The Altar of Loneliness


Sherman Alexie (b. 1966 –

The Facebook Sonnet

by Sherman Alexie

Welcome to the endless high-school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however, kind or cruel.
Let’s undervalue and unmend

The present. Why can’t we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let’s exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let’s all play the games

That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one’s search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.

Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.


This spring will be my 40th anniversary of graduating from high school.  I have only attended one reunion  in the intervening years, the 20th.  So there would be something symmetrical about attending again if some type of gathering actually occurs this fall.  I have several good friends that remain from growing up that I have stayed in frequent touch, but given that I left my home town the day I graduated from high school and never lived there ever again, its not like I have this incredible urge to reconnect.  

During COVID and the presidential election I abandoned Facebook.  I eliminated 3/4 of the people I was connected to simply because we weren’t really friends.  I cut it down to a very small group and I rarely if ever go and read it any more.  I don’t post anything and barely read anything. For me Facebook’s real value was a way to know about friends of mine upcoming gigs who play in a band.  Since live music temporarily doesn’t exist, I have no real motivation to go on the site. 

My mother graduated from the same high school my daughter graduated from 60 years later, the same town I live today.  When she was going to her 55th High School reunion she was still teaching Kindergarten full time in a private school.   On grandparents day in June, (the vast majority of them younger than her) she told all the kids that she was going to Minneapolis that summer to visit some of her childhood friends at a reunion, two of which she met in Kindergarten. There was an audible gasp by the children and then silence, as they looked wide eyed up at my Mother and then to their grandparents, who must have seemed ancient beyond understanding, and then around the circle of faces of their classmates on the floor.  My Mother watched their internal gears turning, deciphering which of their friends today might still be their friend 68 years hence, a sudden determination in their eyes that this business of friendship carries some serious long term obligations.  


The First Day of School

by Roger McGough (b. 1937 – 

A millionbillionwillion miles from home
Waiting for the bell to go. (To go where?)
Why are they all so big, other children?
So noisy? So much at home they
Must have been born in uniform
Lived all their lives in playgrounds
Spent the years inventing games
That don’t let me in. Games
That are rough, that swallow you up.

And the railings.
All around, the railings.
Are they to keep out wolves and monsters?
Things that carry off and eat children?
Things you don’t take sweets from?
Perhaps they’re to stop us getting out
Running away from the lessins. Lessin.
What does a lessin look like?
Sounds small and slimy.
They keep them in the glassrooms.
Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine.

I wish I could remember my name
Mummy said it would come in useful.
Like wellies. When there’s puddles.
Yellowwellies. I wish she was here.
I think my name is sewn on somewhere
Perhaps the teacher will read it for me.
Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea.

I Know My Soul

Terrance Hayes

“If you think a hammer is the only way to hammer / A nail, you ain’t thought of the nail correctly.”

Terrance Hayes

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”]

by Terrance Hayes

Inside me is a black-eyed animal
Bracing in a small stall. As if a bird
Could grow without breaking its shell.
As if the clatter of a thousand black
Birds whipping in a storm could be held
In a shell. Inside me is a huge black
Bull balled small enough to fit inside
The bead of a nipple ring. I mean to leave
A record of my raptures. I was raised
By a beautiful man. I loved his grasp of time.
My mother shaped my grasp of space.
Would you rather spend the rest of eternity
With your wild wings bewildering a cage or
With your four good feet stuck in a plot of dirt?

That’s All That I Remember

El-hajj Malik El-shabazz (Malcolm X)

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

Malcolm X

El-hajj Malik El-shabazz (Malcolm X)

by Robert Hayden

O masks and metamorphoses of Ahab, Native Son

I

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. 


Incident

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.

If By Dull Rhymes

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk

John Keats

If By Dull Rhymes

By John Keats

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.


Today is the 200th anniversary of John Keats death.  Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.  Keats did not die peacefully, he was in agony, denied opium for his pain by his doctors, fearing he would intentionally overdose,  they offered him no respite, forcing him to suffer at the end.  He had moved to Rome in his final months hoping the climate would help cure him, but his disease was too far progressed to prevent his death.  

Keats is a great example its not quantity but quality that is the lasting legacy of a poet.  He wrote poetry for only six years.   In his life time only about 200 copies of his three volumes of poetry were sold.   Yet, Keats has gone on to become immortalized as one of the great English poets because of the sheer beauty of his work.   

He himself doubted his poetry’s staying power, in part because of his limited publishing success.  In a letter to Fanny Brawne a year before his death he wrote “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty of all things…”   Keats’ work became loved by generations of readers,  due in part to Shelly and Hunt’s admiration keeping his work in front of the public through their ongoing tributes and support after his death.  Keat’s poetry is an example that great lyric poetry never goes out of style.  Beauty remains beautiful when it is created for the pure artistic pleasure of the writer. 

Shelley penned and published Adonais in the year following Keats death and it brought a wider audience and interest to Keats work that would build and build throughout the remainder of the 19th century.   Keats wrote sonnets in a style and at a time when lyric poetry was revered. 

I  believe that if Keats were alive today, his sonnets would garner attention for their sheer beauty, but he might find his publishing success might not be that dissimilar to what he experienced 200 years ago.  So it is ironic that modern tastes have moved wide of his mark, and yet it would be interesting to estimate how much money publishers have made publishing Keats poetry while it has been in the public domain?  I’d wager its a very large sum.  There’s something that feels like a tear in the cosmic universe about publishers benefiting handsomely from poets long dead. 

In a recent trip to my Barnes and Noble I stopped by the poetry section and was disappointed that I could not find a single new book of poetry that interested me, the current tastes of publishers running to one or two lines of free verse confessions with stick figure illustrations that look more like memes to my eyes and ears than poetry.  Is that the attention span of readers these days for poetry?   Maybe the pendulum will swing so far towards simplicity that it will start swinging back towards the beauty of more complex lyric poetry again.  Maybe the beauty of Keats will inspire a new generation of readers to reach further into their imaginations, to expect more of writers, publishers and of ourselves in the poetic vision of our modern world. 


Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats

(An Excerpt)

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
 
XXXIX
       Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
       He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
       ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
       With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
       And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
       Invulnerable nothings. We decay
       Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
       Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
 
XL
       He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night;
       Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
       And that unrest which men miscall delight,
       Can touch him not and torture not again;
       From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
       He is secure, and now can never mourn
       A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
       Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceas’d to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

I Don’t Do That Kind Of Work Anymore

Jericho Brown

““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

Odd Jobs

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.

Jericho Brown TED Talk on The Art of Words

Life

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!

There Is A Journey From Me To You

Margaret Walker Alexander (1915 – 1998)

“The poetry of people comes from the deep recesses of our unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.”

Margaret Walker

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.


Kahlo _1

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.

Change This Bloody Thing

Marcus Garvey (1887 – 1940)

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity.”

Marcus Garvey

White and Black

by Marcus Garvey

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.  


Village Blues

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.

It Pierces All Nights To Come

Wanda Coleman (1946 – 2013)

American Sonnet 95

by Wanda Coleman

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. 

 

Dan-el Padilla Peralta visionary questioning of some of the foundations of liberal arts.

Sonnet

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.

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.

So It Shall Be Done

Martin Luther King Memorial, Washington D. C.

 

First Fight Then Fiddle

by Gwendolyn Brooks

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering,
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.


On a recent hike in the north woods in January, an inch of freshly fallen powdery cold snow having covered up the activities of its woodland habitants the previous evening, my partner and I came across a stand of cedar trees, interspersed with spindly hardwoods, and noticed a lot of recent debris under the tree, some animal droppings mixed bark and small pieces of cedar needles scattered about in the fresh snow.   It made me stop and think about what animal was causing this in the past 8 hours.  When hiking on icy, rocky trails in the winter you spend a lot of time looking down to make sure you don’t mis-step, and noticing what was before me on the ground made me look up.  There right above me were the tell tale feeding signs on several trees of a porcupine and given the recent nature of both the snowfall and the residue on the ground, it was clear the porcupine was somewhere near. 

A pro tip in trying to find a porcupine in 50 foot tall cedar trees, don’t stand underneath the thick canopy and look straight up.   Instead back up 10 or 20 yards and scan not just the trunk but the outer branches.  My partner soon spotted our bristly friend, sleeping way out on the end of small forked branch about 40 feet in the air.   We stepped back even a little further for a better view, the sun making the porcupine’s needles glow golden in the afternoon air.  We watched as the porcupine woke up a few minutes later, probably listening in on our conversation, scratched  its side and made its way to the top of the tree for a snack.  It had been over 20 years since I had seen a porcupine in the woods and it was a pleasant way to connect with the broader natural world on Martin Luther King Day. 

  “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

Martin Luther King

After a long January, I am looking forward to getting back into the groove of mixing up authors over the next month and focusing on poets of color during black history month.   The poetry baton today has shifted from Lowell to Brooks, born the same year, their personal histories could not be more different, Brooks thriving in adversity and Lowell drowning in opportunity. 


 Martin Luther King Jr

by Gwendolyn Brooks

A man went forth with gifts.

He was a prose poem.
He was a tragic grace.
He was a warm music.

He tried to heal the vivid volcanoes.
His ashes are
reading the world.

His Dream still wishes to anoint
the barricades of faith and of control.

His word still burns the center of the sun
above the thousands and the
hundred thousands.

The word was Justice. It was spoken.

So it shall be spoken.
So it shall be done.