The Voices of Unsung Black Poets, Revived and Amplified
MINOR NOTES, Volume 1 | Edited by Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy
Literary reputations, like stocks, are always in ascent or decline. You can place bets, at Ladbrokes in London, on the Nobel and Booker Prizes, though it’s impossible to place an early wager on a writer’s career unless you own a publishing house (or have a phenomenal bookie).
It used to be that if you were out of print and out of fashion, you and your heirs were also out of luck. But who would have predicted that this still-young century would be such a furious era of literary recovery, revival and reclamation? That the polishing of hidden gems would occupy so many?
The reissues keep coming: from the New York Review Books, a spinoff of the literary magazine; McNally Editions, the publishing arm of McNally Jackson bookstores in New York; the feminist press Persephone; Faber Editions; and the granddaddy of them all, the Library of America, to name only a few. Other publishers have regularly done this kind of work for decades.
Critics and scholars, like crate-diving disc jockeys, have always made rediscoveries. But there is more churn now, and it’s good for the literary ecology. The books are like dried flowers, revived in bowls of water.
In this spirit comes “Minor Notes, Volume 1,” the first book in an anthology series that aims to recover and amplify the voices of lesser-known Black poets from deep pockets of American history. The editors are the young writers and academics Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy; the publisher is Penguin Classics.
Seven poets are presented: George Moses Horton (1798-1883); Fenton Johnson (1888-1958); Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966); Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852-1916); David Wadsworth Cannon Jr. (1910-38); Anne Spencer (1882-1975); and Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958).
These writers aren’t unknown. Their work has appeared in previous anthologies, most recently Kevin Young’s indispensable “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song” (2020), though Young omits Cannon from his canon.
“Minor Notes” gives each more room, and the presentation is informal. You feel you’re meeting them on a human level. The book is slim and portable, as the best poetry books are — so portable that I accidentally left a marked-up copy in a Chinese restaurant on Division Street and had to get a second one.
Bennett and McCarthy, in their introduction, set out their criteria for inclusion in “Minor Notes.” They list things like “minimal appearance” in anthologies and “very little, if anything, in the way of secondary literature focusing on their work.” But it becomes plain that they chose these poets because they still speak across generations. This is a passion project.
Two poets stand out especially. One is Fenton Johnson, about whom the editors note, “There is remarkably little critical attention paid to his work.” Born in Chicago to a middle-class family, Johnson attended the University of Chicago and worked as an academic and journalist.
His poems cover a lot of ground. He wrote about prostitutes, banjo players and a minister who lost his job because he wasn’t rowdy enough, because “I could not make my congregation shout.” He wrote about slavery and the bitter ironies of Jim Crow, and about Frederick Douglass, and about old aunts.
What links his work is a level vision and a terrific directness of voice. The narrator of his poem “Tired” is a working man who says to his wife, “I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization./Let us take a rest, M’Lissy Jane.” He proposes that they start drinking, and that she forget she ever married him. In his poem’s startling final verses, he pushes his material up against a wall and then right over it:
The other is Angelina Weld Grimké, who is best-known for her anti-lynching play “Rachel” (1916) and is the namesake of her more famous great-aunt, the abolitionist Angelina Grimké Weld. (Both are subjects of a recent family biography by Kerri Greenidge.) The younger Grimké was born in Boston to a white mother and a Black father who became a lawyer and diplomat in Washington despite being born into slavery. Grimké herself was a journalist and academic. She is considered to be among the first African American women to evoke the experience of being lesbian or bisexual.
Grimke’s poetry has many registers. “Trees” is a pastoral that bends, at its midpoint, into nightmare:
She is a poet of impacted rage. Yet her love poems remain loose-jointed, and they transmit a physical ache and an erotic jolt. Here is the start of “A Mona Lisa”:
You sense she is writing about what Toni Morrison described as “one of those deepdown spooky loves.”
There’s a lot more here. I’m thinking especially of Cannon’s “Black Labor Chant,” and his writing about being a Black man in white restaurants; Horton on a spurned man (“Eliza, tell thy lover why/Or what induced thee to deceive me?”); and the cry in one of Ray’s poems (“Paul Dunbar dead!”) that presages Frank O’Hara’s lament about Lana Turner. This is a reclamation project that goes through you like a spear.
MINOR NOTES, Volume 1 | Edited by Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy | 179 pp. | Penguin Classics | Paperback, $16