By Sam Walker, author of “‘[S]ongs of allusion’: Sterling Brown, Harryette Mullen, and the Roots of Poetic Recycling,”[A1] Journal of Modern Literature 47.1, now on Project Muse, free for a limited time.
I first encountered Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century in graduate school and subsequently became enamored with the liberatory possibilities of creative “unoriginality.” I absorbed, with defiant glee, everything from Oulipian exercises to the “uncreative writing” popularized by Kenneth Goldsmith. These mid-century and contemporary movements connected with my longstanding interest in modernist citationality and collage; these “unoriginal” poets brought the bricoleur’s sensibility into the twenty first century. Running counter to the Romantic emphasis on individuality and inspiration, they seemingly resist the expectation that “our poets…produce words, phrases, images, and ironic locutions that we have never heard before” (Perloff 23).
As I ingested these rebellious collagists and bricoleurs, however, I kept returning to an earlier interest in American vernacular music, specifically ballads and blues songs recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. In these songs, lines, stanzas, and phrases recur and are transformed by individual performers, resulting in an artform that emphasizes arrangement as much as “originality.” As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in The Signifying Monkey, “It is as if a received structure or crucial element provides a base for poesis, and the narrator’s technique, his or her craft, is to be gauged by the creative (re)placement of these expected or anticipated formulaic phrases and formulaic events, rendered anew in unexpected ways” (61).
Many modern and contemporary Black poets understood the potency of this “creative (re)placement” and refit these techniques, long tied to song and oral performance, into poems that echo, to some extent, the creative recycling described by Perloff yet are rooted in hoary demotic practices. The two poets I discuss at length in my article, Sterling Brown and Harryette Mullen, are linked by their embrace of this “(re)placement,” and though they draw from the same well of demotic poetics, their poems differ greatly. Brown’s ballads and blues in Southern Road explore the ecstasies and perils of Black experience in the depression-era South; his work can be fruitfully understood in relation to guidebooks and public works projects from that era (Brown served as an editor for the Federal Writers Program). Mullen’s work is less rooted in regional experience; she traces the connections between traditional Black artistic forms and the hybrid, multivocal landscape of modern media.
As I began exploring this deeply rooted heritage of recycled poetics, it occurred to me that beneath these methods of creative arrangement lie certain assumptions about the expressive self. The “I” who speaks the blues or centers an old ballad is not, strictly speaking, the marker of a coherent, distinct subjectivity but represents a kind of vortex that pulls together strands from diverse sources. A poem such as Brown’s “Odyssey of Big Boy” is centered around a central voice that resembles a lyric speaker, but Big Boy’s thoughts and feelings are derived from myriad sources; “Je est un autre,” the tradition says again and again.
In general, I hope to see further discussion of both Brown and Mullen in literary criticism. (Williams College’s the recent acquisition of Brown’s archive is an exciting development to that end.) Though these two poets more than sustain the argument of my recent Journal of Modern Literature article, there are plenty of roads not taken here that might reward critical sojourns. The relationship between pastiche and African American modernism deserves closer scrutiny; Countee Cullen’s “Ballad of the Brown Girl” comes to mind as a potent example of a poet creatively rewriting an old ballad to reflect the racial politics of the United States in the twentieth century. There are other well-known figures from the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, whose work can be fruitfully discussed in relation to this heritage of creative recycling. The extent to which ballads and blues influenced the citational, “unoriginal” poetics of more entrenched figures in the modernist canon (e.g., T.S. Eliot) would also bear closer analysis. In general, I suspect that many avant-garde movements and styles have their origins in demotic cultural practices that are easily defanged by being labelled “traditional” rather than “experimental.”
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Oxford UP, 1988.
- Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. U of Chicago P, 2010.
Sam Walker ([email protected]) is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia. For the 2021-2022 academic year he was a teaching fellow at the Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany. His dissertation project explores the ballad form and the oral imagination in the modern age.
Guitar in hand photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images.