the codes of oppressed people


so where we left off:

“In poetry, there continues to be a radical break between those networks and scenes which are organized by and around the codes of oppressed people, and those other ‘purely aesthetic’ schools.”

we might describe the ‘codes of oppressed people’ as voice emerging from suppression, as identity emerging from dissolution, as narrative emerging from silence. we might describe the ‘codes of oppressed people’ as the struggle to be heard and live in the memories of those who don’t see us. we might read sheryl’s ‘I AM’ as a song of visibility at the edge of invisibility. yes, this is a ‘radical break’ from the ‘purely aesthetic’ because more is at stake than to simply ‘make it new’.

however, the ‘codes of oppressed people’ are always historically coded, always subject to change. furthermore, the phrase ‘oppressed people’ creates a homogenous entity unable to shed the adjectival prison of ‘oppressed’. it’s more accurate to say ‘peoples’, more accurate to say ‘the changing codes of peoples who suffer from and struggle against oppression’.

emerging from these changing codes, the contemporary ‘ethnic-avant’ questions this ‘radical break’ by racializing modernist and postmodernist aesthetic techniques to articulate personal and collective suffering and to protest against individual and systemic oppression. the ‘radical break’ that silliman describes has been radicalized by the ‘ethnic-avant’.

the truncated narrative i’ve just told sketches the contours of the grand recit of ethnic poetry in america. more specifically, the narrative is usually situated in the 60s and 70s with the Black Arts Movement and the Multicultural Poetry Movement representing the full blossoming of the Harlem Renaissance. as the story goes, these poetries depended on the voice and performance of Identity (hence the term ‘Identity Poetry’). The poetic ‘codes of oppressed people’ depended on–in fact, needed for their continued existence–a stable, essential(ized) subjectivity. The aesthetic form was entirely secondary if it mattered at all.

the grand narrative forks with the postmodern dissolution of the subject and the poststructuralist deconstruction of representation. the successive generations of ethnic poets had to choose between:

remaining a craftless Identity poet (as an Oprah poetry book) or to give up on the page entirely and become a slam / spoken word poet.


by embracing the postmodern aesthetic (and, of course, you’d be expected to get an MFA or PhD) and to carve the wood broken by the preceding generation (as javier described so eloquently).

In selinger’s letter to the editor, he highlights the craft of ‘i am joaquin’ to show that even tho he is more than able to read the music and design of the poem, he didnt. “why did i not even look?” he asks. he gives us numerous reasons: 1) he’s afraid of abstractions; 2) he identifies with the object of the poet’s scorn (white society); 3) he has a class bias (which made him assume the poem would be ‘art-less’ and ‘working-class’); 4) he’s not sure if he asks poetry to change lives or to make things happen.

I want to add to the list that the grand narrative of ethnic poetry in america also contributed to his blindness, even if only as a ‘narrative unconscious’.


curses, time’s up…sorry for the bad grammar/meandering organization but am racing the clock here. will write more on this tomorrow but only if people prove that THEY AM and comment.



3 thoughts on “the codes of oppressed people

  1. Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

    Something on substance when I get back from taking my kids to school.

    On the substance of your post, I mean. Not that I hit the substance once the kids are out of the house. “Substance clouds the mind / Treif wine dulls the heart.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s