Earl Miner writes in his book, Comparative Poetics, that “…the lyric [is] literature of radical presence.” He goes on to explain that the lyric is accomplished through the intensification of moments, rather than the passage from one moment to the next (as in narrative literature). I take this to mean that, essentially, poetry is the broadening of instants, the stretching of seconds into explanations and understandings. Or something along those lines.
Fortunately for my fresh-from-spring-break-brain, we didn’t begin here, in the depths of a philosophical and almost-mind-boggling discussion about the nature of poetry. We began, instead, in poetry itself, exploring an anthology of black poetry that has collected writings from across time and space. We read about the possibility of the evolution of ancient Greece out of Egypt and read Egyptian love poetry. We delved briefly into the biblical Song of Songs and looked closely at the perception of gender (particularly the fascinating mirroring of relationships between men and women and those between people and God).
The Epic of Son-Jara drew us further into an older Africa as the week progressed. The story is told by griots, maintainers of an oral storytelling and history-keeping tradition in West Africa. To read this text in English, translated from a version of the epic told to an audience, is to witness a story almost completely different than the “original” one. This is not to mention the absence of a truly original story, given the nature of a fluid and necessarily changeable oral tale. This reading challenged my concepts of poetry and storytelling by conflicting with more traditional western notions of lyric and verse, which adhere, at the very least, to static written form. Here arose Miner’s claim about the nature of poetry, allowing it to exist more as the accomplishment of making an audience feel or understand something instead of as a collection of words strung together in a specific, intentional way.
The story also allowed us to discuss reading the poetry of those who are not white males through the lens of their non-white-maleness. In other words, we often read the poetry of white males as universal truths, while the words of any minority are read with regard to their “otherness.” We further explored the diminishing nature of looking at African epic tales as cultural “artifacts” or “expression” rather than poetry, and sought the universal messages in the epic.
This epic tale has sent us into a cloudless weekend (in the wake of a damp, midweek, midday snowstorm). The bluebird sky anticipates us. I’ll be reading this weekend’s poems in the already-green grass in this early springtime sunshine. And while I’m still not sure entirely what poetry is, or what blackness entails, or where exactly black poetry lives in the spectrum of literature (nor am I sure that I’ll ever know), I’m certainly a few steps closer.