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  • The Poem of Anger: Amiri Baraka, Tory Dent, and Adrian C. Louis
  • Ephraim Scott Sommers (bio)

Back when I was five, when the only poems I knew were books by Dr. Seuss and the King James Version of the Bible, I bit a kid in the preschool boy’s bathroom after lunch and threw his L.A. Dodgers’ hat in the toilet. The teacher, Mrs. Patty, called my parents immediately. I had to apologize to the boy, Ryan Grey, and then I had to go home for the afternoon, or rather, had to sit in our station wagon outside my mother’s work for the rest of the day and think about it. In order to pay for Ryan’s new hat, my mother made me spend every day after school for the next month doing yard work, sweeping the driveway, tilling the soil in her garden, and pulling weeds. All that time in the car that day gave me time to think, and it wasn’t long, maybe a few hours, before I became ashamed of what I’d done. What I didn’t understand about anger back then that I do now, though, and what my mother tried to explain to me, is that the source of my anger was completely disconnected from its target. I hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before, so I was tired, and I took it out on a boy whose only crime was that he was standing there in front of me. This is why, I think, we are often afraid of anger both in life and in our poetry—because when the self feels threatened or hurt or tired, it takes the offensive, shoots off in all directions, and injures people who don’t deserve it. Anger, by nature, is unwieldy. It decries easy classification both in life and in literature, but I believe the poem of anger, or the poem which employs the invective mode, can be effective, and I believe if we can find the right framework to talk about how anger works in a poem, our poems will be better for it. Perhaps not having the right framework could be one reason why so little critical work takes anger as its central subject.

So it is with that challenge in mind that I’d like to interrogate anger in [End Page 40] contemporary American poetry, a set of feelings which seems largely and perhaps suspiciously unapparent in the landscape of work by contemporary poets, unapparent but not altogether non-existent. Historically, one must dig around a little to find the curses of the Roman poet Catullus, or to find Dante ascending the steps through anger in Purgatorio, or to find Homer’s invoking of anger at the beginning of The Iliad. Again, anger exists in the poetic canon, but not as much as one might expect given its insistent presence in our daily emotional lives. David Wojahn suggests in his essay “Mad Means Something: Anger, Invective, and the Period Style” that “although we might see a Catullan skill with rant and insult emerging in certain key Modernist and contemporary texts—The Cantos, for example, or the Gatling-gun assaults on ‘Moloch’ in “Howl”—the fact remains that mainstream contemporary poetry finds it difficult to admit any degree of anger and invective and, even when it does, it seems unable to employ them with much success (Wojahn 87). It may be that anger is a difficult tonal register to pull off effectively, or it may be that contemporary poets are too “nice,” as Wojahn contends, but for the few poets who are unafraid to confront and speak or shout in the invective mode, there must be strategies with which to best achieve writing a poem in such a tonal register. Wojahn posits, “The Genie of Invective seems to work his most powerful magic when he asks the poet to speak in form, or via an insistent device such as anaphora (consider “Howl” again), or within the confines of a carefully constructed conceit” (95). Reginald Dwayne Betts seems to echo Wojahn’s assumptions when he asserts in the essay “Feeling Fucked Up: The Architecture of Anger” the need for...


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pp. 40-63
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