Poet, Author Illuminates James Baldwin’s Lyricism

Ed Pavlić, poet and author of seven poetry collections and two books, spoke about his latest research in a talk titled “James Baldwin, Black Music and the Lyrical Stakes of Political Speech” at Scripps College on April 3. Pavlić is currently a distinguished research professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia.

His lecture, which welcomed many Baldwin admirers, focused on alternative ways to look at Baldwin’s work and encouraged people to see Baldwin as a lyrical writer.

“How does one think about lyrical language if not in the standard ways of judging poetic porosity, for example by looking at the page and guessing that if it’s written in one way it’s either poetry or prose?” Pavlić said. “The question becomes interesting as it relates to James Baldwin, as he’s a celebrated writer of prose, essays, and novels, but who in his career and life referred to himself as a poet again and again, while at the same time writing very few works that resemble poems.”

Pavlić argued that instead of looking at Baldwin's writing and judging from what we see, we should instead notice the powerful lines that lend themselves to repeated reading or recitation.

“If you meet people familiar with Baldwin’s work, they will all have a favorite passage. This is true for all writers, but this is uncommonly so with Baldwin. People who go back to his work again and again find themselves reading the same passage several times, among other reasons, for the experience of just encountering the language again,” Pavlić said. 

Pavlić then made the connection between lyrical language and music, as both are “loaded up with emotional and textural meaning and resonance.” He pointed out that literary works like Baldwin's can have musical substance.

“The first thing you learn in this country if you’re black is a form of silence. Nobody saw Malcolm coming, nobody saw Martin coming. These people who live in their mirror, don’t see what’s coming”, Pavlić said.

Pavlić then played Rihanna’s “Consideration” from her album “ANTI.”

According to Pavlić, the song “traces a lyrical suspicion of social tendency, it exposes that some lyricists don’t go with the flow. The lyric poet has a distinct voice, which makes syntax works in ways that is not possible for prose.”

Pavlić then played “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith, a song which was written in response to the historic floods of Mississippi and Louisiana and the people that were caught there. This is a song that struck Baldwin deeply.

Pavlić argued that writing about this specific experience opens its range of possibility without diminishing its specificity at all, as through the language, readers or listeners can sympathize with the experience in a different way than if it was generalized. “This is lyrical action. In lyrical action, one can find a mirror in something that technically didn’t happen to you at all.”

Pavlic finished by reading a letter that Baldwin wrote to a friend of his, Mary Painter, from the first week that he was ever in the American South, where Baldwin recalls several bad experiences he had there, most related to racism.

“This,” said Pavlić, is “Backwater blues. Baldwin’s experience in the South and his political involvement altered the voice in which he would write in essays and in novels, in ways which some people have not been able to get over. They think his craft suffered due to his political involvement, but they fail to see the fact that it displaced Baldwin’s Western aesthetic experience of his own mirror. He needed history to give him a break from the face he saw in his own mirror.”

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