Because E. Ethelbert Miller’s poetry maintains a steady and accessible attachment to our national narrative, Kirsten Porter, editor of The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller, is able, before launching into a formal discussion of his poems, to ask “if our nation is breaking.” And as Emerson once called for a poet to give America its song, Porter, a professor of English at Marymount College, concludes, given the diagnosis implied in her question, that we now need a poet “who will hold us together,” and claims, again echoing Emerson, that “Ethelbert Miller is the poet we have been waiting for.”
Testimonials to Miller’s power to bring people together are too ubiquitous to attest to or relate but they can be found everywhere in a city where his poetry has been placed in public outside Metro stations—engraved around a bench near the entrance to the Dupont Circle station and etched on a bronze sculpture at Petworth Metro—a city in which the self-described “literary activist” is known as someone who not only brings people together but is also generous beyond compare. At the flagship 14 & V streets Busboys and Poets last month, Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics and Prose, introduced the poet The Washington Post once called “the most influential person in the D.C. arts community” as “more importantly, the ultimate communitarian.” She added, not inconsequentially, but almost as an afterthought, that “he has merged advocacy and artistry in compelling and interesting ways while [as a poet] plumbing the deepest problems of people in their daily lives.”
The volume itself and the poems chosen for its publication this year both reflect and enact that generosity in that Porter was given full license not only to write the introduction but also to choose the poems between its covers. Thus The Collected Poems begins and ends with poems that have never been seen publicly before: the first series, taken from Miller’s tenure as a student at Howard University and the last, written in the current racial climate, where another Howard alumnus, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has published a bestselling book that has made talk of reparations for slavery and a wholesale re-founding of the republic part of the national conversation.
The state of African-American literature was the subject of the Juneteenth Book Festival at the Library of Congress last year, where Miller gave remarks that he described as a “probe” into the state of African-American poetry. He contextualized spoken words’ popularity by reiterating that any study of African-American poetry “begins with an acknowledgement that there are always two streams — one oral and the other written.” Spoken words’ popularity today, he said, “is encouraged by social movements, changes in social media, and even the urban gentrification driven by the opening of new cafes.” While speaking of a “generation coming of age during the Occupy movement and the rise of police brutality,” Miller launched into one of his signature riffs during which he not only recited Ted Joans’ poem “The Truth,” but also followed his recitation with an even more thought-provoking question:if you should see
a manwalking down a crowded street
in the opposite direction
but run towards him
for he is a POET!
you have NOTHING to fear
from the poet
but the TRUTH
“Do we run towards someone like that today?” Miller asked. And just like the jazz artists he admires, he moved on, without much explicit elaboration, leaving his listeners to reflect for themselves and to find their own meanings in personal answers to his question. Was it that the poem took on a different meaning today because of technology? Or was it that Joans died broke in Canada, where he had insisted on moving after the officers who shot Amadou Diallo were acquitted? Or could he have meant something else entirely?
Miller has a cell phone poem, which ends with this stanza:
In the days before cell phones you searched frantically
in your bag trying to find something to write with.
You wanted to find a pen not a phone
before the ringing in your head stopped.
Miller, who has eschewed the automobile for what he calls his BMW (bus/metro/walking) plan for almost 40 years, has listened to the sounds of the city over this entire period and, as he told NBC4’s Wendy Rieger in Bethesda at the Writer’s Center last month, what he hears today is mostly the “language of boxing.” He told of riding the 70 bus with a friend from Korea, Me-K, and feeling upon disembarkation that he had to clean out his ears. His poetry can at the same time reflect delight in language and shock at its decay:
The Ear Is an Organ Made for Love
It was the language that left us first,
the Great Migration of words. When people
spoke they punched each other in the mouth.
There was no vocabulary for love. Women
became masculine and could no longer give
birth to warmth or a simple caress with their
lips. Tongues were overweight from profanity
and the taste of nastiness. It settled over cities
like fog smothering everything in sight. My
ears begged for camouflage and the chance
to go to war. Everything was the decay of
how we sound. Someone said it reminded
them of the time Sonny Rollins disappeared.
People spread stories of how the air would
never be the same or forgive. It was the end
of civilization and nowhere could one hear
the first notes of A Love Supreme. It was as
if John Coltrane had never been born.
In his position as the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank that encourages activism at local, national and global levels, Miller sees this decay not only on the streets of Washington D.C., but also in power centers all over the world. As a poet, he implies that he is an earwitness to how language can be used to justify, cover up, and condone transgressions. In his book Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? he began his poetic probe of issues of oppression and human rights abuses:
when the generals invite you home
do not salute them
when they ask you to forgive them
do not forgive them
there are too many missing graves
so few flowers left
there are families and bones broken
scattered across this land/world
where we live
when they invite you home
do not try and take all the things
you have found here
return home with all that you left
if only the promise to return
is all you took
Day of Protest/Night of Peace
Because Miller’s Collected Poems begins with the previously unseen poems of his youth, a reader can see the birth of his obsessions – at the personal level, intimacy and isolation, love and longing; and at the social level, human rights and local and worldwide abuses, often in concert with the degradation of language. The first section of poems, written when he was a student at Howard and culled by Porter from papers now housed and archived at George Washington University’s Gelman Library, demonstrate as well that his signature hug and embrace of those around him was also active early on in his life. “In Celebration of New Days” begins with the end of a rainstorm and concludes:
i run outside to watch
the smell of grass
the smell of trees
the light of the sun
for the first time
i celebrate your coming
of new days
While Miller’s papers are housed at the Gelman archives, his professional work from 1974 to 2015, as director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, a nationally recognized repository for literary and social science studies on the black experience, situates him at the archives, if you will, or perhaps better expressed, at the creation of a separate space for the idea of an archives for African-American history and literature that runs both parallel (in time) and athwart (in content) to the documents housed in official archives all over a city where the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and all that followed upon them reside in air- conditioned grandeur. This, combined with all he witnesses in his BMW mode of transportation through the same city suggests that Miller thinks the writer belongs where the public is, that Keats’ and Dickinson’s beauty and truth are for him as much public concerns as the water supply.
Miller, moreover, seems to have a public vision for the role of the artist in a democratic society—his non-material values as an artist linked to his belief in the power of the Black Spirit (“we are all black at night,” he has said) as the hidden nerve that energizes the body politic. His unique commitment to disciplined emotional expression in the arts in daily practice (he has a poem about writing five times a day) and his constant participation as a citizen in local, national, and world affairs, suggests he believes that an injection of the creative spirit into all of today’s dominant forces is necessary, while at the same time suggesting a (perhaps) quixotic faith that these increasingly featureless centers of power and profit will respond to a smile that often masks the melancholy of struggles with the kind of depression depicted in the man on the cover of his collected poems.
For the city in which he lives, the cynicism towards it is perhaps the only shared American creed that is left. Miller’s fellow Howard alum, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, represents a school of thought that eschews the idea that through Miller’s sort of everyday heroism our democracy can be revived, or, furthermore, that it is even still possible to think of this country as a viable representative democracy. Coates, broken by the distance between the punishment and the offense in recent policy brutality cases, sees a “default setting” in the original American creed of “white supremacy” that “will affect black people until this country passes into dust.”
The recent police brutality cases in Ferguson and elsewhere have caused Coates to shift focus and find his animating power not in what he had found at Howard, which he describes as both a mecca and a well-crafted “machine” (a mechanistic and factory-like image of inhuman efficiency that, in a different context, became all too apt when Miller was among those dismissed in a cost-cutting measure last year), but draw instead from James Baldwin’s books and language an indignation that will “likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days,” a fire that cannot be doused, he insists, until reparations for slavery are implemented and even then, since America’s Constitution, and its entire reality, he believes, are built on goods, robbed under color of law, a fire that cannot be extinguished without a “revolution of the American consciousness.”
From either perspective, it seems a dialogue has been joined between what was, what might have been, what is, and what will be that relies not only on the data of an archive—both official and unofficial—but also on a dialogue that looks not only backward but also forward towards new spiritual, and therefore, political realities. Miller’s stewardship of Howard’s African American Resource Center (where, by the way, Coates once walked into Miller’s office with a long poem and emerged with an haiku), as well as his position as a poet, suggests that he has been archiving these twin poles of the African-American experience his entire working life:
The Things in Black Men’s Closets
on the top shelf
of the closet
is the hat my father
wears on special occasions
it rests next to the large jar
he saves pennies in
his head is always bare
when i see him walking
in the street
i once sat in his bedroom
watching him search
between sweaters and suits
looking for something missing
a tie perhaps
then he stopped
and slowly walked to the closet
took the hat from the shelf
i sat on the bed
studying his back
waiting for him to turn
and tell me who died
This poem suggests that for Miller the African-American experience is not just a physical space, Coates’ “black body” that leaves documentary traces of abuse, but a social space as well, and that, moreover, with his peripatetic circumnavigation of the city, he can set in motion the possibility of transcending that experience’s limits and creating, through acts of imagination, a heretofore unimagined future. His Washington D.C. is not only a landscape of memories, but also of visions, a Washington D.C. described, but also a Washington D.C. interpreted—interpreted, that is, with an eye to its future. The liquid flowing through his city’s veins—both in its poetry and in its politics—is transubstantiated in Miller’s work into a metaphor for hope.
Miller has recently begun to broaden the definition of the African-American archive to include, it might be said, an archive of its greatest minds, beginning with a 672-page exploration of the thoughts of Charles Johnson, National Book Award-winning author of The Middle Passage, a “project,” as Miller calls it, based on over 400 emailed questions that, according to the current history writer Robin Lindley, serves as a model for future exploration of renowned thinkers and creative minds. Currently Miller is at work on “The Aldon Nielsen Project,” an unprecedented attempt (again through email Q &A) “to get inside the mind of a critic and chart how a critic develops.” Miller points out that there is precious little literature on how a critic develops, much less someone like Nielson, an important critic of African-American literature.
Miller has also always worked behind the scenes to expand African-American writers’ access to the official archive. In 1974, he launched the Ascension Poetry Reading Series in which, for over 25 years, he provided a forum for emerging writers. If anyone has established his bona fides in backing African-American authors—to bring in more of those he calls “writers of significance” into the realm of “writers of applause”—it is him. “I bring my activism to their struggling,” he said in an interview conducted last summer at the new county library in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Sharon Pratt Kelly [former Washington D.C. mayor] said to me to always make sure you speak up for people not in the room.” He has noticed, while sitting on countless literary boards and prize committees, “that that kind of advocacy is not part of the establishment.” There is such a thing he added, sadly, as “literary politics.”
To cite just one example of the pervasiveness and depth of this sort of politics, one need only look at the Author’s Note in David Nicholson’s Flying Home, Seven Stories of the Secret City, stories of “the real Washington D.C.,” that has won praise from the likes of James Alan McPherson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. In the note, Nicholson, a local author, thanks not only Miller for his support, but also a Library of Congress staffer for finding a W.E.B. Du Bois 1932 article entitled “The Secret City: An Impression of Colored Washington,” from which the collection draws part of its title and theme. One implication is that there is only so much Miller can do, and that even when the African-American writer’s work is collected into the official archive, it is buried. Miller is particularly troubled, in this context, by what he finds as the neglect of libraries at historically black colleges and universities today. At the Juneteenth talk last year, Miller, liberated to speak by his dismissal from Howard, decried the HBCUs’ “now overheated libraries” where the books are rotting. “The library is the heart” of an educational institution, he said, “and at historically black colleges we no longer take care of our hearts.”
Ethelbert Miller’s collected poems are accessible, colloquial, and sometimes self-deprecating, like the man. He visits on economic and cultural entrapment and at the same time—while acknowledging and describing that pain—attempts, like the jazz musicians he loves, to coax his subjects and his readers out of their intractable situations. His poetry, like his politics, is of the open hand. If there ever were an ars politica—that is, a political point of view that would not set limits on an ars poetica, that would not just ventriloquize a political doctrine—it is this one. It allows for Keats’ negative capability and may be reduced—if that is the proper word for such a beautiful vision—to an attempt to love the people one comes across and the places one inhabits.
In his first memoir, Fathering Words, Miller cited John Coltrane as a guide, “Trane was where I wanted to go: the spiritual development of his last years, the pursuit of music as a way of talking to the Lord.”
I wished I had loved you many years ago.
I would have loved you like Ellington loved jazz and Bearden loved scissors.
I would have loved you like Langston loved Harlem and the blues loved
I would have loved you like Douglass loved to read and Garvey loved parades.
I would have loved you like Zora loved stories and DuBois loved suits.
I would have loved you like Louis loved boxing and Mahalia loved to sing.
I would have loved you like Carver loved peanuts and Wheatley loved poems.
I would have loved you like Jimmy loved Lorraine and Ossie loved Ruby.
I would have loved you like Martin loved Jesus and Malcolm loved Allah.
It is often hard to find the “figure in the carpet” in a volume of collected poems, but not here – even as the poems travel and accompany Miller through his work all over the globe today in his role at a multi-issue think tank or in his just-concluded capacity as literary stalwart at the flagship HBCU, or in his persona as a man of the streets or at a game at Nationals Park, where one of his many baseball poems was printed in the program this year on opening day or, in the 1970s, as an attendee at the sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania where he met the man, Julius Nyerere, for whom his son, Nyere-Gibran, would be named. He writes of at the same time honoring and transcending circumstances—always noting, not dismissing, suspect ideals, intractable conflicts, superficial equality, widespread deprivation, and deep-rooted hierarchies but also suggesting, by the power of his example and of his music, a way out. He seems to suggest that through creative engagement a transcendence might follow that could usher in a revolution all its own.
At some level, after all, the first American revolution was driven by words, and perhaps he sees himself as heir to a tradition of rising hope – as he has given hope to so many, perhaps the tradition now belongs only to people like him, but even so, it must still be acknowledged as real, reflected as fact in the people he has helped, and, if not yet writ large in the American people, it may only be because, burdened by a self-image foisted upon us by our past, we have not yet encountered the delicate operation of a philosophy of the open hand and of the open heart, through which we might work our way into a new self image, one that, Miller would insist, we ourselves would work to mold and create.
While New York has enclaves, like Harlem, of African Americans, Washington, D.C., situated at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, between former slave states and free, has a majority black population living among its monuments to democracy and the rule of law. Miller captures the ambivalence and ambiguity of this situation as good as anyone but, like the ethos of the jazz he embraces, subtly insists on leaving its confines in lyric and sometimes jazz-like terms that, it has been said, combine, at least in his love poems, Pablo Neruda and Sonny Rollins, and therefore suggest the possibility of hope. If, to some, this can sound like he is a Pied Piper, he is also, nevertheless, one of the Piper’s pilgrims too, walking out of his city but always returning; a civic pilgrim, but also a pilgrim soul, setting down a permanent archive in a town of passing certainties.