In "Toward a Personal Semantics," a poem published in June Jordan's 1971 collection Some Changes, Jordan describes a speaker's hesitation at trusting an unnamed interlocutor's words:

if I do take somebody's word on
it means I don't know and you have to
believe if you just don't know

how do I dare to stand as
still as I am still standing

arrows create me
but I am no wish
after all the plunging
myself is no sanctuary
birds feed and fly inside me shattering
the sullen spell of any

eyeless storm to twist and sting
the tree of my remaining
like the wind 1

The opening conditional, "if I do," can be read either as the acceptance of "somebody's word" or as speculation about the consequences of not doing so. In either case, the interrogative that frames the remainder of the poem describes the price of refusing to accept that "word" as a neutral act of description and refusing to "believe if you just don't know."

The speaker's refusal to believe in this "word" exposes language as contested intersubjective terrain and seems to occasion a turbulent, solitary process of self-questioning and self-definition that warps the syntax of the poem. The fact that "arrows create me" implies that the "me" is a product of both the interpellative force of "somebody's word" and a struggle to alter the meaning of that "word."

Neither a "wish" nor "sanctuary," the speaker refuses to idealize a "me" that is here represented as the troubled object of contending projections. That "me" both absorbs the psychically "shattering" force of those "arrows" but also seems to come into existence as a specific kind of oppositional subject. The speaker's initial act of daring "to stand" momentarily reproduces the outlines of this subject only to expose how it is not whole, but hollow. The poem describes the collapse of this imposed "I" into a kind of mordant pun an "eyeless storm" with no calm center.

Featured in her second book, "Toward a Personal Semantics" seems to contrast sharply with poems which more explicitly address race, gender, and sexuality. As part of a series of scattered early career poems that seem to explore the expressive limits of a "Personal Semantics," these poems have long puzzled critics expecting the more unambiguous political assertions contained in the widely anthologized "Poem About My Rights," for example.2

The political ambiguity of Jordan's 1971 poem arguably highlights the stakes of ongoing post-1960s poetic debates over the representational status of the autobiographical speaking subject, or the lyric "I," as a longstanding boundary marker between a US mainstream, "expressive" poetics and an experimental or avant-garde "other tradition" 3. In a recent anthology of contemporary black experimental poetry, What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America, Jordan's poem is framed as an example of how black experimental poetry constitutes a taxonomic challenge to what editors Lauri Ramey and Aldon Lynn Nielsen call "the long-standing argument that black poets in America were busy 'telling their own stories' while white poets pursued a more experimental course." 4 Because critics have typically not categorized Jordan as an experimental poet, her presence in Nielsen and Ramey's anthology is intended to question "the common view both inside and outside the academy . . . that the 70s marked an era in which L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetries arose to contest official verse culture" while "postwar black poetry presumably followed a separate course." 5

The dominant narratives of postwar US poetry have long cast the divide between mainstream and experimental poetry in terms of a distinction between normative versus non-normative syntax. Because assessments of normative language use are of course context-dependent, it is a taxonomic division historically freighted with contested racial meaning. Framed in alternately opposed or complementary terms, the difference between what was broadly characterized as a mainstream and experimental poetics by the 1990s had congealed around a distinction between a "politics of form" and a "poetics of identity."6 Despite the fact that these bodies of writing are sometimes overlapping, the concept of identity as a basic unit of analysis has been subsequently threaded through a number of oppositions that continue to broadly organize the study of postwar US poetry: lyric and anti-lyric impulses, expression and construction, voice and textuality, and difficulty and accessibility.

These antinomies of postwar poetics have generally associated experimentation with a set of disjunctive or defamiliarizing formal strategies that denaturalize the lyric subject, "ideologies of expression" 7, and identity more broadly as a linguistic convention and ascriptive social form. New Critical and post-New Critical discourses of formal abstraction often presuppose an implicitly racialized opposition between fixed and fluid subjects, where formal innovation and aesthetic agency is frequently understood as rendering identities fundamentally indeterminate and socially unlocatable.

Conversely, contemporary racially marked poetic traditions have been broadly framed in terms of the expression of identities and the reclamation of marginalized voices. Jordan's poem raises the question, however, of whether race, as what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called a "metalanguage," is reducible to the concept of identity in the first place and what sorts of social forms it might otherwise assume.8 By representing the "shape" of a speaking subject as shaped and reshaped by constraint, contention, and possibility, Jordan's poem can help us to rethink race as a comparative social form, context for poetic experimentation, and politically contested signifier.

"Toward A Personal Semantics," in my reading, offers a suggestive mapping of what Colleen Lye has called "racial form." 9 Building on Raymond Williams's theorization of form as a concept capable of describing not only literary genres, but social processes and relations, Lye has argued that the concept of race itself might be productively rethought in formal terms.10 As a social form, race describes both a historically changeable relational structure and an array of formative processes that shape and alter the meaning and material context of racial categories. Turning to a more expansive conception of form can help readers to "mediate the usual divide between the aesthetic and the social, which is especially severe in discussions of ethnic literature" where "the impasse between traditional formalism and sociological criticism" continues to structure debates over racially marked poetic traditions.11

Jordan's poem helps us to reframe race beyond the idiom or "container" of identity and to reflexively interrogate the parameters of racial representation within contemporary poetic works where explicit racial reference may be absent. As a shifting articulation of relations between subjects, structures, and formative processes, racial form functions as a kind of hinge concept in my reading that mediates between race understood as a structure of domination on the one hand, and as an affirmative subject of liberation, group solidarity, and shared history on the other.12

The final image of "the tree of my remaining" returns us to the two senses of "still," tracing the mutation of the word from adjective to adverb, subtly altering the meaning of a subject fixed and immobilized by "somebody's word" to a willed commitment to "remaining." The poem concludes by offering a complex simile "the tree of my remaining / like the wind" that raises the question of whether the speaker identifies with the enduring solidity of the form of the tree or with the seeming formlessness of wind. It seems that the speaker's commitment to "remaining" only momentarily assumes a visible material form rooted yet also capable of movement. Perseverance is here not rooted in embodiment, however, but a will to "dare" that seems to draw energy from the external forces assailing the body. Poised between a noun and verb, the gerund "remaining" then comes to identify its own constancy with the very elemental forces that deprive the speaker of a stable enunciative position and fixed social location. The commitment to "remaining" is not an "accidental" result of external determination nor does it simply assert the fiction of a completely non-relational subject.

It is this willed commitment, the poet insists, that transforms the lived experience of inhabiting a social location from ascriptive fixity to a resolute endurance from "still" to "still." The movement from the former to latter sense of "still," and back again, traces the circulation of a figure that only exists in motion the wind. To assume the form of a static, discrete subject, the poem implies, is to be continually battered by experience. The "tree of my remaining / like the wind" could be read then as registering the speaker's repeated attempts to undo a kind of defensive psychic rigidification in the face of a "shattering" traumatic experience and what I have been describing as a loss of epistemic "standing."

We might read this simultaneously fluid yet insistent commitment to endure as an instance of more explicit defiant responses to racial marginalization and gender and sexual subordination in Jordan's other poems. But what I argue constitutes one experimental impulse of the poem is its registration of how the very "shape" of identity, and what Gillian White has called "the expressive and humanistic subject that the word 'lyric' metonymizes," can never become a stable object of recognition.13 Instead, what the speaker "expresses" is not an identity but a process of constrained self-fashioning in the absence of intersubjective recognition. The increasingly compressed imagistic logic of the poem as dramatizing the speaker's attempt to strike a balance between a will to protect themselves from external threats and a desire to remain receptive to a non-human natural order of trees, birds, and wind that seems to more adequately mirror their experiences.14

Jordan's poem traces the "shape" of endurance, reimagining the will to "dare" as not only resistance but also a commitment to "remaining" receptive to changing external conditions, the poem challenges the interpretive presupposition that in racially marked literature "agency derives its shape from identity rather than action itself being constitutive of identity." 15 The poem describes a field of action that is inevitably shaped by the "constraint" of identity itself as a bounded social form imposed upon a speaker whose capacity for action continually breaches the contours of this container.

"Toward a Personal Semantics" ultimately provides a suggestive, compact model for how to read racial form as describing not only a set of social constraints but also how such constraints condition a range of specific agential possibilities. The question, "how do I dare to stand as / still as I am still standing" dramatizes the play between description of an already existing state of affairs and a kind of performative assertion, where a commitment to "remaining" becomes a background condition for further action. The speaker confronts not only the interpellative "word" of others, but the history of their own previous choices. Jordan does not associate agential capacity with a deracinated, universal lyric speaking subject, however, but with a socially embedded set of political and imaginative possibilities for intervention. In my reading, the poem elaborates a "grammar" of situated action that potentially applies across multiple contexts and communicative situations.

If we read the poem as describing a compressed phenomenology of racialization, or Fred Moten has described as a black "subjectivity structure born in objection," the speaker's response to racial objectification ultimately refuses to reproduce the figure of an absolutely self-sufficient, "transparent" subject as its emancipatory horizon.16 The speaker of "Towards a Personal Semantics" could be read as refusing what I want to call a "poetics of recognition" governed by the imperative to perform not only a legible social identity but to reproduce the very social form of identity itself.17 As the language of the poem shifts from the human to the non-human natural world, the poem associates survival not only with refusal but with attunement to the elemental power of lyric or postlyric "world-making" under severe social constraint.18

Jordan would dilate the poem's gnomic declarations in a much longer prose poem, written from 1958-1973, entitled "Fragments from a Parable," published in New Days: Poems of Exile and Return (1974). Begun during what the poet called the "civil rights decade," "Fragments from a Parable" was published after the shorter version of the poem appeared in Some Changes. The later work offers significantly more context for some of the language in "Towards a Personal Semantics" while continuing to rely on the earlier poem's highly associative, non-narrative style.19 "Somebody's word" is here reframed as the word of God changing Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus, or as the suffocating patriarchal "word" of a violent and domineering West Indian immigrant father looking to insulate his family from external threats but instead imprisoning the speaker within a "syntax of stone."20

While a thorough close reading of "Fragments of a Parable" is beyond the scope of this essay, in the poem the racial form of blackness encodes a complex relation between fluidity and "arrest" a word that invokes police violence but also the reduction of black subjects to lifeless, fungible matter:

My name is me. I am what you call black. (Only I am still. Arrest me. Arrest me any one or thing. If you arrest me I am yours. I am yours ready for murder or am I yours ready to expose any closed vein. Which is not important. Am I matter to you? Does it? You will try when. But now I am never under arrest. 21

We might reread the earlier poem in light of this passage from the later one, where the speaker does not counter her ascriptive racial positioning by asserting an idealizable, whole, "transparent" identity, but instead by moving "between / beyond / beneath / illusions" into a space that might be better characterized in terms of what Edouard Glissant has called "the right to opacity." 22

What survives the shattering violence of external forces in the poem, and what escapes confinement within a family fatally shaped by a father's "delusion," is a simultaneously shattered and self-shattering subject that breaks free from the hold not only of implied authorities but also from the congealed "syntax" of the speaker's own prior actions.23 "I am one of those suffering frozen to the perpetual corrosion of me" Jordan writes a condition that both limits and enables further action in a space whose very continued existence comes to signify "aggressively resisting." 24

This brief but suggestive passage from Jordan's later poem draws attention to the convergence of two conceptions of form. First, form describes what Raymond Williams has called the "generative moments" where the "shape" of historical pressures and constraints register in the very formal patterns and formative processes that literary works encode in "the poem first 'heard' as a rhythm without words, the dramatic scene first 'visualized' as a specific movement or grouping, the narrative sequence first 'grasped' as a moving shape inside the body."25

Second, the passage invokes the racial forms of what the poet Douglas Kearney, writing over four decades later, has satirically dubbed, after Bertolt Brecht, "Negrotesque gestus."26 "Gestus/gest are Brechtian theatrical techniques," Kearney writes, "indicating 'the mimetic and gestural expression of the social relationships prevailing between people of a given period." 27 Such gestures map a repeated experience of social constraints that convey "the 'gist' of larger structures of power and domination."28 At the same time, gestus/gest refers to a repertoire of aesthetic strategies for Kearney a racialized kinesics that both registers the force of such constraints and attempts to transform them into expressive possibilities: the shake, shimmy, shuffle, stagger, and stutter. In Jordan's poem, the speaker's claim that "I am never under arrest" is not an assertion of the fundamental indeterminacy of identity but what could instead be read as a repeatable gesture in an unrepeatable itinerary as the mobile gestus of stillness itself, of "still."

Reading Jordan's two poems beside each other encourages us to develop an expansive conception of form that not only includes aesthetic techniques but also race understood as a complex, historically shifting amalgam of patterns of lived experience and social organization operating above and below the molar threshold of "identity." In this case, racial form is not only shaped by the organization of state violence as a mechanism of racial domination, or by the heteropatriarchal family as a stifling formal container of the speaker's childhood experiences designed to protect them from an antiblack social order, but by how these structures are interarticulated. Confronting a relational grammar of racial subject formation that seems to preemptively establish the limits of the expressible, these poems dramatize the struggle to alter the meaning of seemingly unalterable words.

Christopher Chen is an Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Chen has published poetry, essays, interviews, and reviews in boundary 2, The South Atlantic Quarterly, The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics, The New Inquiry, 1913: A Journal of Forms, Tripwire, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is completing a book-length comparative study of contemporary Black and Asian American experimental poetry.


  1. June Jordan, "Toward a Personal Semantics," in Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans, ed. Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2006), 137.[]
  2. See for example Hayden Carruth's 1977 New York Times review of Jordan's selected poems, Things We Do In The Dark. Carruth finds the abstraction and absence of racial reference in poems like "Toward A Personal Semantics" baffling. "One section of her book is called, for instance, `Towards a Personal Semantics,' and it contains many poems of this sort, exactly the ones that baffle me," Carruth argues, "They are full of polysyllabic abstractions, images pulled out of nowhere, themes that appear and disappear and never quite define themselves" Hayden Carruth, "Politics and Love," The New York Times, October 9, 1977.[]
  3. Marjorie Perloff, "Whose New American Poetry? Anthologizing in the Nineties," Diacritics 26, no. 3/4 (Autumn/Winter 1996): 104.[]
  4. Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey, eds., What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), xv.[]
  5. Ibid., xiv.[]
  6. For more on the history of this opposition and its relationship to New Left and Post-New Left political movements, see Christopher Chen and Timothy Kreiner, "The Politics of Form and Poetics of Identity in Postwar American Poetry," in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics, ed. Michelle Chihara and Matt Seybold (New York: Routledge, 2018), 27-40.[]
  7. Craig Dworkin, "The Fate of Echo," in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, ed. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), xliii.[]
  8. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "African American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 255.[]
  9. Colleen Lye, "Racial Form," Representations 104, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 92.[]
  10. As Williams writes, within the history of literary criticism, form has "acquired two major senses: a visible or outward shape, and an inherent shaping impulse" Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 186.[]
  11. Lye, "Racial Form," 97.[]
  12. Lye's characterizes racial form as a kind of historically shifting relation between "archives of racial representation" and "archives of ethnic self-expression" a move that highlights a fundamental definitional ambiguity of the concept of race itself that frequently collapses a basic sociological distinction between race and ethnicity in popular discourse (Lye, "Racial Form," 96). I read racial form as a kind of hinge concept that mediates between principles and practices of hierarchical social differentiation on the one hand, and a range of historically specific responses to racial positioning on the other.[]
  13. Gillian White, Lyric Shame: The "Lyric" Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 17.[]
  14. We might situate the poem in a tradition of black environmental writing and black ecopoetics. See Camille T. Dungy, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009); Sonya Postmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).[]
  15. Lois McNay, Against Recognition (Malden: Polity, 2008), 164.[]
  16. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 13; Denise Ferreira da Silva has characterized this subject as a racially unmarked "transparent `I'" central to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thought (see Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xxiv). For Da Silva it is a subject that historically been negatively defined in relation to the "affectable `I'" of non-European racial subjects understood as especially susceptible to environmental influences and therefore incapable of independent rational action and judgment (Ibid., 196).[]
  17. For an overview of the intellectual genealogy of terms like "identity" and "identity politics" in contemporary popular and scholarly discourse, see Marie Moran, Identity and Capitalism (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2014), Philip Gleason, "Identifying Identity: A Semantic History," The Journal of American History 69, no. 4 (1983): 910-931; and Frederick Cooper and Rogers Brubaker, "Beyond Identity," Theory and Society 29, no. 1 (2000): 1-47.[]
  18. Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 8; I borrow the term "postlyric" from Anthony Reed, Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 97. "The ideology of the stable voice, typified by a certain critical hermeneutics of `the' lyric," Reed writes, "is one backdrop against which black experimental writing works" (97). Such a postlyric black experimental poetics accomplishes this by "confronting readers with a subject that does not easily reduce to an appropriable object of knowledge" while "it suspends the presumption of speaking for by making visible the literary production of `speech'" (98).[]
  19. June Jordan and Archive Of Recorded Poetry And Literature, June Jordan reading her poems with comment in the Recording Laboratory,1974, Audio, Retrieved from the Library of Congress.[]
  20. June Jordan, Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 66. Jordan's poetry, essays, and nonfiction memoir Soldier: A Poet's Childhood has persistently politicized the "private" domain of family relations as a space where the possibility of constituting a "personal semantics" is consistently preempted by a set of inherited meanings reinforced not only through a racist social order but also through the insular and patriarchal social form of the family. As Richard Flynn has argued, Jordan's persistent interest in rendering the complexity of childhood experience presents "a decidedly unsentimental view of the child as a soldier-poet who wrests power over a literally paternal language," Richard Flynn, "'Affirmative Acts': Language, Childhood, and Power in June Jordan's Cross-Writing," Children's Literature 30 (2002): 161.[]
  21. Jordan, Naming Our Destiny, 60.[]
  22. Ibid., 60; Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189.[]
  23. Ibid., 64, 66.[]
  24. Ibid., 60.[]
  25. Williams, Marxism and Literature, 190.[]
  26. Douglas Kearney, Mess And Mess And (Blacksburg: Noemi Press, 2015), 62.[]
  27. Ibid.[]
  28. Ibid.[]