Going Inside the Cave: Where the Personal and Political Intersect in Contemporary Narrative American Poetry

Brian Fanelli

In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Shelley declares that poets should be “the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke takes a more confessional stance, stating that to write well, poets must “go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise. Even in the later part of the 20th Century, the debate over the role of social and political issues in poetry and the place of the poet in modern society was ongoing and addressed in interviews and writings by Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, and others. However, in contemporary narrative American poetry, a middle ground can be found between Shelley and Rilke’s positions, a mode which combines the confessional with the political, the exterior with the interior, thus creating a unique intersection. In the works of Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes, that intersection allows for an address of race and class issues, while the narrative poems of Sharon Olds and Gary Soto blend personal history with broader issues of gender and identity.

The issue as to whether or not poetry should be political was still addressed years after Shelley and Rilke’s manifestos were published. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks reflected on the issue in an interview entitled “The Future of Black Poetry.” She refers to the poetry of the 1970s as an “interior poetry,” or more confessional than the collective work of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. However, despite the comment, Brooks predicted that, “the writing concern will be coming back outdoors just as soon as some things become blatantly obvious. A lot of stuff is happening now that I believe will involve us all, and the poets, their writing, will reflect what they’re experiencing, just as it did in the late sixties.” Like Shelley, Brooks thought that the political should not be separated from art, and she had faith that contemporary American poetry would again address broader social and political issues and move away from a strictly confessional mode.
Adrienne Rich was concerned in the late 20th Century that American poetry was becoming too interior and not read or respected as much compared to its place in other countries. In her essay “What Could We Create?,” she admits that political poetry is often met with “contempt and hostility,” and she adds that poetry has been reduced to a “marginal activity”  in American society. Near the end of the essay, she states, “Poetry itself, in our national life, is under house arrest, is officially disappeared. Like our past, our collective memory, it remains an unfathomed, a devalued resource.” Rich does, however, pay tribute to the power of poetry by pointing out its role and impact in other societies, noting that in the Stalinized Soviet Union, several poets, including Osip Mandelstam, were persecuted and exiled for any poem that threatened the establishment. She also notes that shortly after Pablo Neruda’s death, the junta who came to power in Chile the day of his death ransacked the poet’s house and burned his books. Certainly, as Rich notes, a place for political and social issues in poetry is not uncommon when considering the work of Madelstam, Neruda, and other foreign poets. However, it is also evident in contemporary American poetry, and as Brooks predicted, American poetry of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century is politically conscious, while still being confessional and personal. An intersection exists between the exterior and interior.
For years, Toi Derricotte’s poetry has combined the personal and the political to address issues of race, more specifically growing up as a lighter skinned black woman whose family sometimes passed for white. Derricotte, who co-founded Cave Canem, a collective of contemporary black American writers, primarily uses the confessional mode in her work, but combines the interior and exterior to show how the family issues that are a reoccurring theme in her work are part of an ongoing conversation about race in America.

Several of the poems in one of Derricotte’s earliest collections, Captivity, reflect upon her childhood, specifically the fine line she and her family walked between the white and black worlds and the ways that they passed as white. “Blackbottom” is a fine example of how the personal and the political can intersect in contemporary American poetry. Like much of Derricotte’s work, the poem is specific in is location, its characters, and its imagery. The poem is about wanting to be white and wanting to cut dies with a lower-class black neighborhood and the past. She sets the scene with the opening lines:
When relatives came out of town,
we would drive down to Blackbottom,
drive slowly down the congested main streets
–Beubian and Hastings—
trapped in the mesh of Saturday night.
Immediately, Derricotte gives name to the old neighborhood, even naming specific streets so the reader can visualize the setting. Location is established first because it shows how the poet and her family escaped such surroundings and how they only drive through the neighborhood now when relatives arrive. Furthermore, they drive through the neighborhood slowly, returning only as spectators, which is even more evident when the speaker confesses, “Freshly escaped, black middle class/we snickered, and were proud/the louder the streets, the prouder.” The poem goes on to illustrate the bright colors of a prostitute, men sitting on a curb drinking, and barbeques cooking in dented washtubs. Yet, despite the cruelty evident in the poem, especially the way the poet and her family literally snicker at their former surroundings, there is an in-between that exists between the middle-class and lower-class worlds and also a merging of the white and black worlds that is evident in much of Derricotte’s other work. The speaker confesses upon smelling the barbeques that their mouths watered, and “as much as we wanted it we couldn’t take the chance.” For a brief moment, at least, the speaker and her family long to return to their old neighborhood, but only for a barbeque. The last part of the line indicates, too, that they would not be welcomed to fully return to their previous surroundings. They would either be turned away by the Blackbottom residents, or mocked by the wealthier relatives, and thus no longer allowed to pass.
By the end of the poem, Derricotte addresses the issue of passing more specifically and what exactly it means to be black and middle-class, including what one has to give up for such comforts. She confesses:
We hoped to pass invisibly, knowing on Monday we would
return safely to our jobs, the post office and classroom.
We wanted our sufferings to be offered up as tender meat,
and our triumphs to be belted out in a raucous song.
We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens,
where each brick house delineated a fence of silence;
we had lost the right to sing in the street and damn creation.
Derricotte roots her family history in a larger racial discussion, specifically the difficulty of being black and middle-class, of escaping one’s former surroundings, but still longing for past traditions and culture. The speaker admits she is happy that she and her family have the comforts of the middle-class, including jobs in the classroom or at the post-office, jobs where their past struggles are celebrated, most likely by middle-class white workers unfamiliar with the surroundings described in much of the poem. However, the speaker admits, too, that because of such social mobility, the family lost its connection to black culture, more specifically, they lost their voices in the suburbs and the right to sing in the street. Even in the last four lines of the poem, the issue persists as the speaker confesses, “We returned to wash our hands of them/to smell them/whose very existence/tore us down to human.” The last four lines represent the rest of the poem in the sense that the speaker and her middle-class family can never quite leave the past behind. In fact, they are literally in the past as they spend the whole poem in their old neighborhood, and even when they return home and try to scrub away and remove the scents of the old neighborhood, it remains with them and reminds them what it means to be human, what it means to suffer and struggle. “Blackbottom” is very much a poem that focuses on the interior, specifically Derricotte’s complicated racial family history and social mobility, but it is also a poem of the exterior, one conscious of class and racial struggles in the United States and what exactly it means for a black family to move upwards, to pass as white, and try to reconcile past experiences.
Like Derricotte, former Cave Canem fellow and National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes has explored what it means to be black and middle-class, while combining memory and confession with broader political issues in his work. The poem “Talk,” from Wind in a Box, is reminiscent of Derricotte’s work in its address of passing. Narrative in form, the poem is about a middle school memory, a moment when the black speaker heard the word nigger in the mostly all-white locker room. By the second and third stanzas, the speaker confesses:
And if you’re thinking my knuckles knocked
a few times against his jaw or my fingers knotted
at his throat, you’re wrong because I pretended
I didn’t hear him, and when he didn’t ask it again
we slipped into our middle school uniforms
since it was November, the beginning of basketball season.
Like some of the characters in Dericotte’s poems, the speaker in “Talk” exercises restraint, while also trying to shed his black identity, even to the point where he does not assault his white teammate for using racial slurs in front of him. The uniform, which slips on the speaker’s body with ease, allows him to pass, to be part of the team, what he labels as “that vision all Americans wish for/their children.” He imagines white and black kids wearing the same uniform, spitting out “Go Team!” Yet, like Derricotte, Hayes addresses the broader issue of existing between two worlds and trying to pass, including its limitations. The speaker even admits, “that was as close/as I have come to passing for one/of the members of The Dream, my white friend/thinking I was so far from that world/he could say it to me.” On the one hand, the speaker realizes sports are the closest he can come to passing, while on the other hand, his friend is so dismissive of his black identity that he feels comfortable uttering racial slurs in front of him. The speaker exists between two worlds. While the characters in Derricotte’s poems have good middle-class jobs and education that allow them to pass, the speaker in “Talk” is able to pass because of sports, but even so, he still feels out of place in the white locker room.

Where Hayes’ poem differs somewhat from Derricotte’s work is in its return to the personal, specifically the idea that maybe, in the early part of the 21st Century, it is possible for the white and black worlds to co-exist beyond a locker room. The last few lines address the friend who used the racial slur and state, “I’d just like to say I heard it, but let it go/because I was afraid to lose our friendship/or afraid we’d lose the game-which we did anyway.” The poem concludes with a hint at racial harmony, and that possibility is what keeps the speaker from acting, even in the face of racial slurs.
In another poem, “Root,” also from Wind in a Box, Hayes, like Derricotte, explores the idea of a black middle-class family living in the white suburbs and what that means in terms of their past identity. In the opening line, the speaker admits:
My parents would have had me believe
there was no such thing as race
there in the wild backyard, our knees black
with store-bought grass and dirt,
black as the soil of pastures or of orchards
grown above graves. We clawed free
the stones and filled their beds with soil
and covered the soil with sod
as if we owned the earth.
Like Derricotte’s passing poems, Hayes juxtaposes the white and black words. He does so by referencing typical middle-class purchases in the opening lines, including store-bought grass and dirt. However, the images of a white middle-class lifestyle are contrasted with the repetition of the word black used to describe their knees and the repetition of the word soil. Even though the poem is set in a middle-class neighborhood and the black family is tending to a middle-class home and yard, the repetition of the soil images and the word black keeps their race and past identity clear, thus combining the two worlds. The repetition continues a few lines later with the phrase “the edge of darkness.” Yet, these colors are not even mentioned by the speaker’s parents, as he admits, “No one spoke of the color that curled/around our tools or of the neighbors/who knew our name before we knew theirs.” And again, Hayes contrasts the dark with the light, stating the white neighbors were “clean as fence posts in porch light.” The poem concludes with the acknowledgement of the American dream and social mobility, and unlike some of Derricotte’s poems, Hayes’ conclusion contains less guilt, as the speaker admits, “I have never wanted another life, but I know the story/of pursuit: the dream of the gate standing open/a grill and folding chairs, a new yard boxed in light.” In “Root,” Hayes successfully addresses race and class through the use of repetition and the narrative form. Like Derricotte, he shows the challenges of being a black family in an all-white neighborhood in the suburbs and the longing for what is perceived as normal, such as the white picket fence, the grill, and the well-maintained lawn.

Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes use the narrative and confessional forms to address broader social and political issues, especially in regards to race, while connecting their personal history to broader African American history. A similar approach is also used by Sharon Olds, who uses the confessional form to address personal memories and her family history, while connecting them to larger issues of gender and identity, especially in her collection The Dead and the Living.
In “Rite of Passage,” Olds mines her family history and memory. The poem is specific in its location and place, a birthday party for the speaker’s son. The speaker is rather detached and not at the center of the action, so the poem instead can focus on the other characters, specifically her son and his male friends.  The poem begins:
As the guests arrive at my son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and claiming.

Olds uses a few techniques to bring out the ways in which the boys fall into gender patterns. First, she puts the boys in motion throughout the poem, jostling and jockeying, folding their arms and frowning. Furthermore, she speaks of the boys as collective group, giving no names to any of them, not even to her son. This works in showing the collective gendering patterns that they all are victim to. In addition, Olds incorporates dialogue. All of the dialogue used is spoken by the boys and shows their aggressive behavior. Such lines include, “How old are you? Six. I’m seven. So?,” “I could beat you up,” and “We could easily kill a two-year-old.”  The last line is specially chilling because it is spoken by the son, who, in a Lord of the Flies fashion, rises as a leader of the group and there is no one to stop him, since the mother’s voice is in the background and only serves to recount the memory of the birthday party. Furthermore, the similes Olds constructed in the poem also reinforce the aggressive, dangerous gendering pattern evident at the party. The boys are compared to small bankers, each other’s pupils, and generals. There is also an extended war metaphor that exists in the poem, introduced early through the image of the boys wrestling and fighting with each other and concluding with the final two lines, “they relax and get down to/playing war, celebrating my son’s life.” By rooting “Rites of Passage” in the personal and using the confessional mode, Olds is able to successfully weave personal memory with social and political issues, specifically gendering and the effect it has on young boys.
In another poem, “The One Girl at the Boys’ Party,” Olds again addresses gendering by rooting the poem in the personal. Like “Rites of Passages,” “The One Girl at the Boy’s Party” features the mother as the speaker, but the mother is barely present in the poem. Instead, the poem moves from scene to scene and contains action, with the children being the focus. More so than “Rites of Passage,” however, this poem focuses more on sexuality and female gendering. It opens:
When I take our girl to the swimming party
I set her down among the boys. They tower and
bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
her math scores unfolding in the air around her.
They will strip to their suits, her body hard and
indivisible as a prime number,
            they’ll plunge in the deep end, she’ll subtract
her height from ten feet, divide it into
            hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
            bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
            in the bright blue pool.
Prior to diving into the pool, the daughter is not seen as a sexual object by the boys. In fact, the boys are barely mentioned, other than a few lines. Most of the descriptions of the daughter are not physical, other than her smooth and sleek body, but rather the daughter is described through brainy math terms. The poem transitions, however, after the dive, and then more attention is given to the daughter’s physical features, just as the boys start to notice her:
When they climb out,
her ponytail will hang its pencil lead
down her back, her narrow silk suit
with hamburgers and French fries printed on it
will glisten in the brilliant air, and they will
see her sweet face, solemn and
sealed, a factor of one, and she will
see their eyes, two each,
their legs, two each, and the curves of their sexes,
one each, and in her head she’ll be doing her
wild multiplying, as the drops
sparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body.
By the end of the poem, the math language is mostly removed, and the only reference to innocence that remains is the hamburgers and French fires on the daughter’s swimsuit, but even that image is juxtaposed with image of the suit glistening in the brilliant air, which illustrates the sexuality. The rest of the language and descriptions focus on her physical features and the physical features of the boys, including the curve of their sexes. Through this specific memory and detail, Olds is able to address sexual discovery and gender identity.
Another poet who frequently writes about identity is Gary Soto, who was born to Mexican American parents and often addresses identity through the narrative and confessional modes throughout much of his work. In “Black Hair,” Soto gives name to his childhood neighborhood and the boys he played baseball with. The poem is about American identity and being Mexican American, longing for normalcy and access to a middle-class lifestyle, themes evident in Derricotte and Hayes’ work. However, unlike his friends, the speaker does not idolize a white American baseball star, but rather a Hispanic one, Hector Moreno, who the speaker describes as, “Quick and hard with turned muscles/His crouch the one I assumed before an altar/of worn baseball cards, in my room.” Like the speaker in Hayes’ poem “Talk,” the speaker in “Black Hair” sees sports as access to the American dream, a way to transcend skin color and racial biases. Furthermore, being Mexican American, the speaker relates to Hector Moreno’s success and vicariously lives through him. The last stanza reads:
In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body,
Waving players in and stomping my feet,
Growing sweaty in the presence of white shirts.
I chewed sunflower seeds. I drank water
And bit my arm through the late innings.
When Hector lined up balls into deep 
Center, in my mind I rounded the bases
With him, my face flared, my hair lifting
Beautifully, because we were coming home
To the arms of brown people.

It is also through Hector’s wild success in baseball that the speaker finds beauty in his physical features, including his hair and his brown skin. This is a drastic change from the previous stanza when the speaker wonders what success he can have as a baseball player with his shyness, touch of black hair, and fifty pounds. He is, at least, able to feel a sense of pride because of Hector Moreno. For the first time, the speaker feels welcomed in America, and by the final stanza, and realizes that brown people like him also belong in the country.
Many years after Shelley and Rilke’s declarations about what poetry should do and where it should be found, it is clear that in contemporary American poetry, there is a merging of the personal with the political. Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes have used the narrative and confessional forms to address broader racial issues, thus combining their personal histories with the larger plights of African Americans. Sharon Olds and Gary Soto use poetry in a similar fashion to address issues of identity. Near the turn of the 20th Century, Adrienne Rich bemoaned the place of contemporary American poetry and the disdain for political poetry, but a few years earlier, Gwendolyn Brooks predicted that American poetry, at least in the black community, would return to the exterior. It is clear today that there is an intersection between the interior and exterior, one that makes room for the confessional and the political.
Brian Fanelli’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, New York Quarterly, Chiron Review, Oklahoma Review, and several other publications. He is the author of the collections Front Man and All That Remains. He has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and is a Ph.D. student at SUNY Binghamton. Currently, he teaches full-time at Lackawanna College.