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Orpheus in the Bronx

Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry

Reginald Shepherd

Publication Year: 2007

Orpheus in the Bronx not only extols the freedom language affords us; it embodies that freedom, enacting poetry's greatest gift---the power to recognize ourselves as something other than what we are. These bracing arguments were written by a poet who sings. ---James Longenbach A highly acute writer, scholar, editor, and critic, Reginald Shepherd brings to his work the sensibilities of a classicist and a contemporary theorist, an inheritor of the American high modernist canon, and a poet drawing and playing on popular culture, while simultaneously venturing into formal experimentation. In the essays collected here, Shepherd offers probing meditations unified by a "resolute defense of poetry's autonomy, and a celebration of the liberatory and utopian possibilities such autonomy offers." Among the pieces included are an eloquent autobiographical essay setting out in the frankest terms the vicissitudes of a Bronx ghetto childhood; the escape offered by books and "gifted" status preserved by maternal determination; early loss and the equivalent of exile; and the formation of the writer's vocation. With the same frankness that he brings to autobiography, Shepherd also sets out his reasons for rejecting "identity politics" in poetry as an unnecessary trammeling of literary imagination. His study of the "urban pastoral," from Baudelaire through Eliot, Crane, and Gwendolyn Brooks, to Shepherd's own work, provides a fresh view of the place of urban landscape in American poetry. Throughout his essays---as in his poetry---Shepherd juxtaposes unabashed lyricism, historical awareness, and in-your-face contemporaneity, bristling with intelligence. A volume in the Poets on Poetry series, which collects critical works by contemporary poets, gathering together the articles, interviews, and book reviews by which they have articulated the poetics of a new generation.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Poets on Poetry


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pp. vii

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By Way of Introduction

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pp. 1-3

The essays gathered here range in topic from the autobiographical to the exegetical to the theoretical, in style from the narrative to the lyrical to the analytical. What unifies them is a resolut defense of poetry’s autonomy, and a celebration of the liberatory and utopian possibilities...

Portrait of the Artist

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pp. 5-38

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To Make Me Who I Am

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pp. 7-38

I have no records of my earlier life (my previous life, I almost wrote): no baby pictures or childhood memorabilia, no proof of who I was or even that I was at all. I can’t even find my original birth certificate. I assume that I must have been because...

Manifestos of a Sort

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pp. 39-79

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The Other’s Other: Against Identity Poetry, for Possibility

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pp. 41-55

My title invokes a dual otherness. As a black person, as a gay person, I am other to the social norm of heterosexual whiteness. Poetry, a stereotypically exalted and also, or therefore, marginalized realm, is often seen as other to the abjection, social and...

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Toward an Urban Pastoral

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pp. 56-64

In his Life of Johnson, James Boswell famously quotes Samuel Johnson as telling him, “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford...

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Notes toward Beauty

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pp. 65-69

“I don’t trust beauty anymore,” I once wrote, “when will I stop believing it?” And elsewhere, “because beauty (fixed, triumphant) isn’t my friend, is it?” That is part of the truth. The other part of the truth is that without a notion of beauty, an embodiment...

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One State of the Art

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pp. 70-79

What I value most in poetry is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words that are the poem’s body and its soul. I find this passionate intensity in the verbal a gosies of Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” in the sly obliquity and exuberant...


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pp. 81-167

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On Alvin Feinman’s “True Night”

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pp. 83-88

Both one of the most talented and one of the most underappreciated poets of his generation, Alvin Feinman was born in 1929 and raised in New York City. Though always committed to poetry (including, in his words, “even doggerel narratives in...

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On Jorie Graham’s Erosion: Poetry, Perception, Politics

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pp. 89-109

Jorie Graham is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant contemporary American poets, a poet who eschews straightforward autobiographical narrative or social commentary in favor of poetic investigations explicitly continuing and...

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What Remained of a Genet: On the Topic of Querelle

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pp. 110-131

To begin where Derrida begins: that is, to begin belatedly. What remains today, for me, here, now, of a Genet?1 What is it I have read, as whom, for whom, and why? And to conclude where Derrida concludes: Today, here, now, the debris of...

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Shadows and Light Moving on Water: On Samuel R. Delany

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pp. 132-139

Samuel R. Delany has written several experiments with the (non)form of the essay that he calls chrestomathies, “collections of [numbered] textual fragments whose numerous interrelations the reader must actively trace out in order to gather them...

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Four Gay American Poets

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pp. 140-159

The four poets I write about here have all been formed, at various removes, by the confluence of gay liberation (and the liberatory movements of the 1960s and 1970s in general) and what have been called the new American poetries. Both the new...

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On Linda Gregg’s Too Bright to See

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pp. 160-167

Linda Gregg is one of our most important and accomplished poets, yet despite the respect with which her work is regarded, it has not received the critical attention that it deserves. This may be due to its indifference toward poetic fashion...

A Poetics

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Coat: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens

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pp. 171-187

In his poem of the same name, Wallace Stevens addresses and implicitly rebukes William Carlos Williams’s demand for “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” pointing out, figuratively rather than discursively, that the thing...

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Why I Write

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pp. 188-198

I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me. Part of this derives from my sense of my own insignificance in the universe. My life and death are a barel momentary flicker. I would like to become more than that. That...

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025435
E-ISBN-10: 0472025430
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472069989
Print-ISBN-10: 0472069985

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Poets on Poetry