“I know the dark delight of being strange,
The penalty of difference in the crowd,
The loneliness of wisdom among fools,
Yet never have I felt but very proud,
Though I have suffered agonies of hell,
Of living in my own peculiar cell.
― Claude McKay – My House
To The White Fiends
by Claude McKay
THINK you I am not fiend and savage too?
Think you I could not arm me with a gun
And shoot down ten of you for every one
Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?
Be not deceived, for every deed you do
I could match –out-match: am I not Africa’s son,
Black of that black land where black deeds are done?
But the Almighty from the darkness drew
My soul and said: Even though shaft be a light
Awhile to burn on benighted earth,
Thy dusky face I set among the white
For thee to prove thyself of highest worth;
Before the world is swallowed up at night,
To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth!
by Claude McKay
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
“If a person is not faithful to their individuality, then they cannot be loyal to anything.”
by Maya Angelou
One foot down, then hop! It’s hot. . .Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left. . .Everybody for hisself.
In the air, now both feet down. . .Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due, . .Curse and cry and then jump two.
All the people out of work, . . Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out. . .That’s what hopping’s all about.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House, Inc., 1994)
Life can take surprising turns when you least expect it. I am convinced that poetry is a vehicle for change and always has been. The power of poetry is in its ability to transport the human condition from a current state to a future state, a state in which you win. Poetry can be therapeutic, it can be a form of anarchy, a way to protest, a celebration or a way to reveal a truth beyond which the world is ready to see at that time, but a time capsule waiting for the future where it will be better understood. Writers like Maya Angelou and Claude McKay used poetry and novels to move themselves and society towards a better future and a better version of themselves.
I have spent the past 4 months editing and re-editing poems that have become two separate chap books. It is work that goes back 5 years. I have begun the process of socializing that work, handing out copies and inviting people to read it and give me feedback. And in that process of welcoming vulnerability, and being open in my mind to change, a door has opened for a relationship to the future that is not predestined, nor constrained.
I had the pleasure again over the weekend of seeing how words and experience braid themselves together perfectly until you can’t tell which one is a testament to the other, which one the record, which one the experience, which is action or the corresponding reaction. So in these final days of February if you are in need of a change in your life, find the right words to describe that change as best you can, whether they are your own or someone else’s. Keep reading them, keep absorbing them. Keep editing them, keep reading them. Invite others to read them too. And then be open to the power of transformation those words might create in your life. Find the words that say to you, in whatever form they may be; “I win.”
The Harlem Dancer
by Claude McKay
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls
Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold- eyed boys, even the girls,
Devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze;
But, looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
Throughout the afternoon I watched them there,
Snow-fairies falling, falling from the sky,
Whirling fantastic in the misty air,
Contending fierce for space supremacy.
And they flew down a mightier force at night,
As though in heaven there was revolt and riot,
And they, frail things had taken panic flight
Down to the calm earth seeking peace and quiet.
I went to bed and rose at early dawn
To see them huddled together in a heap,
Each merged into the other upon the lawn,
Worn out by the sharp struggle, fast asleep.
The sun shone brightly on them half the day,
By night they stealthily had stol’n away.
We have had not one but two significant snow storms this week. We have surpassed the monthly average total for snow fall in Minneapolis and here it is only barely the end of the first week of February. Unfortunately prior to the snows fell a sheet of ice such that everything was coated with treachery, driving reduced to a crawl until the salt could work and walking even more of a nuisance. It didn’t deter my enjoyment of the snow. I am one of those people who want a healthy taste of winter, so that we know what its like to be cold. We need to touch our lizard brains with a reminder to be grateful when the sun warms us upon a rock next summer.
Claude McKay is making a reappearance on Fourteenlines. McKay is one of my favorite poets, along with Langston Hughes of the Harlem Renaissance. I like this poem as it shows that McKay’s writing was also a poetic voice aboout beauty in our world.
It has not been a good week for the Democratic party in terms of leading by example. We have the top three elected state wide officials in the Commmonwealth of Virginia all either admiting to or being accused of actions that if confirmed, should lead to their resignations. A reminder that no one political party has a monopoly on stupidity. I don’t have to wonder what McKay and Hughes would have written about our current state of politics, for as rocky as things are currently in the state of our union, things are not nearly as bad, nor is the putrification of racism any more virulent than it was a hundred years ago. Both writers were consistent in their unvarnished depiction of the impact of racism on diminishing all of society from its potential. But neither poet allowed racism to poison their hearts, they saw its adherants wounded by stupidity and worthy of pity as well as being loathsome for their beliefs. McKay did not hide his bitterness in his writing, nor did he wallow in it either, transcending the darkness of bigotry to also depict the joy of being alive on a winters day, with the hope of spring not far ahead.
Here’s part II of The Snow Fairy.
And suddenly my thoughts then turned to you
Who came to me upon a winter’s night,
When snow-sprites round my attic window flew,
Your hair disheveled, eyes aglow with light.
My heart was like the weather when you came,
The wanton winds were blowing loud and long;
But you, with joy and passion all aflame,
You danced and sang a lilting summer song.
I made room for you in my little bed,
Took covers from the closet fresh and warm,
A downful pillow for your scented head,
And lay down with you resting in my arm.
You went with Dawn. You left me ere the day,
The lonely actor of a dreamy play.
I have a friend who is a self professed crow by nature. I was fortunate to be under the sway of her good nature and inquisitive spirit during the recent snow storm and it reminded me of Robert Frost’s playful poem. We actually experienced the phenomenon of thunder snow on Friday night, complete with lightning as snow flakes came down.
For as powerful a metaphor that snow provides there are surprisingly few sonnets that have snow as a central character. The most famous is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sonnet The Cross of Snow, written about the tragic death of his wife Fanny. Its a sad poem that doesn’t fit the humor of this April blizzard, so I rejected it as a fit in favor of Claude McKays more optimistic ode. McKay’s wish for winter to stick around a little longer has been granted here in Minnesota, but fair warning any Frosty the Snowman, temperatures are forecast in the mid 40’s the rest of the week, so the snow will disappear quickly and the robins can get back to building nests.
Our snowfall totals for the year are actually about average, it only felt like 15 feet. For a little good clean snow-white fun, check out Nick Cave’s video below.
by Claude McKay
Stay, season of calm love and soulful snows!
There is a subtle sweetness in the sun,
The ripples on the stream’s breast gaily run,
The wind more boisterously by me blows,
And each succeeding day now longer grows.
The birds a gladder music have begun,
The squirrel, full of mischief and of fun,
From maples’ topmost branch the brown twig throws.
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.
“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.
If a man is not faithful to his own individuality, then he can not by loyal to anything.
By Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up–
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth–
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
Check out this excerpt of an audio recording of a James Baldwin speech. In it he says; “the artist’s struggle for integrity is a metaphor for the struggle of all human beings to become human beings.”
What kind of artist are you? What kind of artist do you want want to be? Interesting questions to contemplate.
A House in Taos
by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Thunder of the Rain God: . .And we three . .Smitten by beauty.
Thunder of the Rain God: . .And we three . .Weary, weary.
Thunder of the Rain God: . .And you, she, and I . .Waiting for nothingness.
Do you understand the stillness . .Of this house . ..In Taos
Under the thunder of the Rain God?
That there should be a barren garden
About this house in Taos
Is not so strange,
But that there should be three barren hearts
In this one house in Taos—
Who carries ugly things to show the sun?
Did you ask for the beaten brass of the moon?
We can buy lovely things with money,
Yet you seek,
As though you could keep,
This unbought loveliness of moon.
Touch our bodies, wind.
Our bodies are separate, individual things.
Touch our bodies, wind,
But blow quickly
Through the red, white, yellow skins
Of our bodies
To the terrible snarl,
But all one snarl of souls.
Blow quickly, wind,
Before we run back
Into the windlessness—
With our bodies—
Into the windlessness
Of our house in Taos.