I am not proud that I am bold Or proud that I am black. Color was given me as a gauge And boldness came with that.
The Tired Worker
By Claude McKay
O whisper, O my soul! The afternoon
Is waning into evening, whisper soft!
Peace, O my rebel heart! for soon the moon
From out its misty veil will swing aloft!
Be patient, weary body, soon the night
Will wrap thee gently in her sable sheet,
And with a leaden sigh thou wilt invite
To rest thy tired hands and aching feet.
The wretched day was theirs, the night is mine;
Come tender sleep, and fold me to thy breast.
But what steals out the gray clouds like red wine?
O dawn! O dreaded dawn! O let me rest
Weary my veins, my brain, my life! Have pity!
No! Once again the harsh, the ugly city.
Those Who Know
by Marcus Garvey
You may not know, and that is all
That causes you to fail in life;
All men should know, and thus not fall
The victims of the heartless strife.
Know what? Know what is right and wrong,
Know just the things that daily count,
That go to make all life a song,
And cause the wise to climb the mount.
To make man know, is task, indeed,
For some are prone to waste all time:
It’s only few who see the need
To probe and probe, then climb and climb,
The midnight light, the daily grind,
Are tasks that count for real success
In life of those not left behind,
Whom Nature chooses then to bless.
The failing men you meet each day,
Who curse their fate, and damn the rest,
Are just the sleeping ones who play
While others work to reach the best.
All life must be a useful plan,
That calls for daily, serious work-
The work that wrings the best from man-
The work that cowards often shirk.
All honour to the men who know,
By seeking after Nature’s truths:
In wisdom they shall ever grow,
While others hum the awful “blues”
Go now and search for what there is-
The knowledge of the Universe-
Make it yours, as the other, his,
And be as good, but not the worse.
Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.
I am currently reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway. It is a moving fictional account of what the human spirit will endure to achieve freedom. Whitehead is a brilliant writer; his poetic prose, steeps you in the moral corruption of the South, the barbaric cruelty that powered the wealth that came from indigo, cotton and sugar production. It is a legacy of the ruthlessness of fellow human beings that casts a shadow all the way to today over the United States. How do we address the history of atrocities that paved the way for the economic foundation that allowed for the United States to become the world’s wealthiest country? I tire of the willful ignorance, the pretension that American prosperity was built solely upon ingenuity and self determination, without acknowledging that prosperity also came with a legacy of genocide and the immorality of slavery that still bears a responsibility of recognition and forgiveness.
Touissant L’Ouverture is not a historical figure with whom many in the United States are familiar. Touuissant was one of the leaders of a rebellion that parallels our own revolution, when the slaves of then Hispaniola and Saint-Dominique, modern day Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, fought back and won their freedom. The ideas of independence which spawned the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man in 1789, made the hypocrisy of slavery in French colonies unsustainable and its overthrow inevitable. The idea that all men had unassailable rights that extended beyond skin color was an idea that threw gasoline on what was already an inferno of madness in slavery. Although Haiti is an impoverished nation today, it as a direct result of a conspiracy of economic retribution by Europe and the United States, a continuation of the tyranny, that was overcome. Haiti (Saint-Dominique) was the richest of all European colonies 250 years ago, with over sixty percent of the coffee imported and forty percent of the sugar consumed in Europe produced there. This immense wealth only made possible by the cruelty of slave labor.
L’Ouverture was a talented provocateur, orator and military general, who would defeat the armies of France, Great Britain and the United States successfully over a 12 year period, with military casualties in excess of 50,000 men combined from those three nations, before being betrayed by his own lieutenants who thirsted for greater power themselves after the imperialist landowners were overthrown. L’Ouverture was captured, chained and returned to France, tried in court and sentenced to a remote prison to die, not realizing for himself the very freedom he had helped win for an entire nation.
For more information on Touissant L’Ouverture see the link for a documentary below.
The two sonnets I have included span a period of 200 years in their creation. Each poet, inspired by L’Ouverture’s life. Wordsworth, although not an abolitionist, recognized the courage and moral right of L’Ouverture and Agard, who envisioned a response that is neither rebuttal, nor concurrence with Wordsworth, but a tribute to the humanity of both of men.
How come I didn’t learn about the history of Haiti in high school, when it’s very history is borne of the same noble ideas of equality for all that is the foundation of the American revolution? Is it because we still bear responsibility for a collective failure to reconcile both the heroic and monstrous aspects of United States history.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or had a close-up view of daffodils.
My childhood’s roots are the Haitian hills
where runaway slaves made a freedom pledge
and scarlet poincianas flaunt their scent.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.
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?
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.
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,
Say, I think you’re wonderful. You’re
Allright with me,
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
boooooooo. spooky ripplings of icy waves. this
umpteenth time she returns–this invisible woman
long on haunting short on ectoplasm
“you’re a good man, sistuh,” a lover sighed solongago.
“keep your oil slick and your motor running.”
wretched stained mirrors within mirrors of
fractured webbings like nests of manic spiders
reflect her ruined mien (rue wiggles remorse
squiggles woe jiggles bestride her). oozy Manes spill
out yonder spooling in night’s lofty hour exudes
her gloom and spew in rankling odor of heady dour
as she strives to retrieve flesh to cloak her bones
again to thrive to keep her poisoned id alive
No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.
I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge