Blind With Hunger For Your Love

Claude Mckay

Poetry must be simple, sensuous or impassioned.

Emma Lazarus

Summer Morn in New Hampshire

Claude McKay – 1889-1948

All yesterday it poured, and all night long
I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat
Upon the shingled roof like a weird song,
Upon the grass like running children’s feet.
And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed,
Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed,
Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist,
And nestled soft against the earth’s wet breast.
But lo, there was a miracle at dawn!
The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze,
The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn,
The songsters twittered in the rustling trees.
And all things were transfigured in the day,
But me whom radiant beauty could not move;
For you, more wonderful, were far away,
And I was blind with hunger for your love.


Long Island Sound

by Emma Lazarus – 1849-1887

I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

A Little Bit Of Fool In Me

James Emanuel (1921 – 2013)

For me, the promised land, always seeming just beyond my reach, is the poetic masterpiece, that perfect union of words in cadence, each beckoned and shined and breathed into place, each moving in well-tried harmony of tone and texture and meaning with its neighbors, molding an almost living being so faithful to observable truth, so expressive of the mass of humanity and so aglow with the beauty of just proportions that the reader feels a chill in his legs or a catch in his throat.

James Emanuel

A Fool For Evergreen

by James Emanuel

A little bit of fool in me
Hides behind my inmost tree
And pops into the narrow path
I walk blindfolded by my wrath
Or shrunken by some twist of pain,
Some hope that will not wind again.
He ogles with his antic eyes
and somersaults a you’re-not-wise
Until the patches in his pants
Go colorwheeling through my glance
So fast that I cannot recall
That I was mad or sad at all.
A little bit of fool in me
Keeps evergreen my inmost tree.


Writing this blog, it is hard sometimes for me to reconcile the beauty of a poem and the sadness that is part of a poets life.  Most of these poets I know nothing about their lives until I find their poem first and then do a little research about the poet.  James Emanuel was born and grew up Nebraska.   At age twenty he enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and served as the confidential secretary to the Assistant Inspector General of the U.S. Army during WWII.  After his discharge, he  went to Harvard for his undergraduate, then Northwestern for his masters and ultimately on to Columbia for his Ph. D.  He then moved to New York City where he taught at City College of New York (CUNY) where he taught the college’s first course on African-American poetry. 

Emanuel was a poet, an educator, a scholar, an editor and mentor to many.   As the years passed Emanuel became disenfranchised with racism in America.  In 1960 he moved to Europe where he continued a brilliant career at the University of Toulouse as a Fulbright scholar.  He traveled and lectured at many Universities with extended stays at the University of Grenoble and University of Warsaw. In the late 1980’s his only child, a son, was brutally beaten by three racist cops in Los Angeles.  In the emotional aftermath his son committed suicide and Emanuel never returned to America. 

Emanuel published more than 300 poems, 13 books and was an influential editor and critic.   Emanuel created a new literary genre, jazz-and-blues haiku, which he read to musical accompaniment throughout Europe and Africa. Yet despite all that success he is largely overlooked in most literary circles after 1960, in part because he left the United States and because he wrote in mostly traditional poetic forms.   Emanuel was the last surviving writer from the Harlem Renaissance.  He died in 2013 in Paris France.  I find it interesting that both he and Ethridge Knight shared a love of haiku that went largely unnoticed in America during their lifetimes. 

I listened to the video below as I wrote this blog entry.  It brightened my day.   I found it ironic that the critics ignored him for being “traditional” and yet there is nothing traditional about his verse.  The joy in his voice, the artists he is honoring mingle with his haiku style and content and the sweet saxophone jazz.  It all combines into a stunning hypnotic literary effect.  Check out the video at about the 16:30 there are a couple of haiku on hip hop.  I particularly enjoyed the Jazz Rabbit.

 

Emmett Till

by James Emanuel

I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Little Emmett
Won’t be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
Edging through
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
River Boy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
Necklaced in
A coral toy.

Mother Night

James Weldon Johnsonjpg

James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938)

Oh, that mankind had less of Brain and more of Heart,
Oh, that the world had less of Trade and more of Art;
Then would there be less grinding down the poor,
Then would men learn to love each other more;
James Weldon Johnson – Excerpt from Art vs Trade

Mother Night

by James Weldon Johnson

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.


James Weldon Johnson was a renaissance man.  Born in south Florida he was raised to look beyond the barriers of a troubled America post civil war and strive to grasp the dream that emancipation embodied.  Raised by a father who was a free Virginian and Jamaican Mother he would push beyond the racism of the Jim Crow south.  He was a graduate of the University of Atlanta and went on to become the first African American to pass the bar exam in the state of Florida. Johnson was an educator, novelist, poet, song writer, musician, diplomat and civil rights leader.   Johnson and his brother co-wrote the song Lift Every Voice and Sing which became an anthem for the NAACP and the civil rights movement.  He was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to diplomatic positions in 1906 in Venezuela and Nicaragua and upon returning in 1914 became involved in the NAACP, eventually serving as its president from 1920 to 1930.

Johnson focused on the arts in retirement, primarily his writing.   Known as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement over his lifetime he published poetry, novels and stories that helped shape the broader cultural legacy of America.   He died at the age of 67 in a car accident in Maine.

Johnson is just one of many African American writers who wrote sonnets during the early 20th Century.   It may sound odd to connect sonnets to part of the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, but lyric poetry was still the standard by which literature was judged and writers like Johnson, Claude McKay, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and H. Cordelia Ray and others used them to reach across cultural divides and share their poetic vision, while challenging the dominant racist white culture to think differently and inspire their community of color.   Johnson also wrote playfully, in free verse and in rhyme.   He published in a wide range of poetic forms.

I find his final two lines in A Poet To His Son a bit confusing, double negatives scramble things and it makes the entire poem strange.   When I read double negatives I translate it to understand it as a positive, so one way to read it is for me take both out, which would change what he saying to; “Son you can begin too young to be a poet.”  I don’t agree.  You can never be too young to begin to be a poet.  Everyone utters poetry all the time, thinks poetry, from our first word to our last.  And so it left me scratching my head and was a very unsatisfying poem. I disagree with almost all of the advice he gives to his son. Is it sarcasm when he says; Poets these days are unfortunate fellows?  Is Johnson writing in first person but intending that it not be his voice but the worlds?  Or was Johnson sincere and wanting his son to not follow in his footsteps?  What do you think Johnson is saying in the poem below?


A Poet to His Baby Son

by James Weldon Johnson

Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,
And cursed with your father’s mind.

I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?

Why don’t you kick and howl,
And make the neighbors talk about
“That damned baby next door,”
And make up your mind forthwith
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter
Or—?—whatever you decide upon,
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts
About being a poet.

For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

Take the advice of a father who knows:
You cannot begin too young
Not to be a poet.

Be Not Deceived, For Every Deed You Do

McKay
Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)

“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!


America

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.

 

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.

I Am The Darker Brother

langston hughes 2
Langston Hughes

 

“I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?

~ Langston Hughes

 

I, Too

by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.


Dreams were a constant theme in Langston Hughes writing from his first published poem, Weary Blues, to one of his most famous, Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

When Elmer Rice, a playwright, sent out a questionnaire to others on the black list from Senator McCarthy’s investigation into “Anti-American” activities, Langston Hughes, who was at the top of the list replied in a 1952 letter:

Dear Elmer,

Here are my answers to the questionnaire re the FCC and blacklisting in TV and radio:

  1. The publication of my name in RED CHANNELS has not affected my employment in TV or radio. Being colored I received no offers of employment in these before RED CHANNELS appeared, and have had none since—so it hasn’t affected me at all.

He goes on to give a more thorough scorching of the racism and lack of opportunity he has faced in career, because of racism. I am always drawn to Hughes for his honesty. There is a righteous anger that runs through the back bone of his verse, even in his poems of joy, that gives it validity and strength. I have shared other Hughes poems in earlier posts, including his poem Let America Be America Again a much more compelling vision for change than our president’s red MAGA hat – which represents to me when I see it, a buffoon puffing his chest to “Make Assholes Great Again.”

Hughes’ poem below, As I Grow Older, brings the imagery of walls into focus. It is a powerful reminder that walls have symbolism far beyond their physical presence. Walls can serve a purpose in making peace between neighbors and providing physical security. But walls that are meant only to keep people corralled in ways that prevent them from seeing their hope for the future serve no one’s best interest and will eventually be torn down with time.

Let’s spend our money wisely.  Let’s support the arts with federal tax dollars with equal zeal with which we invest in the military and border security and see which one in the end moves us further forward in meeting the ideals of what America can be, with a just, strong and safe, civil society.


As I Grew Older

by Langston Hughes

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
The wall.
Shadow.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

 

 

Whirling Fantastic

 

Luminary Loppet
Luminary Loppet Minneapolis, MN

The Snow Fairy

by Claude McKay

I

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.


II

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.

Laughter Arrogant and Bold

Johnson_Helene-processed
Helene Johnson (1906 – 1995)

To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,
To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,
To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,
To give a still, stark poem shining birth….

Helene Johnson (Excerpt from Fulfillment)

 

Sonnet To A Negro In Harlem

by Helene Johnson

You are disdainful and magnificant–
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise–
Your sholders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.

 


 

Poem

By Helene Johnson

Little brown boy,
Slim, dark, big-eyed,
Crooning love songs to your banjo
Down at the Lafayette–
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
High sort of and a bit to one side,
Like a prince, a jazz prince.   And I love
Your eyes flashing, and your hands,
And your patent-leathered feet,
And your shoulders jerking the jig-wa.
And I love your teeth flashing,
And the way your hair shines in the spotlight
Like it was the real stuff.
Gee, brown boy, I loves you all over.
I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can
Understand your dancin’ and your
Singin’, and feel all the happiness
And joy and don’t care in you.
Gee, boy, when you sing, I can close my ears
And hear tom-toms just as plain.
Listen to me, will you, what do I know
About tom-toms? But I like the word, sort of,
Don’t you? It belongs to us.
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
And the way you sing, and dance,
And everything.
Say, I think you’re wonderful.    You’re
Allright with me,
You are.