That’s What Hopping’s All About

hopscotch
Hopscotch at a Harlem Community Center

“If a person is not faithful to their individuality, then they cannot be loyal to anything.”

Claude McKay

Harlem Hopscotch

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.

Upward To Heaven He Flings

maya-angelou
Maya Angelou

“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”

Maya Angelou – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Sympathy

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!


 

Does it surprise you as you read Paul Lawrence’s Dunbar poem Sympathy to realize that Maya Angelou’s brilliant memoir lifts its title from his poem?  Angelou as a human being, writer, poet, political activist and likely the person with the most amazing voice on the planet during her lifetime, consciously connected her story to Dunbar’s. I think all writers recognize that they can not separate completely their own creativity from the art that has inspired them throughout their lifetime.  I applaud it when rather than trying to hide that fact, they choose to do like Angelou did, and make the connection front and center, for their readers to delve further on their own, pointing us in the direction of greatness and letting us discover the very things that inspired them.

Dunbar grew up in Dayton, Ohio.  He was in the same high school class as Orville Wright, who would assist Dunbar in getting his first volume of poetry published. It’s nice to know that one half of the duo that made the first successful flight appreciated poetry. Dunbar’s career as a writer is an inspiration of not accepting the barriers that were in place that seemingly made it impossible.   He died young at the age of 33, after having critical and financial success and utter ruin and critical dismissal, often within a stretch of only a couple of years.   He died of a combination of repeated bouts of what is described as “poor health” but was a combination of pneumonia and alcoholism.

The poet and writer Nikki Giovanni, a Dunbar scholar, says in his biography in The Poetry Foundation that:

….his work constitutes both a history and a celebration of Black life. “There is no poet, black or nonblack, who measures his achievement,” she declared. “Even today. He wanted to be a writer and he wrote.”

Here is a short video of Angelou discussing with Oprah Winfrey her intentions behind her memoir and also a short poem by Angelou that is a reminder of what Audre Lorde said, paraphrasing, that revolution isn’t a one time event, rebellion  and pursuit of justice are every generation’s responsibility.


Caged Bird

by Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

 

A Voice Whose Sound Was Like The Sea

paradise lost
Paradise Lost by Salvador Dali

On His Blindness

by John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”


Milton wrote Paradise Lost at a time when the power struggle between the Monarchy and Parliament was coming to a head and while the Monarchy still held tightly to the reins of power, Cromwell and his supporters, such as Milton, were turning the tide of public sentiment in favor of the Republic.  Was Milton’s literature as powerful a tool as armies in fomenting rebellion or is it in retrospect given more credit than it deserves and is simply the elegance of history shaped in metaphor?   The bold politics of Paradise Lost amidst its pure literary style is Milton’s genius.  Satan has rarely had such a star turn in literature as Milton provides him in Paradise Lost.  Milton’s Satan is depicted as the most beautiful and intelligent of all the angels, who proclaims; “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven….”

What role does literature play in society in 2018?  Sadly, video games and Netflix have usurped our children’s imagination.  First person shooter games and violent programing have overtaken literature as centers of entertainment, worthy of their time and ingeniuty.

What role does poetry play in shaping the discourse of our nation, of our world? I believe poetry is as vibrant a vehicle for challenging the status quo of lassitude as ever, but we lack the dominant voices in poetry that once were as popular as today’s rock stars or fashion divas.  I wonder, who will be the first rock star poet of the 21st Century and what will be their message that invigorates the public’s imagination?  What poet’s genius is already rousing us from sleepy acceptance of the crude politics of divisiveness that dominate our polarized world?   Whose words inspire you to build a bridge between the political rifts that divide your communities?  It certainly is not the loud blustery voices on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.  So maybe its time we tune out the rabid 24/7 news cycle and take the time to read a book, read a poem, listen to music and find in them, new ideas that stretch us in unexpected ways.  For all of human history, in tension and conflict are sown the seeds of artistic expression.  If I view current conflicts as the incubator of great art, then I awaken to the reality that art is all around me to seek out and enjoy.


On The Pulse of Morning

by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

London, 1802

by William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.