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.