TEDUCATION: SELECTED POEMS 1949-1999
Reviewed by Jack Foley
Don't let the minute spoil the hour. --Ted Joans
One of the best pieces of news for readers in this year 2000 is the appearance of a widely- distributed, easy-to-find, generous selection of the poems of Ted Joans. For that we have Coffee House Press to thank-- and particularly Gerald Nicosia, who wrote the introduction to the book.
Those of us who have had the good luck to hear Ted Joans read know what he's about: we have had to search in rare book stores, used book stores, even new book stores, just to get a shot of that wonderful, wildly imaginative oeuvre of his; people who have heard him know, and so we look for his books.
Joans is Beat, yes--one of the originals--but he has never benefited from the extraordinary publicity given to so many Beat writers, and he is only rarely included in Beat anthologies. You can find him in Ann Charters' The Beat Reader, but only in the hardcover version: he has been excised from the paperback--despite the fact that one of his phrases is the title of one of Charters' sections. Joans is Surrealist--one of the originals there too-- but you won't find him in those anthologies either. Indeed, he is African American, but most anthologies of African American writing (including the big Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay) exclude him. Amazingly, you will find him in Women of the Beat Generation, edited by Brenda Knight.
There are many reasons--most of them to the great discredit of the anthologists--for this neglect, but perhaps the most important thing to know about it is the fact that Joans really doesn't care. He is about the least careerist poet one could imagine. He wrote to me once, "I was never in the rat race, only the rhino race [the rhino is his totem animal] in search of the marvelous."
That's it exactly. The "marvelous"-- with full Surrealist implications of that word--is what he aims for over and over again. You won't find the marvelous in anthologies--or, if you do, you find it accidentally: the point of the anthology is not the marvelous. Joans is that most American of things, an independent thinker, and some people have found him "difficult" as a result. Again, he couldn't care less. He was an "unreconstructed black man" long before Quincy Troupe formulated the concept in order to talk about Miles Davis. Like Miles Davis, Joans is deeply American and constantly on the edge, an artist whose parameters are not easy to define; like Davis, he has remained in motion. Wow: Poems by Ted Joans with drawings by Laura Corsiglia is the kind of book Joans has published for many years. A limited edition, elegant, with beautiful work by both poet and artist. Here is "Above Him" from that book:
The word play ("betterflies" is intentional), the paradox of above and below, the careful observation -- all these are characteristic of Joans, who is himself often "Dressed in contradiction."
Teducation -- as the name might suggest-- is a much heftier book and, as I mentioned, reasonably easy to find. It covers the waterfront if you want a full dose of Joans at all periods. Its range is extraordinarily wide, including delicate lyrics, "hand grenade poems," Surreal pieces, "sound" pieces, love poems, "jazz" pieces like "Jazz Anatomy" ("my penis is a violin / my chest is a guitar") -- all immensely enlivened by the poet's wonderfully inventive, playful sense of language. This is "Watermelon":
Joans is a considerable visual artist. One of his paintings, "Bird Lives," hangs in San Francisco's de Young Museum, but in this book you'll find some magnificent Surrealist drawings by Heriberto Cogollo. Cogollo's La Vendedora de Nada (The Seller of Nothing) alone is worth the price of the book. The cover illustration, obviously mislabelled by Coffee House, is by Wilfredo Lam.
It's wonderful to have this book, and both Coffee House and Gerald Nicosia deserve our praise and gratitude for making it available. One quibble: Gerald Nicosia's introduction was obviously written out of love and respect for Joans -- and it's a good introduction. But at one point he refers to "traits that have made the black race so strong and admirable throughout the ages." It is my understanding that no respectable anthropologist believes in the concept of "race" in this sense -- though no one would deny the reality of "racism." If there is a "black race," is there a "white race" too? Does the "white race" require saving, as some people have thought? If there is a black race, is Joans a credit to it?
But, again, this is a quibble; I am very happy this book was published. I want to close with a blurb, never printed, I wrote for one of Joans' books: