This past Friday, the last day of November 2012, Carolyn Rodgers (1945-2010) was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. With her in this third class of inductees: James T. Farrell, Langston Hughes, Jane Addams, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway. Though perhaps the least well known of this group, she deserves this company. The program book quotes her as saying, “I put the poem on paper by sense and touch, much like a blind person fumbling in the dark for light.”
This post serves as a brief summary of her career and genuis, and a catalog for several pieces celebrating her that are, or will be, on this website. (See below.)
Carolyn Rodgers was one of the great American poets to emerge from Chicago in the 1960’s, playing a major role in Chicago’s vibrant Organization of Black American Culture community (OBAC), and in 1967 helping Haki Madhubuti and Johari Amini found one of Chicago’s most important cultural institutions, the Third World Press.
She is one of my favorite poets of all times and places, and I count it one of my life’s great fortunes to have been her friend. I included her work in both my Black Writing from Chicago and in Smokestacks and Skyscrapers, an anthology of Chicago writing I edited with David Starkey.
> The pieces featuring Carolyn on this site are:
- Inwardness and Activism: An Appreciation of Carolyn Rodgers
- Carolyn Rodgers reads “Prodigal Objects”
- WBEZ Interviews Richard Guzman about Black Writing from Chicago
- Carolyn Rodgers’ Foreword to Black Writing from Chicago
- Chicago Literary Hall of Fame inductee post.
—Links will go live when material becomes available—
After receiving her B.A. from Roosevelt University and her M.A. from the University of Chicago, Carolyn Rodgers taught at several Chicago colleges. She mentored 100’s of young people. And she wrote. She authored a novel and many short stories, and her poetry has been collected in over a dozen books and broadsides, including Paper Soul (1968), how I got ovah (1975)—for which she received a National Book Award nomination—The Heart as Evergreen (1978), and Finite Forms (1985). In 1970 Rodgers received the Society of Midland Authors Poet Laureate award. Two remarkable chapbooks, We’re Only Human (1996), and A Train Called Judah (1998), contain some of the best poetry of her life and deserve as much recognition as any of her other work. From the beginning Rodgers achieved a unique fusion of what critic Bettye J. Parker-Smith called a “rough hewn, folk spirited” ethos with a deep concern for racial, spiritual, feminist, and gender issues. The poems from these last two chapbooks retain this fusion but also go beyond it, moving with great ease and sophistication along an international set of issues and geographies. They help us understand and feel more deeply both the large horrors and small redeeming virtues that issue from our humanity.
Rodgers celebrated black community and explored its tensions and social crises. An extraordinary combination of lyricism, sensuality, and street-wise swagger mark her poems on love, and her knack for expressing the intricacies and paradoxes of human love, man-woman love, extends towards religious love. She was profoundly spiritual. She strove—as she wrote in her poem “how i got ovah II/It Is Deep II”—“to understand the mysteries / of mystical life the ‘intellectual’ / purity if mystical light.” In her best later work, she arrives at a profound sense that revolutionary concerns—often the subject of her earliest poems—must join with a deep commitment to family, religion, and God to create a resilient inner life.
In my piece “Activism and Inwardness” (see the link above), I explore the connection of inner life and outward action so prevalent in Carolyn’s life and work. One of my favorite poems is “Prodigal Objects.” (Go to the link above to hear her read it.)
when i lose something,
i am all out in the streets
looking for it.
it doesn’t matter if I lost it at home,
or school, or at church.
i think maybe I’ll see it
way cross town in impossible places.
department stores, restrooms, hospital
lobbys, telephone booths.
earrings, loves, books, buttons,
i’m looking for them all.
say, maybe i lost whatever it is
in California, and here I am in Chicago,
2000 miles away, looking for it.
or maybe i lost it in Africa and one
day I get a certain feeling and I’m
in Chicago and i know i lost it, say
400 years ago in Africa,
but on this particular day, I just know
i’m going to find it in Chicaqo.
it doesn’t matter what it is.
no, it really doesn’t matter what it is,
or where I lost it either
what matters is the feeling of finding
(there is a law of finding),
what matters is finding on lost days.
and I’m finding that some days
what matters as much, is being found.
This feeling of being found helps us find the courage to remain revolutionary—to keep fumbling for light—in the midst of struggles we never suspected would last so long.