Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Russell Atkins

4 Sep

atkins (1)Earlier in the year, I wrote a profile on Russell Atkins’ 1976 release Here In The (Cleveland State University Press) in anticipation of the forthcoming Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master (Pleiades Press, 2013) through the Unsung Masters Series. In that review, I noted how the poet “creates a singular, Cleveland-based beauty in his language and the sounds it produces,” all the while maintaining a focus on the “decay of a once great city.”

The Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis edited anthology certainly reinforces this version/vision of the poet; but it also expands the critical framework of Atkins, positioning him as a philosopher, musician, editor, and, well, enigma.

The enigmatic quality of Atkins has, in many respects, contributed a great deal to his relative absence in broader conversations about modern and postmodern poetry. As Prufer and Dumanis write in their introduction:

Ultimately, Atkins’ strange concrete poetry, his flights of audio-visual intensity, his idiosyncratic word-play would bring him some measurable success, a little withering criticism, and, generally, increasing obscurity. (16)

In this regard, then, the very traits that make Atkins’ poetry worth revisiting are those that alienated him from a wider audience in the first place. Toward the middle of the book, the poet himself addresses this paradox in his “Manifesto”; repeatedly, Atkins expresses little concern for the “casual reader” who “goes straight for the ‘sense,’ or the ‘meaning’ behind his poems” (72), believing the poet “should not risk” his or her artistic vision “for what is called ‘communication’.” (71). Instead, poetry and art “should be immersed in the bringing-into-existence-as-creativity process” (71) and “beauty” should be something “defined ONLY by the artist” (73).

Further compounding his problem of exposure, Atkins’ poetry did not adhere to then-contemporary notions of what it meant to be a “black poet” writing in the United States; he was “unwilling to bend to the style of the day—and seeming a little hostile to the Black Arts Movement’s single-mindnedness” (17). Whereas Atkins championed his own single-minded aesthetic predicated upon his unique theories of psychovisual musicality, the Black Arts Movement called for an aesthetic that rooted itself in (and placed at the forefront) concepts and problems of race. This is not to say that Atkins’ poetry does not engage race relations and racism; rather, he placed his abiding purchase upon the confluence of music, sound, and objects.

As if that were not enough, Atkins “would rarely leave Cleveland” (15); and, as Leatrice W. Emeruwa suggested in an 1973 issue of Black World, “Clevelanders who remain in Cleveland…are usually omitted when it comes to national recognition in the arts” (18). Yes, it would appear much easier, for some, to reduce the city to the pithy moniker “The Mistake on the Lake” and ignore its resident artists, rather than to engage them in any meaningful way.

But why harp on Atkins’ obscurity? Because, in many respects, the Prufer and Dumanis curated collection serves not only as a reintroduction of the Cleveland poet to the contemporary conversation, but also functions as a proposal, perhaps even a plea, for a more comprehensive collection of his writing. The anthology concludes with essays by poet-critics Tyrone Williams, Evie Shockley, Sean Singer, Tom Orange, and scholar Aldon Lynn Nielsen, all acting as de facto advocates for such a project. In fact, Orange’s essay “The Place of Atkins and Future Scholarship” outlines the skeletal framework for such an archival project.

While a stamp of approval from these writers is, no doubt, helpful (and well-deserved), it is the writing of Atkins that will act as its own best advocate. To this end, the collection contains thirty-six poems, one poetic drama, a manifesto, and his essay “A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition”; this relatively scant offering left, at least this reader, desiring more of the poet’s strange beauty, exemplified in the following passages:

On one side’s a gloom of dreadful harsh,
much in the sound of coughing
upbroken of pieces, not organization—
in a sudden of a laugh to a cough
a whizz’d of ski, flying snow filaments
the back hotels                   fear them
                  there, men age to coughs,
shifting alone in drears of beds
and in the soiled underwear:
a kind of truth about themselves hacking (30)

A moment violently stark
it fled—with it
                          I (36)

snow hates the body
and fashion (37)

The breaks flash lights up sheer.
There is much huge about. I suppose
          those no’s are people
      between that suffering of— (39)

someplace in a disaster of grass
a minefield made audible

                    a singular clicking
miniature in the backyard
like the tick a minute before
               whole of its night (45)

In these excerpts, Atkins employs disruptive syntax, agrammatic constructions, and fragmentation in order to create an impression of the city and its residents’ hardships through an offbeat musicality, rather than a slavish adherence to representation or meaning. To this end, a reader invested too much in meaning will no doubt experience a certain amount of frustration in reading these poems. But a reader prepared to immerse themselves in the poems’ rhythms, as well as a language “upbroken of pieces,” will no doubt find great pleasure in the work.

Atkins prose elicits a similar response. While his “Psychovisual” essay can challenge a reader (especially if not familiar with music theory), passages throughout the text provided glimmers of clarity and insight to anyone willing to invest themselves in the trajectory of Atkins’ thought. Take, for instance, the following examples:

Psychovisualism does not try to frame new concepts. It is chiefly preoccupied with adjustments: adjustments that might make a composer several times surer of effectuality. (88)

It is more obvious today than ever that the power of ‘music’s’ impressive communication lies outside of the very element that transmits it, and has far less to do with objectivity in the combinations of that medium than presumed seemingly behind ‘musical’ practices. (88)

To a psychovisualist, the only intentionally organized sound on the part of a composer is Composition, which is not a binaural art but a VISUAL ART. In short, so-called ‘musical composition’ is a VISUAL ART” (91).


The ear is not a conceiving organ. It knows nothing of depth or height, organization, or geometrical relationships visually. It merely differentiates between intensities and fast rates and slow rates of frequency. Musical practice, however, has not been anxious to dissociate pitch from ‘high’ and ‘low’. (93)

Atkins, then, argues for a veritable displacement of the senses; or, perhaps better stated, he asks us to re-conceive standard notions of perception, language, and designation in an effort to access (or think about) music, composition, objects, and Forms in theretofore new ways

To conclude, Aldon Lynn Nielson writes that Atkins “has indeed been omitted from almost all histories of American literature in general and American experimentalism in particular,” and, unfortunately:

the published histories of the movements from Modernism to Postmodernism have not yet found reason to mention Atkins, and despite his early associations with Langston Hughes [and Marianne Moore], the critical efforts to recover important black writers who have been overlooked have yet to renew the reputation of Russell Atkins (120).

With any luck, then, Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master will be the first of many steps that will correct this neglect and bring this writer, musician, thinker, and Clevelander to a more extensive audience.

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  1. Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Dave Lucas | Vouched Books - March 19, 2014

    […] in the recently published anthology of his writing, the poet Russell Atkins focuses his creative imagination on the “miserabled […]

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