“Modern thought and literature begins with the invention of the sonnet.”
Paul Oppenheimer in The Birth of the Modern Mind
By Jean Toomer (1894 – 1967)
Whoever it was who brought the first wood and coal
To start the Fire, did his part well;
Not all wood takes to fire from a match,
Nor coal from wood before it’s burned to charcoal.
The wood and coal in question caught a flame
And flared up beautifully, touching the air
That takes a flame from anything.
Somehow the fire was furnaced,
And then the time was ripe for some to say,
“Right banking of the furnace saves the coal.”
I’ve seen them set to work, each in his way,
Though all with shovels and with ashes,
Never resting till the fire seemed most dead;
Whereupon they’d crawl in hooded night-caps
Contentedly to bed. Sometimes the fire left alone
Would die, but like as not spiced tongues
Remaining by the hardest on till day would flicker up,
Never strong, to anyone who cared to rake for them.
But roaring fires never have been made that way.
I’d like to tell those folks that one grand flare
Transferred to memory tissues of the air
Is worth a like, or, for dull minds that turn in gold,
All money ever saved by banking coal.
Curiosity is the only lens anyone has into the life of another human being. What I enjoy about poetry is that it wipes away the differences that may appear to divide us and aligns all of humanity around our common dreams, the innermost whispers that make us all the same.
The sonnet may feel to some like a straight jacket of literary convention. If you look deeper, its history is one of rebellion. The sonnet was the first lyric form intended for self reflection. Throughout its history, the sonnet has been used as a radical vehicle to share the poet’s self-consciousness and self- conflict through the brazen use of first person.
The sonnet is far from settled as a literary form and Jean Toomer’s poem Banking Coal is a great example of that flexibility. Toomer utilizes elements of the sonnet structure to connect to a deeper literary history. The sonnet is a vehicle for self-discovery and self-definition that cannot be defined by a single racial or gender identity.
Toomer was fiercely independent and refused to be categorized during his lifetime as strictly an African American writer, although his publisher played up his connection to the Harlem Renaissance movement in part to increase sales. Toomer moved continually between black and white societies and did not allow himself to be bound by race in his personal or professional life. Toomer claimed to be an American who represented a new culture, a mixing of American society.
His novel Cane was widely acclaimed as a new voice in literature. In it Toomer combines poetry, short stories and theater dialogue into a fluid vehicle for story telling. Cane is written in a unique style that broadened the idea of the modern novel. The sonnet below is an excerpt from Cain.
On a side note, Toomer and I have something in common, in that we both studied Agriculture at a land grant University, in his case the University of Wisconsin.
November Cotton Flower
by Jean Toomer