I Cannot Tell How Much I Owe

Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress
Duke Ellington – Such Sweet Thunder

“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

James Baldwin

The Giver  (For Berdis)

By James Baldwin

If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.

Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.

Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
 .     . The giver is no less adrift
 .     . than those who are clamouring for the gift.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.


James Baldwin was a prolific writer but not a prolific poet. At first glance The Giver is not a sonnet.  However, look closer. From the line Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted to the close every line is exactly 10 syllables long except the two lines: The giver is no less adrift than those who are clamouring for the gift.  The entire final two stanzas are 15 lines, because of one triplet.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer

I have written several sonnets which could not be contained by traditional rhyming sequences or by fourteen lines. These sonnets fall under the umbrella of protection of the same muse, but force their way out into unique forms because the poet has a need to break the rules and let the poem find its own way. Atypical sonnets can challenge us with questions about why the poem is structured the way it is. The themes of The Giver fall squarely in the purview of sonnets throughout literature with its personal first person voice and its message of reconciliation and atonement.

Another great artist of the Harlem renaissance, Duke Ellington, wrote and recorded a series of jazz songs that were inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare and titled several of the songs sonnets as a way to honor the great bard. I have included the Sonnet for Caesar below, preformed as a collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, as a sound track, as you read The Giver a second time and ponder the question whether Baldwin’s opening line is true, and why many artists who give their art to the world are a little mad;  If the hope of giving is to love the living, the giver risks madness in the act of giving.

 


 

The Giver  (For Berdis)

By James Baldwin

If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.

Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.

Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
 .     . The giver is no less adrift
 .     . than those who are clamouring for the gift.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.

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A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations.

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