It is always a promising proposition to read the collected life's work of a poet. It offers a developmental timeline for his techniques, devices, and variations on themes. One could almost use the page numbers as a yard stick to mark where conflicting styles overlap or when a certain theme suddenly appears. Ishmael Reed's most recent book, "New and Collected Poems: 1964--2006", offers such an opportunity.
The collection begins with selections from Reed's first book of poetry, "Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963--1970". He immediately comes through as headstrong and wildly ambitious. As well as attacking lesser important conventions of spelling and punctuation, he questions the genuineness of American culture and the subject areas it approves of. Although he had published four successful novels before this, his attacks are no small feat for a single volume of poetry, let alone for a single man. One thing one notices before being caught up in his merciless tirades is the offhanded liberties he takes with spelling. In this respect he follows in the tradition of Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man," often excising the vowels from words and leaving the consonants. However, this practice is only a vehicle for his true agenda: subverting American culture.
Ishmael Reed was and still is a firm believer that American culture stems largely from influences that it often fails to acknowledge. One glaring omission is the traditions brought over from Africa and Reed sets out to reintroduce them. He calls himself part of Neo-Hoodooism, a revival of the Hoodoo church that was misinterpreted and misrepresented in Western civilization. His poems often revel in ancient Egyptian themes, hoping not only to point out how they are the basis for many American themes but also to point out their standalone value and beauty. Unfortunately the task Reed set out to accomplish nearly 40 years ago remains largely incomplete. Reading through his poem "Why I Often Allude to Osiris," I found his notion of Osiris inventing the lindy hop and dancing rather than ruling all at once evocative, moving, and, sadly, innovative.
The poems that follow in the collection are remarkably different. His tone becomes poignant rather than accusatory and he no longer struggles to promote his Neo-Hoodoo movement. The way he understands his own talent changes drastically, almost to the point of perversion. Wherein the poem "Dragon's Blood," published in "Conjure", he writes:
just because you
cant see d stones dont
mean im not building.
you aint no mason. how
d fuck would you know.
In a following poem, "Jacket Notes" published in "Chattanooga", he describes being a colored poet as going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel that is too small for him under the scrutiny of gawkers and tourists. Once in a while he does kick up dirt around his old haunts; in his poem "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man," he describes the persecution of a folklore hero and his subsequent triumph. However the poem exhibits new techniques that the poet would add to his repertoire. "Railroad Bill" is a ballad, a poetic form that Reed would use again endlessly. This also marks Reed's adoption of and interest in sound; he would later experiment with onomatopoeia.
Amid the catalogued rise and fall of techniques and variations on themes, a few things remain constant about Ishmael Reed and his verse: first, he is a regional poet. His focus is always on the people and the places around him. Thankfully, he is well traveled and has lived or worked in Japan, New York City, Nigeria, Oakland, Berkeley, Buffalo, New York, and Sitka, Alaska. Another constant of Reed's is his adamant support of artists. He values the livelihood of an artist, in whatever form be it writer, poet, or painter, over everything else. In "Catechism of d Neoamerican Hoodoo Church" he calls for a two fold retribution against anyone who has endangered an artist's work or robbed the artist himself. His fanaticism is most apparent in a poem he wrote to protest the Sovereign Republic of Chile, in honor of Pablo Neruda. It reads:
The Cancer God is a bully who mooches up
Rational gentle and humanistic men
But when it picked a fight with the poet
It got all the cobalt-blue words it could use
And reels about holding in its insides
Truly Ishmael Reed is an advocate of noble ideals. His goals as a poet and writer have been partially realized. He is cited as a significant figure in African American literature today along with Samuel Delany and Amiri Baraka. Through his company, Ishmael Reed Publishing, he continues to influence the literary subculture of America. The release of his latest book, "New and Collected Poems: 1964--2006", not only stands as a testament to his successes, failures, struggles, and lucky breaks, but also as a milestone for more poems to come.