The Racial Question in American Poetry

An in-depth study of the social mechanisms and driving forces shaping the development of American poetry is an intriguing academic question. More specifically, this strand allows not only to form a coherent system of rhetorical and semantic meanings peculiar to U.S. poetic culture but also to identify relevant historical traditions and patterns. Thus, as it is known, the issue of race and the unique way of ethnic groups is a sensitive issue for the local milieu.

America is a vast and immense territory, which has sheltered more than one ethnic family during its existence. As a consequence, historically, the territory has been a collection of coexisting cultures. It is difficult to imagine an area of life in which such pluralism would be a social problem. On the contrary, for all of America — and the poetic context in particular — the diversity of such microenvironments has the positive effect of encouraging ambiguity and diversity.

Poetic cultural pluralism is expressed, among others, in racial differences in the approach to poetry writing. It has been shown that for American poetry, the question of racial identity was important. More specifically, the poems of black poets were more likely than those of white poets to raise critical racial issues. This essay seeks to expose this thesis through corroboration from the poems and a synthesis of available thematic information.

The central question for this study in the essay is to determine whether poets should be restricted in their choice of topics for writing. To put it another way, among the diversity of cultural representatives, it is essential to understand who can and who should not write about the issue of race. To answer these questions, it is appropriate to look primarily at the meaning of poetry itself. For instance, MasterClass defines poetry as a particular sort of literature in which an idea is conveyed from author to reader in a concentrated lyrical representation.

This interpretation follows that a poem has two important criteria: it must have a central thought, and it must be written according to some standard formula. Developing this terminology further, it is essential to note that poetry has no racial identity. Even the historical context does not support the version that writing poetry was the priority activity of one existing culture. On the contrary, the whole world writes poetry, and it is expected that each culture raises unique social and spiritual issues.

This context begs the legitimate question of why talk of racial differences in poetic culture exists at all. While acknowledging the identity and even homogeneity of this form of literature for all nations without exception, it is important to note, nevertheless, some privileging of selected themes. In general, it is not surprising that it is common for a particular cultural group to write poems dealing with the most relevant social experiences.

For example, American poetry was hardly interested in the tsarist regime of the Russian Empire, and the poetry of the British masters was unlikely to illuminate the difficulties of life in the countries of the South American continent. In other words, historically, each linguistic-ethnic family possessed — and has possessed — a spectrum of themes that were raised in their poems. For black Americans, for instance, the issue of race was a similar core of thought.

The choice of racial identity to discuss in lyrical form was due to a surprising combination of factors. Among these are racial slavery, ethnic segregation, and the phenomenon of cultural superiority (Dahl 1). It seems quite apparent — and expected — that black Americans who have been racially persecuted and oppressed are more interested in discussing racial injustice than white people who have lived comfortably all along. This thought has an important implication: when reading a lyric work, readers can either trust or distrust the author. In particular, examining poems by black authors that raise the issue of race does not seem surprising or revolutionary since this ethnic group as a whole has established a special entitlement to the topic.

On the contrary, if the reader is introduced to the work of a white author who philosophically raises the issue of racial inequality, it can feel false and contrived. Such an author risks being suspected of manipulating sensitive topics just to reach a larger audience. It is interesting to clarify that such a great difference in the perception of the two poems may be due to a social attitude about the difference in living standards between the two races to which the authors belong. Since whites were primordially dominant and blacks were dominated by them, the experience of the injustice and litigiousness of the racial question on behalf of the white poet may not seem real.

The racial question of American poetic culture has not been resolved to this day. Initial skeptical thoughts toward white authors exploring the topic in lyrical form should expectedly be transformed into a more loyally tolerant form. Jackson was able to show that although race is a much broader phenomenon than just the ethnicity of the individual, because of the democratization of society, the participation of every poet in the discussion of such a sensitive topic should be encouraged (11). Moreover, Jackson expressed personal indignation at the fact that white authors have traditionally written fewer works dealing with the issue. One might suggest that such a wide gap in the number of works might be justified either by white poets’ fear of being publicly condemned or by authors’ low awareness of issues concerning the cultural life of another race.

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to assume that white authors cannot write successful lyrics about the black race. On the contrary, Jackson has shown that there is a sample of contemporary poets whose work fits so harmoniously into the context of the racial issue that reading it does not arouse any feelings of rejection or skepticism (6). In this context, the poem “On the Subway” by Sharon Olds is pertinent. By placing a white male narrator opposite an innocent black boy in the scene, Olds achieves a highly nuanced sense of cultural conflict between races.

As a whole, this work was devoted to discussing the hostility of intentions with which the white race has traditionally been viewed in the direction of its darker-skinned members. For this reason, the author deliberately made a gap in the ages of the lyrical protagonists, which only increased the sense of discomfort and white male dominance. In discussing this poem in his essay, Jackson pointed to the insight and complexity with which Olds approached the writing. Consequently, “In the Subway” can be seen as a successful example of lyricism from a white author that raises a racial issue.

In contrast to Olds, ultramodern poet Tony Hoagland exerts less restraint and directly uses racist and hateful utterances in his work. “Rap Music” is a sort of anthemic prejudice against African American culture: the culturally justified genre of black Americans is described by Hoagland as noise emanating from twenty-six drowning men (Hoagland 3). Reading this lyric evokes feelings of aversion and discomfort, as the white poet’s dramatized tone unequivocally confirms that black Americans are culturally much further away from him than China (Hoagland 4).

It is interesting to note that Jackson did not fall for the apparent provocation of such artificial — but as if screaming — poetry; but instead, the man could find advantages in publishing it. More specifically, the author of the essay described that such lively, emotion-filled works open up a vast space for public discussion of the chosen topic. Consequently, such a provocative construction has a significant social effect since it encourages the reader to analyze and discuss the problem.

Among the two poems discussed, Elizabeth Bishop’s work seems to be the most neutral and without any critical evaluation. In fact, “In the Waiting Room” describes not the problem of racial discrimination but rather the complexity of growing up as a little girl taking a step into the world of adults (Bishop). Nevertheless, this work is filled with black symbolism, from the characters’ names to the bluesy form of the narrative. Whereas Hoagland used the black man as the explicit enemy of the white man, and Olds, by contrast, contrasted the white man with the black boy, Bishop seems to have chosen to use the listed attributes without explicit intention.

The purpose of the woman poet in this work was not to demonstrate the crisis relationship between the two races. Instead, Elizabeth Bishop was, as Jackson argued, showing the reader a harmonious blend of the two cultures, devoid of shades of pessimism and doubt. “In the Waiting Room” is thus an apt illustration of the quiet compromise and reconciliation of two cultures, which in general can be possible not only on paper.

To summarize, the question of racial justice and the social place of cultures in a hierarchy occupies an important position in American poetry. A key issue was determining the permissibility of poems written by white authors telling stories about the black race. Such poems need not necessarily include the complexities of the historical existence of African Americans, but it is essential to understand that it was the difference in the comfort level of life between whites and blacks that shaped the poets’ social perspectives. This paper examined Jackson’s essays and three interesting lyric works, each uniquely employing the concept of race.

Taken together, all of this can lead to the conclusion that there is not and should not be a racial privilege in writing lyrics: regardless of ethnicity, an author should be able to write about racial issues. Such publications may be publicly condemned or criticized by a sensitive community, but it is nonetheless a natural component of public writing.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “In the Waiting Room.” Poets. Web.

Dahl, Adam. “Oppression and Racial Slavery: Abolitionist Challenges to Neo-Republicanism.” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 1470, 2020, pp. 1-24.

Hoagland, Tony. “Rap Music.” Studylib. Web.

Jackson, M. “A Mystifying Silence: Big And Black.” JSTOR. Web.

MasterClass. ” Poetry 101: Learn About Poetry, Different Types of Poems, and Poetic Devices With Examples.” MasterClass. 2020. Web.

Olds, Sharon. “On the Subway.” AP English. 2017. Web.

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