About Carolyn M. Rodgers
Carolyn Rodgers, a Chicago poet who first learned her trade in the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) Writer's Workshop meetings and Gwendolyn Brooks's Writers Workshops, was distinctive as a new black woman poet in the late 1960s, when she published her first two books, for her vehement adherence to the Black Arts program. Noted for her vulgarity and other excesses, Rodgers was quickly criticized by other Black Aesthetic practitioners for her unladylike uses of the very rhetorical excesses they had promoted. In his introduction (7-8) to Rodgers' second volume of poetry, Songs of a Black Bird (1969), David Llorens hinted at the tensions caused by her appropriation of the masculinist style: "Some 'revolutionary' brothers had put the 'bad mouth' on her, and had run down something as old as ... and far more insidious than 'nigger bitches ain't shit.' And they had me check the sister out, looking for a badge that ain't never been there as far as I know or think" (8). Llorens wrote the introduction because he found no evidence of such treachery (the "badge" of bitchiness that he says never existed), viewing her rhetorical vigor as "new energy" (8) that would aid rather than undermine the revolution.
Still, near the end of that same volume, Rodgers responds to critics who dictate a more conventionally feminine role for black women. In "The Last M.F.", she promises to stop employing vulgar language in her poems; like Dickinson's excessive compliance when her brother asks her to write more simply ("As simple as you please, the simplest sort of simple"), Rodgers vows never again to use obscenities like "mother fucker," but she does so in lines that obviously savor this last opportunity for such expressiveness:
that i should not use the word
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman ...
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.
Once again, the charge against the revolutionary female speaker is that she is a contradiction: if revolutionary aesthetics are aggressive and menacing, then simply by speaking, she is unwomanly. Her role in the revolution is to be soft and feminine. In fact, as the poem indicates, black women are admonished to cultivate a "reserved speaking self"--a demand that risks discouraging them from speaking at all.
Typically, then, the woman who chooses to speak must prove her femininity. The speaker of the poem parodies this necessity:
that i am soft, and you can subpoena my man, put him
on trial, and he will testify that i am
soft in the right places at the right times
and often we are so reserved, i have nothing to say.
The speaker recognizes exactly the equation required to vindicate herself. she's demonstrably feminine because she's sexy. She is physically feminine ("soft in the right places") and so focused on lovemaking ("reserved") that she is sometimes speechless. Yet the hush of sexual intimacy is not the same as enforced silence, and the poem records the debate between what "they say" and what "i say" in the structure of alternating arguments about women speaking. Finally, she accedes to being a listener rather than a talker--"but they say that this new day / creates a new dawn woman, / one who will listen to Black Men"--yet still hates to give up her point. As she complies with their demands, she registers her scorn for black men who censor women, her delight in deploying obscenities against them, and the futility of censoring the truth that obscenities can convey:
and so i say
this is the last poem i will write calling
all manner of wites, card-carrying muthafuckas
and all manner of Blacks (negroes too) sweet
muthafuckas, crazy muthafuckas, lowdown muthafuckas
cool muthafuckas, mad and revolutionary muthafuckas,
But anyhow you all know just like I do (whether I say
it or not), there's plenty of MEAN muthafuckas out
here trying to do the struggle in.
The parenthetical remark, "(whether I say / it or not)," uses punctuation like hands cupped over ears--the parentheses simultaneously muffle the sound of her utterance and channel it toward our attention. The eloquent line break after "I say" and the solitary instance of the capital "I" lend authority to the speaker's voice even as the parentheses appear to take it away. The words of those we ignore continue to nag us: they say that censorship hides the truths that ought to be revealed, silences the people we need to hear from, and ultimately undermines the revolution.
Songs of a Black Bird represents Rodgers's Black Arts period; however, amid the expected paeans to black men and the revolution, "Black Woman! / let yr man (ev'ry Black Man) / be yr Hero," are hints of dissatisfaction with the Black Arts program ("Now Let's Be Real" 18). In "Breakthrough" (31-33), for example, the speaker admits that "my mouth has been open / most of the time, but / I ain't been saying nuthin." Yet, the two poems that open Black Bird say a great deal about the direction Rodgers will eventually take. "Jesus Was Crucified, or, It Must Be Deep" (9-11) and "It Is Deep" (12-13) relate the tensions between the speaker, a black liberation radical, and her mother, a middle-class Christian. Over the telephone, the speaker disagrees with her mother's worldview: that there is a God, that some white people are good, that all revolutionaries are Communists, and that her daughter shouldn't curse in public. To her mother's insistence that "deep deep down" in her heart the daughter knows that the Bible is true, the speaker sarcastically responds "it must be d / eeeep," meaning that any faith she has is buried so deep-in the past--that it's no longer accessible. Her response also resonates with the sixties' sense of "deep" as something complicated and ponderous: the speaker can't fathom religious belief.
In the next poem, however, the edge of sarcasm is gone as the speaker restates the phrase but this time to assert its accuracy. "It Is Deep" rehearses a similar conversation; this time, though, the mother has arrived unexpectedly at her sick daughter's apartment to give her some money and make certain she's all right. Though her mother doesn't "recognize the poster of the / grand le roi" or her own daughter's "book of / Black poems," she most certainly acknowledges her relationship to her daughter: she
bills in my hand saying "pay the [telephone] bill and buy
some food; you got people who care about you."
The speaker is moved by her mother's demonstration of love and solidarity and realizes her mother is "a sturdy Black bridge that I crossed over on."
The idea of crossing over to a new way of life provides the substance that Rodgers explicitly longed for in several poems of self-doubt about her writing. Her third book takes its title from this concern: How I Got Ovah (1975) collects new and selected poems in a volume that marks a turning point in Rodgers's career. Like Giovanni and Sanchez, Rodgers rejects the official hatred of the liberation movement and embraces love. "Some of Me Beauty" (53) recalls and dismisses her revolutionary persona:
the fact is
that i don't hate any body any more
i went through my mean period.
Now, however, she awakes to find herself
not imani man jua or soul sister poetess of
i saw more than a "sister". . .
i saw a Woman. human.
i felt a spiritual transformation
a root revival of love.
The correlation between a spiritual transformation and the revival of love is critical. Two of the new poems, "how i got ovah" (5) and "how i got ovah II/ It Is Deep II" (77-78), record the poet's conversion to her mother's Christianity. As the titles suggest (in their allusions to the titles and last line of the poems about her mother's love and faith in Black Bird) Rodgers "got over" hatred and self-doubt by getting over the militant movement and the Black Aesthetic--and by getting over to Christianity and a new style.
The "Author's Note" (xi) that introduces the volume hints at the changes in the book proper by hinting at the change in the author:
When a book is finally published, an author is very likely to have changed his style and his mind. About many things....
Still, a person does not wish to offer apologies for where she or he was. For certainly where one has been makes where one is more meaningful. Many of you will recognize some of these poems. You will not recognize quite a few others....
I want my work to interest as many people as possible; therefore, some words have been either altered or eliminated completely.
As that last statement suggests, there will be no "MF"s here. These new poems suggest "a softer self," "a more reserved speaking self" Now, however, the softness and reserve are consistent with the Christian notion of femininity rather than the black militant one, though, in practice, the two models of proper female behavior are indistinguishable.
The crudeness, recklessness, and ineffectiveness of the revolutionaries are explicitly contrasted with the civility, patience, and effectiveness of the "church folk" in "and when the revolutionaries came" (65-67) just as her former poetry is explicitly repudiated in "Living Water" (79-81):
i keep feeling my mouth with my tongue
afraid that something has slipped loose
dropped out all the time i was opening and closing
saying nothing nothing nothing.
Here "nothing nothing nothing" dismisses those former poems (by saying they amounted to nothing) at the same time it recalls them (by mimicking the characteristic repetitions of Black Arts verbal aggression). If she's going to write now, she'll have to write a new kind of poetry. Yet the speaker in "Living Water" feels an inward spiritual fullness that she isn't sure she can tap for her writing. The final section of the poem resolves this worry by relinquishing verbal authority to God:
I think sometimes
when i write
God has his hand on me
i am his little black slim ink pen.
This obviously female pen is slight, diminutive, merely an instrument of masculine authority: she embodies exactly the sort of femininity that Carolyn Rodgers had once aggressively rejected.
In Christianity, Rodgers found an alternative to the Black Power movement that, like the Nation of Islam, did not provide an alternative to conventional femininity. "For Women" (Ovah 72-75), for example, celebrates the long-suffering, silent woman, who endures her abusive marriage because she is strengthened by God's "amazing grace":
she is mostly silent taking his abuses
when she can.
as he cuts her with words that
wisely know her
In the face of his ridicule, name calling, physical aggression, drinking, gambling, and faithlessness, she
Indeed, unbeknownst to him,
he is alive
because of her faith and prayer. She receives grace from God, and her husband, in turn, "saps a strength from her."
The poem is clearly not just about this one woman; she represents the poem's conception of womankind, as the epigraph suggests: "(women are the fruit of the earth)." Yet in what sense can "For Women" be considered for women when it glorifies silent suffering and deferred spiritual rewards? The amazing grace that sustains the woman in the poem, or even the poet herself, might provide solace to any particular woman, but it did not offer a more generally efficacious response to the misogyny of the liberation movement.
However well their thematic and formal developments suited the individual careers of Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Carolyn Rodgers, the retreat from Black Arts excesses to a more moderate style associated with a more feminine project rendered their poetry less "useful," to borrow Karenga's term, for other women poets. This is not to fault the poetry; indeed, Sanchez's and Rodgers's work grows more beautiful and compelling as it finds its uniqueness. But if excess can be described as a writing strategy peculiarly suited to the expression of marginalized voices, then their poetry became less revolutionary as it became less excessive, shifting the weight of its political work from style to subject. While Black Arts movement excesses had established a public aesthetic program that enabled a community of voices to express themselves, its fundamental misogyny ultimately disabled most black women writers within that community. Though they recovered their individual women's voices in developing their own poetry, they no longer participated in or promoted a public artistic program. Yet the sexism of the black liberation movement would eventually have to be resisted, like that movement had resisted the dominant culture's racism, in a more public utterance. And, not surprisingly, the later black feminists who succeeded in challenging the misogyny in their culture turned to excess once again in their struggle to be heard.
From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi.
Estella M. Sales
The expression "how I got ovah" slips fluently from black colloquialism into a black gospel song and on into the black slang vernacular with unobstructed ease. Presently it is the title of Carolyn Rodgers' latest volume of poetry, How I Got Ovah.
The meaning of the recurring expression is generally defined by its contextual usage and can be appropriately connotative of how one has triumphed spiritually; how one has overcome worldly hardships; how one has outwitted his adversary; or merely how one has swindled his loved ones. In Carolyn Rodgers' book, many of these connotations emerge; however, another unique connotation is given shape by the thematic structuring of the book. The poet writes on the seemingly disjointed and ostensibly contradictory aspects of black life. She is not afraid of the contradictions; she consciously seeks them out, then reconciles their differences by poetically presenting their interrelatedness. The poet 'gets ovah' the waters of confusion that flow between the contradictions by crossing certain metaphorically symbolic bridges. These bridges she comes to recognize are her own inner voice, her ancestral rootedness, her Christian faith, and her parental support. Other supportive structures in the bridges are her church community and her extended black community. So the unique connotation of getting ovah in Carolyn Rodgers book would be bridging the separating waters, reconciling the contradictions or piecing together the seemingly dichotomous entities of black life.
The major dichotomies that are patterned throughout the book are (1) black revolutionary tactics as opposed to Christian ethics, (2) the black past as opposed to the present, (3) the black younger generation as opposed to the older generation, (4) idealistic dreams as opposed to dead-end awakenings. and (5) the individual poetic voice as opposed to the conscious, collective poetic voice. Often, more than one dichotomous pattern is being dealt with simultaneously in the same poem. (. . .)
In her untitled poem (p. 6), the poetic statement is consummated. The persona realizes, after being caught up in a whirlwind of voices, that she is confused and "cannot remember / where to listen. " Once away from the screaming voices, silence reflows and the poet returns "cradling creation in the silences." The poet has listened to the (ideological) voices till deafened by them and only after that point does she realize that through creative silence, or listening to her own inner voice, she is able to create. Listening to her own inner voice is her poetic bridge of "getting ovah."
Estella M. Sales, "Contradictions in Black Life: Recognized and Reconciled in How I Got Ovah," CLA Journal 25, No.1 (September 1981): 74-75, 81
Hilda Njoki McElroy
It is interesting to note that most of the poems in How I Got Ovah are written in the lyric mode from a first, person perspective. The persona in each poem is so well established and developed that one feels well acquainted and involved with this speaker in a very personal manner. Though some poems are deeply personal at times, the reader/audience is never excluded from these experiences. Probably because Carolyn Rodgers' works cover such a wide range of human experiences her sermons/songs/tales seem to often be addressed to us though we know the poet is female and the poems reveal a female persona. I have noticed that male students in my Interpretation of Black Poetry class frequently find Rodgers' works to be equally valid for male or female.
Skillfully utilizing rhythmic devices from our Afrikan oral tradition in the title poem, "how i got ovah," the persona seems to be speaking directly to those of us in the Black diaspora who share the sufferings of a displaced people: . . .
In "The Children of Their Sin," Rodgers is like the old Afrikan folktellerentertaining and instructing us about our weakness, contradictions and inner conflicts. Combining many devices from the African folk tale, Rodgers deals basically with self-hatred. In order to reinforce this theme, Rodgers, in a fantastic display of craftpersonship, utilizes present/mythic time, cosmic sounds/rhythms, and vivid imagery. In the present time in part one, the persona establishes the irony and contradictions by explaining how she left her job one evening of poet-teaching Black people how to love one another and on the way home she refused to sit next to a Black brother because he looked "mean and hungry, poor and damply cold." Rather, she chose to sit next to a white man because he "was neatly new yorkish antiseptically executive."
Hilda Njoki McElroy, [Review of how I got ovah], Black World 25, No.4 (February 1976): 51-52
Bettye J. Parker-Smith
It can be fairly accurately claimed that Carolyn Rodgers' artistic achievements have undergone two distinct and clear baptisms. The first can be viewed as being rough-hewn, folk-spirited, and held 'down at the river' amid water moccasins in the face of a glaring midday sun; the climax of 'swing-lo-sweet-chariot' revival. These were her OBAC (Organization of Black African Culture) years. This organization, a Petri dish for young Black writers of the sixties, was guided principally by the late Hoyt W. Fuller, Jr., then editor of Black World, and served, if only temporarily, to arrest the psychological frailty of Carolyn Rodgers, who was "slim and straight, and as subtly feminine as a virgin's blush." Fuller recalled that when he first met her at an OBAC social function, she was "skinny and scared," verbalized an interest in writing, and telegraphed a need to be stroked. Being the unhealthy flower she was, Carolyn Rodgers responded naturally to his quiet mood and healing voice. (. . .) The format of the OBAC workshops helped cushion Rodgers' insecurities; its members provided a strong support system for each other. It was as a member of this literary coterie, this small in-group of novice writers and intellectuals, that she made her initial impact. In introducing her first volume of poetry, Paper Soul, Fuller prepared us for what was to come: "Carolyn Rodgers will be heard. She has the artist's gift and the artist's beautiful country." This first period of her writing includes her first three volumes, Paper Soul, 2 Love Raps, and Song of a Black Bird. It is characterized by a potpourri of themes and demonstrates her impudence, through the use of her wit, obscenities, the argumentation in her love and revolution poems, and the pain and presence of her mother. She questions the relevance of the Vietnam War, declares war on the cities, laments Malcolm X, and criticizes the contradictory life-style of Blacks. And she glances at God. These are the years that she whipped with the lean switch, often bringing down her wrath with stinging, sharp, and sometimes excruciating pain. She is very exact about her focus:
I will write about things that are universal So that hundreds, maybe even thousands of years from now, White critics and readers will say of me, Here is a good Black writer, who wrote about truth and universal topics. . . . I will write about Black people repossessing this earth, a-men.
To be sure, she was clairvoyant and uncompromising. Her poetry was colored by a young woman's contempt for injustice and a young rebel's sensitivity to the cost of freedom in a corrupt world where race takes precedence over everything else.
On the other hand, the second baptism takes place just before Carolyn Rodgers is able to shake herself dry from the first river. This one can perhaps be classified as a sprinkling and is protected by the blessings of a very fine headcloth. It is more sophisticated. It is cooler; lacks the fire and brimstone of the first period. But it is nonetheless penetrating. The two volumes that characterize this phase are How I Got Ovah and The Heart as Ever Green. At this point, Rodgers moved away from Third World Press, the publisher that accommodated most of the OBAC writers and which published her first three volumes, to a larger commercial publishing house. She also broke, it seems, abrasively with OBAC. She moved back inside her once lone and timid world. With OBAC she had demonstrated signs of strength and assertiveness. These characteristics are not visible in this stage and she returned to her old form of insecurity. In fact, her frailty seemed to have returned doublefold, wrapped itself around her physical and psychological self. This was the moment when she received recognition from a larger and more diverse reading audience. However, her celebrity was short-lived. The poetry that represents this period is rather specific. She cross-examines the revolution, its contradictions, and her relationship to it. She listens to her mothers whispers. And she embraces God.
Bettye J. Parker-Smith, "Running Wild in Her Soul: The Poetry of Carolyn Rodgers," Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984), pp. 395-97
Carolyn Rodgers' poetry has received more than mild critical interest for some time. It was considered special well before 1976, when her collection, How I Got Ovah, was a National Book Award nominee. Yet since that time, Rodgers' reputation has spread considerably. Her poetry is tightly crafted free verse that unpretentiously combines the black American vernacular and the straightforward American style. It is absent of fashionably extreme attitudes, and achieves a distinct presence by cementing private poetic vision with grim but poignant understanding. In The Heart as Ever Green, this fusion of poetic vision and spiritual compassion is extremely pronounced, producing a kind of contemporary black American poetry that is warmly honest, immediately direct, and clearly accessible.
Rodgers makes strong use of the word "heart" in the title. As supported in the poems, the heart is meant to be a reservoir of containment. In it the patiently waiting expectations of all black people are protectively housed. It is a place of necessity from which the black race observes life, the observation itself made tolerable through the realization of inevitable social change. That change will one day bring freedom as well as personal and collective growth. It seems important to realize that the image of the heart is not used to express pessimistic hope, but realized certainty. It is a place of warm solidity, of relative security, whose sustaining power is the awareness of past and present suffering. It is a place of pride and dignity, of indestructible strength and enormous love. And since the heart is suspended in time as an impregnable constant, it is appropriately affixed with the color green in anticipation of the time it may realize its full fruition.
The Heart as Ever Green is a poetic statement on the condition, attitude, and determination of black people. Carolyn Rodgers has given us a strong, dignified, and beautiful book of poems. At the core of this work is a sensibility that is framed in the notion that black suffering will be alleviated in time. That may be an accurate, perceptive, and honorable belief, but is nonetheless one that not all black contemporary poets would agree with.
Walter Sublette, "Poetic Voices of Hope and Rage," Chicago Tribune Book World, 19 November 1978, p. 10
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