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On Richard Wright's Poetry

Richard Wright's poetry has ironically suffered a dearth of critical attention given its significance as a record of his entrée to both American Communism and a literary career. Wright joined the American Communist Party in 1934, the same year he published two poems in the CP's John Reed Club journal Left Front. "A Red Love Note" and "Rest for the Weary" appeared in the January-February 1934 issue. Between 1934 and 1941, Wright published more than a dozen poems in the Left press, including the famous "Between the World and Me" in Partisan Review (July/August 1935) and the poem included here, "We of the Streets," in the April 13, 1937 New Masses.

Keneth Kinnamon, in a 1969 essay, has rightly contended that "the ideology of his (Wright's) proletarian poems was a basic, even essential, motive force of the first--and major-- phase of his literary career" ("Proletarian," 250). Poems like "I Have Seen Black Hands" welded Wright's power as imagist to an explicitly revolutionary radicalism:

I am black and I have seen black hands
Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists
        Of white workers,
And some day -- and it is only this which sustains me--
Some day there shall be millions and millions of them,
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!

In other poems from the 1930s Wright conducted experiments with point of view and the graphic political protest that would inform the violent stories of Uncle Tom's Children and later Native Son. In "Between the World and Me," for example, the narrator/persona writes from the midst of a lynching:

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
        into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my 
     Black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as 
        They bound me to the sapling.

In his recent study The New Red Negro James Smethurst re-locates Wright not as marginal but central to the enthusiastic embrace by black poets of a political aesthetic much shaped by Communism and the American Communist Party. For example, Smethurst identifies the recurring imagery of "black hands" in Robert Hayden's 1940 debut book of poems Heart-Shape in the Dust as well as in Owen Dodson's Powerful Long Ladder as part of a "genealogy of Left African-American poetry" inspired by Wright's early radical verse. Smethurst also notes how later Popular Front poetic efforts by Wright, like "King Joe--Part I" and "King Joe--Part II" (about the boxer Joe Louis) as recorded by Paul Robeson and the Count Basie Orchestra helped to establish a clear genealogy between the folk culture of the rural South and the popular culture of the urban North. Similarly, William J. Maxwell has argued recently that Wright's theory and practice of a folk aesthetic in his poetry and elsewhere worked as a means of preserving, rather than repudiating, the northern black writer's connections to a southern past.

Such critical repositionings as these illuminate not simply the importance of Leftist influence on Richard Wright or African-American writers generally, but the centrality of African-American poets to the "project" of shaping -- and radicalizing -- modern verse traced by Cary Nelson in his book Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Michel Fabre has noted that the poetic influences on Wright range from Langston Hughes to Whitman to Sandburg to Eliot; in "I Have Seen Black Hands" and elsewhere Wright's imagery, idiom and form reconstitute poetic convention into a more militant version of what Michael North has characterized as the "dialect of modernism." North argues that Wright's affinity and affection for the dialect of Stein's "Melanctha" can be seen as part of the liberating project of his own adaptation of black vernacular as "popular" or mass cultural idiom. Both "Red Clay Blues" (New Masses, August 1, 1939) and "The FB Eye Blues" rethink the genre's relation to the larger discourse of "protest poetry"' and the speaking subject of black militancy:

Woke up this morning
FB eye under my bed
Said I woke up this morning
FE eye under by bed
Told me all I dreamed last night, every word I said.

Wright wrote "FB Eye Blues" during the Cold War on his way to Argentina, long after abandoning the "project" of his revolutionary poetry. Wright's self-refashioning as cosmopolitan traveler and global intellectual after his exile to Paris found logical extension in his obsessive embrace of haiku in the late 1950s. Between 1958 and his death in 1960 Wright wrote more than 4,000 haiku, publishing a small handful in scattered publications. While helping to create a cottage industry of Wright criticism in Japan, the haiku are relatively unstudied in the U.S. beyond Eugene Miller's closing chapter in Voices of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright and Robert Tener's essay "The Where, the When, the What: A Study of Richard Wright's Haiku." The unsatisfying absence of criticism of Wright's haiku mirrors the disappointing lack of analysis of his late work after The Outsider, including long out-of-print texts like Savage Holiday, recently reissued by University Press of Mississippi.

The significance of Wright's poetry, political and otherwise, thus remains to be explicated in full. Wright's radical verse of the 1930s was written at a time when what might be called his political "vision" was most coherent, his role in U.S. culture and letters most easily understood. After publication of Native Son, as Bill Mullen has argued, Wright's and American criticism's own anxiety about his relationship to both his literary celebrity and his earlier political militance both obscured and distorted the critical legacy of Wright's 1930s writing. A full recovery of Wright, then, demands a restoration and recovery of the poetic Wright, the one whose verse predicted and dovetailed with the "proletarian moment" as well as that of any other poet, black or white, of his time.

By Bill Mullen

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