Russel Atkins, On the Life and Work of an American Master; Reviewed by Housten Donham


I came upon that gate

that tracery’d gently into open

there lay the sum of the dearest

once belonging, the memoried

that scattered, then, compilingly

length’,d into the poor pale

no place to bring one’s birth

this hill they let run down

among them where the scant

droops to astray with dearth’d

the one and one,

a four, or ten even and seldom’d

wisp’d across listened into grass

there where only

as a grey amount

coming on with swerve

solemns afar whole family


my dear ones

atkinsRussell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master hopefully signals just the beginning of a resurgence of interest in Russell Atkins’ work. Atkins (poet, composer, dramatist) should be recognized as an important 20th century avant-garde voice. His work is idiosyncratic, informed, uncompromising, humorous, fearless. This collection, from Pleiades Press, intends to be a primer for those unfamiliar with Atkins, undoubtedly new to most readers in part because his books were published by small and avant-garde presses and are now (with the exception of this new volume) completely out of print. The other, more significant, reason that Atkins is now forgotten is an old story, at least to those who are familiar at all with 20th century experimental poets of color: as both a black poet and an experimental poet, Atkins was doubly marginalized, the victim of an overwhelmingly white avant-garde and a “mainstream” of black poetry marked by a burden of representation. Mainstream black poetry helped to give voice to a victimized and silenced group, but it unfortunately often lent that diverse group a single (conventional, commercial) voice. While many black poets were writing semi-popular narrative and lyric poetry, the black avant-garde was, like its mostly white counterpart, limited to exposure in small magazines and presses. Unlike their white colleagues, however, black avant-garde writers have since received much less scholarly attention, and this has unfortunately developed into an historical blindspot in much of our understanding of modern and contemporary American poetry. [I can think of several other poets of color who have suffered a similar fate—one of Atkins’ contemporaries, the unknown and brilliant N.H. Pritchard, immediately comes to mind. Interestingly enough, both Atkins’ and Pritchard’s works can be found on Craig Dworkin’s

site.] The publication of this volume might signal a coming change in the attitudes that have relegated Atkins to obscurity: the book includes a long introduction

and several helpful essays on Atkins that provide an important foundation for future scholarship, contributing historical, geographical, and aesthetic contexts for his work.

Atkins is proof (for those who had any doubt) that the black avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s was not limited to the Black Arts movement. Atkins was familiar with the movement and even corresponded with Amiri Baraka. But while he may have been sympathetic to their cause, he differs from Black Arts poets in several key aspects. Atkins’ work is markedly baroque, intellectual, lavish; his is the voice of a rebellious humanities professor rather than that of a political radical. In addition, he never wrote to communicate, even openly eschewing the idea in his manifesto: “The practise of an art should be immersed in the bringing-into-existence-as-creativity process. The result need not communicate.” Atkins instead promoted his own brand of experimentalism which he termed “phenomenalism,” a method that was meant “to exploit range, to create a body of effect, event colors, characteristics, moods, verbal stresses pushed to a maximum” through a “bringing-into-existence-as-creativity process.” This all seems typically avant-garde, but another point in his manifesto claims that “Art should encourage mannerism.” And it is through this philosophy that Atkins’ particularly distinctive and exaggerated style founds its theoretical basis. In this excerpt from the poem “WORLD’D TOO MUCH (IRRITABLE SONG),” we can see a typical example of Atkins’ stylistic excess:

Once, woods’d,

(hazed by a dell’s emerald’d,

that is, pastel’s from a green rain)

aloned hush had banished heard,

no one for hours! Perfect, I thought,

such Garbo! —until

I saw someone afar’d, somebody by


This example is characteristically flamboyant and extravagant, though it also attests to a certain intimacy with words that most other poetry we would consider “excessive” lacks. Atkins’ language is marked by an emphasis on combination, an unerring focus on syntactical relationships. This is what most makes Atkins’ work experimental: his focus is not on metaphor or analogy, but linguistic combinations. This is most manifests in his affection for the apostrophe, a mark he uses to undercut the notion of things separate from one another. Nouns become verbs, every thing affects every thing else. Atkins’ work reveals the complex and ambiguous beauty of the “bringing-into-existence-as-creativity process,” ultimately producing a unique and enjoyable poetry that is rooted in its component parts and united in a deliberate style. This volume is a necessary introduction to a brilliant and accomplished body of work, one that has been unjustly forgotten.

Buy it on SPD: $13

Housten Donham is a poet and critic living in the San Francisco Bay area. He holds an MA from Mills College, and his other reviews can be found at HTML Giant.

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