Blog post

On Louise Glück, Minstrelsy, and Abolition

Matt Sandler considers the poet Louise Glück’s controversial Nobel Prize lecture, asking "Is minstrelsy really the first step on the way to white self-knowledge?"

Matt Sandler13 January 2021

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Black Boy” via Wikimedia Commons

Louise Glück’s undelivered Nobel Prize lecture, the text of which was released in early December, stirred up a controversy so familiar as to seem rote, almost generic. An accomplished white artist proffers the refinement of their racism as craft, then awaits their due in attention, attack, defense, and more laurels. The circumstances barely warrant rehearsing; Manu Samriti Chander calls these “art fights” to emphasize the silly way we compulsively restage asymmetrical conflicts between aesthetic and social categories. I’ll forgo the rundown of what got said on social media, some of which was sad, some very funny, and all of it with an undercurrent of weariness and rage.

Glück’s speech expresses her modesty in response to the attention that came with the Nobel. She draws a parallel between that defensive sentiment and her lifelong poetic project’s focus on intimacy, interiority, and privacy. She acknowledges the irony of her widely celebrated career as a poet of quiet individuality, but does not stop long with the contradiction. Instead, she digs into her position, and tells of how her poetic self-preoccupation and her interest in poetic laurels have been deep-seated and long-held. A recent essay by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young illuminated the cloistered and well-capitalized world of elite poetry prizes which Glück has navigated so expertly. She is undoubtedly a great poet, and has been recognized as such many times over; such people’s politics are often repellent. But the lecture betrays an unconsciously racist hostility that must not pass without more detailed comment, especially at this moment in which so much hangs in the balance.

Glück’s acknowledgment of her poetic ambition, and the source of the controversy, comes first in the form of a childhood memory, of fantasizing competitions between her favorite poems. She recalls in particular a contest between William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” and Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (she uses the common alternate title “Swanee River”). These choices by the young Louise, as reported by Glück, now 77, are egregiously insensitive, insofar as both poems, by nineteenth-century white authors, represent Black voices in clumsy or malicious ways. The lecture thus reignited now longstanding complaints about cultural appropriation and the role of prestigious cultural institutions in perpetrating white supremacy.

Of course, Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” is not a lyric poem in the strict sense but a blackface minstrel lyric, one of the most popular of the nineteenth century, and is still, with some light revisions, the state song of Florida. The song first appeared in 1851, just as the territorial conflict over slavery was coming to a boil. Like many other minstrel tunes, “Old Folks at Home” takes the centuries-long premise of the romance lyric, the bereft loneliness of the singer, and puts it in an insultingly rendered voice of a fugitive from slavery. Glück blithely neglects to mention the brutal ironies of minstrel masking, the ways its racist depictions of Black sentiment cover for white audiences’ lust and rage about racial capitalism. Thank heavens to the young Glück’s budding respect for the Western canon—Foster loses to the radical engraver-poet William Blake, a committed abolitionist.

“The Little Black Boy,” from The Songs of Innocence (1789), is much more formidable in terms of its play with the liberal British attitudes of its moment. Literary historians have been debating Blake’s white abolitionism since the 60s, often with this poem as the centerpiece. In the voice of a Black child, Blake articulates the racist sentimentality which then passed for radical Christianity, “And I am black, but O! my soul is white.” He also manages some complex and frankly gorgeous interracial and anti-racist premises, for instance, imagining raced bodies (both white and black) as “cloud[s]” which will blow away in a kind of post-racial eternity. Despite its limitations, Blake’s work inspired Black poets through twentieth century, starting with Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen in the 1920s.

Glück’s reading doesn’t make room for much nuance: “Blake was speaking to me through the little black boy; he was the hidden origin of that voice… But I knew that what he said was true, that his provisional mortal body contained a soul of luminous purity…” Rather than clarify the uneven parallel between Blake’s thoughtful but awkward appropriation of a Black persona and Foster’s more grotesque minstrel performance, Glück just leans into the comparison: “I realized later how similar these two lyrics were; I was drawn, then as now, to the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing.” This gloss of Foster and Blake leaves out the obvious and politically charged problem that makes the poems comparable. One can hardly understand these two poems without the historical background of slavery, abolition, and minstrelsy in mind.

Glück’s case for poetic loneliness, at the expense of history, loiters weirdly and anachronistically among the white lyricists of the age of slavery’s abolition. Why this particular competition between these particular racial ventriloquisms? Why “then as now”? Through what warped arc of history is the private and personal of Anglo-American slavery resonant today? Is it possible that Glück, ensconced at Yale, missed Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Toni Morrison’s short book Playing in the Dark (1993), about how white American writers project their anxieties onto Black characters? In the decades since childhood, has Glück never considered that Black writers might have written their own laments, perhaps even in that decisive century of abolition struggle which so draws her attention? Could she possibly have missed her own former colleague at Yale, the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s collection of literary critical prose, The Black Interior (2004)? Can Glück have ignored the work of other colleagues in English departments and writing programs to think through cultural appropriation and the white supremacist aspects of lyric individuality, privacy, and interiority? What about the research pointing to the racially white framing of her preferred “confessional” mode? What if Blake and Foster’s play with Black personae constitute an invasion of Black privacy? How then might we have to re-think Glück’s radically personal sense of the poetic?

However carefully constructed her interior castle may be, Glück could hardly have failed to notice the resurgence of abolitionism over the past decade, especially in this past summer’s massive protests of police violence. Of course, these protests involved the tearing down of monuments to the very men Blake hated and with whom Foster joked. Likewise, they constituted a massive rebuke to the maldistribution of “private” property which has permitted some to shelter for months on end and forced others to work doubly hard to meet their basic needs. This summer found the people in a range of collective emotions well beyond the reach of any one person’s imagination. In the winter after this mass expression of witness to history, Glück’s anecdote rang way off key, even for white readers who might in other moments have welcomed her indulgence. To mix her terms with those of the radical present, the racially maldistributed character of contemporary privacy is simply too obvious.

A moment later in the lecture hints that Glück may secretly harbor feelings about these recent developments. She cites some well-known lines from Emily Dickinson, with whom she feels kinship as a part of “an elite” and as “companion[s] in invisibility”: “I’m nobody! Who are you?/ Are you nobody too?” Glück finds sympathy with the antebellum poet’s “temperament that distrusts public life.” Comparing herself with the famous recluse, Glück suggests the Nobel arrived in spite of her defenses, and forces her to face a publicity she can’t countenance:

By way of illustration: suppose the voice of the conspirator, Dickinson’s voice, is replaced by the voice of the tribunal. “We’re nobody, who are you?” That message becomes suddenly sinister.

It was a surprise to me on the morning of October 8th to feel the sort of panic I have been describing. The light was too bright. The scale too vast.

Here Gluck turns away from racial mimicry and toward worries about the judgment of a collective. Who might make up this “we” who now plays the syntactically impossible role of “nobody”? The light and shade in Glück’s rhetoric becomes ambivalent; the brightness of recognition and the darkness of a “sinister” judgment upset the interior. Glück closes by assuring us that, with the Nobel Academy’s support, she will continue “to honor the intimate private voice.” The lecture ends on this rather deflated and resigned note. All the innocent, intimate joy of Glück’s childhood play with Black voices is lost in the harsh light recognition. The rewards now are material: yet more work, better compensated, but the colorful spirits of childhood chased off by the clarity of age and institutional success. The Black boys of fantasy now dwell somewhere beyond, massed in a threatening crowd, or looking down judgmentally.

Spahr and Young’s account of the poetry prize business offers some more precise illumination of what might be going on here: “In the twentieth century, only three percent of prizes awarded went to poets who identified as other than white. In the last five years this has changed dramatically: writers who identify as other than white were 72 percent of the winners.” The significance of this extraordinary data point is debatable; one suspects it represents a superficial performance of “equity and diversity” rather than a real, sustaining correction of U.S. liberal culture’s failure to reward the talents of people of color. Spahr and Young point out that prizes matter enormously in American poetry, often having the effect of determining whether a work is even published. Glück may not have read the history of abolition or minstrelsy, and she may have ignored debates about racism in the canonization of poetry, but there can be no doubt she has ideas about who is winning prizes. Her fears of an anonymous “tribunal” betray the racism of her anxieties about her standing, and suggest she wonders what judgment lies beyond the prize committees she has so effectively charmed.

The notoriously petty business of poetry aside, what’s most galling is still Glück’s implicit claims for the whiteness of the interior, the intimate, and the private. We are a long way off from the abolition of whiteness if this lurks in the “foul rag and bone shop” of our best poet’s “heart.” Is minstrelsy really the first step on the way to white self-knowledge? Glück’s account of the growth of her poetic mind indicates some significant moral and political limitations on the “privacy” she values so dearly. Blake and his contemporaries in the late eighteenth century had begun thinking about what abolition meant not just for the enslaved, but also for “free” people, spiritually and psychologically as well as politically and economically; this work remains, it appears, woefully incomplete. In the context of a housing crisis, myriad climate disasters, and a pandemic, with U.S. police running rampant through Black people’s neighborhoods and homes, the racialization of the interior is a matter of urgent consequence. Acknowledgment of this will be a component of any real historical process of becoming “cloud free,” to borrow Blake’s inadequately visionary language.

Minstrelsy, as we know from this little dust-up and so many others, is hardly a thing of the distant past. Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” is still the state song of Florida. It has had a long life since the 1850s, and it has been subject to re-appropriation by Black musicians more than once. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra recorded an instrumental version of Foster’s tune in 1936 that disrupts the minstrel dynamic of a white singer projecting on and through Black pain. Lunceford and arranger Sy Oliver’s rendering swings and rags, remaking minstrelsy in the form of a new ensemble music for the age of the Great Migration. The symphonic, or synoptic, grandiosity of big band might well make the best counterpoint to Glück’s insistently individual voice. It dissipates minstrelsy’s ironized Black sadness, remaking it as an expression of collective but no less dialogical joy. Lunceford’s orchestra turned interwar anxiety to antic fun and political vision, calling for “jazznocracy,” in the title of another song of the period. But we’re not now in a big band moment yet either—somehow instead we’re all stuck at home in winter and it’s Louise Glück’s moment still, again, for a time. What music, lyric or otherwise, might come of the quiet to which we’ve all been confined, we’ll have to wait and see.

Matt Sandler is director of the M.A. program in American Studies at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. He was previously an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University, Gettysburg College, and the University of Oregon. His book, The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery, was published by Verso in 2020, and his writing has appeared in a number of journals, anthologies, and online publications. He is from Miami, Florida.

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The Black Romantic Revolution
During the pitched battle over slavery in the United States, Black writers - enslaved and free - allied themselves with the cause of abolition and used their art to advocate for emancipation and to...