“A Poet is Not a Jukebox”

A poem by Dudley Randall:

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
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
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 labor in digging the trans-
   Caucausus Canal,
Or the unprecedented achievement of workers in the sugar
   beet industry who exceeded their quota by 400 per cent
   (it was later discovered to be a typist’s error).

Maybe the Russian poet is watching his mother die of
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
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

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
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
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.

(Text from African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, Library of America, Kevin Young, ed.)

Dudley Randall (1914-2000) was a poet and also a major figure in Black American publishing. In addition to his own work, he helped to amplify many of the greatest voices in Black American poetry through the publishing house that he founded himself, Broadside Press, which still exists today as half of Broadside Lotus Press (formed when Randall’s company merged with Lotus Press), and through his work and his publishing Randall was an important figure in the Black Arts Movement.

This particular poem’s meaning can be said to apply to all artists, in that artists cannot produce work on demand (or, if they do, the work won’t be as good). But the deeper meaning here seems to be the insistence that Black voices must be made to speak about everything, that Black people must atone for everything, and that generally every Black person be somehow responsible for every act, every incident, every sleight that whites perceive. And through their refusal to accept that responsibility, and their refusal to address all of it–to insist that they are, after all, not a jukebox–they forfeit all claims to have been systematically wronged along with their ancestors.

That’s bad enough, but toward the end it even gets worse: Randall’s argument is that by insisting what he write about, he is deemed unworthy of writing about certain other subjects. This limitation of the poet’s voice, this neutering of a man who wants to write about love but is told he shouldn’t because there’s some other dark topic he should write about instead, is as negative an imposition on a single man’s voice as it is on all the voices of his community.

So let the man write about love, if he wants. Let anyone write about love if they want. Or about the riot in Miami. Just don’t command it of them.

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1 Response to “A Poet is Not a Jukebox”

  1. Roger says:

    I SO agree with your second paragraph. It’s what I feel about folks complaining about Dionne Warwick doing those Bacharach/David songs rather than something more “soulful.” Also true of Leontyne Price and Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Pride. To be rude, those complainers should STFU.

    Besides, what is the cliche? – write whay you know!

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