A Poet Fluent in Many Traditions

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jay Wright’s poetic ventures into the manifold layers of African American spiritual and intellectual history defy critical attempts at containing African American literature within paradigms of cultural nationalism and Afrocentricity. On one hand, Wright has been celebrated as one of the most original and powerful voices in contemporary American poetry and has received prestigious awards throughout his career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), an American Academy Literature Award (1981), and a MacArthur Fellowship (1986). On the other hand, his refusal to follow Amiri Baraka and others in renouncing Western European and European American poetic traditions and to make his poetry more accessible to popular audiences has led to charges of willful obscurantism and political aloofness. Unlike most African American poets of his generation, Wright insists that grounding in other cultures is a vital part of African American creativity.

Few poets are as conversant with as many different poetic and cultural traditions as Jay Wright is. Inspired by what he calls in Elaine’s Book (1986) a “passion for what is hidden,” Wright delves into the histories and mythologies of Western Europe, Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia in an impressive effort to restore to African American literature all of its cultural, historical, social, artistic, intellectual, and emotional resources. During the course of a spiritual quest that is at once personal and collective, Wright calls attention to myriad invisible threads that subtly weave together cultural traditions often believed to have evolved separately. Though firmly grounded in African American historical experience and expressive culture, Wright’s work exemplifies what Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, whom Wright has frequently acknowledged as one of his guides, calls a poetics of the cross-cultural imagination.

Building a Multicultural Mythology

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Homecoming Singer is a prelude to Soothsayers and Omens (1976), the first volume of a poetic cycle that includes Explications/Interpretations (1984), Dimensions of History (1976), and The Double Invention of Komo (1980). Placed in this order, these formidable book-length poems delineate a meticulously conceived dramatic movement. The formal procedures in these and later volumes are extravagant; the linguistic and semantic texture is often of an almost forbidding density. An amalgam of Italian, German, and Spanish interspersed with Dogon and Bambara ideograms, Wright’s language is only inadequately described as “English.” Employing African American musical forms such as the blues and jazz as well as a host of Caribbean and Latin American song and dance forms, Wright’s poems also attempt to make English verse a hospitable environment for grammars and metrics of other languages.

Significantly titled “The Charge,” the poem that opens Soothsayers and Omens focuses on a gathering of fathers and sons “in the miracle/ of [their] own memories.” With the rise of a female principle in “The Appearance of a Lost Goddess,” the poet identifies himself as an initiate charged with the responsibility to reconstruct eclipsed and severed ties between generations and cultures. This reconstruction begins to take shape in the six short poems entitled “Sources” that commence Wright’s systematic investigation of African cosmologies. The “Sources” poems rely heavily on West African and pre-Columbian mythologies, both of which become part of cross-cultural memory. The two longer poems that follow and change the pace of the first part, “Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City” and “Benjamin Banneker Sends His ’Almanac’ to Thomas Jefferson,” weave elements of Dogon theology around excerpts from the letters of the African American astronomer, an “uneasy” stranger in his own land who laments slavery’s injustices.


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Rejecting Dichotomies

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Explications/Interpretations’s emphasis on the body as a site of knowledge and action is indicative of Wright’s rejection of dichotomies: For him, spirituality is no more separate from materiality than male is from female. Each is a “twin” of the other; the desired relationship between them is balance. This is most clearly articulated in “The Continuing City: Spirit and Body” and “The Body,” two poems that lay out aesthetic and philosophical principles indebted to the Ghanian politician and philosopher J. B. Danquah. Wright gives further insight into these complex designs in an essay that may well be called his poetic manifesto, “Desire’s Design, Vision’s Resonance: Black Poetry’s Ritual and Historical Voice” (1987).

Wright’s project of claiming the knowledge of European and African theologies as part of the creative life of the Americas comes into full view in Dimensions of History. Though dedicated to the late Francis Fergusson, this book owes its most significant debt to Wilson Harris’s notion of “vision as historical dimension.” In Dimensions of History, the tripartite structure of Explications/Interpretations is more explicitly associated with the stages of an initiation ritual: separation, transition, and (re)incorporation. Part 1, “The Second Eye of the World. The Dimension of Rites and Acts,” performs this link by being itself divided into three poems. It also includes a...

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Making a New Language

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dedicated to Griaule, The Double Invention of Komo qualifies as the most African of Wright’s poems. Unlike Elaine’s Book, Wright’s feminist poem, or even Boleros (1991), The Double Invention of Komo approaches (self)-knowledge from a decidedly masculine perspective. Wright’s most sustained and ambitious effort in the genre of dramatic poetry, The Double Invention of Komo is a poetic performance of the initiation ceremonies of the all-male Komo society among the Bambara. These highly formalized procedures, detailed in Germaine Dieterlen and Youssouf Tata Cissé’s Les fondements de la société d’initiation du Komo (1972; the foundations of the initiation society of Komo), maintain the Bambara’s traditional intellectual, religious, and social values. Double Invention’s conceptual and literary structures are based on the logic of this ritual. Of special importance are the 266 Great Signs that organize Bambara cosmology. Each ideogram inscribes a different “name” of the god in connection with the material objects and substances associated with Komo’s altars, as in “Sele—tomb—copper.” This sacred “grammar” of names Wright translates into a secular “alphabet” of creation and creativity.

The main task of The Double Invention of Komo is to fashion a language that would overcome exile and dispossession. To that end, writing simultaneously...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Benston, Kimberly W. “’I Yam What I Am’: The Topos of (Un)naming in Afro-American Literature.” In Black Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen, 1984. Situates the ways in which Wright names his poetic “self” in Dimensions of History and Soothsayers and Omens within the larger context of African American writing.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jay Wright. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Collection of essays by leading scholars that read Wright’s body of work from a variety of angles and through a variety of critical lenses.

Callaloo 6 (Fall, 1983). This special issue includes an excellent interview in which Wright outlines the theories behind his poetry. Also contains a general introduction to Wright’s poetry by Robert B. Stepto, an assessment of his early poetry by Gerald Barrax, and detailed commentary on the Benjamin Banneker poems by Vera M. Kutzinski.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. This critical look at the rise of modern anthropology and its entwinement with literature is useful background reading for some of Wright’s main sources, notably Marcel Griaule and his team. Equally relevant are Clifford’s comments on...

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