Every Goodbye Ain't Gone.
An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans

eds. Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey

[305pp, $27.95, University of Alabama Press 2006]

This book deserves to be better than it is. It falls short of being the kind of scholarly resource and definitive anthology that it might have been, and that is (on the strength of the poems shown here) needed. First of all, the title: it is simply 'an anthology'. No dates are given, leading to the false impression that this is a contemporary anthology; you have to read four pages into the introduction to find (as an aside, while talking about other things) that 'The proposed project has as its chief goal the preservation of the works of poets such as those of the Dasein/Howard group, the Free Lance group and the Umbra associates' (p. xvi) and 'a larger context of African American mid-century poetic experimentalists' (p. xv). So 'African Americans' in the title is limited to the United States of America and to a particular period. So, no Black writers from the Caribbean, Canada, or Central and South America. No poets from the Harlem Renaissance, nothing from Langston Hughes, even though he wrote experimentally and was born earlier than any of the poets represented here. Significant later poets are excluded: Wanda Coleman, Nathaniel Mackey, Victor Hernandez Cruz (although there are other Black poets included who started writing in the 70s and 80s). These delimitations are confusing and not spelled out in the book, and the editors are silent on the criteria they used for inclusion in the anthology, apart from the statements above.

This lack of contextualisation continues throughout. I would love to know more about the Dasein Group, what its philosophy was, whether it was as Heidegerian as it sounds. In an anthology from a university press, you would expect each poem to have composition date, place of first publication, as a minimum. In this anthology, individual poems are given no contextual information. With writers who have had long and varying careers, such as Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, it would be helpful to know at what stage in his c

  areer the pieces reprinted here are from. We are not even told if they are presented in chronological order (presumably, they are). Author/biographical notes are short, and often simply seem to follow what the authors say about themselves, little-magazine style; statements which are often minimal or misleading. Birth and death dates are given randomly (a double pity since the poets appear in alphabetical order, making it impossible to read or interpret the anthology chronologically, the way I would prefer). Quotations in the Introduction are not given references. There are no contextualising or explanatory notes (something that British readers are likely to need; these poems mostly date from the mid-twentieth century and contain dated and culturally specific references). These notes are needed particularly acutely for some of the more experimental writers. The note on Cecil Taylor says that 'he often includes his poetry as part of his jazz performances'. For anyone who has not heard him perform, this gives the misleading impression that he simply reads (or even sings) his poetry to music, whereas in fact his poems are word-scores in the way that the written version of Schwitters' Ursonate is only an indication for a complex piece of sound-poetry.

The texts of the poems themselves are presented with minimal textual intervention, and in some cases suffer from it. Underlining seems to be favoured over italicisation, in the style of old typewriters that used underlining as a default for italics; although italics are sometimes (inconsistently) used in poem subtitles. Spelling mistakes (as opposed to deliberate textual experimentation or non-standard English) are retained, without comment (assuming they have not actually occurred in the process of copying). The obviously visual poems have been retyped, which leads me to mistrust their appearance (if there had been better typesetting elsewhere, I might not have worried about this).

Do I sound picky? These are all things I would expect to be covered, or at least explained/justified/glossed, in any competent anthology of poetry, of whatever period, from a university press. Anything less seems to be a disservice to the poets who are represented here.

These editorial lapses are made up for by the quality of the poems in the book. Of the 38 poets represented, there are many great writers that I had not heard of before. Many of them never had collections published, having only appeared in now scarce anthologies from the 50s and 60s. These are all poems that deserve to be resurrected. For instance, here is Russell Atkins, a poet now in his 80s who has only had his work published in small presses:

     perpetual stales, wearies, old;
     ambition yores behind--
     there is of on and wayside,
     traffic slowly eternals itself
     into distance          familiarity
     coins more commonplaces:
     such are these days!

     some slivers of aspiration?
     stir of a wish?

     a wraith waving a grey scarf

          ('Irritable Songs' no. 7, p 26).

The number of neglected and obscure poets is high in this volume, which is the book's major redeeming feature. Some poems are in fact printed here for the first time, for instance the Melvin B. Tolson poems. I would in fact have liked more from poets like Tolson (none of Tolson's published pieces are included, despite being out of print). The more canonical and in-print Black poets (Baraka, Ishmael Reed) could have been reduced or excluded to fit in more of these.

I will conclude with one of the poets I had not heard of, and wished I had. Norman H. Pritchard (untitled, p. 208):

     WE NEED----please read this and see if you
     qualify, if you do not care to take advantage of this
     please pass it on to a friend.

     grown on instead opens the door
     a blind went pulling away
     large numbers covered with rows

     towards them some of its own
     dressed away with the rain
     flying in borrowed kind
     things in the basket

     beside twisted ruddy before
     without those mostly or an under
     plundered nearly though feasted
     delighted so as to be carried

Buy this anthology for the poems. You might have to work out contexts for yourself.

      © Giles Goodland 2006