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 Clarence Major

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Brief Bio

(b. 1936), poet, novelist, short fiction writer, visual artist, essayist, lexicographer, editor, and anthologist. Although known best for his metafictional novels, Clarence Major has long demonstrated his versatility in both the artistic forms he uses and the subject matter he selects. He tests boundaries, asserting and enacting the freedom of the artist to explore the full range of human experience. One source of his versatility is his early exposure to both the North and the South. Though born in Atlanta, he moved at the age of ten to Chicago with his mother after his parents were divorced. He maintained his southern connection through summer visits with his relatives. A key Chicago experience for him was exposure to modern art, especially the Impressionists. He studied briefly at the Chicago Art Institute when he was seventeen. Although he decided to focus his artistic efforts primarily on writing, he has made use of his painting and photography in his fiction, especially Reflex and Bone Structure (1975) and Emergency Exit (1979).

Much of his work, especially the fiction, has been experimental in that it has broken down conventional assumptions about character, plot, and narrative voice. The texts tend to be fragmentary rather than unified in structure; likewise, their principal theme is the impossibility of a coherent identity in contemporary society. This pattern holds in the two novels mentioned above, as well as All-Night Visitors (1969), No (1973), My Amputations (1986), and some of the stories in Fun and Games (1988). In these works, he joins Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed in challenging the view that fiction either reflects or constructs a meaningful reality. Literature is, in effect, a set of verbal tricks and needs its artificiality to be acknowledged.

But like Reed, Major also sees cultural significance in metafictional storytelling. His fragmented characters exist in a world in which they are rootless and often paranoid, in quest of a meaning that forever eludes them. In two novels that are more "realistic," he examines the same issue. Such Was the Season (1987) uses a southern folklike narrative voice that echoes Ernest J. Gaines's Jane Pittman and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day in its down-home wisdom as well as its position as a moral center by which to judge others. But Major complicates the narrative by having Annie Eliza draw much of her knowledge not from traditional black experience but from television talk shows and soap operas.

Similarly, Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar (1988) tells the experiences of a Zuni woman who has been forced out of the tribe because she has worked as a prostitute and because she questions the traditional ways. She makes her living as an itinerant folksinger whose songs become her means of trying to claim an identity for herself as a Zuni. The novel is narrated by a man who is himself Hopi-Navajo and thus outside of her experience as well as uncertain about his own identity.

The subject matter of Painted Turtle suggests the multicultural nature of Major's work. One of the early influences on his writing was the work of French artists such as Raymond Radiguet and Arthur Rimbaud, and his interest in white European and American literature is reflected in many allusions in both his fiction and poetry. The importance of the Western tradition is clear in a book of poetry, Surfaces and Masks (1988), which is entirely about the experiences of Americans in Venice, with literary references to Disraeli, Dickens, Shelley, and Thomas Mann. His exploration of Native American issues is continued in a collection of poems entitled Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century (1989).

The range of forms and subjects reflects Major's commitment to artistic freedom made explicit in his essays and interviews, many of which are collected in The Dark and Feeling (1974). He insists that it is the quality of the work rather than its ideology that determines its importance. Even in his 1967 manifesto, "Black Criteria," which calls for greater use of African American materials and a rejection of much of Western tradition, he still concludes that the integrity of the artistic vision is the essential criterion. His work as editor and lexicographer has demonstrated his commitment to language and to literary freedom. His Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), expanded and updated in Juba to Jive (1994), provides a major resource for discussions of African American language use. His two anthologies, The New Black Poetry (1969) and Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories (1993), offer a wide range of literary expression within the African American tradition. He is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis.

Poems - 10 in all


Clarence Major

Frenzy
Weather
Honey Dripper
The Doll Believers
Unknown Presence
Sand Flesh and Sky
Waiting for Sweet Betty
The Painting After Lunch
Revelation at Cap Ferrat
Waiter in a California Vietnamese Restaurant


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