Welish is a poet, painter, and art critic. An important contemporary innovator, she is often considered alongside new york school poets, such as Barbara guest and John ashbery, with whom her early work has been compared. But, like Guest's, Welish's recent books have turned in the direction of language poetics. Theoretical and disjunctive, melodic and complex, her poems can seem difficult to approach. The emphasis is on process and the multiple ways we make meaning.
Born in New York City, Welish studied art history at Columbia University and began contributing art reviews to local newspapers while still a student. Since then she has written articles and criticism for Art in America, Art International, and ARTnews, and she has provided the catalogues for various exhibitions. She has won many major awards and fellowships for her poetry and her painting, including the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 1990 and the Howard Foundation Fellowship in 1998. She has taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her books of poetry are Handwritten (1979), Two Poems (1981), The Windows Flew Open (1991), Casting Sequences (1993) and The Annotated "Here" (2000). A volume of criticism, Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960, was published in 1999.
Welish's poems do not communicate experience or an image of the world directly. They focus on our visual and linguistic means of apprehending the world. Lacking a central point of reference, the result can be disorienting. As "Respected, Feared, and Somehow
Loved" (1991) explains, "In the long run we must fix our compass, / and implore our compass" in our search for direction. Instead of offering a renewed center, she opts for a poetics of openness (a key term for Welish) and indeterminacy, actively involving the reader in the making of poetic meaning. "The Poetry Project" (1993) simultaneously describes both reader and poem: "A wave tangled up in itself, as though antirational / . . . information making no sense."
Welish's association with Language poetry is not surprising, given that her poems are highly self-reflexive. But it is her persistent redefinition of lyric poetry that places her squarely within the realm of Language poetry, next to such figures as Lyn hejinian and Rachel Blau duplessis, whose work is explicitly feminist. Standard accounts of the lyric assume a subjectivity and expressiveness that a Welish poem never asserts. As Welish has said of Guest in her on-line essay "The Lyric Lately" (1999), "The poet talking to herself is not at issue. . . . The impersonal, not the personal, is valid."
Gery, John. "Ashbery's Menagerie and the Anxiety of Affluence" In The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Susan M. Schultz. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995. O'Sullivan, Maggie. Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK. Cambridge: Reality Street Editions, 1996. Welish, Marjorie. "The Lyric Lately," Jacket. Available online. www.jacket.zip.com.au/jacket10/welish-on-guest. html. Downloaded March 2002.
"WE REAL COOL" GWENDOLYN BROOKS (1960) One of the most celebrated examples of jazz poetry, "We Real Cool" evokes the tragic verve of black teenagers with sympathy and unflinching clarity. Gwendolyn brooks published the lyric as part of The Bean Eaters, a 1960 collection noted for its explicit critique of the way in which American society denied opportunity to African Americans. "We Real Cool" does not condemn or romanticize the urban black youth it presents; instead the poem's rhythmic energy and colloquial diction bring to light an ignored milieu. The poem belongs to a tradition of politically concerned jazz poetry developed earlier by Langston hughes and, later, by Amiri
The poem tells the story of seven youths who spend their days playing pool at "the Golden Shovel" pool hall. Composed of eight sentences, the poem describes how the unnamed youths quit school, stay up late, perfect their pool shots—"We / Strike straight"—and their fighting abilities, talk tough, drink alcohol, and cavort with women. Brooks's portrait of the youths complements her portraits in other poems and in the work of African-American literature in general of black men whose lives are defined by limited and squandered opportunities.
Significantly the youths in "We Real Cool" either speak as a chorus or are spoken for by one of their unnamed members; no one has a distinct, individual identity: "The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance," Brooks explains (185). The resort to a collective identity, in part, typifies adolescence, a period in which youths do not have the full legal rights of an individual adult. The individual anonymity also represents the way in which black youths often are seen as a collective "other" rather than as fully distin-guished—and deserving—individuals.
Yet Brooks presents characters who respond in a psychologically complex way to their circumstances. The opening sentence, "We real cool," allows the speakers to assert a sense of stoical pride in the face of difficulty. Although widely used in American society, cool originally was a black term and outlook that, like the blues, provided a way to preserve self-respect in a society that accorded little value to African Americans. The poem's opening insouciance is then detailed in the next six sentences, which describe the youth's exploits. While these claims represent bragging, they cumulatively paint a bleak portrait whose ultimate end is realized and stated bluntly at the poem's conclusion, which acknowledges imminent death.
Adding to the pathos of the poem is its jazz style. Instead of using strong rhyming couplets, Brooks improvises: She syncopates the lines by ending on "We," a move that creates a halting, variable rhythm. The use of strong rhyme and alliteration, the forceful spondaic beat of single-syllable words, and the staccato effect of three-word sentences contrast with the enjambment to evoke psychological nuance. "The ending WEs in 'We Real Cool' are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative 'Kilroy-is-here' announcements," Brooks notes. "Say the 'We' softly" (185).
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972. Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
George W. Layng
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