In an age of technological change, slams and sounds are influencing the way we communicate with one another, the way we act out, and especially the way we write poetry
American poetry no longer evolves according to the laws of modernist and postmodernist whimpers. The governing concept is assertion. Regardless of its creators' regional loyalties, gender identification, sexual orientation or ethnicity, contemporary poetry is driven by a sense of urgency. Woman and man in America must have their say, and their insistence has little to do with millennial anxiety and everything to do with the rescuing of language from dull pragmatism, of the mind from deadly uniformity. Orality, or as much of it as is possible in a time of technological revolution, is again being used to fuel communication. The power of orality is quite obvious in the ceremony of the "slam," a poetic ritual that can too easily become gladiatorial. Check Saul Stacey Williams's richly imaged warning from "children of the night," a poem included in Listen Up! Spoken Word Poetry (Ballantine; paperback, $12.50):
the children of fiction
born of semen-filled crosses
thrust in calvary's mound
with memories of mananas' millennium:
the gravity of the pendulum
the inscription of the grail
the rumors of war and famine
diseases and storms of hail
All hail the new beginning! Behold the winter's end!
Bring on the puppets and dragons!
Let the ceremonies begin
Everywhere poetry is vibrant. In songs, in the seduction of advertising, in the contours of slanguage, on CDs -- poetry is inevitable. In hundreds of books and anthologies, in the voluminous e-mail debates concerning the definitions of such terms as LANGUAGE poetry, spoken word poetry, and performed poetry, a renewed esteem for verse and rhythmic creation in words manifests itself. In the documentary offerings of "Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry 1960-95" (1998) and on the growing number of websites devoted to poetry, there is evidence that fear of literature and literacy is declining. The daring, electric work of young poets such as those included in Listen Up! is crucial for understanding the upswing.
American poetry is alive, well and stunningly democratic. Yes, poetry is free now from being the intellectual "property" of the schools and the presumptive "overseers" of culture. It has visibility. We heard the irony-tinged voices heralding this change in the landmark anthology In the Tradition (1992), edited by Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka. A balancing supplement to that volume is Kalamu ya Salaam and Kwame Alexander's 3608: A Revolution of Black Poets (1998), a collection that forms a bridge between poets of the Black Arts Movement and those of the hip-hop aesthetic. As the next stage in this continuing evolution, Listen Up! provides an exceptionally valuable situation report on sound poetry. It contains enlightening introductions by Yusef Komunyakaa and Zoe Anglesey, who edited the anthology, and generous samplings of work by Tish Benson, Ava Chin, Suheir Hammad, Jessica Care Moore, Tracie Morris, Willie Perdomo, Carl Hancock Rux, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and Saul Stacey Williams.
The range of sound traditions and individual talents here is rewarding. As prophets for a new day of genuinely multicultural poetries, these writers test our cultural literacy and perform the subtle shifts and transitions often found in the hypertextual world of cyberspace.
These works illustrate the virtues of literary democracy, but they also serve to caution. The passion for poetry -- and its renewed accessibility -- can foster vices of blind creation and consumption. Poets and readers must be aware that in a literary democracy every citizen is a potential poet. The old rules of the poetic contract no longer apply.
To be sure, the work of emerging writers merits respect. The unprocessed raw praise that some rappers have been duped into believing is automatic does not arm the serious poets. It harms them. All of them might profit from reconsi-
dering where poetic quality (and grounds for genuine respect) might be found. Given that Walt Whitman is the enduring genius on matters of pure American poetry, is it good to recall a statement from his preface to Leaves of Grass: "The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul."
The poetic quality in Marvin K. White's Last Rights (Alyson; paperback, $12.95) exists in his knowing that much can be achieved with the spare line and the riveting effects of anaphora. In "that thing," a poem about a man who has AIDS, White demonstrates how the positioning of a single word "still" might conjure reflection on the last rites of humanity and the humans who are last to be granted rights.
he still singing in the choir
he still loving men
he still kiki-ing at the club
he still sometimes real still
In his poems, White exploits the minimal to emphasize the high cost of being gay and the possibility that gayness is already implicit in the reading of difference in America:
i want to make some black history
be your harriet tubman
and let you ride
my underground railroad to freedom
The poems collected in Last Rights portray caring, humanness, family or kinship, humor, despair, ordinary problems and unqualified love as they occur in the everyday lives of homosexuals. With the quiet dignity of these poems Marvin K. White challenges us to consider how homophobia may distort what we behold.
Like White, G.E. Patterson relies on the quietness of a poem to galvanize attention. The poems in Tug (Graywolf; paperback, $12.95), however, are more elegantly crafted and securely inside the tradition. "Talking about the Dead: Sojourner Truth" is as accomplished in its swerve and humor as the work of Robert Hayden, and the signifying in the final stanza of "Probable Correspondence" is a judicious answer to the famous literary question "Was Huck Black?":
I've some cause to complain, curse my bad luck,
But life has its pains, natural as trees.
Thanks for your letter. All's well with Huck.
Everything's fine, except everything sucks.
Tug is a brilliant first collection, an assuring reminder that not all our younger poets have abandoned the Ellingtonian mastery of many voices, as can be seen in Patterson's "Autobiography of a Black Man" (pull out your James Weldon Johnson) and "Yesterday I Might Have Been Anais Nin" (chastened prose poetry is not dead).
These books should be read aloud, because the recycling of sounds is necessary in judging what is excellent or good or blatantly cheap in poetry that resists the ordinary. These books violate the boundaries of our prejudices. They are pre-future soundings of American democracy. We do well to embrace them with critical ears.
Jerry W. Ward Jr. is the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College.