The Poetry of Wright

by Jay Wright
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A Poet Fluent in Many Traditions

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278

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.

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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

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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.

Dogon ritual plays an even more significant role in part 4, the title of which, “Second Conversations with Ogotemmêli,” refers specifically to Marcel Griaule’s studies of Dogon religion and, more broadly, to Wright’s extensive research in cultural anthropology. These poems of apprenticeship invoke different elements and stages of the creation of the universe, represented by the water spirit Nommo, creator of the First Word; his twin Amma; Lébé, guardian of the dead; and the Pale Fox, agent of chaos. Wright’s “Conversations” are substantially different from Griaule’s field notes. For Wright, Ogotemmêli is not an informant but a spiritual guide, a “nani” whose silences presage the language of redemption with which to mend the cracked universe. As “Homecoming,” a poem laced with quotations from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) demonstrates, the terms and trajectory of Wright’s passage to Africa are also indebted to Dante’s search, even if the spiritual map Wright’s initiate designs is rather different.

If Soothsayers and Omens is the first step in the articulation of a spiritual order, Explications/Interpretations marks the next logical stage in Wright’s African-Hellenic-Judaic discourse. Recalling the poet’s stay in Scotland from 1971 to 1973, this volume introduces a new cast of characters on the stage of the central dramatic poem, “MacIntyre, the Captain, and the Saints.” The “dialogues” in this poem bring into view personal and intellectual ties with Scotland. MacIntyre, the Irish/Scottish clan to which the names Murphy and Wright can be traced, is Wright’s autobiographical persona, who, instead of conversing with Ogotemmêli, turns for inspiration to philosopher David Hume, poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and anthropologist Robert Rattray. This poem acknowledges its debt to Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925, 1969) by introducing the use of ideographs, which Wright takes further in Dimensions of History and The Double Invention of Komo.

Explications/Interpretations is also energized by the rhythms of African American music. The poem is divided into three parts, “Polarity’s Trio,” “Harmony’s Trio,” and “Love’s Dozen,” titles that indicate Wright’s concern with music and number. That the rhythms of writing and speaking are formal articulations of the poet’s being is crucial to understanding the dynamics of Explications/Interpretations and indeed of all Wright’s poems. The division of the poems into groups of three, six, and twelve (plus one) already creates a sense of rhythm, which is then rendered explicit in “The Twenty-Two Tremblings of the Postulant.” Subtitled “Improvisations Surrounding the Body,” this poem exemplifies Wright’s kind of blues poetry: The compositional principle derives not from the call-and-response structure of the blues stanza but from the arrangement of the twenty-two short poems across sequences of chords. Each poem corresponds not only to a part of the human body but also to a musical bar associated with a specific chord, either I, IV, or V. That the final two bars are “tacit” brings the total number of bars to twenty-four, the musical equivalent of a doubled twelve-bar blues line. These distinctive rhythms of African American culture are the sounds of flesh and bone that constitute the poems’ (and the poet’s) ontology, their “grammar of being.”

Rejecting Dichotomies

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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 Dogon ideogram that represents the separation of the twins, male and female, at the moment of circumcision. According to Wright, the historical dimension of that separation within an African American context is (enforced) exile.

This predicament becomes the ground for the special kinship the poet shares with his other selves, the dead whose claims he seeks to understand in a godless land. Du Bois and Crispus Attucks are joined by Frederick Douglass, Saint Augustine, the Haitian insurrectionist Toussaint Louverture, and many others who meet in a text that abounds with allusions and references to Aztec, Mayan, Incaic, Egyptian, Arabic, Christian, Yoruba, Akan, and Dogon and Bambara mythologies. Ogotemmêli’s return as the blind sage at the beginning of the second poem prophesizes healing: “Anochecí enfermo amanecí bueno” (I went to bed sick, I woke up well).

“Modulations: The Aesthetic Dimension,” the book’s second part, introduces various Caribbean and Latin American musical forms and instruments such as the Cuban son and the bandola, a fifteen-string Colombian guitar. These shorter poems, distributed across “Rhythms, Charts, and Changes,” “The Body Adorned and Bare,” and “Retablos” (votive paintings), prepare the ground for Wright’s “Log Book of Judgments,” a series of ethical and aesthetic principles distilled from the persona’s historical and ritualistic experiences. They culminate in these lines from “Meta-A and the A of Absolutes”:

I am good when I hear the changes in my bodyecho all my changes down the years,when what I know indeed is what I would know in deed.

Dimensions closes with “Landscapes: The Physical Dimension,” the literary architecture of which returns to the history of the conquest of the Americas and to Náhua (Aztec) mythology and poetry. The most notable formal aspects of this final part are the encyclopedic monoliths that list the vital statistics of five American nations: Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, and the United States. The spaces between these building blocks are filled with Wright’s own enchanted mortar, an appropriate translation of the Náhuatl-infused Spanish idiom “cal y canto” (literally, mortar and song) that Wright uses to join compositional principles with cross-cultural concerns. Wright’s syncretic idiom represents the rhizomic weaves Wright’s poem uncovers and refashions into what he calls “emblems of the ecstatic connection.”

Making a New Language

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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 dismembers and reassembles meaning and community. Like the ritual scars on the body of the initiate, poetic writing confers kinship through knowledge of traditional values from different cultures. The poet’s pen becomes something akin to a ritual knife cutting the initiate into kinship, marking him as a member of a special community. As the persona is promoted from an initiate to a “delegate,” the statements made in Dimensions undergo reformulation:

What is true is the incision.What is true is the desire for the incision,and the signs’ flaming in the wound.

The Middle Passage, which the poet’s journeys retrace and reverse, becomes a rite of passage that both remembers and heals the violent ruptures and dispersals of Africa’s traditional cultures. Wright’s key metaphor, the limbo, refers once again to Harris, who conceives of this dance, created on the crowded slave ships, as a form of silent collective resistance. This “black limbo,” first thematized in “The Albuquerque Graveyard” in The Homecoming Singer, offers both mythic and historical grounds for Wright’s continuing poetic explorations of music and dance as possible “gateways” toward cross-cultural kinship.

The Guide Signs represents two more signs—the Nommo twins—added to Wright’s previous eight signs, which are now collected in Transfigurations: Collected Poems. “Three Pots Figure a Going and Return” opens Book One by constructing a primordial world of pre-substance, where “souls sit at ease, in perfect conspiracy.” The voice of the poem finds itself on the verge of assuming life: “Blessed by the dead, I await the body.” Knowing that The Guide Signs is centered on the Nommo principle, a combination of water, fire, seed, and word that causes everything, will help in interpreting the dense poetry.

Bibliography

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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 the West’s representations of other cultures and the negotiation of cultural differences.

Harris, Wilson. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. While this study includes a brief discussion of The Double Invention of Komo, it is valuable primarily for its conceptualization of the literary dynamics of “the cross-cultural imagination.” Though Wright’s debt is to Harris’s earlier writings, this book summarizes the main concepts and ideas that have guided Harris’s thinking since the beginning of his career.

Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillén. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. The second part of this book, “The Black Limbo: Jay Wright’s Mythology of Writing,” provides the fullest available commentary on Wright’s poetry. Focusing on Dimensions of History and its historical and theoretical sources, the discussion places Wright’s cross-cultural poetics within the context of the diverse cultural and literary histories of the Americas. Detailed notes, index.

Okpewho, Isidore. “From a Goat Path in Africa: An Approach to the Poetry of Jay Wright.” Callaloo 14, no. 3 (1991): 692-726. Locates Wright’s exploration of cultural history within an African context. Focuses on The Double Invention of Komo.

Welburn, Ron. “Jay Wright’s Poetics: An Appreciation.” MELUS 18, no. 3 (1993): 51-70. Probably a good starting place for those interested in Wright’s poetics, the article contains a thorough discussion of the various cosmologies Wright employs, as well as a succinct and valuable introduction to each of Wright’s books.

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