Hell (Dante’s device;
Malcolm X indites)—
All white beings hostile
(Pink things, grey brains fried),
This smegma quagmire;
Is Black Being proscribed. Psychoanalyze
Try to reconcile
Black folks sacrificed
To white misguided
(Self-) Hatred. My tribe
Smashes white confines.
Black beings! Legalize
Black folks! Griots, scribes!”
Questions and Answers
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
In October 2016, while Parliamentary Poet Laureate (VII), I was invited to Edinburgh, Scotland, to participate in their National Poetry Day. Apart from the events involved, I had time to write, and accidentally fell into a peculiar rhyming form, which is likely closest to Rap, in thinking about a particular poet, namely Ted Hughes, who was married, unhappily, to the equally unhappily married Sylvia Plath. I decided to write autobiographical poems about them both, in each of their voices (as imagined by me), and ended up writing ‘columns’ of 21 lines (because that was the length of my lined notebook page), each with only 5 syllables, but also each having to utilize a terminal word featuring a long-I vowel and a silent-E. (Example? See the word that I just used: “utilize.”) I ended up having cascading lines (note: long-I & silent-E in “lines”) that also utilize assonance, rhyming the vowel (long-I), but not necessarily consonants: “Bible” and “knife,” but not “time” and “mime” (at least not usually). Once I wrote the first poem—about Hughes—I wanted to see if I could extend the pattern with “Plath.” Then, I continued, until I arrived (long-I, silent E) at the ninth poem in the series, “Jones/Baraka,” which purports to be in the voice of African-American poet LeRoi Jones who changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and who was known for politically confrontational verse.
What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?
I think I answered “ii” in “i.” BUT I’ll add that I had fun working within the constraint of 21 lines, each only with 5 syllables, and each having to end with an assonantal (half) rhyme emphasizing a long-I sound with the presence of a silent-E. The reason? The game! The challenge!
The 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and the 7th Parliamentary/Canadian Poet Laureate (2016-17), George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1960. A professor of English at the University of Toronto, Clarke has also taught at Duke and Harvard. His recognitions include the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the National Magazine Gold Award for Poetry, the Premiul Poesis (Romania), and the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry (US). His acclaimed titles include Whylah Falls (1990, translated into Chinese), Beatrice Chancy (1999, translated into Italian), Execution Poems (2001), Blues and Bliss (Selected poems, 2009), I & I (2008), Illicit Sonnets (U.K., 2013), and Traverse (2015). His major, current project is Canticles, an epic poem, of which 4 volumes have already appeared, numbering some 2000 pages (2016, 2017, 2019, 2020).