restricted access Clarence Major’s Cosmopolitan Vision
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79 Clarence Major’s Cosmopolitan Vision There’s no other voice in American poetry that sings quite like Clarence Major’s, and his new collection, From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970–­ 2013, elucidates ample proof. Of course, some poets and critics have attempted to trace the lineage of Major’s voice and vision to the objectivists (because of his unembellished language), especially to Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, and even to Denise Levertov; others associate him with the jazz-­ influenced poets aligned with the Black Arts aesthetic, and still other critics and poets have intoned Ezra Pound as a primary influence. However, anyone who knows contemporary American poetry, especially African American poetry, knows that Clarence Major, an iconic wordsmith, is also a gifted painter, novelist, essayist, and anthologist; but more than anything, he’s always himself. And this new collection speaks for itself. Major has artfully resisted being pigeonholed. In fact, here’s a poet we can call a school of one; he fits that bill but not because he’s trying to be different. I believe his work is naturally different. Highly personal, yet universal, Major’s poetry is usually serious but playful through technique and tone. His work achieves a middle register—­ not high or low—­ like some of our great jazz stylists searching for the grace note, always dependable but edgy and democratic, someone who adapts a phrase or melody, and then bends it until it is completely theirs, through feeling, Major knows how to make profundity seem accidental; his almost casual phrasing makes this possible. His poems are Foreword to From Now On: New and Selected Poems, 1970–­ 2015, by Clarence Major (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015). 80 not consciously trying to be poems in an imagistic or rhetorical sense. And, of course, this concept of easeful engagement is an aspect of the poet’s genius. I think that Major’s practice as a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago informs his craft as a poet, his method of weaving and dovetailing elements of sound into his unique way of seeing the world. At first, reading a poem by Major, one may think he or she knows the narrative but then realizes this poet is no tool or fool for the expected. His work embodies echoes—­ language as feeling. An example of this is the last poem of the book’s first section; the title, “Something Is Eating Me Up Inside,” makes one think he or she already has a clue to the poem’s meaning. But let’s see if that’s truly the case; the poem opens this way: I go in and out a thousand times a day and the fat women with black velvet skin sit out on the front steps watching. “Where does he go so much?” I think often, not “much.” I look like a hood from the 1920s in my Ivy League black shirt with button-­ down collar. We may not know where we’ve traveled, but we know we have been on a voyage pushed and guided by feeling by the time we get to the phrase “There is a tapeworm inside philosophy.” And, moreover, we may be that “tapeworm” because of our bloated assumptions about each other. But also, for me, “the tapeworm in philosophy” could be about Major’s poetry, the mechanics of the speaker’s psyche, or perhaps the line is about the artist compelled by language as a system of thinking. Major’s poems articulate the quotidian, but they are also naturally philosophical , and each defies any narrow-­ minded trajectory; all the senses are employed—­ mind and feeling as organism. “Something Is Eating Me Up Inside” ends with the following lines: The sun is blood in my guts as I move from gin to sin to lakesides to sit down beside reasons for being in the first place. In the second place?: 81 in the second place looking outward for a definition to a formal ending—­ . And, yes, that dash is so instructive. Major’s poetry relies on what is said and remains unsaid, and one enters his vision at the risk or the obligation of becoming a participant, an interloper within spaces of casual preciseness. The playfully simplistic is always more; in fact, it is a dynamo when queried by a feeling, thinking reader. And that is how Clarence Major seems to always be having fun in each poem, but never simply funny, slapstick, or bravura. Edgy and Socratic...


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