Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934)
Joyce Joyce and John Reilly
Classroom Issues and Strategies
There is a widespread feeling that protest and politics are either inappropriate
to literature or, if acceptable at certain times, the time for it has now
The whole course should be founded upon an acceptance of the fact that
there are no a priori definitions for literature. Poetry is what
the poet writes or the audience claims as poetry. The real issues are whether
or not the poet sets out a plausible poetics (one neither too solipsistic
nor so undiscriminating as to dissolve meaning) and whether or not the
practice of the poet has the local excitement and disciplined language
to make it aesthetically satisfying. Upon these premises, the study of
Sonia Sanchez can proceed with attention to her idea of revolutionary poetry
associated with nation building, as it was discussed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Operating on the assumption that there is some common tradition underlying
work of poets who declare ethnicity (African-American) as their common
identity, useful discussion is possible about ways Sanchez differs from
Michael Harper and
Jay Wright. What differences
in aesthetic and practice account for the relative complexity of Harper
and Wright when contrasted with Sanchez? But, then, what allows us to consider
them all black poets? Surely not merely the selection of subject matter?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The historical and political are boldly set out in Sanchez's poetry.
The personal may be overlooked by the hasty reader, but the poetry develops
a persona with a highly subjective voice conveying the impression of a
real human being feeling her way to positions, struggling to make her expressive
declarative writing conform to her intuitions and interior self. This tension
once observed makes all the themes arranged around the black aesthetic
and black politics also accessible.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The "eye" devices (lowercase letters, speed writing, fluid
lines) along with the free form of verse and vernacular word choice are
avant-garde devices seen in the work of many other poets. The point here
is to see them associated with an aesthetic that privileges the oral and
musical. For Sanchez it would be valuable to point to the frequency with
which African-American poets allude to jazz performers, even making their
lines sound like a musical instrument, just as, historically, musical instruments
imitated the sounds of voice in early jazz and blues. This would make the
vigor of the poem on the Righteous Brothers understandable, for music is
a talisman of African-American culture. It would also set up a useful contrast
between poetry written for print and poetry written to simulate the ephemerality
of performed music or song.
For Sanchez these questions have great importance, for she has undergone
important changes that have brought the spiritual and personal more forward
in her verse. Dating her poems in connection with political events is very
important. One might, for example, talk about an avowedly nationalist poetry
written for a struggle to assert values believed to be a source of community
solidarity. There are many parallels to suggest, including the writing
of Irish authors in English, Jewish-American writers adapting the sounds
of Yiddish to an exploration of traditional values in English, etc. Following
the nationalist period of her work we see a shift of focus. One must ask
students if the elements centered in the newer poems were not already present
before. The appropriate answer (yes) will permit assertion of the developing
nature of a writer's corpus, something worth presenting in all courses.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
"Just Don't Never Give Up on Love" could be contrasted with
confessional verse such as Sylvia
Plath's "Daddy" to distinguish the ways feeling can be distanced.
Similarly the feminist voices of Adrienne
Rich and Marge Piercy
can introduce subtle distinctions when contrasted with the same Sanchez
narrative/poem. What, we might ask, is the basis of distinction: formal
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Recalling the use made of the mask by Paul
Laurence Dunbar, consider what differences have occurred to change
the meaning of that image in the 88 years until Sanchez published "Masks."
2. A society may be culturally diverse; yet, that does not mean that
cultures are similarly powerful or influential. Discuss the way that Sonia
Sanchez and other revolutionary black poets see the relationship between
their culture and that of the dominant white society.
Joyce, Joyce A. "The Development of Sonia Sanchez: A Continuing
Journey." Indian Journal of American Studies 13 (July 1983):
__. Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African Poetic Tradition. Chicago:
Third World Press, 1996.
Harris, Trudier and Thadious Davis, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography:
Afro-American Poets Since 1955. 1985. 295-306.
Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum