01 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/1

Let's get this party started with this witty and subversive poem by Ishmael Reed, a novelist-playwright-poet-critic who now lives in the Bay Area but whose interests and influences are worldwide. He deliberately sought out non-Western models on his own as well as the Western ones he was taught, taking Yeats' use of Celtic mythology as a model for his own use of Egyptian mythology and continuing on into a deep study of African-sourced religions (he explains this in his introduction to New and Collected Poems 1964-2006, from which this poem is taken, though I see that the currently available edition goes up to 2007). In this poem, however, he allies himself with a mostly American, specifically mostly African-American, tradition. Usually the notion of "political poetry" conjures up dreary smug attitude-striking and empty self-righteous harangues, and the vicious foolishness of someone like Pound, who thought the reason we weren't all Provencal troubadours was, you know, the Jews; but Reed's politics are subtler: not just about an individual against the collective, but about an individual choosing (or assembling, or creating) an opposing tradition, one that is all the stronger for being often scattered, oddball, homespun, and marginal, valuing what is pleasurable, and actual, against some allegedly inevitable wave-of-the-future collective. Reed doesn't specify which looming would-be Utopia he is reacting against, but someone is always trying to crush others under some such monolith; who wouldn't want to join Reed on his steamboat?

The Reactionary Poet

If you are a revolutionary
Then I must be a reactionary
For if you stand for the future
I have no choice but to
Be with the past

Bring back suspenders!
Bring back Mom!
Homemade ice cream
Picnics in the park
Flagpole sitting
Straw hats
Rent parties
Corn liquor
The banjo
Georgia quilts
Krazy Kat

The syncopation of
Fletcher Henderson
The Kiplingesque lines
of James Weldon Johnson
Black Eagle
Mickey Mouse
The Bach Family
Sunday School
Even Mayor La Guardia
Who read the comics
Is more appealing than
Your version of
What Lies Ahead

In your world of
Tomorrow Humor
Will be locked up and
The key thrown away
The public address system
Will pound out headaches
All day
Everybody will wear the same
Funny caps
And the same funny jackets
Enchantment will be found
Expendable, charm, a
Love and kisses
A crime against the state
Duke Ellington will be
Ordered to write more marches
"For the people," naturally

If you are what's coming
I must be what's going

Make it by steamboat
I likes to take it real slow

Ishmael Reed

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