From its earliest origins in aural tradition, poetry has inevitably tracked the metamorphosis of language through time. You only have to reflect on the differences between Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Larkin to see how poetry maps not only the journey of a civilisation but its language and mores too. Perhaps poetry takes a little while to ‘catch up’ with what’s truly contemporary, but I suspect that delay is ever-shortening with more bridges than ever available thanks to the Internet and Social Media; more conduits between what was and what is.
Danez Smith’s “Homie” would seem to locate itself very firmly somewhere along that cultural and linguistic journey, however the problem it faces is perhaps the same one a contemporary of Chaucer might have had if you suddenly asked them to read T.S.Eliot.
“Homie” is the poetry of the street – the problem for me is that it’s a street I have never walked down! It is written in a language which, given I’m not a ‘native’, seems illiterate, not English, clumsily written. It feels more like rap than poetry. Yes there are nuggets in there, but they are in consequence harder to find; the danger is that the language gets in the way and obscures rather than illuminates. Or perhaps what it illuminates is something other than what I, as an ‘old school’ reader, might expect to find. Or how I might expect to find it.
[And it strikes me that this is not an uncommon phenomenon when writing is rooted in a cultural ‘niche’ e.g. it’s racial or colloquial or ‘geographical’. “Finnegan’s Wake” or “Milkman” anyone? Maybe in such cases really great writing both embraces its medium and manages to reach out beyond it. Almost in spite of it. There’s a Ph.D there for someone…!]
The big question, of course, is whether “Homie” is poetry or not? And it’s a question without an answer. If it isn’t poetry for me, then I’m well aware that Smith might read what I write and decry that for being traditional, boring, irrelevant. So last-century.
So who’s to say? And given it’s a question that can’t be answered, who really cares?
(Yes, I know. We all do…!)