“If you think a hammer is the only way to hammer / A nail, you ain’t thought of the nail correctly.”
I See A Part And Not The Whole
by Claude McKay
I plucked my soul out of its secret place, And held it to the mirror of my eye, To see it like a star against the sky, A twitching body quivering in space, A spark of passion shining on my face. And I explored it to determine why This awful key to my infinity Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace. And if the sign may not be fully read, If I can comprehend but not control, I need not gloom my days with futile dread, Because I see a part and not the whole. Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Inside me is a black-eyed animal”]
“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.
““When I kill me, I will Do it the same way most Americans do, I promise you: cigarette smoke Or a piece of meat on which I choke Or so broke I freeze In one of these winters we keep Calling worst. I promise if you hear Of me dead anywhere near A cop, then that cop killed me.”
― Jericho Brown, The Tradition
By Jericho Brown
I spent what light Saturday sent sweating And learned to cuss cutting grass for women Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned Difference between their mowed lawns And their vacuumed carpets just before Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter Than a joint and asking me in to change A few light bulbs. I called those women old Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair Without my help or walk without a hand At the base of their backs. I called them Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead Now, dead and in the earth I once tended. The loneliest people have the earth to love And not one friend their own age—only Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss Them around, women they want to please And pray for the chance to say please to. I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job Is to look at the childhood I hated and say I once had something to do with my hands.
by Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1917)
Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun From cycles of eternity. And yet, What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret Of tangled purposes and hopes undone! What affluence of love! What vict’ries won In agonies of silence, ere trust met A manifold fulfillment, and the wet, Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun! What struggle in the web of circumstance, And yearning in the wingèd music! All, One restless strife from fetters to be free; Till, gathered to eternity’s expanse, Is that brief moment at the Father’s call. Life! Ay, at best, ’tis but a mystery!
“The poetry of people comes from the deep recesses of our unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.”
The Struggle Staggers Us
by Margaret Walker
Our birth and death are easy hours like sleep and food and drink. The struggle staggers us for bread, for pride, for simple dignity. And this is more than fighting to exist, more than revolt and war and human odds. There is a journey from Me to You. There is a journey from You to Me. A union of the two strange worlds must be.
Ours is a struggle from a too warm bed, too cluttered with a patience full of sleep. Out of this blackness we must struggle forth: from want of bread, of pride, of dignity. Struggle between the morning and the night, this marks our years, this settle too, our plight.
Frida Kahlo Self Portrait.
Sonnet in Primary Colors
by Rita Dove
This is for the woman with one black wing perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant, who painted herself a present– wildflowers entwining the plaster corset her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.
Each night she lay down in pain and rose to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead, Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead. And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego’s love a skull in the circular window of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.
The white man held the blacks as slaves, And bled their souls in living death; Bishops and priests, and kings themselves, Preached that the law was right and just; And so the people worked and died, And crumbled into material dust. Good God! The scheme is just the same Today, between the black and white Races of men, who gallop after fame. Can’st Thou not change this bloody thing, And make white people see the truth That over blacks must be their king, Not white, but of their somber hue, To rule a nation of themselves
Marcus Garvey is a complex figure, a poet, a visionary, an entrepreneur, a successful businessman, an orator and a key figure in the idea of a homeland for African Americans in Africa as part of reparations in the United States and elsewhere for slavery. He didn’t mince words. I have known several people named Marcus and it was by no coincidence, it was in honor of the best of this man.
Garvey was proud of his African heritage and spoke of empowering Africans everywhere for a better future. He advocated that change had to be both economic and political, that African Americans had to prosper for all of America to prosper. Though he remains a national hero in his birth place Jamaica, he was decidedly controversial. Garvey’s writing was both admired and disliked among the African diaspora, with some viewing him as self serving in promoting his own business interests, but also some within his own community criticized him as a demagogue, his ideas sometimes blurred by prejudice against Jews and mix-ed race individuals. His writing and ideas have had a lasting influence on Rastafarianism, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power Movement.
by Michael S. Harper
The birds flit in the blue palms, the can workers wait, the man hangs twenty feet above; he must come down; they wait for the priest. The flies ride on the carcass, which sways like cork in a circle. The easter light pulls him west. The priest comes, a man sunken with rum, his face sandpapered into a rouge of split and broken capillaries. His duty is the cutting down of the fruit of this quiet village and he staggers slowly, coming.
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.
“The most fundamental truth to be told in any art form, as far as blacks are concerned, is that America is killing us.”
For Sister Gwen Brooks
Sonia Sanchez – 1934-
you tell the stars don’t be jealous of her light you tell the ocean, you call out to Olukun, to bring her always to safe harbor, for she is a holy one this woman twirling her emerald lariat you tell the night to move gently into morning so she’s not startled, you tell the morning to ease her into a water fall of dreams for she is a holy one restringing her words from city to city so that we live and breathe and smile and breathe and love and breathe her… this Gwensister called life.
Sonia Sanchez, a leader in the Black Studies movement over the past 50 years, is a poet, playwright, professor and activist. During the early 1960’s Sanchez was focused on racial equality, but as the violence of the 1960’s progressed she became more and more influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X, and the concepts around a separatist, independent black movement as a place of empowerment was needed among the black community. Sanchez became an early pioneer in the emerging field of Black Studies, including developing classes on African American women’s literature and social justice.
Sanchez has published extensively as a poet, pushing new boundaries like the 1970 book We a BaddDDD People, in which her love of African American language is the foundation of her poetic style. She has written poetry for adults and children and is fond of haiku. An important scholar and teacher, Sanchez had a lengthy teaching career and has won numerous awards for her writing.
Sanchez was briefly married to Ethridge Knight in the 1960’s, with whom she had two sons. Sanchez’s poetry is deeply influenced by her experiences of motherhood, both as a mother and as a daughter, shaped in part from the loss of her own Mother when she was two in childbirth, and then her maternal Grandmother who was raising her when she was 6. Sanchez also has a daughter from her first marriage.
“Poetry aims for an economy of truth––loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions––beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my rationalisations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.”
Haiku: This Other World
by Richard Wright
Why did this spring wood grow so silent when I came? What was happening?
That frozen star there, or this one on the water, – Which is more distant?
Richard Wright was an essayist and novelist that championed civil rights throughout his career. Author of the novel Native Son, he was a mentor and inspiration to many black writers including James Baldwin. Wright’s own experience in America was not one of opportunity, but continued oppression. In 1947 he moved to France to escape American omnipresent racism. During the 1950’s he worked on the African Liberation movement in Ghana and continued to write. His later works includes essays and novels. Given that poetry was only a small fraction of his published work in his lifetime, it is a bit ironic that it is his poetry that has garnered the most attention since his death. Wright wrote more than 4,000 Haiku, which his daughter lovingly compiled and published in 1998 volume titled; This Other World. Wright died in Paris at the age of 52.
Wright infused his essays with poetic language, something Ta-Nehisi Coates espouses. Coates thoughtful writing of difficult truths lend themselves to a poetic touch, not for flourish, but for directness of story telling and depth of meaning. Ta-Nehisi Coates video below is an interesting listen on how he started as a poet and how that has influenced his journalistic style.
Between The World And Me
by Richard Wright
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat, and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches, butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow surprise at the sun….
You might as well answer the door child, the truth, is furiously knocking.
homage to my hips
by Lucille Clifton
these hips are big hips they need space to move around in. they don’t fit into little petty places. these hips are free hips. they don’t like to be held back. these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go they do what they want to do. these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. i have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top!
I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.
Blessing the Boats
by Lucille Clifton
may the tide that is entering even now the lip of our understanding carry you out beyond the face of fear may you kiss the wind then turn from it certain that it will love your back may you open your eyes to water water waving forever and may you in your innocence sail through this to that
Lucille Clifton had the gift of sparse words imparting vast meaning. Her poetry is straightforward yet complex. Discovered by Langston Hughes through a mutual friend in New York, she succeeded on the strength of her talent and bright spirit. Clifton was an educator, children’s book author, poet, engaging speaker and civil rights leader. Clifton advanced ideas of equity through her art and educational leadership.
There is a motherly savviness to some of Clifton’s poetry that reassures me, good naturedly cajoles, lulls me into surprises and insight, while letting me wander about breezily in her words. I marvel at her imagery and her welcoming, supportive spirit.
Blessing The Boats, the title of her award winning anthology, is a remarkable poem in that it has no moorings of where you feel required as a reader to start or stop. I can chose to see it as a loop that I can plug into almost anywhere.
Sometimes I like to read a poem backwards. Not all poets work lend themselves to this, but it can be an interesting technique to enter a poem and the poets ideas in a different way. By reading it in reverse sequence, it allows me to focus on individual lines and not worry about trying to understand the whole of poem. Try reading Clifton’s Blessing the Boats from the bottom to the top, and see what rises on your internal wavelengths. What line sticks out in your mind? Is it a different line than you noticed the first time reading it through?