August 2006

Jason Rotstein


New and Collected Poems: 1964-2006 by Ishmael Reed

There is a politics to rooting for the underdog. And Ishmael Reed knows it. All too well. Throughout a forty-year career of publishing poetry, Reed’s high flagbearing and trunkload of causes has steadily increased, making Reed one very public figure and contributing to a prolific of mass writing in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and plays.

But for Ishmael Reed in 2006, a man who in the last ten years has been labelled a misogynist, misanthrope and a sadist, history has turned the tables. Today, Mr. Reed fittingly bears the title of underdog in his own right -- as if this was a fate destined to him all along. With the publication of Ishmael Reed’s New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 coming after New and Collected Poems of 1988, Reed still has something to prove; and I believe that is the way he likes it best.

I say there is a politics to liking Ishmael Reed, for Reed is not a poet who overwhelms a reader with a patient technical craftsman; neither is he a sympathetic lover of his audience. He is, instead, apt to shock; none of his poetry speaks for its own aesthetic merits or pretensions. All of Reed’s poetry has a purpose, something to say, even if what it has to say is not righteous or self-righteous. From the first poem “The Ghost in Birmingham” in his first collection Conjure, Reed introduces us to a new poetic voice: “the Black Caligula, who performs a strip tease of the psyche.”

Like many poets who appreciate the attention and recognition of an audience, Reed is especially attuned and concerned with an authentic narrative voice. His most cited poem “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem,” -- “one of the approximately  20 poems that teachers and librarians have identified as the most frequently studied in literature courses,” reads his bio -- endorses a poetry that is accessible and yet indefinable. This is Reed’s own clever trick that will keep us reciting stanzas like this one for some time to come:

tonite, thriller was
abt an ol woman, so vain she
surrounded her self w/
            many mirrors  

While many of his “innovations” in poetry seem merely for the sake of experimentation or risk-taking, it is right to credit him with enlarging the landscape of poetry, especially for the African-American writer. The best illustration of Reed’s motivation in this regard is the poem “What You Mean I Can’t Irony?”:

A high-yellow lawyer woman
told me I ought to go to
Europe to “broaden your per
spective.” This happened at
a black black cocktail party
an oil portrait, Andrew Carnegie,
smiling down

Reed’s influences are clear: a little Langston Hughes, a little William Carlos Williams, or anyone with the audacity to do otherwise.

Like many poets, however, Reed is subject to age. As we continue onwards in the collection, Reed’s poetry becomes longer, prosier and less restricted to form and measure. This is a common observed phenomenon for many poets: very structured and technical poets do often become freer and more confident in themselves and in their voice as they get older. Oftentimes, this is when poets, even if their first collection was successful as poetry, begin to garner the awards that can make their names. The added freedom can be a great advantage to some poets who have been working in strict forms their whole lives -- the great Sylvia Plath comes to mind: poets who need the freedom to break out and explore broader and at times more personal subject matter. But for a poet as “free” as Reed to begin with the added freedom comes I think at the expense of Reed’s art.

Like Robert Bly, another performative poet who came of age as a poet and published his first collection of poems in the sixties, Reed’s poems become increasingly interested in religion and voodooism and the possible transcendental power of poetry. This move to over to what I would call “shaman-poet” I think diminished what these poets had to offer. In later poems like “Prayer for Earth,” we see a more political Reed, who sees “too clearly,” speaking in a poetic voice that resembles a speech he might deliver at a rally. In the third stanza, he writes:   

You are
Our first class berth
In space
You are stomping ground of the human

Reed is one poet that defies classification. In this his collected book of poems, and perhaps his last and defining collection, we oddly find no index of first-lines, or any index whatsoever. But we know Reed better; we know all too well, Reed is about more than the poetry.

New and Collected Poems: 1964-2006 by Ishmael Reed
Carroll & Graf
ISBN: 0786717882
384 Pages