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by Nduta Waweru, at 12:39 pm, May 15, 2018, Culture

[Poetic Attack] Dudley Randall’s ‘A Poet is Not a Jukebox’ stands up for poets

Portrait of Dudley Randall. Handwritten on back: "Randall, Dudley, 1972. Photo by Dorothy Manty." Photo: Detroit Public Library

It is not uncommon for poets and other artists to be told what and how to write.  Many people would request them to write on different topics even when they are not aware of them, usually evoking the responsibility of the poet as their reason.

However, not all poets welcome such comments.  Dudley Randall is such a poet.

Born in 1915, Randall was not only a poet but also a publisher from Detroit, Michigan. He is known for his famous poem The Ballad of Birmingham, which was written in response to the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.

His little-known poem, A Poet is not a Jukebox, is a rebuttal to a friend who had told him what to write, without considering his circumstance.

In the poem, the 1981 Poet Laureate of the City of Detroit calls for understanding the context in which a poet writes before demanding a poem as one demands a song from a jukebox by shoving a quarter into it.

Here’s the poem.

A Poet Is Not a Jukebox

A poet is not a jukebox, so don’t tell me what to write.
I read a dear friend a poem about love, and she said,
“You’re in to that bag now, for whatever it’s worth,
But why don’t you write about the riot in Miami?”

I didn’t write about Miami because I didn’t know about Miami.
I’ve been so busy working for the Census, and listening to music all night,
and making new poems
That I’ve broken my habit of watching TV and reading newspapers.
So it wasn’t absence of Black Pride that caused me not to write about Miami,
But simple ignorance.

Telling a Black poet what he ought to write
Is like some Commissar of Culture in Russia telling a poet
He’d better write about the new steel furnaces in the Novobigorsk region,
Or the heroic feats of Soviet labour in digging the trans-Caucausus Canal,
Or the unprecedented achievement of workers in the sugar beet industry
who exceeded their quota by 400 percent (it was later discovered to
be a typist’s error).

Maybe the Russian poet is watching his mother die of cancer,
Or is bleeding from an unhappy love affair,
Or is bursting with happiness and wants to sing of wine, roses, and nightingales.

I’ll bet that in a hundred years the poems the Russian people will read, sing and love
Will be the poems about his mother’s death, his unfaithful mistress, or his
wine, roses and nightingales,
Not the poems about steel furnaces, the trans-Caucasus Canal, or the sugar
beet industry.
A poet writes about what he feels, what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion.
Not what some apparatchik dictates, to promote his own career or theories.

Yeah, maybe I’ll write about Miami, as I wrote about Birmingham,
But it’ll be because I want to write about Miami, not because somebody
says I ought to.

Yeah, I write about love. What’s wrong with love?
If we had more loving, we’d have more Black babies to become Black brothers and
sisters and build the Black family.

When people love, they bathe with sweet-smelling soap, splash their bodies
with perfume or cologne,
Shave, and comb their hair, and put on gleaming silken garments,
Speak softly and kindly and study their beloved to anticipate and satisfy her
every desire.
After loving they’re relaxed and happy and friends with all the world.
What’s wrong with love, beauty, joy and peace?

If Josephine had given Napoleon more loving, he wouldn’t have sown the
meadows of Europe with skulls.
If Hitler had been happy in love, he wouldn’t have baked people in ovens.
So don’t tell me it’s trivial and a cop-out to write about love and not about
Miami.

A poet is not a jukebox.
A poet is not a jukebox.
I repeat, A poet is not a jukebox for someone to shove a quarter in his ear
and get the tune they want to hear,
Or to pat on the head and call “a good little Revolutionary,”
Or to give a Kuumba Liberation Award.

A poet is not a jukebox.
A poet is not a jukebox.
poet is not a jukebox.

So don’t tell me what to write.

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