The phrase ‘poetry of trauma’ may come as a surprise to many, given that poetry as an art-form struggles to be offered large-scale commercial attention and therefore a lot of very honed ordinary thinkers preserve their work within notebooks kept inside their old wooden chests. It also comes across as non-normative because normative beliefs usually associate poetry with emotionally rooted wishful thinking that has very less relevance to the real world. But for poets who have spent years writing an incomprehensible inner voice they hear, poetry of trauma would invite curiosity or might even be familiar. For the rest of us, it could reveal the undercurrents of criminal behaviour or even unspoken shattered lives that never find a visible place in our societies.
On one hand, poetry of trauma offers the process of healing a psychologically wounded mind for those who have been subjected to mentally constricting and damaging behaviour from trusted relationships or even repeated exposure to violence. On the other hand, it needs caution if such poetry is widely promoted to a large audience, because in some of such works, the distinction between real and unreal can be diminished. Therefore, it can end up selling a view of the author’s mentally constructed reality where the real is generalised to be oppressive, abusive and violent, whilst victimhood is promoted as new knowledge that demands attention and action. Unfortunately, the winner of 2012 New York Book Festival poetry category, a self-published book, represents the latter category of the poetry of trauma.
In the UK and perhaps in most parts of the world, this book with a controversial title, ‘N*gger for Life’, would be unknown. At first I chose not to learn more about this book; its title uses a word that is deeply and historically offensive. Prizes and awards should not matter beyond a point, especially if we are to find a sound philosophical direction to examine social conflicts with the view of building a common ground and to bring about a transformation in social beliefs.
My own view of the world is that I see people as colourless; I see them entirely as individuals. But what caught my further attention was that it was written by an American man of African origin, and that the title really interprets his own view of what he terms as ‘Racist America’ where he would always be treated like a citizen with appalling civil rights because of his colour.
Neal Hall, the author, believes that as a Black American, he is destined to live like a ‘N*gger for Life’. At this point, I could not stop to question what view of reality the author holds. Where is the author’s thick dividing line between personal experiences and generalisations on an entire nation? Does he see himself as an individual first or as a man of colour first? Has his identity of colour been so deeply attacked that his view of his own individuality is damaged for life? What is reality and what is not: When this line blurs, an intense state of trauma begins.
This book is a collection of poetry of trauma of this American man, who because of his ethnic and cultural origins has suffered deeply rooted prejudice, discrimination and horrific behaviour by, in his own repeated words, ‘White America’. It needs an intense amount of attention and patience to read a record of different degrees and forms of divisions between Black and White America from the author’s world view. The scale at which the author portrays ‘White America’ as a socially manipulative institution that continues to orchestrate discrimination against ‘Black America’ is phenomenal and certainly comes across as questionable.
Returning to the examination of poetry of trauma, it can be said that this book does embody such a work, but it is a trauma that has lost distinction between personal violent experiences and a national generalisation of ‘White America’. It is most genuinely commendable that given the intensity of racial discrimination faced, the author chose to pick up his pen and skillfully write some strongly moving pieces about his experiences instead of choosing violence. However, I would still not recommend this book.
Our world is not black and white. It is also not brown or something else. We, the human beings, have the capacity to transform conflicts with creativity, dialogue, understanding, compassion and empathy. We do not need to go to the extent that this book goes to by drawing dividing lines between black and white America. We have much more meaningful as well as enjoyable poetry that can nurture our minds.