"From Totems To Hip-Hop": A MULTICULTURAL ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY ACROSS THE AMERICAS, 1900-2002"
Edited by Ishmael Reed Thunder's Mouth Press 523 pp. $17.95
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
-- Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass"
You Whitmans of another breath
there is no one else to tell
how the alienated generations
have lived out their expatriate visions
-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
"Adieu a Charlot (Second Populist Manifesto)"
How is it possible that a nation formed by wave upon wave of immigration from around the world would not sing itself in a chorus of voices? But thus far those who have written the history of America have played her to the tune of a one-man band.
From Totems To Hip-Hop is Ishmael Reed's response to his frustration with the stranglehold that "white," moneyed men have on the university system, publishing industry, and consequently the dissemination of art to the public consciousness. As a result, Reed explains in the introduction, the voices of women, racial minorities and even some white men, whose politics have conflicted with the establishment's designs, have been entirely excluded from or tokenized in the American literary cannon. Ever the cultural provocateur, Reed rails against this skewed vision of our history: "Generations of students have been damaged by the unitraditional reading of American literature." Reed points out that students from these other traditions, who have managed to climb high in the university system, are often unaware that their own community has produced rich literary fruits.
As equally upsetting to Reed are the transgressions of the paternalists; without full comprehension of a community's cultural tradition, academics often dub a laureate. Usually the purported laureate's politics are more palatable to the academic's own privileged position than to the community ostensibly represented. Reed argues that academics perpetuate the bias of the current canon out of intellectual laziness. Offering more than a tokenized representation or even an offhand dismissal of multi-cultural poetry would require that we dig into the cultural context of other communities with the same vigor afforded the European and European American tradition. According to Reed, publishing houses serve as a further impediment to diversity, trying to assure sales by close adherence to previous anthologies. He marvels that academics continue to submit to a capital-driven canon that is so "riddled with holes, gaps and absences."
From Totems To Hip-Hop attempts to recast the American literary canon. Alongside such staples as T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost are poets whom Reed feels are conspicuously missing from other anthologies, such as Kenneth Fearing and Walter Lowenfels. Some of these additions offer real gems, such as John Reed's stunning tirade on New York "America in 1918":
Dear and familiar and ever-new to me is the city
As the body of my lover...
All sounds -- harsh clatter of the Elevated, rumble of the subway,
Tapping of policeman's clubs on midnight pavements,
Hand-organs plaintive and monotonous, squawking
Gatling crepitation of airy riveters,
Muffled detonations deep down underground,
Flat bawling of newsboys, quick-clamoring ambulance gongs,
Deep nervous tooting from the evening harbor,
And the profound shuffling thunder of myriad feet...
Overshadowed by the poet's communist politics, few read his vivid descriptions of the landscape of urban poverty.
Ishmael Reed made an apt choice in selecting the theme of place for the first chapter. Cultures are the accoutrements of human experience -- the result of topographical and, consequently, psychological borders. You can't help but wonder how ones self-image is affected when living in a land that "just sits there like the head of a large dog on a serving platter," as Jim Gustafson describes Detroit. These borders drawn by culture are dismantled in part when we view common human experiences through different aesthetics -- and the stylistic approaches to poetry in this volume are diverse. While a reader may connect with both William Oandasan and Carl Sandburg, it is unlikely that every poem will strike a chord with every reader. Diversity is the point, though. Reed casts a wide net hoping to catch as many readers as possible, working to serve the larger purpose of common understanding.
From Totems To Hip-Hop is more than a collection of poems, it is a conceptual exercise. Our media is so deeply steeped in American racial mythos that we all consume these ideologies unknowingly; being forced to seriously re-examine our positions is a worthwhile, though sometimes painful, exercise.
Raised a "white," middle class girl in Middle America and subjected to a relatively standardized education, I am disarmed to some extent by Reed's thesis. When I fail to connect with a particular poem in this collection, I wonder if it is the fault of the author or my own narrow education and experience. For instance, while I certainly recognize that Hip-hop deserves more attention from the literary establishment, Tupac Shakur's "Why Must U Be Unfaithful (4 Women)" does not strike me as a particularly well written poem.
u shouldn't listen 2 your selfish heart
It doesn't really have a brain
Besides keeping u alive
Its existence is in vain
"How could you be so mean,
and say your heart has no place?"
"Because mortal men fall in love again
as fast as they change their face."
To me, this poem falls flat, both in construction and content, when compared to the works of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein included in the same chapter. I find Stein's depiction of romantic power struggles in a "Very Valentine" more nuanced:
Very fine is my valentine.
Very fine and very mine.
Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.
Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very
mine and mine is my valentine.
The fear that I reject Shakur's poem out of shortsightedness conflicts with the belief that some objective standards do apply and a skilled artist is capable of transcending cultural barriers while remaining true to his heritage.
My insertion of myself into this piece, though a common technique among post modernists, creates another source of anxiety. It certainly opens me up to accusations of self-indulgence -- but maybe this is a large part of the message of multi-culturalism: there is no way to comprehend the issue of race from an external, objective perspective. Discussions of multi-culturalism are left empty and flat if the humanity of those involved, even with the narrowness of their perspectives, is eliminated from the process. I think this is the most valuable lesson to be taken away from Reed's anthology: a recognition that everyone's view of the American experience is limited -- including those who constructed the traditional canon. The only means by which our understanding of who we are as a people will improve is by allowing breadth for every American's voice. From Totems To Hip-Hop is an excellent first draft in the necessary revision of American literary history.