Let’s pretend for a moment that you are a moving to the East Coast (a place you have never been) and that you are a lover of poetry. Knowing that poetry can identify and define the indelible characteristics of a region, you look around for big East Coast poets. Among a countless selection, you latch onto Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. From this triumvirate of disparate interests and aims you begin to see the East Coast unfold: the sprawling modern city going hand in hand with race issues surrounding the Harlem Renaissance (or, as it was initially thought of, the New Negro Movement) and right next to that we have a New England countryside as an idiom for aesthetics, philosophy and politics.
It would be foolish to think only these three men and their poetry could adequately give you, an East Coast virgin, the whole picture. There are entirely too many relevant poets to mention.
But let’s turn around and get ourselves to our present situation: the Midwest.
The Midwest is sometimes overlooked as a simple vast space between the respective coasts. You probably don’t need to be told of the obvious shortsightedness of such a stance, since there are just as many artists and musicians of our past and present who lay/have laid it down for the Midwest as any coast.
And, coincidentally, I love poetry, and there are a few Midwest poets who helped give this East Coast native a fresh perspective on the Midwest.
Originally from Texas, B. H. Fairchild, a contemporary poet, captures his Midwestern Oklahoma and Kansas experience and culture in a staggeringly simple, beautiful approach. One of his several award-winning books, “Local Knowledge,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and is a good starting point to understand the import of his expression of the Midwest.
Poems such as “The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano” (“The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails / packed with dirt and oil, pause in midair, / the fingers arched delicately”) and “Toban’s Precision Machine Shop” (“It is a shop / so old the lathes are driven by leather belts / descending from some spiritual darkness . Such emptiness. Such a large and palpable / sculpture of disuse”) are a mingling of Fairchild’s personal experience and a cultural insight.
The emotional title poem wrestles with the notion of leaving a hometown for a better future. A son writes to his father: “As you can see I have / come pretty far North with this bunch / almost to Amarillo in a stretch of wheat field flat and blowed out as any / to be seen in West Texas . and I do not know where / I am going in this world but am looking / as always for a fat paycheck.” His father responds: “The other night I was alone / with just the moon and stars / and the locusts buzzing away / and could look down the hole / into the nothing of the earth / and above into the nothing of the sky.”
Images of family, obligation and wrenched realities hold Fairchild’s poetry together. Without pretension or assumption, the autobiographical elements of his poetry open a window for the reader to peer into the vast Midwest.
The same sentiment repeats in “Potato Eaters” (from his book “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest” and a nod to van Gogh’s painting of the same name). Fairchild describes the “welder, machinist, the foreman . with their homemade dinners / in brown sacks . They unwrap the potatoes from the aluminum foil / with an odd delicacy, and I notice their still blackened hands / halve and butter them.”
Perhaps an odd juxtaposition to Fairchild, Detroit-published poet Nikki Giovanni also evokes the atmosphere of the Midwest through racially charged work. “Poem for Aretha,” from her 1970 publication “Re: Creation,” views the iconic vocalist in a humanizing light, opening the reader’s eyes to “the way we are killing her / we eat up artists like there’s going to be a famine at the end / of those three minutes.” Soul, R&B and the blues float through Giovanni’s poetry as necessary cultural references, and she opens up the world behind our favorite jukebox artists.
Blending the musical culture around her with the ever-present racism of the day, the final stanza of “Toy Poem” blisters with social critique, ending with a Sly & the Family Stone reference: “if they took our insides out would we be still / Black people or would we become play toys / for master players / there’s a reason we lose a lot it’s not our game / and we don’t know how to score / listen here / I wanna take you higher.”
I don’t have enough space to explain fully why these poems mean so much to me and how my Midwestern experience and background (my mom hails from St. Clairesville, Ohio) have been affected by these two poets. I can only stress the limitless impact poetry can have inunderstanding the environment around you. Poets have always provided a crucial lens for understanding our developing culture. The best ones help you find your place in it.
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