Jay Wright is, unequivocally, the greatest living American poet. I can say this because his poetry represents everything that America is and, unlike any of his contemporaries that might come close to possessing his gifts, not what he would like it to be. So, it goes without saying that I am vexed at the Poetry Foundation’s description of him, in what is otherwise an astute biography, as “one of America’s leading African-American voices.” Not surprisingly, John Ashbery is described as “one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets.” Because Mr. Ashbery is simply described as American, is it given that he is white? In fact, nothing is mentioned about Ashbery’s identity (white, wealthy, homosexual or otherwise) and the biography discusses his poetry on it merits. I believe Mr. Wright deserves the same approach. His work demands it! Wright’s poetry flattens his “great” peers with a range that is simultaneously philosophical and concrete. He has achieved his goal of uncovering the weave of American culture.
Wright is a difficult poet but, paraphrasing Harold Bloom, there are difficult pleasures to be had from his high song. Moreover, he would be less difficult if the teaching of history were more accurate and reflected Wright’s range. Derek Walcott once said that he refuses the saga of Europe as center and this is Wright’s position. “But it is not enough to / to sip the knowledge / of our failings.1” There is a way into Wright’s language and his poetry, if given the proper attention, is redemptive. He asks “if the world is real enough / to measure [his] intention2” and teaches his readers that “[i]t is time to rewrite the history of darkness / and the way our ballbearing stars slip around / and away from each other.3” Our country needs this poetry more than any other.
I am not sure how the Poetry Foundation decides who gets to be a great American poet. It is unfortunate that the formula African-American < American is still true in the USA. My apologies to anyone who is tired of Ellisonian argument but it does matter. Ignorance of semantics perpetuates racism. Wright says, “I shall walk carefully / about this contradiction— / the changed dimension / that marks my native speech, / the salutary inscription that settles / my bones.4” There are enough resources at the Poetry Foundation to walk carefully and get it right.
1. from “The Dead” – Wright, Jay. Transfigurations. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
2. from “Inscrutability” – Wright, Jay. Transfigurations. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
3. from “The Anatomy of Resonance” – Wright, Jay. Transfigurations. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
2000.4. Wright, Jay. The Presentable Act of Reading Absence. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2008.