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  • Poetry:1900 to the 1940s
  • Michael Thurston

No single controversial book defines the year's scholarship on modern American poetry. (A different kind of essay might deplore the increasing scarcity of monographs on the subject.) Likewise, no readily discernible critical trend or fashion can be said to be general all over the field. An occasional essay seeks to advance understanding through the deployment of a linguistics-based theory, and readers of some poets will welcome new reference works and collections, but by and large contextualized close readings tend to dominate.

i African American Poetry

Perhaps the most exciting salient feature this year is the amount and quality of work on modern African American poets that appeared over the course of the year. The rich and varied literary productivity of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Louise Bennett, and others continues to be relegated to short and often weak essays at the end of reference works, such as Sharon Lynette Jones's "The Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance," pp. 195–206 in Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. Still, this poetry has generated a consistently interesting and sophisticated critical literature exemplified by a number of books and essays this year.

While it lacks a strong argument and links the poets it treats with such unhelpful shifters as "also" and "another," Jones's survey rightly [End Page 387] emphasizes the importance of the material infrastructure—the magazines like The Crisis and Opportunity, the organizations out of which they arose (the NAACP and National Urban League), and the anthologies (e.g., The New Negro, Caroling Dusk)—that enabled poets of the Harlem Renaissance to flourish. In Inventing Black Women Ajuan Maria Mance argues that while this establishment supported poets like Hughes, Cullen, and McKay, it imposed strict limits on African American women poets. Where black women writers of the Reconstruction era had been able to explore race and gender explicitly, Mance argues, women poets of the Harlem Renaissance were prevented by the "male-dominated Black literary establishment of the 1920s" from such forthright and head-on engagement with the complex intertwining of race and gender. On one hand, this circumstance leads to what Mance sees as an unfortunate abandonment of African American women's subjectivity until a later generation was able to take it up again. On the other hand, resourceful poets like Johnson (in her parent-to-son poems), Esther Popel (in her lynching poems), and Alice Dunbar Nelson (in "I Sit and Sew," for example) were able to limn the outlines of that subjectivity by representing the effects within the home and community of African American men's struggles against racism.

According to Gary Edward Holcomb's Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (Florida), similarly subtle reading, sometimes against the grain and almost always in a carefully described context, is necessary if we are to recover the political radicalism and sexual politics (not just sexual identity) that complicated and enriched the race-focused poetry of McKay. Holcomb builds on recent work like Siobhan Somerville's Queering the Color Line (see AmLS 2001, p. 333) to trace the postnational critique that has remained hidden in McKay's work, while critics have focused on one or another aspect of the poet's identity to the exclusion of others. While the book is mostly taken up with analyses of McKay's prose, Holcomb does from time to time delve into important poems. He reads "Moscow" in the context of McKay's other city poems ("White City," "Dawn in New York"), for example, to show how homoeroticism and Red radicalism are combined in the poem. The most interesting treatments of poems here, though, are not so much readings of the poems themselves as readings of FBI agents' readings of them (constructed from notes in McKay's voluminous FBI file). In this regard, Holcomb's book nicely follows up the work William [End Page 388] Maxwell has done in his edition of McKay's poems and his essays on McKay and the FBI.

The essays and chapters described above usefully survey the terrain of modern African American poetry and map...


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