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Rather than point to one binary in today’s poetic landscape as especially troubling, I want to underscore how troubling all binaries are. Granted, I understand the need for categories and classification, no matter how messy and imperfect. As a scholar, I could not do my work without these tools. But since I also know how frustrating, misleading, and ideologically charged taxonomy can be, I try to remain at the ready to challenge and complicate the ways poetry is being categorized in specific contexts.
I am particularly skeptical of classifications that tend to reduce the complex field of poetics to a simple dichotomy, such as creative writing / uncreative writing, mainstream poetry / avant-garde poetry, or the pair Erica Hunt has helpfully renamed and unpacked, “liberatory poetics” / “speculative poetics.” Not only does such reductive line-drawing erase the nuances that have as much to teach us as the big picture, but also the binaries that cut through the field of poetics all too often draw energy from and reinscribe some wide-reaching binaries that have structured “Western thought” for thousands of years.
Binaries based on gender (feminine / masculine) and race (black / white) have organized people for the purpose of determining access to institutions and distribution of resources. That is, binaries divide and conquer. They work to create not simply two terms, but a valued term and a devalued term—terms whose character and worth are defined largely in relation to one another. These binaries create their own logics and are insidiously mutually reinforcing. So, for example, the “black” race has historically been feminized in relation to the “white” race (as in one Chicago School sociologist’s infamous assertion that “the Negro” is “the lady of the races”). Similarly, it is no coincidence that Freud described women’s sexuality using the phrase “dark continent,” usually used to refer to Africa. It is also no coincidence that in both cases, the groups so described have understood themselves as deprecated by those formulations.
We can map the devalued and valued terms of a number of binaries onto one another along these lines. For example, feminine is to masculine as black is to white as emotion is to reason as body is to mind—and coming closer to the issue at hand—as political poetry is to aesthetically motivated poetry, as expressionism is to conceptualism. I am concerned with the effects of precisely these sorts of fallacious and exclusionary binaristic relationships. I have sought elsewhere to recover for the category of “innovative poetry” the remarkable inventiveness of poets whose work is typically classified as “black poetry,” and to recover for the category of “black poetry” the stunning strategies used to negotiate this society’s racial politics by poets whose work has been most frequently classified as “innovative poetry.”
With such concerns in mind, I greet the growing importance of “conceptual poetry” with nearly as much dismay as enthusiasm. Against what is “conceptual poetry” to be defined? This subject is still hotly debated, but the appearance of the anthology I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women is a clear sign that the category has already been masculinized. (Can we imagine the need for an anthology of women’s confessional poetry?) That the esteemed scholar Marjorie Perloff has championed conceptual poetry in contrast to work included in The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry—edited by an African American poet who “has included many more minority poets than is usually the case”—suggests that it may already be racialized as “white,” as well. What kinds of poetics will be devalued as a result? How might we think about this category in ways that are elastic enough to accommodate non-masculinist, culturally inclusive conceptions of “conceptual”? The work of challenging and complicating new and ongoing manifestations of binary thinking in today’s poetics continues, in this very welcome forum and beyond.
Evie Shockley is the author of semiautomatic (2017; finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and The Believer Poetry Award) and the new black (2011; winner of the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award), among other collections of poetry. She has also published a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (2011). She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
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