Saharan Africa, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Palestine.

Although Jordan’s tone is frequently sarcastic and angry, in some sense, all her poems are love poems. Her radicalness and unwillingness to be conciliatory appear to be guided by her love for the oppressed and marginalized; her denunciation of the oppressors is accompanied by the call to the victims not to capitulate, to gain and to preserve a sense of self-love and self-worth and then put it into action. This political engagement and her stridency in advocating her causes gained for Jordan many admirers in the women’s and Civil Rights movements. However, her refusal to embrace violence in the fight against oppression and injustice also caused her to be met with coldness and even hostility in some circles. This may also explain why she was consistently overlooked in the selection for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, although her work was nominated for the latter in 1971.

Some Changes

Jordan’s first substantial collection of poems is divided into four parts, each dedicated to a particular facet of her life that she felt needed revision and change. These poems were written in the years after the suicide of her mother and the dissolution of her own marriage; as such they are an assertion of her new independence as a woman, mother, poet, sexual person, and politically autonomous citizen; therefore she dedicates the volume to “new peoplelife.”

This “new peoplelife” involves making peace with her mother and father in the opening poem. For the former, she has a list of promises; her father she would “regenerate.” In “Poem for My Family: Hazel Griffin and Victor Hernando Cruz,” Jordan expands the meaning of “family” beyond the traditional nuclear family to include all suffering people of her race.

In several other poems in the first half of the collection, Jordan’s role as a single, working mother translates into concern for children in general and for her own son in particular. The tone of many of these early poems is dark. In “Not a Suicide Poem,” she asserts that

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