Gerald W. Barrax

(b. 1933)

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(b. 1933), poet and educator.

Bridging the poetic radicalism and experimentalism of the 1960s to the lyrical and confessional modes of the 1980s, the poetry of Gerald William Barrax draws on the life of the poet as well as the state of African American experience for its intimate power. Whether relating the details of his life with wife and children or questioning the roles of African American leaders, Barrax's poetry continually invokes anxieties concerning responsibility and participation in contemporary American life.

Born in Attala, Alabama, on 21 June 1933, Barrax spent his early years in the rural South. Once his family moved to Pittsburgh in 1944, Barrax completed his primary and secondary education, worked in the post office, and completed a bachelor's degree at Duquesne University. Upon receipt of a master's degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1969, Barrax moved to North Carolina, where he studied and joined the faculty of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. During this period Barrax lived some of the material that has become crucial concerns of his poetry: the experience of family, of work, of race and racism, and of transcendence. This transcendence—through social participation, through home and family, through an inquisition of doubt and faith—is the most characteristic element of his work.

One can discern three distinct periods within Barrax's work: the first, a period defined loosely by an encounter with existentialism, the Black Arts movement, and experiment with form; the second by the exploration of a distinctly personal, anecdotal, confessional poetic voice; and the third by an elaboration of this confessional tone into a sustained lyricism that addresses both personal and collective anxieties.

Divided into three sections (“Forecast”, “Drought”, and “Another Kind of Rain”), Barrax's first collection of poetry, Another Kind of Rain (1970), describes the search for and the attainment of renewal. One of the text's dominant themes is the father-son relationship, a relationship that has particular resonance in the poet's life (Barrax is separated from his first wife and three sons) and, more generally, in African American experience at large. In poems such as “Efficiency Apartment”, “First Carolina Rain”, and “Earthlog: Final Entry” the poet explores the disconnection and the painful and joyous connection that persists between himself and his sons. Technically, the poems range from confessional lyrics to free verse poems filled with “street talk” and typographical dynamism. Another Kind of Rain also establishes Barrax's wide-ranging eclecticism (alluding variously to Homer, William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings) that, paired with his intimate tone and confessional subjects, results in an eclectic and allusive document of the persistence of universal themes in contemporary experience.

The unproblematic perspective of the “I” in Another Kind of Rain becomes the poet's subject in Barrax's second collection, An Audience of One (1980). An exploration of the subjectivity of the poet who moves from one marriage into another, from one family to another, An Audience of One plays out a poetic dialogue between objectivity (the preponderant image of the camera in “The Only Way My Dumb Flesh Knows”) and subjective possibilities that a new family and new beginnings bring (“I Travel with Her,”“Shani”). It is a pivotal work in its movement from poetic duality in his early poems (they were either personal or public, intimate or political) to a fulfillment of the public within the personal, the political within the intimate detail of everyday life. The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods (1984) extends this renovation of self, family, and community through faith. The transcendent possibilities of belief and of the belief in belief become Barrax's central subject. He asserts the need for certainty, peace, and clarity, which far from separating humanity from the divine actually brings it closer to participation in others and ourselves: “God is love as long as one of us lives.”


Subjects: Literature.

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