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Third World Press, 1984. Weil, Eric A. "Personal and Public." In The Furious Flowering of African-American Poetry, edited by Joanne V Gabbin.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
MAJOR, CLARENCE (1936- ) As poet, novelist, lexicographer, anthologist, essayist, editor, teacher, and painter, Clarence Major resists categorization. For instance, as editor of The New Black Poetry (1969), a volume often associated with the black arts movement, Major stayed "firmly away from any notion that art needed to be a conscious instrument of social or political change" (Rowell 672). Fiercely individualistic, but not solipsistic, Major's writing "weld[s] a complex modern diction to a constant historical consciousness" (Howe 69).
Born in Atlanta, Major grew up in Chicago. At 17 he studied painting at Chicago's Art Institute and later entered the United States Air Force, serving for a few years (1955-57). Major's 1954 pamphlet of poetry titled The Fires That Burn in Heaven was followed by publication in magazines and reviews throughout the next decade. After editing Coercion Review from 1958-66, Major moved to New York and worked as associate editor of the Journal of Black Poetry until 1970. Major's Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998 was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999. His poem "The Funeral" won the 1976 Pushcart Prize. He received the National Council on the Arts Award in 1970 for the poetry collection Swallow the Lake. The short story "My Mother and Mitch" also won a Pushcart Prize in 1989. The novel My Amputations won the Western States Book Award in 1986.
Bebop and blues music are notable influences in his poetry, but Major is a self-described "visual thinker" (670). He sees painterly perspective and narrative point-of-view as interconnected, and his poems are often concerned with revealing their speakers' perspectives, as in the collection Swallow the Lake (1970). Surfaces and Masks (1988) is richly allusive, referring to famous pictorial art, as well as to literary and social history. This collection demonstrates both Major's sardonic wit and sharpening sense of the dependence of Western cultural traditions upon the presence of the ironically invoked "cultivated Negro": as Major suggests, "Behind every closed window / on the Grand Canal, Othello and Desdemona" ("I" ).
Major's concerns with music, visual culture, and erudition, and their relationship to racist practices, are most pointedly addressed in his stunning long poem The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage (1994). Here a contemporary speaker possessed by the spirit of Mfu, an African man who drowned himself during the Middle Passage rather than submit to slavery, relates Mfu's story by reference to a series of famous paintings and cartoons. As othello's spirit shapes the Venice of Surfaces and Masks, Mfu's channeled testimony forces a to consideration of the ways in which the world continues to be shaped by the events, the logic, and the culture of the slave trade.
Major's individualistic and experimental poetry forces a new, often uncomfortable examination of culture and history.
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