Bridging the Gap in Carolyn Rodgers’ Poetry

Carolyn Rodgers, Image Source: Modern American Poetry

In her writing on Carolyn Rodgers’ collection of poetry How I Got Ovah, Estella M. Sales examines Rodgers’ use of the phrase “how I got ovah” and its illustration of double meaning in Rodgers’ poetry. Sales begins by noting the traditional meaning of the “black colloquialism” as “how one has triumphed spiritually; how one has overcome worldly hardships; how one has outwitted his adversary; or merely how one has swindled his loved ones” (74). She goes on to say that, while many of these meanings are present in Rodgers’ collection, the poet also writes on some more “contradictory aspects of black life” (74) and that the poet, possibly drawing on the phrase, overcomes the contradictory gaps in her poetry through “her own inner voice, her ancestral rootedness, her Christian faith, and her parental support” in many of the same ways the phrase “how I got ovah” typically implies. Sales moves through Rodgers’ poetry, pointing out five apparent dichotomies that she believes are present:

(1) black revolutionary tactics as opposed to Christian ethics, (2) the black past as opposed to the present, (3) the black younger generation as opposed to the oder generation, (4) idealistic dreams as opposed to dead-end awakenings, and (5) the individual poetic voice as opposed to the conscious (74) 

Sales views these perceived dichotomies in relation to the “bridges” that Rodgers’ offers in her poetry.

First she examines Rodgers’ “And When the Revolution Came” which, according to Sales, shows the polarization of the “black revolutionary tactics as opposed to Christian ethics” (74-75) through the use of dialogue. Rodgers’ is able to bridge the gap, or “get ovah,” the differences between the revolutionaries and the churchgoers with their eventual agreement on brotherhood and sisterhood (75-76). Sales sees this same quality of polarization in Rodgers’ “Jesus must have been some kind of dude” in which Jesus functions as the bridge between the revolutionary beliefs and Christian ideals, as well as in the poem “No Promised Land” (76). 

Another set of dichotomy that Sales looks at in Rodgers’ work is that of the “black past as opposed to the present” (75). Sales notes this theme in “No Promised Land” as well as in “How I Got Ovah,” where Sales says that Rodgers utilizes the “bridge of ancestral rootedness” to link the past to the present, with ancestral rootedness acting as there persona of the poem, a tactic which Sales demonstrates in Rodgers’ “The Children of Their Sin (an exercise)” as well (76-77). In the latter poem, Sales also points to Rodgers’ use of consciousness and how it plays into W. E. B. DuBois’ notion of double consciousness, with this awareness as a means to bridge the gap into understanding (77). 

Sales traces this notion of persona and ties them to the dichotomy of the younger generation and the older generation, in addition to the dichotomy of past vs. present and revolution vs. Christianity (78), which have already been noted. Specifically, Sales sees these present in Rodgers’ “Jesus was Crucified or It must be Deep” and “IT IS DEEP” (78). Sales also looks at the dichotomy between “dreams as opposed to deadens awakenings” (78), which she points to in Rodgers’ “c.c. Rider” and “This is NO Promised Land,” with the “real problems” for the dreamers of the poem being that they overlook “the realities that surround black dreams” (78-79). Sales continues moving through these dichotomies in a number of Rodgers’ other poems featured in How I Got Ovah.

Sales’ reading of the expression “how I got ovah” in relation to some of the themes in Rodgers’ work is interesting. I was initially curious about Rodgers in that two of the three poems we read for her this week feature Christianity very heavily and positively, a stark contrast to some of the other poems, like that of Amari Baraka. Cary Nelson notes this in the introduction to Amiri Baraka in that “His view of Christianity in ‘When We’ll Worship Jesus,’ […] may be compared with that of Langston Hughes in ‘Goodby Christ’ and contrasted with that of Carolyn Rodgers” (427). Indeed Rodgers’ poems “And When the Revolution Came,” and “Mama’s God” are both deeply rooted in Christian beliefs. Additionally, “How I Got Ovah” seems to allude to what Sales calls “black gospel song” (74). Sales does a good job of bridging the gap (no pun intended) between Rodgers’ use of Christian-centric themes and connecting them to some of the wider points of interest in the Black Arts Movement.

Do you agree that Rodger’s poems “How I Got Ovah” and “And When the Revolution Came” features some of these dichotomies and seek to reconcile them, as Sales believes?


Works Cited:

Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Edited by Cary Nelson, Vol. 2, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.

Sales, Estella M. “CONTRADICTIONS IN BLACK LIFE: RECOGNIZED AND RECONCILED IN ‘HOW I GOT OVAH.’” CLA Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, 1981, pp. 74–81. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Sep. 2022.

One Response to Bridging the Gap in Carolyn Rodgers’ Poetry

  1. Isaac September 28, 2022 at 8:03 pm #

    Hey Kathleen, really neat critical post! I read these poets as playing upon many tensions within themselves and also within the Black Power Movement so it made sense that you give special attention to the idea of “bridging” the contradictions or dichotomies. I wrote on an article discussing Brooks’ use of the word “Afrika” as a way that the poet can establish roots in Africa for black life, but I find this metaphor of bridging the contradictions, generations, and values more effective. Maybe it is because I feel that this is what words are always doing, connecting things that are often not associated with one another or even the fact that words can reach so far throughout history and can still have an effect.

    Poems like “And When the Revolution Came” I think perfectly show the bridged dichotomy that the phrase “How I Got Ovah” represents. Here we have the demands of the Black Militants on the church goers to change their way of life and become more radicalized like them. And the church goers like Christ refuse to say an ill word towards them, they keep their composure, and are waiting for them to realize that their hopes for Black life are the same. And in keeping with the bridge metaphor, in the end of the poem, we feel as readers that this connection between the two groups is leading ahead into new possibilities for a better future.

    In the poem “How I got Ovah” the speaker seems to be on the run, escaping from slavery. If we are to follow the logic of the phrase, I think it would also refer to Africans being taken for slavery to America. This gives the collection title a sense of freedom but also recognizes that painful history.

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