Sunday, March 14, 2010
Giving It Up for the Future
The late two-time Delaware Poet Laureate David Hudson died a bitter man back in 2003. There were many reasons for his bitterness, some legitimate and some fallacious. Fallacious or not, one of those sources of his bitterness stemmed from the notion that poetry could have a role in effecting our social and cultural environment. The fact that he stopped actively being a poet in his later years and turned to political activity was an indication of his frustrations. Politics has a better chance of affecting change than poetry. So much so had Hudson turned his back on poetry that nearly a quarter century after giving up on poetry, many were surprised that he had ever publicly made a name for himself as a poet. Of the few who had remembered he’d been Poet Laureate, there were those who absolutely hated David Hudson to the extent of publicly voicing glad tidings at his death. In the end the bitterness got spread around and the result on our social and cultural environment was to receive bitterness’ small dose of poison.
Like Hudson, I’ve given up writing poetry for many of the same kinds of reasons in favor of prose, which judging from the near total lack of sales of my literary art contributes to my own bitterness. My point here is that I’m really not bellyaching over my own failure as a literary artist. I’m just not writing fiction any longer for those who don’t appreciate my effort. I’m still writing fiction, however, and I’m writing it for the future, when probably none of us will be around anymore. It is the future, after I’m long gone, that my work may –– MAY –– find the kind of success for which I intended it today. Its relevancy may –– MAY –– be revealed in hindsight, but if it isn’t then my life’s work is just as dead as I will be, but its carcass will still collect dust on the library shelf until it also turns to dust.
Douglas Morea was quite correct in equating art and religion. The same sensitive nerve in us that’s touched by art, I suspect, is the same nerve that compels us to at least acknowledge our spiritual capacities. Another dimension of this nexus between, especially, poetry as a form of art and religious experience is its potential for prophecy; and by this I mean the capacity to reveal the visions of the world we see around us into some form of the truth about things and events so that more of us can perceive and understand our environment. If we dare to take our poetry and fiction to the people, then we’ve committed a social act. In spite of our individual conceits and fragile egos, when we write poetry for social consumption we’re doing more than just farting in the bathtub to enjoy the rich bouquet that bubbles to the surface from having digested some essence of the world we experience around us.
In the context of our own local literary history, I often wonder about the effect our literary artists have had on the community in which we live and breathe today. Had Delaware poet and journalist Elizabeth M. Chandler in her short but productive career, and to a certain extent John Lofland, not written literary art in the early 19th century revealing the plight of those held in bondage, might Delaware, officially a “slave state,” have instead joined the Confederacy and not been the gateway to freedom we became for those escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad? Had not George Alfred Townsend written The Entailed Hat after the Civil War, revealing the role played by Patty Cannon, serial killer and kidnapper of Black people in order to make money selling them into slavery, would the Ku Klux Klan have become even a stronger force in Delaware than it had? Had the late 19th century humorist Max Adeler’s vivid depiction of a brutal public whipping in New Castle of an elderly Black woman in Out of the Hurly-Burly been more widely accepted, might there have been a chance that Delaware would not have become the “Jim Crow” state it became up to the early 1960s? Might we have been spared the ugly public lynching that occurred at Price’s Corner in 1903, or might lynchings in Delaware have become epidemic as they had in so many other of our United States? Had not the writings of Alice Dunbar-Nelson inspired many of our local Black citizens to believe in their capacity for excellence, would we have produced a Clifford Brown or Louis Redding? Had not local early 20th century novelists Henry Seidel Canby, Christopher Ward, and Charles Wertenbaker shown us in their novels Wilmington’s cultural barrenness, might not those who followed them, including future Poet Laureates David Hudson and Jeanette Slocomb Edwards, have striven to engender a more rich cultural environment for the city?
And what about us, those of us who have been writing literary art over the last forty years? How will we have improved our community, socially and culturally? How might we be remembered? Or as some suggest, should our literary contributions even deserve to be remembered? Whether we like it or not, we’ve already made our contribution to the future because we’ve been making a contribution to the present all these years. And the final question, if our literary contribution is forgotten, what kind of social and cultural landscape will remain for future generations?