Barrax, Gerald 1933–
Gerald Barrax 1933–
Standing somewhat aside from the main trends in contemporary African-American poetry by virtue of his emphasis on technique and of a certain classical quality in his style, Gerald Barrax has enjoyed a steadily increasing level of recognition since his first book was published in 1970. Like one of his major influences, the white nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson, Barrax often incubates his poetry with close observation of his own life and surroundings, finding that they cast light on wider themes. The range of Barrax’s poetry is wide, but those wider themes often center on the African-American experience, romantic love, the power of music, and death.
Of African, Native American, and Dutch ancestry, Gerald William Barrax was born in Atalla, Alabama, on June 21, 1933. In 1944 the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and settled in the Homewood neighborhood that was later explored in the novels of John Edgar Wideman. He started reading and writing poetry after a high school girlfriend brought him a poem that she had written for him while he was hospitalized after tonsil surgery. After graduating from high school, Barrax worked for a year at a U.S. Steel plant. There, an exconvict musician co-worker introduced him to the poetry of Walter Benton, and Barrax was hooked. Barrax enrolled at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University in 1952 with the intention of becoming a pharmacist, but he dropped out after a year for financial reasons and joined the U.S. Air Force.
He continued writing poetry all through his Air Force career, discovering a manual called Poets’ Handbook in a Greenville, South Carolina used book store and embarking on a period of self-directed study that lasted for several years. In 1959 Barrax was able to resume his education at Duquesne, receiving a BA there in 1963. From 1967 to 1969 Barrax was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received an MA in English. Barrax’s education was rounded out by a remarkable series of jobs as a cab driver, substitute teacher, awning hanger, and failed encyclopedia salesman—he didn’t sell a single set.
In 1969 Barrax moved to North Carolina to take a teaching job at North Carolina Central University, and he became an instructor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh the following year. Some of the poems he had accumulated over the years were published that year (1970) in book form as Another Kind of Rain. He would continue to teach at North Carolina State until his retirement in the late 1990s. Between 1972 and 1977, aided by financial support from the Ford Foundation, Barrax took further graduate classes at the nearby University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Broadside Press Award for Poetry that he won in 1973 was one of a series of honors that came his way over the course of his career.
Despite these accolades, Barrax remained less well known than other African-American poets who spoke more often with raised voices in their writing. Although many of Barrax’s poems dealt with the legacy of slavery
At a Glance…
Born on June 21, 1933, in Atalla, AL; son of Aaron Barrax, a custodian, and Dorthera Barrax; married Geneva Catherine Lucy, 1954 (divorced, 1971); married Joan Dellimore; children: three sons from first marriage, two from second. Education: Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, BA, 1963; University of Pittsburgh, MA, 1969. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1953-57; final rank of airperson first class.
Career: Numerous jobs as cab driver, substitute teacher, awning hanger, and failed encyclopedia salesman, 1950s; United States Post Office, Pittsburgh, clerk and carrier, 195B-67; North Carolina Central University, Durham, instructor, 1969-70; North Carolina State University, Raleigh, instructor in English, 1970-1997; Obsidian magazine, editor, 1986-1996.
Selected awards: Catholic Poetry Society of America, Gold Medal Award, 1973; North Carolina State University, poet-in-residence, mid-1990s.
Addresses: Home —West Chester, PA; Office —c/o Department of English, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27607,
and with racism in its many contemporary forms, he derided what he called (in a Callaloo interview) the “‘Amen’ phenomenon” in modern African-American poetry, the tendency of audiences to fall for familiar slogans. “What they [audiences] wanted from their poets was secular sermons; they wanted to be told something that would elicit the equivalent of an’ Amen’ from them; to be told something they already knew or wanted to hear; for it to be phrased (or shouted) in exactly the same way they’d heard it a dozen times before.”
Instead, when Barrax wrote about slavery, his imagery was original but no less powerful as a result. In his long poem “In This Sign,” published in his 1984 collection The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods, Barrax evoked hundreds of years of slavery’s bitter history in a single stanza: “We come to Jamestown. In time our sweat and blood bloat/The lean vampire mistress there/Into the Great Whore of Memphis, Charleston,/Mobile, New Orleans, who wallows/In her beds of cotton.” Barrax could use the rhythms of African-American speech very effectively, but his “For a Black Poet” parodied the heated rhetorical styles of militant poets. “I AGREED with all that my brother and sister poets were saying, but I wanted not to have to SAY it, but to make the reader FEEL it through his senses, his emotions,” Barrax was quoted as saying in Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South.
Barrax was married twice; he had three sons by his first wife Geneva and two daughters by his second, Joan. Barrax’s family members appeared often in his poetry, as did Barrax himself. Many of his poems referred to his varied work experiences, and he addressed such subjects as the growth of his children in a way that was personal without being sentimental. The same combination of personal content with a sense of being outside looking in pervades Barrax’s many poems that chronicle the stages of romantic relationships.
After the publication of An Audience of One (1980) and The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods, Barrax became familiar to followers of contemporary poetry. He was appointed the editor of the literary magazine Obsidian in 1986, giving young poets fits when he accompanied rejection slips with his own custom-made checklist of flaws in their poetry but achieving a new level of influence. As a teacher, Barrax insisted that his students begin by writing poems in traditional rhyme and stanza forms.
His poems began to appear in anthologies, and several became well known among general readers. One of these was “Whose Children Are These?,” in which familial impulses played a role; it depicted a slave father looking at his sleeping children before making his escape, wondering what their fate would be. Another poem often requested at Barrax’s many poetry readings was “Strangers Like Us: Pittsburgh, Raleigh, 1945-1985,” in which he compared the safe streets of his own boyhood neighborhood with his family’s home in modern-day Raleigh, “cycloned into our yards and hearts.”
Barrax published Leaning Against the Sun in 1992. That book was nominated for Pulitzer and National Book awards, and another honor that came Barrax’s way as he brought his academic career to a close was the publication of a career retrospective volume, From a Person Sitting in Darkness: New and Selected Poems (1998). Barrax, who served as poet-in-residence at North Carolina State in the mid-1990s, also wrote essays and literary criticism. He retired and moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1997, and the following year he was featured Furious Flower, a four-volume video anthology of African-American poetry. In his retirement, he continued to write and to make appearances before audiences of young people.
Another Kind of Rain, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
An Audience of One, University of Georgia Press, 1980.
The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods, University Press of Virginia, 1984.
Leaning Against the Sun, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
From a Person Sitting in Darkness: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Bain, Robert, and Joseph M. Flora, eds., Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South, Greenwood, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets Since World War II; Third Series, Gale, 1992.
African American Review, Summer 1994, p. 311.
Callaloo, Spring 1997, p. 312.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1999, p. 67.
“Gerald Barrax,” Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=477 (May 12, 2004).
“Gerald Barrax,” O’Neill Literary House, Washington College, http://lithouse.washcoll.edu/visitors/barrax_gerald.html (May 12, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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