Poetry Is a Volley between the Living and the Dead


Arts & Culture

Francine j. harris.

The influence of one poet upon another is neither simple nor singular, but a matrix of experiences, of other poetry absorbed, adapted, smeared, blended, and spat out. I’m going to take a close look at the work of one extraordinary new poet, francine j. harris, whose highly original poems demonstrate a wide range of influences absorbed and put to new uses, or to old uses in new contexts. Harris is a black woman whose upbringing and adult residence in the city of Detroit are major subjects for her poetry. So are the subtle and overt manifestations of racism, especially against black people, in America. She’s also a formal and verbal innovator, bringing together elements of the experimental and modernist traditions in American poetry with aspects of performance poetry and the confessional lyric. From all of these strains, it’s easy to draw lines back to harris’s forerunners, but it’s also startling to see how, by combining them, she’s created powerful new poetry for our time.

In many ways, harris is an exemplary contemporary poet. If contemporary poetry has a hallmark, it is variety: the best poets of this period are neither experimental nor traditional, neither formal nor free, neither political nor aesthete. A formalist, a confessional poet, a protest poet, a love poet, and more, harris is a skeptic about the possibilities of language to effect change and create bridges between individuals. Her best poems demonstrate the breadth of what a contemporary poem can be, making her an ideal case study in how the work of older poets, and contemporaries, is exerting influence on new poetry.

Sometimes it’s only in the work of a newer poet that we can identify the achievements of the older ones. The marks of a wide array of poets, from e. e. cummings to Robert Hayden to Lucille Clifton to D. A. Powell, appear in harris’s work. And there are plenty of others in the mix as well. 


Lucille Clifton.


I can’t imagine harris hasn’t read Lucille Clifton deeply. By the time harris must have been starting her serious poetic pursuits in the nineties, Clifton was one of America’s most acclaimed poets. The two poets share elements of a literary mission: to fashion a highly personal and individual voice that can nonetheless engage the larger black community. And they both write out of urban landscapes, transposing the pastoral mode to the city. Both of them seem to subscribe deeply to the school of poetic thought that stresses the inseparability of the personal and the political. Clifton would have been a necessary and liberating model, a jumping-off point for harris.

The first poem in 1969’s good times, Clifton’s first published collection, is called “in the inner city.” It’s the kind of ars poetica that signals a new poet’s new voice. Here it is in its entirety:

in the inner city
like we call it
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as
dead men
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
and in the inner city
like we call it

This is a seemingly simple poem with deep undertones. Clifton is a poet of icons, broad strokes that are meant to indicate a vast swath of specifics. In the poem’s first phrase, Clifton makes a number of claims. The first line signals the pastoral, the communing with one’s environment. To outsiders—white readers, perhaps, uptown—“inner city” indicates a kind of forbidden zone, a frightening place where they won’t be welcome. But right away, Clifton makes it clear that this poem is not spoken by an outsider—it is uttered on behalf of a collective, a “we” for whom the “inner city” is home. When Clifton repeats that phrase at the poem’s conclusion, after shading in the aspects of this “no place” that frighten even the insiders—“the houses straight as / dead men”—as well as its beauty, such as the “pastel lights,” the repetition indicates resignation as well as celebration. This is Clifton wringing deep meaning out of a seemingly simple poem, as if to indicate the unjust circumstances black people are forced to live with, as well as their capacity to fashion a “home” despite those circumstances. So “in the inner city” is a protest poem as much as a pastoral, railing subtly against subjugation and imprisonment in the city, but also claiming the deep and personal dignity that makes this community “happy to be alive.”

Harris’s take on this theme, called “i live in detroit,” which appears early in her first book, is far longer and more specific but uses many of the same techniques. It’s a ghazal, a classical form with roots in Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani music but which was popularized among modern American poets by Agha Shahid Ali, the revered Kashmiri American poet who lived and published in the United States from the seventies until his death in 2001. The ghazal is a series of somewhat independent couplets that share a typically melancholy theme and use a repeated word or phrase at the end of the last line of each couplet. For harris, that phrase is in detroit, and the poem serves as a sad ode to her hometown, illuminating its beauty and its darkness in much the same way Clifton’s poem does for her archetypal “inner city.” Here’s a part of it:

she said i live in detroit. and there are no flowers in detroit.
so why would anyone in detroit write about flowers in detroit.

i don’t tell her we live under the trees. root up curbs and dam fire hydrants
to water black pansies licked to the sides of popped black balloons in detroit.

there are plenty of violets in flophouses. pistils broken open
on forty-ounce mouth lids making honeybees bastards in detroit.

i don’t tell her look around you. i don’t point out the bottoms of coffee cups
where the city spits iris and scratches the back of your throat in detroit.

Like Clifton, harris is a poet of icons and subtle undercurrents, but she’s also a poet of the Internet age, so she has a lot more language to compete and contend with. Clifton, writing at the end of the sixties—a time of protests and accessible, loud slogans, the energy of which she tried to incorporate into her poems—could get what she wanted out of broad strokes. One feels that harris, spurred by endless, anxious social-media feeds, wants to get everything into her lines. Hence her poems are often overwhelmed and overwhelming.

Flowers are harris’s version of Clifton’s “pastel lights.” “There are no flowers in detroit. / so why would anyone in detroit write about flowers in detroit,” the poem’s interlocutor asks. In responding, harris also claims a collective community—“we live under the trees”—and the poem works, with subtle anger and celebration, to show the outsider why “we are happy to be alive” “in detroit” and to offer the insider a sense of familiarity and kinship.

This poet, too, has her “inner city” to explain. There are flowers in Detroit, harris asserts, both the plants and the people who have grown strong in spite of dark circumstances. The power of plants to split pavement—like William Carlos Williams’s “flower that splits / the rocks”—is the poem’s central metaphor. Despite the lack of lush greenery, the people of inner-city Detroit “root up curbs and dam fire hydrants / to water black pansies,” a figure for black children playing in the spray of opened hydrants.

Where Clifton could make do with the iconic “pastel lights,” harris chooses to specify, taking us through a cascade of layered metaphors, flowers that are people blooming despite adversity. And all her images are double-edged, simultaneously grim and hopeful, protesting and celebrating at once. “There are plenty of violets in flophouses,” she writes, and “some of our mothers rescued begonias with cheap plastic planters,” showing these city dwellers importing natural beauty into their environment, adopting a kind of actual pastoral.

Of course harris is angry: life for inner-city black people hasn’t improved much, and “like a lot of flowers,” they are at the mercy of larger forces: “i have split my stem. cleaved into root balls. stuck to sweaty / bus windows. like so much dandelion, i get rinsed down shelter shower drains in detroit.” The poet exhibits a split self, both a victim of centuries of unforgivable treatment that have led to poverty and few opportunities, and also, like Clifton, a celebrant of her community’s endurance and strength, claiming her “home.”

At the end of the poem, harris finds herself wishing for access to nature and beauty the city simply can’t—won’t—afford. Her ending—“if I can’t leave. is that enough flower grounded in detroit”—renders her flower metaphor highly ironic: these flowers are both “grounded,” as in rooted, at home, and ground down, minimized, subjugated. The outsider who at the poem’s beginning says “there are no flowers in detroit” is schooled by the poem. The poem is meant to warn this person of how much she misunderstands: there are flowers, but not the kind she assumes. To say there are none dismisses Detroit’s survival and empowerment; it’s an insult. And reading backward from harris to Clifton adds a shade of irony to Clifton’s ending, too, lending the word home another layer, forcing outsiders to confront the difference between what they and the inner-city citizens call theirs.


D. A. Powell. Photo: Trane DeVore.


Perhaps more influential on harris’s poems is D. A. Powell. Like harris’s, Powell’s poems stand at the convergence of many streams. Powell may be, for instance, the only poet to show how the Bible and eighties club music are of equal value to poetry. Powell is an imperative poetic chronicler of HIV and AIDS; his language is equally rooted in the time it describes and timeless. Put simply, Powell’s work combines both important subject matter and major formal innovation. Many poets do one or the other, but few do both so seamlessly, with such deep roots in the history of language itself.

Powell’s most obvious innovation is his long, expansive line. A line is a poem’s basic unit, meant to symbolize or visualize a unit of thought, a packet of language that belongs together, according to poet and poem. It’s a verbal scene, a view from the poem’s window. This notion—one packet to one line—worked for much of the history of poetry, when it was more natural to imagine and musically score thoughts occurring one at a time (though of course they never did). But what’s the appropriate line for a time of many thoughts at once, for layers of associations, for vision saturated with media, for an era when the mind is battered with information from all directions? Powell developed and honed his own version of a single line that could accommodate multiple lines in one, many packets.

The gaps in the poems’ long lines function a little like semicolons in sentences: the separated phrases are, or could be, lines of their own, but they have too much to do with each other to be separated. They are parts of a single thought, spilling into each other backward and forward across the line. In this way, Powell gets more than one line onto a line, asserting something about how we make associations now. Powell began writing before the Internet was omnipresent; he wrote out of what might be called the first era of media saturation since maybe the fifties and out of a camp sensibility, with pop music, film, TV, literature, and product placement all blurring together. Powell’s is a poetry of reminders. Songs recall experiences recall places recall times recall people recall songs, and so on.

A quick glance makes Powell’s influence on harris obvious—even from a distance, the poems look similar. Let’s take two poems with related themes, the first a possible model for the second. Here is all of Powell’s short “[nicholas the ridiculous: you will always be 27 and impossible. no more expectations]”:

nicholas the ridiculous: you will always be 27 and impossible. no more expectations
you didn’t carry those who went in long cars after you. stacking lie upon lie as with children
swearing “no” to pain and “yes” to eternity. you would have been a bastard: told the truth

afternoons I knelt beside your hiding place this is the part where you speak to me from beyond]
and he walks with me and he talks with me. he tells me that I am his own. dammit
nothing. oh sure once in a while a dream. a half-instant. but you are no angel you are

repeating the same episodes: nick at night. tricky nick. nicholas at halloween a giant tampon
don’t make me mature by myself: redundancy of losing common ground. for once be serious

And here is part of harris’s longish poem “katherine with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet”:

this morning, i heard you were found in your mcdonald’s uniform.

i heard it while i was visiting a lake town, where empty
woodsy highways turn into waterside drives.

i’d forgotten my toothbrush and was brushing my teeth with one finger.
a friend who didn’t know you said he’d heard it like this: you know katherine. short. 

with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one. yeah, well she died. the blue on that lake
isn’t so frank. it fogs off into the horizon like styrofoam. the

picnic tables full of white people. i ask them where the coffee is. they say at meijer.

i wonder if you thought about getting out of detroit. when you read at the open mic
you’d point across the street at mcdonald’s and tell us to come see you.

katherine with the lazy eye. short and not a good poet, i guess i almost cried.
i don’t know why, because i didn’t like you. this is the first i remembered your name.

Both poems are elegies for lost community members—nicholas a friend and fellow clubgoer who died of AIDS, katherine a fellow poet. Nicholas was beloved, katherine disliked. Both leave the poems’ speakers feeling guilty, longing for a chance to speak again. Both poems deal with a kind of ambivalent love and a complicated, abstract, distant form of loss.

The poems’ similarities don’t stop with the line. Powell’s nicholas “will always be 27 and impossible,” a young man frozen in time, his youthful mischief and stubbornness preserved by death. Similarly, katherine will always be the young woman “with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet,” an unfulfilled artist for all eternity. Both of these character descriptions are also fears the poems’ speakers harbor about themselves, cautionary tales, roads thankfully not taken. Perhaps Powell survived because of his changeability; he was, perhaps, not “impossible.” Harris became a good poet and so was able to transcend her circumstances. And of course both went on to become chroniclers of those who, unlike themselves, couldn’t survive AIDS and the damnations of Detroit, so that both of these poems enact a kind of survivor’s guilt.

The failings of nicholas and katherine are enumerated in both poems. In life and then in death, nicholas fails as a lover: he “tells me that I am his own. dammit / nothing. oh sure once in a while a dream”; in a later part of her poem, harris describes how katherine let “some homeless dude / flirt with you.” Both, through a kind of irresponsibility or desperation, succumb to their environments’ hazards, AIDS for nicholas, violence “in an abandoned building” for katherine. Neither could adapt and protect themselves. But in the poems, each is a projection of the speaker’s fear. For Powell, nicholas is a cautionary tale about the dangers of promiscuous sex in an age of disease; “for once be serious” he entreats this man who is “no angel,” doomed to “repeating the same episodes” in Powell’s memory, offering no new wisdom or advice. For harris, katherine, who foolishly lived “like nothing’s gonna get you,” can’t show the way, in this elegy, “to leave detroit.”

Poetry is a reader’s art: poets make new poems in response to the ones they’ve read, using a special way of communicating, through symbols and gestures, insinuations, fakes and feints. Robert Frost said it “provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” Poetry requires like-minded conversation partners, other poets and poems communicating in this way.  Poetic influence occurs as an aspect of this kind of conversation, a volleying between poets living and dead, as the ongoing conversations among harris, Clifton, and Powell make plain.


Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions), which won the 2017 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His collection of essays, We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (Graywolf), was just published this week. He edited Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz (New Directions). He also teaches at NYU and the New School and is the director of special editorial projects for Publishers Weekly.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress, by Craig Morgan Teicher, published by Graywolf Press this week.