By Phillip Richards
E. Ethelbert Miller is well known as an activist and writer. Although primarily located in Washington, D.C., his correspondence, archival work, teaching, organizational activities, and literary criticism have made him a vital center in the day to day understanding of African American literature. This was anticipated by his experience in the Black Arts movement in which he emerged as a poet as a Howard University freshman in 1968, persisted as Director of the Howard University African American Resource Center and later taught in various literature and creative writing programs. In the process, Miller’s career has become an institutional feature in the world of black literature: a role central to the continuity of any literary tradition. Indeed, his institutional presence is especially important in a movement as tenuous and far flung as was Black Arts in the late sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. Scholars writing about recent poets know Ethelbert as someone to whom they go for taped interviews with the poet Sterling Brown or Michael Harper or for his collections of correspondence with the poets Wanda Coleman, or June Jordan or the novelist, Charles Johnson. Over the years, Miller’s role as such a resource has made him not only an archivist but a major historian of recent African American writing.
In this respect, Miller’s career as black artist archivist parallels the literary careers of Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Amiri Baraka, and Albert Murray. Young literary blacks in the Sixties such as myself encountered black literature not only through the books whose titles were recorded in the card catalogues, or located on library shelves, and archives. One learned black literary history through correspondence with an older generation of black scholars and writers such as the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps at Yale, the literary history William Robinson, the critic of black literature, George Kent at the University of Chicago, and the historians of English literature at Howard Arthur P. Davis and Sterling A Brown. This role was later played by the late Michael Harper, Amiri Baraka, Lorenzo Thomas, and Ahmos Zu-Bolton. Within the context of the last forty years, Miller has served this role for a generation.
In an era in which the literary history of recent African American poetry remains underdeveloped, this ad hoc literary history – often unpublished or published in fugitive form – is an important supplement to the textual understanding of letters and papers of the major, recent figures of black poetry. This form of historical memory, as Miller’s acquaintances will attest, shaped his understanding of the poets and their work. To his personal acquaintance with these figures, he adds a sense of the rhythms of their careers: brilliant early starts, breakout publications, additional calls for new poetry which could lead ironically to a decrease in their work’s quality, sickness, tragic deaths resulting from inattention to health, freshly gained free time following the loss of jobs and new spates of production and excellence. Ethelbert, in my experience is an unparalleled monitor of his generation’s professional lives: their recurring concerns and literary habits, the pace of their writing, the avidity with which they pursue their vocations as writers, and the preoccupations which might otherwise seem to be outlying elements of their sensibilities.
Considered as a writer of his era, Miller was a predictable figure in the period he began writing in D.C where he came to study at Howard University in 1968. He studied with major figures in the Black Arts Movement including Stephen Henderson. And he was influenced by the period’s central writer Amiri Baraka. At Howard he was an important member of Stephen Henderson’s team in the university’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities whose major advisor was the exponent of Negritude Leon Damas. That group included other important black writers such as Sterling Brown who joined the institute out of retirement and the novelist John Killens. He had come to Howard from the South Bronx, New York. where he had grown up to West Indian parents. As his first memoir, Fathering Words shows, Miller quickly took on the calling of the poet but also the vocation of informal literary historian: keeper of African American literary tradition as he was coming to understand it. Becoming a central figure at the hub of the black literary enterprise in his generation was an important goal for Miller when he began loaning out books from his dormitory room at Howard. His association with literary and cultural figures such as Sterling A. Brown and Leon Damas who had already achieved high success when Miller encountered them is important to understanding his own considerable literary ambition. From another perspective, the importance of successful celebrated figures such as Henderson and Sterling Brown to Miller is illuminated indirectly by the Wasteland-like account of older black disheartened men in his earliest verse. Underlying Miller’s continued self-assessment in both memoirs and his poetry is the reality principle of black male failure exemplified in the exhaustion and early death of his father and older brother. Miller’s doubts about his own achievement give sober weight to his assessment of his life as a father and literary man in his second and most recent memoir, The 5th Inning.
Miller’s grasp of black tradition and his generation’s place in it appears in his prizewinning anthology In Search of Color Everywhere published in 1994. It is not a doctrinaire collection of Black Art poetry such as Larry Neal’s and Le Roi Jones’s( Amiri Baraka’s) edited Black Fire. It also differs from Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: which formalizes a black aesthetic with sequential sections of selections from oral poetry, what might be called the folk poetry, and the new poetry of black consciousness (like Henderson’s anthology, Miller’s collection is weighted by considered, aesthetic judgments in which the prima facie achievement of important black writers — early and late – appears). Miller’s anthology points to the many ways in which he and others of his generation would move beyond Black Arts after first assimilating it.
On the other hand, Ethelbert’s anthology is not defined in terms of high symbolism and modernism as are the anthologies and collections of Michael Harper. These principles govern Harper’s selections of black American poetry in the Vintage Book of African American Poetry. The writing collected there has been sternly weighed for its excellence of poetic form and exemplary status in genre, literary period, and authorial corpus. This critical perspective ruthlessly excluded the aesthetic tastes of Black Arts writers, their exponents, and audience. The most notable poetic champions of Harper’s school were Robert Hayden, Sterling Brown, and Jay Wright. The other central member of this group is Robert Stepto, editor of The Selected Poems of Jay Wright and co-editor of Chant of Saints.
Placing his generation’s achievement in historical context, Ethelbert’s anthology In Search of Color looks back to early twentieth-century writers in Black Tradition such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. He also includes writers conspicuously drawn from the worlds of Black Arts and of Harper’s school of poetry. Miller makes these catholic acts of selection as he establishes the continuity of themes between his contemporaries such as Harryette Mullen, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, Greg Tate, and Yusef Komunyakaa, and older writers. These include more recent forerunners such as May Miller, Pinkie Gordon Lane, and Naomi Madgett, Michael Harper and Miller’s immediate predecessors such as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti Lucille Clifton.
The focus of this collection is Miller’s contemporaries and their art. The earlier writers, one realizes, are a backdrop for the achievement of his generation. In the anthology, he frames both his contemporaries and their predecessors in the categories of his generation: the folk Romanticism deployed by writers descended from Black Arts, Jazz, Symbolism, High Modernism. The folk romantic themes of family, male female relationships, healing and rituals became what the anthology as a whole meant as the sites in which “color” and “blackness” was searched. Miller includes three of his own poems in the anthology which in many ways reflects the themes his writing will take up in both verse and his two memoirs, Fathering Words and The 5th Inning. However, the anthology is an insider’s collection whose discriminations and politics inculcate its readership in the idea that the present era is wholly heterogeneous. Miller’s quotation of Elizabeth Alexander’s dictum that color must be searched outside simple understandings of blackness suggest what Miller has said to his own generation of African American writers. They, their art, and their careers have their distinctive particularities beyond their shared themes. In this respect his selection of writers and poems that ends with Robert Hayden’s “American Journal” (the work of an avowed opponent of Black Arts) suggests that African American poetry is taking on the immense variety and complexity of contemporary American poetry as a whole.
After centering himself in the literary world of Washington, D.C., Miller extended his writing to concerns of poetic witness, introspective autobiography, and political analysis beyond mere assertion. Miller’s thematic literary concerns are balanced by the psychological insight of his canny knowledge of the poets themselves: the characteristic moments of their lives. These two perspectives so important to Miller as an archivist and anthologist are at the core of his literary language. His poetry is remarkably ambitious in geographical scope and psychologically shrewd exploration of Eros, Death, and creativity. In another writer, Miller’s intellectual interests might be a temptation to overstatement and a loss of personal and political perspective. In Miller’s writing, a powerful mythic and symbolic world comes alive in urban New York and Washington D. C., Latin America, and the Middle East. Miller is an ambitious symbolist lyricist and mythmaker who belongs with Harper’s Symbolists and High Modernists. His acute observation about poets, their lives, and their careers drive a wide ranging, far reaching vision of the world.
The mythic symbolic life of Miller’s verse now appears vividly before us in the recently gathered complete collection of his verse, The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller, painstakingly edited and respectfully introduced by Kirsten Porter. This collection lays bare central influences upon his writing — influences appearing in his early attempt to try on the voices of June Jordan, Don L. Lee, and Langston Hughes as well as his contemporaries who speak the literary language of folk Romanticism. The strongest poems, significantly, do not arrive when he is echoing the flat clichés of black empowerment as he might have found them in Maya Angelou, Jayne Cortez or Sonia Sanchez in the noonday blaze of Black Arts.
I submit as an example:
Lift my body
out of earth’s
My arms outwards
Collected Poems 108
This crude iteration of black organic energy drawing from a primitivist statement of earth’s fertility and a fantasy of African omnipotence exemplifies the worst consequences of similar attempts to echo Don L. Lee’s barked assertions of black militancy, June Jordan’s chanted political harangues, and even Lucille Clifton’s aphoristic speech. (In the background, one hears Maya Angelou’s “And still I rise”.)
The record of Miller’s accomplishment in Collected Poems consistently reveals success in his symbolic lyricism, imagined myths of creation, and narratives of erotic gain and loss as well as dramas of political witness. The middle and later Miller is not an unfolding writer who sequentially assumes the voice of one posture or poet after another. Even in a very early poem such as “Columbia Station” one sees the deliberate presentation of a symbolic elegiac, lost world in which encounters with the departed lover are framed by the imagery of impending death by gunshot in an inner-city train station.
We came to share moments now so precious as lost jewels
What I wear is your absence
Death a wool sweater covering my chest in summer
Witness the loving of colors and sounds
The city dancing and strutting down Columbia Road
My head rests heavy in one hand
At a small table I sit
Left with a half bottle of beer
Amazed and frightened by how fragile they are
Each one could be ended by a bullet
Collected Poems 78.
Weaving the passage together is not only an elegy of separation: but the imagery of loss which one wears, a garment by which one is constricted, arousal by feckless life which is also threatened by death. Columbia Station the scene of the poem is not only the site of the recollection of personal erotic loss but also a potential monument for the random loss of life by violence amidst the seeming gaiety of inner-city Washington. The poem’s symbolic world of personal loss is sealed with a final image of a sweet sticky slice of pecan pie – an image comparing brief love with the sweetness of residual southern memories of African American life in Washington, D.C. The poem’s metaphorical world of loss, gaiety, the brief sweetness of life is unified by the metrics which hold the verse together. Persisting throughout the poem is the verbal music of alliteration and assonance that accentuate the poems key assertions: ”The city dancing and strutting down Columbia Road.” “My head rests heavy in one hand.”. “Columbia Station another monument.” The poem’s metrical unity insists not only upon this elegiac moment as one of loss and potential violent death but also on a literary unity embodying the symbolist’s aesthetic of evil. It is to the point that the poem is dedicated to Janet Gaillard to whom Ernest Dickerson, filmmaker of the movie “Juice” dedicated that cinematic production.
The alternating drives of Eros and death permeate Miller’s poetry. Miller’s myth of erotic intensity takes the form of revulsion at pretense. But at its most compelling, it takes the form of the transformation of perception into metaphor and the elaboration of metaphors into complete symbolic worlds.
Show me your hands
If you are Art Tatum
Music keeps sitting
By my window
Some days I just want jazz
To place her tongue in my ear.
Collected Poems, 331
Throughout the course of Miller’s poetry there is a repeated mythic account of the energies and emotional world of the poet who devotes himself to composition and literary creation. Such myths appears in Miller’s poems on Ahmos Zu-Bolton a friend, writer-archivist who in the collection inhabits a myth of the creation of folk poetry of black arts. In this myth Zu-Bolton, the figure Zu, emerges from the Southern rural town of Deridder, Louisiana where he both assimilates the “hoo doo” mythologies of Southern poetry and alienates his kin through the unchristian, erotic powers of his creativity. When the poet Zu returns home, his mother tells him:
“I’ll tell you right now son
there ain’t gonna be no
curses in my home
make sure when you come in
that you leave dem poems at the door
at the door”
Collected Poems, 142
The poet may be a keeper of his culture and his culture’s aesthetic, but he is not welcomed at home. He lives in a sphere of art that must transcend his beginnings – however much he has translated them into the sphere of art. Miller’s power in his best later poems consists of his ability to turn this dual vision not only upon the dynamics of the erotic and literary creativity in his own life but in that of others. This strength appears in “Migrant Worker” in which the story of a young man sheltering an unwed mother is told through the story of Joseph, It exists also in the Latin American poems of “Where are the Love poems for the Dictators”. However, they too are distinguished by close intimate observation that rises into metaphor.
Where are the love poems for the dictators?
I sit on a stool in a small room
I can touch walls without moving my arms
The smell of myself eats the last slice of air
In this prison
The food is terrible
It is a tasteless horror
In the next cell Antonio weeps
His body already crushed by a thousand burns
At night I whisper poetry through the cracks
In the wall
My words like music kiss his eyes.
Collected Poems 197
The symbolic world of the poem turns upon the grand irony that although the dictators have no love poems, the imprisoned Antonio does. Through their metrical sounds these poems enact a powerful physical lovemaking. Although the prisoner-persona has been denied the freedom of physical movement, she has the freedom to love. Although the air of her cell is subsumed into tasteless food which she has consumed, she has enough breath left to whisper words. Her speech of love transcends the near suffocation that a concretized tyranny has imposed.
In the end, Miller as poet confronts the death-in-life represented by the death of the erotic drive: impotence. The often-eroticized, poet persona of Miller’s verse must confront not only the death of a lover, but the sexual collapse of an overworked father and mother. This collapse appears in the poem in which he sees his two parents exhaustedly sleeping in bed, the father’s arm hanging over the mattress.
How Do We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love
My father’s arm almost touching the floor
My mother snoring and shaking, one hand under her breast
The room was dark, but I could see how much older they had
Become during my few months away.
They slept like strangers in the bus terminal or on a plane
I refused to believe they were lovers
I closed the door in order to keep their secrets
Collected Poems, 250
It may be tempting to think of E. Ethelbert Miller as a local Washington, D.C. poet. He has become much more. He is a keeper of the inner life of African American literary tradition and the central drives of the human heart.
Phillip Richards is a professor of literature and writer with a longstanding interest in political and social affairs. Besides a number of scholarly articles, he has published essays on race and education in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Harper’s Magazine, and Dissent among others. He has recently published An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland, a memoir about growing up black in the segregated world of Cleveland during the fifties and sixties. He has held visiting professorships in Gabon (French Central Africa), France (the University of Grenoble), and Germany (the University of Freiburg). He has a long standing interest in both the Peace Movement and Conflict Resolution. Richards is a member of the Writing for Peace Board of Directors and Associate Editor of DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts.
Link to E. Ethelbert Miller archive at George Washington University.
Link to Podcast: On The Margin (WPFW)
Profile and Discussion of last book – If God Invented Baseball
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