Starting Off Poetry Month By Talking About Race

There’s been a lot of chatter in my poetry networks lately about what obligations white poets have to talk and write about race.

Reginald Dwayne Betts started it off with this article “What It Is,” and his now infamous line, “Don’t write about being white,” which is a quote by Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963. You can imagine the kerfuffle. Sadly, a lot of people read the headlines, but not so many read the article.

  • This story “Should White Writers Write About Race” is a thoughtful response and expansion by Holly Karapetkova.
  • This article is Reginald’s response to the kerfluffle he started, and an explanation of the irony he sees and hears in many of the comments he’s read.

Both are worth your time, no matter what color your skin, no matter what race you identify with. Any amount of conversation on this topic is a good thing.

I’m a white woman. I live in a town where more people don’t look like me than do, which is not the case in most of the US. These are facts, but we may have opinions about them, too. I’m inviting my own version of a conversation about race with my 2015 International Poetry Cantos project, which is going to be as successful as it’s going to be, or not, but will be my best effort to reflect some of the cultures I see around me in my town.

This year for Poetry Month I’m going to search out poems about race, by white folks and poets of color, written about experiences in America. It will be an interesting — and I hope fun — project, even though I expect many of the poems won’t be pretty or nice, as they can’t possibly be if they are honest.

I’d like to start today with “Dillusion” by Langston Hughes, the first poem Knopf chose to send out for it’s annual “Poem A Day” project.  Read what Knopf’s Borzoi Reader has to say about the poem, and the accompanying letter that Hughes wrote in 1926, having dropped out of Columbia University which he found “generally unfriendly.”  I think there is something heartbreaking about the lines “Be kind to me, / Oh, great dark city.” I remember being alone in a big city in my twenties, wondering about poetry, sex, love, work, acceptance. We are often disillusioned in our early youth, as we notice our ideals not matching reality. In this poem, Hughes seems to know his city intimately and to know that it can hurt him. I wonder what won’t come again — youth, optimism, faith?

Disillusion

I would be simple again,
Simple and clean
Like the earth,
Like the rain,
Nor ever know,
Dark Harlem,
The wild laughter
Of your mirth
Nor the salt tears
Of your pain.
Be kind to me,
Oh, great dark city.
Let me forget.
I will not come
To you again.