“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”
El-hajj Malik El-shabazz (Malcolm X)
by Robert Hayden
O masks and metamorphoses of Ahab, Native Son
The icy evil that struck his father down and ravished his mother into madness trapped him in violence of a punished self struggling to break free.
As Home Boy, as Dee-troit Red, he fled his name, became the quarry of his own obsessed pursuit.
He conked his hair and Lindy-hopped, zoot-suited jiver, swinging those chicks in the hot rose and reefer glow.
His injured childhood bullied him. He skirmished in the Upas trees and cannibal flowers of the American Dream–
but could not hurt the enemy powered against him there.
As much as America is divided there is one thing that unites us currently in a troubling way – anger. Anger seems to abound on all sides of the political spectrum in ways not seen since the 1960’s. I think many of us that tread somewhere more centrist in the political realm are growing alarmed at the widening gap of hostility between the right and the left.
I find it disturbing that wrapped within the current GOP rhetoric of absolving Trump of guilt in the impeachment trial for the insurrection at the Capitol is this tit for tat argument on the equivalency around the violence of the Black Lives Movement in cities across America this past summer. It’s like GOP pundits believe one justifies the other. I see no such equivalency, despite my community being directly impacted by the terrible violence last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death. There is a darker side to that violence that is getting very little press; the fact that numerous indictments have been handed down in Minneapolis to white supremacists from outside the local community, some from outside the state, who used the cover of the George Floyd protests in the days following his death to cause anarchy, increase the level of violence and damage, and steal with impunity.
Embedded within the tragedy of what happened in Minneapolis, is the fact that there was a highly coordinated right wing anarchist component that only wanted to enhance the violence for their own purposes; to confuse, to radicalize the right and justify their actions, like the attack on the capitol in January. It feels like there is a coordinated media response within right wing politics to incite their base by playing the fools game of who committed the greater wrong. It’s a game no one wins.
What continues to be so troubling for me around Trumpism, is the inability of the GOP mainstream to stand up to the racist attitudes that are fueling some members of their caucus with conspiracy theories that have no basis in reality. Conspiracy theories that dehumanize their opposition to give credence to their hate. It’s one of the reasons I think poetry can be an important tool in this discussion in America, particularly angry poetry. Poetry that speaks of perspectives that make white Americans uncomfortable may be an easier entry into a broader discussion on things that make all of us uncomfortable. For equity to progress, we must move beyond conversations that dwell on the fringes of both sides, and address the causes of the anger, without losing sight of each other’s humanity or what profoundly limiting lessons our children learn from hate.
by Countee Cullen
Once riding in old Baltimore, . . Heart-filled, head-filled with glee, I saw a Baltimorean . . Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small, . . And he was no whit bigger, And so I smiled, but he poked out . . His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore . . From May until December: Of all the things that happened there . . That’s all that I remember.
seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song
as i fled for the stars, i saw an earthchild in a distant hallway, crying out to his mother, “please don’t go away and leave us.” he was, i saw, my son. immediately, i discontinued my flight
from here, i see the clocktower in a sweep of light, framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come
i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel churchified insects. among the books mine go unread, dust-covered. i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am troubled because their tragedies echo mine.
at this moment i am sickened by the urge to smash. my thighs present themselves stillborn, misshapen wings within me
I am hesitant in writing about issues of race in this country because my own experience is starkly white. Wrestling with the legacy of Lowell this past month made me ask myself the question; how do I respect the history of the African American sonnet both past and present? Does spending time with all early 20th Century sonnet writers, regardless of race, honor the writers who created it or are am I perpetuating a problem in our society by nostalgically looking backwards and not focusing on the present? Is the constraint that lyric poetry creates less a metaphor and more a symptom of our racist past that inevitably formed a wedge in literature, a demarcation that poets have wisely taken their writing further and further away from elitist sounding language and moved instead down a new path with free verse that has the flexibility poets need to articulate the breadth of their human experience? As much as I enjoy sonnets, if that was my only diet in reading poetry I would soon starve to death.
In searching out some reading on what place do the classics have in today’s world and in particular in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement I came across Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Peralta, an Associate Professor of Classics, was in the news in 2019, when at an important conference of his peers, he dared to ask the question – should the field of study we call classics survive?
It is a fascinating question, particularly since it is his life’s passion and profession. My Mother was taught Latin in High School in public school in the 1940s in Minnesota, so I am only one generation removed from the idea that classical studies should be part of every high school graduate’s experience. I was always impressed by her insight into language and meaning of words that comes from a rudimentary understanding of Latin. (Also an invaluable skill for cross word puzzles and of course a deeper understanding of poetry.)
So how then do we reconcile the history of the sonnet with current issues around equity and inclusion? Does the sonnet deserve a hall pass to the future? My suggestion; let’s read the poets of color who are skillfully and thoughtfully treading those planks, seek out their poetry for its unique perspective. In the next several blog posts I will present African American sonneteers across the decades and let you explore what relevance their words bring to your current mindset.
If I were to draw a simple progression of African American writers of sonnets from the 1700’s to today in America that are top of mind for me, without doing any additional research, it would start with Phyllis Wheatley, then progress without perfect linearity, to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, H. Cordelia Ray, Gwendolyn Bennett, Marcus Garvey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes, with my apologies to all the fine poets I have missed, but look forward to meeting someday.
One of the things I try and share through Fourteenlines is nearly every poet has written at least one sonnet like poem, in part because it connects their writing to the past. These poems are not always classical sonnets in construction and sometimes I am not even sure the poet was consciously aware of the sonnets influence, so ingrained in our culture are “the classics”. So if it is by this distinct lens that we think of as classical literature that most art is influenced and judged, and if its by these very archetypes American thought has been formed and whittled over generations of high school and college educations, than why wouldn’t we at least ask some questions about what holes we have dug for ourselves in this process without even realizing it and should we stop digging? I am not suggesting we have to chuck the lot of it, nor is Peralta, only maybe we should go back and re-read the classics with a different focal point and scrutinize what is relevant and meaningful in our journey today while taking a bright yellow high lighter to unhelpful and racist stereotypes that don’t move us in the direction of equity and are partially to blame for the mess we have made of things.
Poetry doesn’t need to be serious. I read it because its fun. I don’t believe I have to analyze it endlessly. I read what I like and honestly don’t think too much about it in terms of an academic understanding. But this February I am trying to think a little differently and consciously address how I am presenting African American poets and poets of color during Black History Month. I feel an obligation to not be tone deaf and color blind to the biases of my “liberal” arts education.
What’s your thoughts on Peralta’s interesting ideas in the article below? I don’t think he is suggesting we should stop reading sonnets. But he opened my eyes to change my reading glasses and ponder the fact that all those ancient Greek marble statues in our museums were not originally displayed as we now see them. It was only over time that the affluent collectors of art history, in the name of conservation and “classical” studies, scrubbed and polished them white.
by Countee Cullen
There are no wind-blown rumors, soft say-sos, No garden-whispered hearsays, lightly heard, I know that summer never spares the rose, That spring is faithless to the brightest bird. I know that nothing lovely shall prevail To win from Time and Death a moment’s grace; At Beauty’s birth the scythe was honed, the nail Dipped for her hands, the cowl clipped for her face.
And yet I cannot think that this my faith, My winged joy, my pride, my utmost mirth, Centered in you, shall ever taste of death, Or perish from the false, forgetting earth. You are with time, as wind and weather are, As is the sun, and every nailed star.
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”
W. E. B. Du Bois
From The Dark Tower
by Countee Cullen
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds
Countee Cullen was a poet, a playwright, a translator, an essayist, a critic, a children’s author and scholar. He managed all that creativity during an intense 25 year career. Countee was part of the Harlem social elite, marrying W. E. B Du Bois’ daughter, with some pomp and circumstance only to have the marriage fail in less than three years under the weight of great expectations. Countee was highly influenced by Yeats, Shelley and A. E. Housman, choosing a classical style of poetry at a time other Harlem Renaissance writers were branching off into more uncharted waters. Countee was unfairly criticized during his career for writing in a style that would appeal to a cross over of white readers and be more publishable. I think his poetry sings with a genuine voice that was of his choosing alone. Countee said it best; “My poetry, I think, has become the way of my giving out what music is within me.” Countee dealt with a wide range of themes in his poetry, but always came back to love.
Song In Spite of Myself
by Countee Cullen
Never love with all your heart,
It only ends in aching;
And bit by bit to the smallest part
That organ will be breaking.
Never love with all your mind,
It only ends in fretting;
In musing on sweet joys behind,
too poignant for forgetting.
Never love with all your soul,
for such there is no ending;
though a mind that frets may find control,
and a shattered heart find mending.
Give but a grain of the heart’s rich seed,
Confine some undercover,
And when love goes, bid him God-speed,
and find another lover.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Martin Luther King
Yet Do I Marvel
By Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946)
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Sometimes there’s a wind in the Georgia dusk
That cries and cries and cries
Its lonely pity through the Georgia dusk
Veiling what the darkness hides
Sometimes there’s blood in the Georgia dusk
Left by a streak of sun
A crimson trickle in the Georgia dusk
Whose Blood? …Everyone’s
Sometimes a wind in the Georgia dusk
Scatters hate like seed
To sprout its bitter barriers
Where the sunsets bleed