Poetry’s Restorative Power

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although it is less well known than her fiction, Alice Walker’s poetry is integral to her development as a writer. The restorative power of poetry, Walker claims, has continually saved her from hopelessness and suicide. In her poetry, Walker records intensely felt emotions, purging her psyche of stultifying mental states that could hamper growth. Written out of firsthand experience, Walker’s poetry reveals a sensitive African American intellectual coming to terms with disparate strands of her own existence. Along with her other literary achievements, essays, and long and short fiction, Walker’s poetry is a significant contribution to American letters, expressing the African American female consciousness.

The work with which Walker’s name is most often associated is the epistolary novel The Color Purple (1982), for which she won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. Steven Spielberg, the well-known director of such films as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), directed the film adaptation of the book, catapulting Walker to international celebrity status. Having been writing for fifteen years before the publication of The Color Purple, Walker had been known mainly among literary audiences as one of a number of African American writers who became visible in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. With The Color Purple, Walker’s niche as a writer was secured. A skillfully written story about the travails of Celie, a black woman...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

An All-Encompassing Vision

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The range of topics in Alice Walker’s poetry can be described as anything with which the poet has come in contact. Thus, themes in her work include her rich African American heritage, failures and successes in relationships, the ramifications of living in a family and in a community, and social and political issues. Walker often denounces racial injustice and prejudice, sometimes showing anger and resentment toward the oppressors without becoming militant. Convictions are strong, but they remain part of a process, as if Walker is continually listening to her own voice, then adjusting volume and tone so that she might best achieve a mature perspective. Even in poems written about specific instances of prejudice, although Walker shows indignation, her ultimate conclusion is that change must take place within the individual, that only those with myopic vision believe that wholesale racial reform can be imposed from without.

Always confessional, Walker’s poetry closely resembles the art form she envies most, music; like the musician, she strives to achieve unity with her creation. For Walker, this effort translates into capturing the poet’s authentic feelings, including all nuances of emotion, in her poems. The effect is both a strength and a weakness, as the resulting poems are often vigorous yet sometimes overly sentimental. A reader may suspect that what Walker says of journal writing also can be said of her poetry: “In my journal/ I thought I...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Writing Between Two Worlds

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the preface to Once, Walker explains that she wrote most of the collection’s poems while sitting under a tree in Kenya; the others she wrote at Sarah Lawrence. The voice in this book is that of a young idealist whose desire to understand herself takes her to Africa, to the inner workings of romantic relationships and to experiences with racial prejudice in the South. Walker communicates the grandeur of the African landscape through description and the unobtrusive posture she takes. She observes and then recedes into the background. Commentary is minimal; imagery tells all. There is indirect commentary, however, as in these lines, “Holding three fingers/ The African Child/ Looked up at me/ The sky was very/ Blue.” An obvious problem for Walker is her relationship to her African heritage. With her usual wry humor, Walker writes of African custom and ritual; she mimics her own pretentiousness in reenacting the life of the African nobility as she says, “I try to be a native/ queen,” then she observes a giraffe that “turns up/ his nose” at the sham. Aware that she will never reconcile her two geographical selves, Walker describes a Harvard-educated friend in Africa whose education, like her own, pales in comparison to the vastness of the continent. Walker is aware of the incongruity, just as she is aware of many incongruities in Africa; to convey inconsistency, Walker uses juxtaposition, as in the poem that shows a “Noble Savage” with infected pierced ears.

Often, Walker uses the element of surprise, which works well in poems about love and home as well as in those about Africa. In her title poem “Once,” one vignette presents a young white civil rights worker who disowns her racist mother; in another poem, Walker brazenly announces, “I/ never liked/ white folks/ really.” Such forthrightness is characteristic of Walker’s poetic voice, which...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Poetry of Loss

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Two landmark events, the breakup of her marriage and the death of her father, guided the poetic voice in Alice Walker’s third volume of poetry, Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning: Poems, through the grief process. The sections in the book, beginning with “Confession” and ending with “Forgiveness,” expressly re-create the pain necessarily suffered in the process of coping with loss. To describe the dissolution of a love relationship, Walker uses pointed questions, monologue, and dialogue, honestly conveying anger, fear, and pain. In the section entitled “Early Losses: A Requiem,” Walker delves into a lifetime of bereavement. A poem examining an early loss of love, an expression of guilt following a father’s death, and lyrics about the death of Malcolm X are included. As Walker explores the deaths of loved ones, she seeks to understand their impact on her present and future existence. Regret, a sentiment associated with life and death processes, is openly expressed in these poems. The lesson that the speaker hears in the title poem is one of acceptance and understated hope, for as Alice Walker’s mother speaks the parting words to her husband, “Good night, Willie Lee, I’ll see you/ in the morning,” the healing process of forgiveness has already begun.

Dedicating her fourth volume of poetry, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, to her Cherokee great-grandmother and her white great-great-grandfather, Walker resurrects these family members, believing that their existence is closely tied to her own and that they may shed light on her own identity. In the book’s dedication, she addresses them saying “the meaning of your lives/ is still/ unfolding.” Walker focuses especially on her Native American ancestry, sensing that her own reverence for plants, trees, the sun, and the earth can be traced to the reverence Native Americans held for a harmonious relationship with nature (the book’s title is taken from a speech by a Native American). In the poem “These Days,” Walker enumerates many friends for whom she hopes “the earth can be saved. ” A consistent theme is the lamentation of destruction, whether it is the deterioration of the planet or the degradation of women. While her message and intent are unmistakable, Walker’s tone does show some musicality and mellowing as her universe expands backward into personal history and forward to the future of the globe.

A Return to Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Walker’s sixth volume of poetry, Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2003), is divided into seventeen sections, each devoted to a specific realm of the human condition, ranging from war and destruction to love and forgiveness. The publication followed a significant hiatus during which the author did not compose poems. Over a decade had passed since the publication of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, and Walker had expressed doubt that she would return to the genre. Despite Walker’s claim that she had left poetry, poetry had not left Walker. In her preface to her first twenty-first century collection of poems, she acknowledges, “Unlike ’writing,’ poetry chooses when it will be expressed, how it will be expressed, and under what circumstances.”

Two events, one external and horrific, one internal and healing, compelled Walker’s return to poetry: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building on September 11, 2001, and the poet’s immersion into the study of Native American plant rituals. Walker portrays the events of September 11 as the end of America’s self-absorbed innocence. Some poems address what happened in New York City on that day; others, what happened overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq in response. In “Falling Bodies,” Walker describes people leaping hand in hand from the burning Trade Center. She sees in this final act a true connection between human beings and, with it, hope for the future. She observes, “Everything/ It is/ Necessary/ To Understand/ They mastered/ In the last/ Rich/ Moments/ That/ They Owned.” Later in the poem, she muses about a pilot and a hijacker, wondering whether they too might have grasped hands in their final moments. In “Thousands of Feet Below You,” Walker narrates the efforts of a young boy to evade a bomb discharged from a military plane. The narrator speaks to the bomber directly; he is the “you” of the title. She requests that, upon his return home, he set a place at his mother’s table for the boy he has killed. Walker suggests that the bomber, too distant to know who or what he is destroying with his weapon, has, in the discharge of his duties, killed his own innocence, becoming simultaneously bomber and boy. The final image of thwarted communion, a meal that cannot possibly occur because the boy has been blown apart, reminds readers of a shared humanity disrupted by acts of war.

As a counterpoint or possibly an antidote to Walker’s poems about the human capacity...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. Includes a biography and overview of Walker’s work, along with critical essays by significant scholars.

Coleman, Jeffrey Lamar. “Revolutionary Stanzas: The Civil and Human Rights Poetry of Alice Walker.” In Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Focuses on how Walker addresses civil rights, particularly those of women, in selected poems.

Davis, Thadious. “Poetry as Preface to Fiction.” In Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. Views Walker’s poetry as subtext for her novels and short fiction.

Dieke, Ikenna. “Alice Walker: Poesy and the Earthling Psyche.” In Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Explores Walker’s use of mimesis, the representation of human emotions, in her poetry.

Walker, Alice. “Alice Walker: Engaging the World.” Interview. Literary Cavalcade 57, no. 8 (May, 2005): 28. Walker discusses her literary origins and what books have taught her about humanity.

Walker, Alice. “Alice Walker: ’I Know What the Earth Says.’” Interview by Ferris Williams. Southern Cultures 10, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 5-24. Transcriptions of recorded conversation with Alice Walker in which she discusses her fondness for music and describes her life as a writer. Includes photographs.

Weston, Ruth. “Who Touches This Touches a Woman: The Naked Self in Alice Walker.” In Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Compares Walker’s poems to those by Walt Whitman, noting similarities in the poets’ portrayals of the unclothed human form.

White, Evelyn. Alice Walker: A Life. New York: Norton, 2004. Expansive literary biography that places Walker’s life and writing in their historical contexts, including the poet’s participation in the Civil Rights and women’s movements. Considers the impact of Walker’s work on American culture.

Worsham, Fabian Clements. “The Politics of Matrilineage: Mothers and Daughters in the Poetry of African American Women, 1965-1985.” In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Discusses Walker’s poetry in terms of its presentation of relationships between mothers and daughters.