A Revolutionary Poetics of Anger

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jayne Cortez is a poet of anger who utilizes urban scenes of violence and dehumanization. Her poetry is a volatile mixture of major trends in both the art and the politics of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She is a social revolutionary, passionately interested in the plight of downtrodden people everywhere, and she is a seeker of African roots and bases of morality who uses the techniques of free verse, borrowing artistic concepts from surrealism. Hers is a prophetic voice that uses jazz rhythms and relates existentialist philosophy. Her insistence on discovering the origins of African moral concepts and her use of a voice that has the overtones of Old Testament prophecy indicate that she is also very much aware of the uses of the past.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the great twentieth century French existential writer, named authors who write out of their revolt against colonialism as the mauvaise foi, or those of bad faith. His study of the work of Leon Damas, a black novelist and poet originally from French Guiana, brought to light the elements that enabled Sartre to make his analysis. Damas and his friend Leopold Senghor of Senegal were important writers in Paris in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. These two, along with their friend Aimé Césaire of Martinique, went on to develop the concept of negritude, an aesthetic and ideological affirmation of black culture. The first mention of this concept occurs in a poem by Césaire written in 1939. The ideas of these three writers have influenced Jayne Cortez’s poetic revolt against a racist society and its norms, which she sees as exploitive and destructive. There is another facet to her poetry, however, in her celebratory poems about black and African themes and people, whom she affirms.

Cortez’s revolt against the society in which she finds herself centers on her home of New York City. One of her most powerful poems bears its name, “I Am New York City.” It was originally collected in Scarifications (1973); in the later Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (1984), she gave it the first page. In many ways, it is emblematic of her work. She anthropomorphizes the city, using street language. Her metaphors are violent and often repulsive, and she relies heavily on bodily parts and functions, especially scatological functions.