"What Beauty We Now Have" ... ; or, Taking a look at the late Carolyn Marie Rodgers and her Eden Press poetry

Poetry, the Chicago-based magazine founded by poet and critic Harriet Monroe in 1912, in Volume 221, Number 1, October 2022, features a 34-page special section: “What Beauty We Now Have,” on the poetry of the late Chicago poet Carolyn Marie Rodgers (1940-2010) published by her own imprint, Eden Press, on what section editor Andrew Peart calls “a largely unseen body of work.”

But why did Carolyn M. Rodgers choose to self-publish her poetry? After all, publishing regularly from the late 1960s in John H. Johnson’s Negro Digest/Black World, edited by Hoyt W. Fuller, she quickly became a rising star in the Black Arts Movement, a co-founder in 1967 of Don L. Lee/Haki R. Madhubuti’s Third World Press (now in its 56th year), the publisher of her first two volumes of poetry, Paper Soul (1968) and Songs of a Black Bird (1969), a founding member of Chicago’s OBAC/Organization of Black American Culture’s Writers’ Workshop, as Andrew Peart writes, and the author of one of BAM’s most influential critical essays, Black Poetry – Where It’s At (1969).

Her next two books were published by a major mainstream publisher, Anchor Books/Doubleday. How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems (1975), reprinting several poems from the Third World Press volumes, new and previously uncollected poems, was a finalist for the National Book Award 1976. But by the second book, The Heart as Ever Green (1978), something had gone wrong.*

Spiritual transformation. Andrew Peart selects eleven poems from five Eden Press chapbooks: Translations (1980), Morning Glory (1989), We’re Only Human (1994), A Train Called Judah (1998), Affirmation (2005), and some until now unpublished ones. There is Peart’s own Introduction, and an essay by poet Nikky Finney (Head Off & Split, National Book Award 2011).

However, as the first poem for his folio Peart has selected the last poem from The Heart as Ever Green: “Translations (Thinking of Enoch) for Black People.” (The biblical Enoch is the descendant of Adam who lived for 365 years and then “was no more, because God took him,” according to the Book of Genesis). Not an easy read, but for Peart an important poem that can be seen as signaling a turn away from militant politics towards spirituality and religion in Carolyn M. Rodgers’s poetry.

Perhaps Anchor Books/Doubleday were not – or Rodgers felt they were not – supportive (enough) of her emergent new poetic voice. Maybe they did not want her to quit the political poem that had been an important part of How I Got Ovah, the National Book Award nominee. (She did not. Not completely, anyway. And spirituality had always been a feature of Carolyn M. Rodgers’s work).

In any case, the fallout was real, as Andrew Peart writes elsewhere, and Rodgers would never again publish with a commercial publisher. Neither would she return to an established Black-owned press.

Flying under the radar. In a talk that Carolyn M. Rodgers gave at Northwestern University in 2007 she credits Chicago’s great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks for encouraging her to self-publish. Rodgers was going to look for a publisher, and Brooks had said to her: “Why don’t you publish it yourself? Do it yourself. It makes a big difference. You call all the shots.”

Gwendolyn Brooks had left Harper & Row to publish with Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press (see Index) and Madhubuti’s Third World Press. But she had also published poetry chapbooks under her own imprints, Brooks Press and The David Company  (named for her father). And Rodgers, who had been among the many poets attending Brooks’s writing workshops, would follow her example.

Rodgers, however, was not as well known as Brooks. And without a definite distribution system, often sharing her work through personal contacts, by 1980 Rodgers found herself “flying under the radar,” as Peart writes, even as she had pursued a new career as an instructor at Chicago colleges.

Rodgers had come to be seen as a reclusive and obscure poet to such an extent that a friend from back-in-the-day in an essay in 2018 would ask: “Whatever happened to Carolyn M. Rogers?”

To preserve a legacy. When Andrew Peart, an editor at Chicago Review and a teacher at the University of Chicago, in the summer of 2016 told poet Ed Roberson (To See the Earth Before the End of the World, 2010) that he was researching Chicago’s BAM, Rodgers included, Roberson said: “You know who you have to talk to, you have to talk to Carolyn Rodgers’s sister, Nina.” 

For the last twelve years of her life Carolyn had lived with her older sister, Nina Rodgers Gordon, in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Years that saw two major misfortunes in Rodgers’s life. In 2004 or ’05 she found out that she had stoma, a stomach cancer that would take her life in 2010, at the age of 69. “Carolyn was very angry about the illness. It was not one of the things that she faced well, in the sense that she felt that she had more work to do,” Nina remembers.           

When Carolyn died, Nina would take care of her papers, or what was left of them. Because in 2006 Carolyn was hit by a second disaster, the flooding of a storage space that destroyed a large part of her personal archive. Among the Eden Press chapbooks mentioned in Rodgers’s bibliographic materials but now thought to be lost are Eden and Other Poems (1983) and Finite Forms (1985). 

When Peart first called Nina Rodgers Gordon by phone in 2016 it was the beginning of a still ongoing collaboration between them to organize and preserve the writings of Carolyn M. Rodgers, and to call more attention from readers and critics alike to this “largely unseen body of work.”

The title for the special section, What Beauty We Now Have, is from the poem Such Beauty from Ashes (“… what beauty we now have, to gain strength from …”), one of two unpublished poems that Rodgers wrote following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, both included in this folio. Other notable poems reprinted here are The I Am Awesome, History Lesson/1960s, I Return to the Church, Poem No. 2: My Kind of Feminism, and Affirmation: A Monologue Poem

 “Loving on Black People.” Nikky Finney’s highly readable essay, Carolyn Rodgers: Loving on Black People, the last part of this special section, not discussed here, is not about the Eden Press poetry, but on a young poet in conversation with Rodgers’s Black Arts Movement poetry, in particular The Last M.F. (“they say,/ that I should not use the word/ muthafucka anymore/ in my poetry …”), beginning in 1975 when Finney was 18, an essay that deserves an article of its own.

UFI // 21 May 2024  

*See also the Reading Black article: Carmen L. Phelps: Visionary Women Writers of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement (University Press of Mississippi, 2013), that also briefly discusses Richard R. Guzman’s anthology, Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?, for which Guzman asked Carolyn M. Rodgers to write the foreword, and for which he selected four poems from her “two remarkable chapbooks,” We’re Only Human and A Train Called Judah, mentioned above.

Note: The Poetry Magazine Archive. Poetry magazine, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world, is published by the Poetry Foundation, headquartered in Chicago. The magazine’s entire archive of poetry and prose is available online for free, to read or print out.

Go to www.poetryfoundation.org to read the whole October 2022 issue, featuring Carolyn Marie Rodgers: 16 poems in all (many more poems from the Eden Press chapbooks clearly need to be made available to readers), Andrew Peart’s Introduction, and Nikky Finney’s fine essay.

Some of the information in the article above comes from the Poetry Magazine Podcast: The Life and Poetry of Carolyn Marie Rodgers, with Nina Rodgers Gordon, Andrew Peart, and Srikanth Reddy (audio transcript) that includes a clip from the speech Rodgers gave at Northwestern in 2007 – reminiscences on meeting gatherings with famous Black writers like Margaret Walker, James Baldwin,  John O. Killens and Amiri Baraka at Gwendolyn Brooks’s home on Chicago’s South Side, and ruminations on the search for a ‘Black aesthetic’, and what it could possibly mean.