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  • “Oh, Catfish and Turnip Greens”:Black Oral Traditions in the Poetry of Marilyn Nelson
  • William Kelley Woolfitt (bio)

In their coauthored essay “A Black Rainbow: Modern Afro-American Poetry” (1991), Rita Dove and Marilyn Nelson affirm that African American poets usually choose to write for either a black or a white audience, but sometimes “choose to combine their audiences, overlooking the differences between them in a hopeful attempt to speak to the whole of the American people” (217-18). Dove and Nelson find that African American poets who wish to reach black readers generally include oral and performative elements in their poems; as a result, “the oral nature of much Black poetry is one of its strongest identifying characteristics” (218). Nelson, the author of more than ten books of poetry published since 1978, has often been neglected or misunderstood by critics, perhaps because they do not realize the extent to which she draws on the oral tradition and makes it an integral component of her work, or because they fail to understand that she strives to speak through her poetry to a combined audience. In her books that were finalists for the National Book Award—The Homeplace (1990) and The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997)—Nelson repeatedly invokes, incorporates, and adapts many elements of the oral tradition that she and Dove identify in “A Black Rainbow,” including “dialect or colloquialism,” “signifying (hyperbolic insult),” “the older tradition of the griot, or storyteller,” “spirituals, the blues, and jazz,” and “the breath-units of the inspired sermon and the tenacity of faith” (217-20).

Considering the elements of the oral tradition that are so central to Nelson’s work as a poet is especially important in light of the limited, incomplete, and even skewed critical assessments her work has received.1 In The Cambridge Companion to African American Women’s Literature, for example, Keith D. Leonard inaccurately argues that “Nelson’s poetry is characterized by standard literary language and traditional poetic forms whose alleged ‘whiteness’ seems no longer to be an issue” (184).2 Myisha Priest, on the other hand, in describing Nelson’s long commitment to various “uses of poetic form” as a means of compiling a powerful “counternarrative to the historical record,” suggests that Nelson’s poetry should not be read as a race-denying capitulation to or assimilation of mainstream white literary tradition (16).3 Cheryl Wall argues that while many black women writers “lay claim to Western tradition,” they often revise “canonical texts in order to give voice to stories those texts did not imagine. Their revisions are often signaled by the recurrence of metaphors and structures drawn from African American oral forms” (13). Using terms that anticipate Wall’s, Nelson suggests that her poetic practice includes “the layering of meaning upon meaning[,] owning the masters of our tradition, ‘signifying,’ [and] paying due homage” (“Owning” 16-17). For Nelson, form serves not as a means of shunning black culture or silencing untold stories, but as a way of placing her culture and family stories in a dialogue that extends across many cultures and generations. She asserts that “form itself is communal; it is, as Thomas Byers writes, ‘… one of the ways in which the poem participates in poetic, social, and historical dialogue’” (“Owning” 15). Nelson’s formal poems contribute to this multifaceted dialogue; like the griot’s tale, they serve a communal function.4

While Nelson does include four sonnets, two ballads, and a villanelle in The Homeplace, these formal poems are deeply committed to exploring and reclaiming [End Page 231] African American history, as are the book’s twenty-three poems that depend less on the forms and rhythms sometimes associated with an exclusively white literary tradition. Nelson bases all of the poems’ narratives on oral histories that she collected from her relatives and from Tuskegee Airmen, and often uses the dialects and dictions of her informants.5 “I was trying to capture voices that sounded like the men who told me the stories… . I just tried to capture some of the little verbal tics they had, that made the voices sound colloquial,” Nelson explains in a recent interview (Anderson 391).

Rather than simply employing...


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