Laura Dzubay: June Jordan, a poet for the people

Sunday, November 12, 2017 - 4:13pm

Poetry has long held the reins as a conduit for conscious revolution. In recent years particularly this notion has blossomed, as poets like Claudia Rankine have gained traction due in part to their work with social protest poems. Their poems are not only intelligently crafted, but are also deeply heartfelt and socially conscientious.

There are probably few who embody this balance more thoroughly than June Jordan. Alive for two-thirds of the twentieth century, Jordan’s work not only influenced the always-evolving craft of literature; it also came to represent many of the issues at the forefront of her own time. She wrote about race, class, sexuality, LGBTQ experiences and a great deal more, often anchoring her work in specific historical events and figures. Her nickname was literally “the Poet of the People,” and it isn’t very hard to see why.

The only child of Jamaican immigrant parents, Jordan was raised in Harlem during the 1940s. She developed very distinctive ideas about race and identity from a young age, due in part to her father — who also shared with her his love of literature — and in part to her experiences attending a predominantly white high school. She later attended Barnard College, but dropped out following her extreme dissatisfaction with the curriculum, which focused almost exclusively on white men.

One of Jordan’s most remarkable facets is her versatility. She engaged in a number of different writing styles, including playwriting, children’s literature and journalism as a columnist for The Progressive. Even within her poetry alone, one can detect an amazing tendency to explore and to experiment. Her range of skills extends from beautiful descriptions (“It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean”) to modernesque freeform (“In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.”) to almost prose-like storytelling (“A Poem about Intelligence for My Brothers and Sisters”).

The emotions in her poems are deeply rendered, and accessible even to strangers reading her work from half a century away. She often draws from the well of her own personal experience with familiar issues, even when she’s attaching those experiences to well-known instances and figures, such as in “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer”.

Jordan isn’t afraid to venture into the realm of the confessional. Her beautiful poem “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon,” probably my favorite of the ones mentioned here, is a personal apology to the people of Lebanon, on behalf of herself and all of the American people, for their lack of aid or interference in the South Lebanon conflict. Jordan shows no reservation here in claiming her own culpability in the matter, with straightforward lines such as: “Yes, I did know it was the money I earned as a poet that / paid / for the bombs and the planes and the tanks / that they used to massacre your family.” This is strikingly honest, and speaks volumes as to the genuine quality of her poetry.

Jordan’s literary impacts are undeniable, from her approaches to the complex topic of privilege to her contributions to feminist theory. Equally remarkable is the fact that while she often writes about specific moments or aspects of history, her work is no less relevant today than it would have been thirty or fifty years ago. She is not only a poet for the people, but for America and for the ages.