DRAWING VERSE FROM THE NEW L.A. MYTHOS

 

I have read a lot of poetry in my life. Many people tell me that they don't have time for poetry. They don't understand poetry and it isn't relevant to their personal lives. I would have to agree that there is a lot of great poetry that is very inaccessible to the masses. It is difficult to understand. Much of it is very arbitrary to boot. 

But I have also always been a huge believer in the importance of all the arts. William Carlos Williams once wrote “It's difficult to get the news from poems but men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there.” That is a mantra that is close to heart for me. The humanities have always been essential to life. 

Wanda Coleman is a poet who I believe achieves that. There is a power and passion in her verse that can not be denied. She has drawn from her life to produce verse that is emotionally honest and wise. My initial exposure to her work came from a collection of poems called Imagoes. This volume was originally published by the Black Sparrow Press in 1983. It was around 1990 that I chanced to purchase a copy of the book from a bookstore. She was modern and I have a deep trust for quality when it comes to Black Sparrow Press publications. 

 It is poetry that hits with an immediacy. Her honesty can be stirring at times. She writes of life as a black woman in the 20th Century. She struggles with issues of race and life in general.  At the Record Hop deals with feelings of awkwardness in adolescence. She captures the isolation of the kid that doesn't quite fit in with the clichés:

allegiance is pledged earnest honk honk /of low rider bird horn and street racers rule turf /with hot rubber and zip guns /me/the intellectual square looks on in maimed silence /wish /lonely bus ride home /up front staring straight ahead /in the back of the bus/ giggles. eager hands. lips learn to French/ wonder why boys don't like me.

Coleman is also deals with an interracial relationship, drug use and abuse and the perils of life in the inner city. There are three poems about “Jerry” her white lover. This is a relationship destined to fail. Society and history conspire against them. She does not sugarcoat or simplify. It is a complex issue to be dealt with. But she deals with it with more sadness than anger:

history lay between them/ Her hunger an ocean he could not swim /love did not survive injustice/ with sex and drug use

She deals with the drug abuse in Los Angeles with an unflinching eye. The problem of addiction has ravaged many communities in our nation’s cities. The second section of the book is subtitled funny thing. i couldn't give him a reason to not get high all the time. There is a poignancy to her verse. She does not offer easy solutions to the problems. 

She also is open with her sexuality. She is very comfortable with sex. It is refreshing to read a poet that likes sex and deals with it on an adult level. Some of the sexually oriented poems utilize curses but she doesn't ever let it become juvenile. People wishing to snicker at Dice Clay like limericks will be left unsatisfied. Poems like Mama's Man, First Affair and After the Poem deal with the issue with great deftness. 

This collection is 175 pages long and I find that I am still discovering new nuances each time I turn to the collection. I will pick it up and open at random. I will stumble onto something worthwhile every time. Wanda Coleman is a poet of the people in the tradition of Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes. She is not writing verse for the academy. She is writing for anyone who chooses to pick up the volume. This is poetry from the streets but it still possesses great sensitivity. It is vital because it has a heart and because it burns with passion. It is honest in the manner that great art should seek to attain. While it isn't perfect, it is inspiring and enlightening. 

I recommend this book for lovers of poetry that are willing to be challenged. It's mostly free verse so purist may scoff. That would be their own loss. There is much life wisdom from a woman who has lived through a lot. She is also willing to share with us with great frankness her experiences. I feel richer for having read her work.

 

 

 

Author's Notes/Comments: 

a great contemporary poet--sadly passed on about 5 years ago.  Wanda Coleman is well worth seeking out for lovers of poetry.

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