2008 Criticism Finalist Orpheus in the Bronx, by Reginald Shepherd

by Kevin Prufer | Feb-14-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Kevin Prufer discusses Reginald Shepherd’s Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry (University of Michigan Press)

When Reginald Shepherd died last year at 45, we lost both an important poet and a fiery, often controversial critic of American poetry. Shepherd’s own poetry had developed in strange and exciting ways over the years, beginning with his by turns ambivalent and erotic first collection Some Are Drowning, in which he examines both his own life as a gay, black man and the overwhelming forces of American history. By the end, his work had become more abstract, sonically complex, and erudite, circling around and around questions of “otherhood” and its philosophical implications, around issues of art, politics, and aesthetics.

In Orpheus in the Bronx, Shepherd picks up on many of these themes, arguing over the course of thirteen essays for the value and power of poetry in our lives, for poetry as a vital tool for understanding not just art, but political and historical forces, for exploration of identity and measurement of the state of our cultural lives. Sometimes his approach is almost purely autobiographical, as in “To Make Me Who I Am,” in which he reflects on his youth in a Bronx ghetto, his discovery of comic books, Greek mythology, and, finally poetry, “the one thing that kept me sane, or as close to sane as I managed to be.” Elsewhere, he focuses keenly on other writers whose work he admires: Tim Dlugos, D. A. Powell, Samuel R. Delaney, and Jorie Graham, among others, arguing always for ambition and breadth of vision, even in failure.

Most of all, though, Shepherd’s criticism is provocative, always challenging our generally accepted notions of what poetry ought to be. In “One State of the Art,” for instance, he writes, “What I admire most in poetry is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words that are the poem’s body and its soul … [But] dominated by the twin poles of earnestly mundane anecdote and blank-eyed knee-jerk irony, much of contemporary American poetry is embarrassed by passion, by large gestures, and by major aspirations, as if they were immodest at best, dishonest at worse.” Or, in “The Other’s Other: Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility” he explains his dislike of what he calls “identity poetics”: “The impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author is pervasive these days.… That has always seemed to me a form of self-imprisonment, neglecting or even negating the possibilities poetry offers not just of being someone else, anyone and/or everyone else, but of being no one at all, of existing, however contingently, outside the shackles of identity and definition.”

Although during his later years Shepherd was, predictably, a source of much controversy and public debate among those who cared deeply about poetry, Orpheus in the Bronx shows that he was not just a fiery critic, but also a deeply thoughtful, committed, and passionate reader of American poetry and a tireless advocate for the art.

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