HOO DOO MOJO OBOP REBOP
The Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton
Eds. David Grundy and Lauri Scheyer
Wesleyan University Press, 2023
Reviewed by Howard Slater
Outside of Black literary studies (hardly rife in the UK) and those who delve into the 60s counter-culture in the UK, Calvin Hernton is more or less unknown. He was widely anthologised in many of the anthologies of Black American poetry that surfaced in the 60s/70s and yet it is only as recently as 2019 that Hernton and the Umbra group of poets to which he belonged have received some academic attention in this country: David Grundy’s book, A Black Arts Poetry Machine - Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets (Bloomsbury). This book contains two chapters devoted to the poetry of Calvin Hernton and now, along with Lauri Scheyer, Grundy has brought forth this collection that is drawn from 40 years of poetic persistence that includes a sizeable and gob-smacking section of unpublished work.
Prior to this Hernton, familiar with appearing in small askance editions, showed up once more on the outskirts. He was feted in 2011 at the Chelsea Arts Museum when his recorded poems were played aloud to the accompaniment of Ben Morea and vetran free jazz bassist Henry Grimes. In 2013 he surfaces in an on-line research site, Anti-History which, after deep research, gathered together material and testimony relating to the London Anti-University. More recently, in 2021 his collaboration with Joe Berke, The Cannabis Experience (1974), was featured in the Anti-University Now project.
So, Hernton was not solely a poet. He studied sociology at Talladega and Frisk Colleges, worked as a social investigator for the Department of Welfare in Harlem, and was the author of several psycho-sexual explorations of racism. The most famous and controversial of which is Sex & Racism (1965) which was reprinted and translated many times from the mid-60s to the late 70s. In Hernton’s obituary in the New York Times, his friend and fellow Umbran, Ishmael Reed, is quoted as saying ''Many people were outraged by that book… He went into a section of the American experience that you were not supposed to talk about.'' This is borne out by Tom Dent appraisal of Hernton’s work as “speaking on levels reserved for spoken silence.” Hernton himself seems to suggest that as a result of publishing that book, speaking the silence, he was more or less obliged to leave the US.
And yet Hernton, perhaps as a result of this de-specialisation, was also a social commentator, a fine poet and literary critic. He was a co-founder of the Umbra Workshop group of poets in New York City and was joined in this endeavour by several still largely underknown poets including David Henderson, Tom Dent and Lorenzo Thomas. At the time when Amiri Baraka was publishing the beat-centric Yugen, the Umbra group also issued a small-press magazine which featured the work of Ishmael Reed, Langston Hughes and, the much more well known, Alice Walker. An editorial in its first issue says “Umbra is not another haphazard ‘little literary’ publication. Umbra has a defined orientation: (1) the experience of being Negro, especially in America; and (2) that quality of human awareness often termed ‘social consciousness.’” The Umbra group were noted for their readings in New York’s Lower East side and, in one of the autobiographical snippets that pepper this book, Hernton describes a creative fervor and collective encouragement akin to a Five Spot jazz jam session that often led the Umbra poets to read poems that were hot-off the typewriter.
At some point in the mid-60s Hernton travelled to the UK at the behest of R.D. Laing and the Institute of Phenomenological Studies in London. It is probable that his link here was the one-time anti-psychiatrist Joe Berke whom he met, probably at Civil Rights meetings, in the East Village in the early 60s. Whilst in the UK he wrote for International Times and Peace News and visited the infamous Kingsley Hall (the subject of his poem ‘In Gandhi’s Room’ which is sadly not included in this collection). It is highly likely that he was at the Dialectics of Liberation event organised by Berke, Laing and Leon Redler, as it is his name that lies at the foot of an article announcing this event in the International Times. The Anti-History website reveals that he was listed on the ‘syllabus’ of the Anti-University as offering a course entitled ‘Writers and writing – or the Dialectics of Ungodliness.’ Whilst in London Hernton also linked up with the Caribbean Arts Movement in London and is listed as reading his poems at several readings for this group which included the criminally-neglected Edward Kamau Brathwaite and writer-activist John La Rose who went on to found New Beacon books.
On his return to the USA, Hernton reconnected with the Umbra group and with the burgeoning black arts movement. He was a contributor to the Black Fire Anthology of Black American poetry (1969) and after contributing to small press publications he eventually published his own collection of poetry, Medicine Man (1976), which at that point in time figured as his selected poems and from which ample poems in this book are taken. Interestingly he grouped his poems into thematic sections: Ballad Poems, Blues Poems, Blood and Ethos etc. Several years before that he finally published his ‘hallucinogenic’ novel Scarecrow (1974) which he had been working on since the mid-60s. He spent his life from the 70s onwards as professor of African-American Studies at Oberlin College until his retirement in 1999. Hernton died in 2001.
As this brief precise of Hernton’s life perhaps attests, it is as difficult to typecast Hernton as a person as it is to typecast the poems that appear in this book. One could risk this very typecasting by suggesting that within his work there is a tension between the Northern and Southern Sates of the US as, being a southerner, yet straddling the two, Hernton is steeped in the idioms, anti-grammar and syntax of the oral culture of his maternal grandmother; in the ballads and the blues; in the folk tales and hexen beliefs of a submerged culture. Likewise, the controlled aggression often audible in Hernton’s poetry is informed by a life-long resistance to, as he puts it, the “freelance acts of cruelty” that were endemic in the times before civil rights activism started to turn the tide. In his obituary in the New York Times, Margalit Fox, describes his poetry as “playing off a formalist modernist approach with voices from the African-American oral tradition”. This is as a concise enough summation as there is much modernist experimentation in his work, but yet, in his long form poem, The Coming of Chromos to the House of Nightsong (republished here in its entirety for the first time since its small press debut in 1964), Hernton does something risky and extraordinary. He takes on the persona of a 100-year-old Southern white woman as she reflects upon the seemingly natural yet passing surety of her life:
Stone on stone, this house rose like a fortress
Rose on this hillside to tower over this community in the same
aspect as a great sentinel of the irrefutable stability
of blood and custom
This balladic form, the lyricism of the first and third sections of the poem give rise to a shocking vertigo effect as Hernton voices Eleanor Nightsong’s unexpunged racism brought on by what was called The General Strike: the exodus of slaves to the North at the end of the Civil War:
Like eunuchs suddenly illusioned with the dream of unlimited
potency, the niggers ran from the fields, from the big
The darkies ran from the people who had loved and protected
There were niggers voting, niggers holding political office,
niggers governor, niggers senator […]
rampant niggers prowling the streets and raping white women
Here Hernton not only touches on the ‘racist emotions’ of the narrator but, as Eleanor’s confession of having a ‘woolen headed baby’ shows, he draws out the sexual aspect of racism and depicts something unfitting and too disturbing for conventional poetry: an hypocrisy to the point of psychosis. It is elements such as this, as well as Hernton’s depiction of racism as a matter as much about erotico-emotional distortion as ‘wrong thinking’, that makes this poem as strong a condemnation of racism as, say, that which can be found in Baraka’s work. However, the second section of the poem (entitled ‘The Metaphysics’) in changing form into a terse, stone-edged abstractness of language (which puts me in mind of some of Kenneth Rexroth’s philosophical poems), does something less expected:
Through an ageless orthodoxy
Etch nature’s eternal revolution
Humus and legumes
Bits of information unclarified
This section, perhaps drawing on that ‘formalist modernist approach’ that Margalit Fox mentions, is, as opposed to the candid inner speech of Hernton’s character, a space for Hernton to articulate something of an urban objectivity, a collision of concepts and a magma of language that moots the forces of change as both cosmotic and geological (happening outside of Eleanor’s ken.) But perhaps, most of all, Hernton is appealing to the powers, the forces of change, that can inhere in poetic language, powers that insist on new connections, new spaces for thought; that hold out for an ongoing metamorphosis.
Straddling various scenes whilst not appearing central in any of them is maybe an indication of Hernton’s independence, his singularity as an eclectic writer and his anti-authoritarian political stances. Whilst the Black Arts Movement, through Baraka, rhetorised in a Leninist fashion and with the UK counter-culture being predominantly a white movement (hence the very existence of the Caribbean Arts Movement), it could well be that Hernton felt at a distance from the typecastability of both. This is perhaps one reason why, despite the amassing historical research into these movements, Hernton only features as a peripheral figure, albeit one with an anarchic spirit which is only just now seeping through. His revolutionary spirit is fully articulated in his most famous poem, Jitterbugging in the Streets, which reads like an angry version of Ginsburg’s Howl. It’s final stanza refutes the role of the intellectual ideologues who seek to vet, control and take power over the ones they are reputed to be representing:
And Forth-of-July comes with the blasting bullet in the mind
of a black man
Against which no great white father, no social worker
Will nail ninety-nine theses to no door
This poem is Hernton’s exasperated response to an economic system based on racism and yet it is also a barely disguised celebratory response to the riots that swept through black America in the 60s. The most famous of these, the Watts Riots of 1965, led the Situationist International to pen and have translated their tract, The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, which was widely circulated in counter cultural scenes in the UK and USA. This is not to suggest that Hernton is taking a cue from this tract but that Hernton is treading a similarly uncompromising and bitingly ironic path:
Piety and scorn on the doormouth of the Lord
instructing the populace to love thine oppressor, be kind to
puppies and the Chase Manhattan Nation Bank.
Because of this there will be Fourth-of July this year
No shouting, no popping of firecrackers, no celebrating
But the rage of a hopeless people
As with the poem discussed briefly above here too we have a further insight into Hernton’s poetic work: there is a blunt directness of street language set alongside a mulled-over and articulated despair; there is prose citation coming alongside clipped poetic exhortation; there is repetition and incantation which, at each juncture, seems to the start the poem off again as if it’s a funk track; there is low-culture cussing as well as the artful enigmas of what Hernton calls his own “realm of symbolism.” Key here is Hernton’s fascination for the figure of the ‘scarecrow’ which crops not only as the title of Hernton’s novel but throughout his poetry too. It is this figure that almost stands in as a cipher for Hernton himself, or one should say, a moveable and malleable cipher that articulates the different personas and affects that Hernton employs in his poetry. It is interesting to conjecture that viewing himself as a scarecrow, Hernton is implying a state of being an existential loner, warding-off contact with others, protecting a culture from pillage … or something entirely different. In one of the autobiographical pieces included in this book Hernton writes: “I do not mean to downplay the role of racism in the making of who I am. But consciousness of myself as an African American is not all that constitutes my identity.” Indeed, in one of the later poems collected here, Oberlin Ohio, Hernton writes himself as the town itself:
My name is Oberlin Ohio
People never heard of me
Mispronounce my name “Oberland”
But that’s allright
Jump back jack
In another later poem, Rites, something similar happens, but in this poem, written as a series of bemused questions, it is an uncategorisable human that is being presented; a figure, a scarecrow, a ‘whatever singularity’:
How come he don’t belong to nothing?
Where he born, where he work, what’s his sign?
This poem is bittersweet for whilst it opens out a potential space through which to get beyond known identities, to become the human-that-we-could-be, to “forge an identity and consciousness that includes all other human beings” as Hernton urges, it also functions as a sinister reminder that the other (even our self-as-other) can be resisted and rejected to the point of violence and thus we are returned back in a loop to the politico-aesthetic concern Hernton displays in his work for what he called the “psychology of the damned.” It is this existential approach that marks out this collection as contemporaneous: thought as feeling and feeling as thought, or, as Hernton put it back 1962, “I write because I feel I am being outraged by life.”