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.

Responding to Sandburg

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Like much of Cortez’s work, “I Am New York City” has literary antecedents, including Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” written in 1914. In Sandburg’s poem, there is a celebration of raw power and untamed insolence. His city is masculine, powerful, and young. Sandburg does mention the negative side of Chicago but gives it only three lines, admitting that in Chicago he has seen “painted women . . . luring the farm boys,” that the city is “crooked,” and that its “gunmen kill and go free to kill again.” His third negative line admits that the city is brutal and that the narrator has seen the marks of “wanton hunger” on women and children’s faces. After this brief unfavorable notice, Sandburg returns to affirming his robust and masculine town. Sandburg’s city is of the working class, but it is young and strong; it hopes to rise in life through strength and “cunning.”

Cortez’s poem does not celebrate New York. Rather, it dissects the city. Sandburg’s city was masculine; her city appears to be feminine. In early stanzas, the city appears to be exploited and old, a woman with “legs apart” who has her “contraceptives.” She is not proud of her profession, however, and says in the next line, “look at my pelvis blushing.” If New York is a painted woman, she is not pretty, desirable, or even healthy. She has only half an ankle and half an elbow, and she wears a “rat tail wig.” This city presents a character completely different from that of Sandburg’s city. Sandburg sees “wanton hunger” on the faces of women and children; readers may wonder if the slut depicted by Cortez is sluttish because of this very real physical hunger. Sandburg has names and metaphors for Chicago; Cortez gives a physical description of the city-woman who sports “my marquee of false nipples/ my sideshow of open beaks/ in my nose of soot.” Sandburg portrays his town as laughing and bragging, but Cortez’s will “piss/ into the bite of our hand-shake.” She ends her description by inviting its citizens to “break wind with me.”

This poem introduces Jayne Cortez’s anger at a society that allows such filth, such waste, and such disregard for decent human values. She blames the economic and...

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Response to Global Politics

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The combination of capitalism and exploitation knows no national boundaries, and in Jayne Cortez’s poems, it knows no moral boundaries. In Firespitter (1982), she includes a poem entitled “Nigerian/American Relations.” It has only two lines, repeated to fill a page: “They want the oil/ But they don’t want the people.” She is equally explicit in “Expenditures: Economic Love Song 1,” which appears in the section of new poems in Coagulations. In that poem, she writes entirely in capital letters. The poem consists of two two-line stanzas that are repeated to fill almost two pages. They read:


In “Firespitters,” a poem about an African city, Cortez’s tone changes. Before writing the poem, she attended the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria. This experience served to heighten her interest in African politics and gave her insights into her African roots. For Cortez, the city of Lagos has the element of hope that Sandburg finds in Chicago. Although Cortez recognizes the problems in Lagos, the city calls up images of both her father and her mother. She sees the firespitters in her poem of that name, their “lips spreading like/ stripes and medals from the chest of my father.” She also sees “torches gleaming like/ the gold tooth of my mother.” In Lagos, Cortez finds a homeland that is both beautiful and ugly, that teems with energy just as Sandburg’s Chicago did. She finds “painted skins swiveling pupils gut blasting moans and/ the supersonic sound of invisible orchestras.” Although Lagos is not a perfect city, as she travels past the city dumps on the outskirts she feels an exhilaration at the “dark puree of flesh in a mask of spinning mirrors.” She encourages the city, like a dancer, to “shake everything in your beautiful nasty self/ we’re here.”

Cortez and Music

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Sandburg merely mentions singing in “Chicago,” he was interested in music and traveled across the country to collect folk songs. Jayne Cortez’s interest in music also goes deep. She often reads her poetry with musical accompaniment, and she has made several recordings of her poetry. At many of her readings throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe, she has used a background of music. She also has written a number of celebratory poems about people, especially black musicians. These include “Rose Solitude (For Duke Ellington),” and “So Many Feathers,” for Josephine Baker, the famous singer, dancer, and entertainer who found fame in Paris and worked in the resistance movement in World War II.

In Sandburg’s poem about Chicago, there is only one mention of art. His city is “singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Music is far more important to Cortez. She invokes it and its artists often, frequently referring to jazz. In “Tapping,” from Scarifications, she calls up a “Johnny Hodges like” theme, “Charlie Parker riffs,” a “Coltrane yelp,” “a Satchmo pitch,” and “Ma Rainey Blues.” She is especially interested in drums and invokes them and their percussive sounds in several poems. One of these is “If the Drum Is a Woman.” She repeats several phrases in this work, using the title line a number of times as well as repeating “why are you” and “your drum is not.” She ends the...

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Formal Protest

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Even poetic form is a matter of principle for Cortez. Both she and Sandburg utilize the form of free verse, Sandburg being one of its early pioneers. For Cortez, its use is a matter both of aesthetics and of politics. In “Plain Truth,” she refers to a “They” that can only be the same “They” of “Bloodsuckers.” In this poem, one of the new poems in Coagulations, she says, “They want you/ to hate yourself” and “Suck/ their national standard/ of/ dead metrical feet/ and free-base into/ refugee camp. . . .” This line indicates that Cortez equates the old metrical forms with oppression. Like Adrienne Rich and other contemporary poets, she sees free verse as not only form but also substance.

Both Sandburg and Cortez also use repetition. In “Chicago,” Sandburg slightly rephrases his opening stanza and uses all its ideas in his closing stanza. This is a technique that Cortez uses frequently. A number of her poems repeat the first stanza or variations of it in the last stanza. Her “I Am New York City” does this, making the parallels with Sandburg unmistakable. Her opening line, “i am new york city,” is also the opening line of her last stanza.

In addition to repetition and the sounds from music, Cortez uses the shock value of scatological language and vivid images of degradation. Her metaphors are often unusual to the point of obscurity, although they may at times represent some in-group knowledge. All of her work appears in free verse, but in the later poems in Coagulations she experiments with various shapes on the page. Her early work often used short lines to describe subjects and locales of the United States. In her later poetry, her lines lengthened and her subject matter became universal, but her anger, which was her first hallmark, did not abate. Cortez’s poetic voice is so strong that readers may become confident that it is also her voice in life. She confronts and battles others, exhorting them to take their lives in their own hands, to make their destinies by their own actions. She does not depend on any deus ex machina, any intervention from heaven. She writes about the world in which she lives, and she is determined to work with what is available in the here and now, taking a revolutionary existential approach.

If Cortez’s work is polemic and didactic and if sometimes her politics supersedes her poetry, her outrage against the conditions in...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Addison, Gayle. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Brief mention of Cortez’s work. Emphasis is on her background in music, especially bop, boogie, and the blues.

Frazier, Vernon. “The Poetry-Jazz Fusion.” Poets and Writers Magazine 20 (March 1, 1992): 26. Describes how Cortez’s work carries on a tradition that dates back to Homer and Sappho of marrying music and verse.

Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Describes six writers, Cortez among them, who have extended the concept of leadership and thus are heroes. Each essay is clearly written and provides good introduction to a writer’s work. Contains primary bibliographies.

Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976. Contains two brief mentions of Cortez’s work. Notes her affinity to music as an aspect of form. Says of Festivals and Funerals that it embodies the fast pace of black life that is necessary because of prejudice and oppression but results in an enormous number of deaths.

Wilmer, Val. “Jayne Cortez—The Unsubmissive Blues: The Great Poet.” Coda 230 (February 1, 1990): 16. An interview with Jayne Cortez.