Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices

Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden (1913 – 1980)

Frederick Douglass

by Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.


Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  and “Frederick Douglass” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Copyright ©1966 by Robert Hayden.

To hear Robert Hayden read his poem, Those Winter Sundays, click on the link below and then click on the red arrow behind the title.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46461/those-winter-sundays

 

 

Laughter Arrogant and Bold

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Helene Johnson (1906 – 1995)

To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,
To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,
To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,
To give a still, stark poem shining birth….

Helene Johnson (Excerpt from Fulfillment)

 

Sonnet To A Negro In Harlem

by Helene Johnson

You are disdainful and magnificant–
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise–
Your sholders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.

 


 

Poem

By Helene Johnson

Little brown boy,
Slim, dark, big-eyed,
Crooning love songs to your banjo
Down at the Lafayette–
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
High sort of and a bit to one side,
Like a prince, a jazz prince.   And I love
Your eyes flashing, and your hands,
And your patent-leathered feet,
And your shoulders jerking the jig-wa.
And I love your teeth flashing,
And the way your hair shines in the spotlight
Like it was the real stuff.
Gee, brown boy, I loves you all over.
I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can
Understand your dancin’ and your
Singin’, and feel all the happiness
And joy and don’t care in you.
Gee, boy, when you sing, I can close my ears
And hear tom-toms just as plain.
Listen to me, will you, what do I know
About tom-toms? But I like the word, sort of,
Don’t you? It belongs to us.
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
And the way you sing, and dance,
And everything.
Say, I think you’re wonderful.    You’re
Allright with me,
You are.

 

The Human’s Higher Right

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Paul Lawrence Dunbar

If

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

If life were but a dream, my Love,
And death the waking time;
If day had not a beam, my Love,
And night had not a rhyme,—

A barren, barren world were this

Without one saving gleam;
I ‘d only ask that with a kiss
You ‘d wake me from the dream.
If dreaming were the sum of days,
And loving were the bane;
If battling for a wreath of bays
Could soothe a heart in pain,—

I ‘d scorn the meed of battle’s might,
All other aims above
I ‘d choose the human’s higher right,
To suffer and to love!


Slow Through The Dark

By Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Slow moves the pageant of a climbing race;
Their footsteps drag far, far below the height,
And, unprevailing by their utmost might,
Seem faltering downward from each hard won place.
No strange, swift-sprung exception we; we trace
A devious way thro’ dim, uncertain light,–
Our hope, through the long vistaed years, a sight
Of that our Captain’s soul sees face to face.
Who, faithless, faltering that the road is steep,
Now raiseth up his drear insistent cry?
Who stoppeth here to spend a while in sleep
Or curseth that the storm obscures the sky?
Heed not the darkness round you, dull and deep;
The clouds grow thickest when the summit’s nigh.

 

 

Watch With Wonder-Eyes

claude-mckay_photograph-from-the-1920s
Claude McKay

“Poems are handbooks for human decency and understanding. Poets hold water in their cupped hands and run back from the well because someone is parched and thirsting. The poem is a force field against despair. ”

Elizabeth Alexander – Academy of American Poets Chancellor

The Tropics of New York

By Claude McKay

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
. .Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
. .Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Sat in the window, bringing memories
. .of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
. .In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
. .A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways
. .I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.


Claude McKay’s poetry is filled with lyric wishfulness, both joyous and homesick, poems filled with the radiance of memory and place, borne of an inner song.   It is the quality that Keats described when he said, “Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into the soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself but with its subject.”

McKay was a poet before he left his beloved homeland of Jamaica to study agriculture, assuming he would return to share his new found knowledge. He attended the University of Kansas, where the love of literature overtook his interest in farming. McKay eventually moved to Harlem, where he would work menial jobs that paid enough to survive and would continue to write for the rest of his life.

McKay is the kind of poet who makes the difficult look easy.  He writes with a quality that makes words sing; songs of emotions and ideas. McKay confronted racism with his writing and more importantly confronted life.  McKay’s best poetry is like water for the thirsty, in protest or in reverence, his words are simply eloquent.

To read more about Claude McKay, in his own words, click on the link below for a reprint of an article he wrote in 1918 for Pearson’s Magazine.

http://harlemshadows.org/supp_mckay_claude-mackay-describes.html


Claude McKay and Jamaican Tourism-image-2

I Shall Return

by Claude McKay

I shall return again; I shall return
To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
At golden noon the forest fires burn,
Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses,
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
I shall return, I shall return again,
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.

Strange Possessive Arms

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Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Sonnet – Ballad

by Gwendolyn Brooks

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.
And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

 

 

We Real Cool

by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Pool Players.
. .Seven at the Golden Shovel.

. .We real cool. We
. .Left school. We

. .Lurk late. We
. .Strike straight. We

. .Sing sin. We
. .Thin gin. We

. .Jazz June. We
. .Die soon.

Copyright 1963 Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Voltas of Acoustics, Instinct & Metaphor

Terrance_Hayes575
Terrance Hayes

Although we live by strife,
     We’re always sorry to begin it.
What, we ask, is life
     Without a touch of Poetry in it.

Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid!
      Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment! 
      All hail! All hail! Divine emollient! 

Gilbert and Sullivan – Pirates of Penzance

 

American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin

by Terrance Hayes

I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.

Copyright Poetry September 2017.


Who said the sonnet is a dried up husk as a literary form?  It still lives and breathes fire and ice in the hands of spirited young writers, like Terrance Hayes, who revel in the mastery of 14 lines.  Hayes stays within the bounds of tradition enough to give the poem added weight, while loosening the straps of  literary restraint enough to wiggle free to write smoothly and with style.

I love this poem.  The grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone, is one hell of a line. Interesting questions come to my mind at the end. What does Hayes love?  What does he want destroyed? Tradition? I think he’ll let us decide.  I am grateful he is writing clever, thought provoking poetry.

The line “While your better selves watch from the bleachers” made me think of Yeats poem Second Coming and the line; “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

What does Gilbert and Sullivan have to do with anything?   A silly reminder, fellow Pirate Kings, to try and keep a sense of humor, despite a whole herd of rough beasts slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

To listen to Terrance Hayes read his poem, click on the link below to go to the Poetry Foundations website and click on the red arrow near the title.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/143917/american-sonnet-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-598dc83c976f1

 

Take Darkness And Make it Moan

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Tom Wiggins (1849 – 1908)

Sonnet Crown For Blind Tom

(Excerpt)

by Tyehimba Jess

What the Wind, Rain and Thunder said to Tom
Hear how sky opens its maw to swallow
Earth? To claim each blade and being and rock
with its spit? Become your own full sky. Own
every damn sound that struts through your ears.
Shove notes in your head till they bust out where
your eyes supposed to shine. Cast your lea
brightness across the world and folk will stare
when your hands touch piano. Bend our breath
through each fingertip uncurled and spread
upon the upright’s eighty-eight pegs.
Jangle up its teeth until it can tell
our story the way you would tell your own:
the way you take darkness and make it moan.

Copyright 2010 Tyehimba Jess

 


Tom Wiggins (1849-1908) was born into slavery.  Possessing remarkable skill on the piano, he performed original compositions and  popular songs on vaudeville stages all over the United States, played at the White House and did a tour of Europe.  An autistic savant, before the term was coined, he is described as having the ability to memorize any piece of music almost instantly.  He earned a small fortune for his pre-civil war “family” under the ruse of managing his career.

To read an interview with Tyehimba Jess and the entire poem Sonnet Crown For Blind Tom click on the link below. There is also an excellent article on Wikipedia that provides more information on the fascinating life of Tom Wiggins.

https://www.connotationpress.com/hoppenthaler-s-congeries/2014-07-31-16-08-50/january-2013/1701-tyehimba-jess-poetry

 

 

To hear a performance of one of Tom’s original compositions click on the link below: