As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, I remind us all that not everything in poetry needs to be heavy business. For example, here’s a poem by American writer Langston Hughes, a man known largely for his poetry that deals frankly with the Afro-American experience, and this poem of his was published in a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois during the famed Harlem Renaissance.
But wait, not only is this a poem about springtime, it’s a children’s poem written for Du Bois’ children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book. I first learned about this pioneering publication for Afro-American children at the My Life 100 Years Ago blog, which among other things often covers what was happening with magazines of that era.
Hughes himself wrote today’s poem when he was a teenager, and The Brownies’ Book was the first publication to publish his poetry. “April Rain Song” is a charming poem, and in rhythm and poetic tactics it reminds me of Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner whose writing influenced the young Hughes. Here’s a link to the text of Hughes’ poem if you want to follow along.
Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.
It’s been April rainy the past two days in my city, so working on making “April Rain Song” a Parlando Project piece had overcast and setting. Hughes here shows me a mode I sometimes aim for: it’s a nature poem, but specifically set in a city, not in some rural nature. The rain meets sidewalks and street-gutters, not some Eden.
Rain, specifically spring rain, has a strong memory element for me. Perhaps you share this? Outside in rain I’ll often recall other wet spring days, watching from the current distance my child-self walking beside miniature gutter rivers, observing for no particular reason their sweep around last years’ leaves and last winter’s final dusky ice clumps. Or perhaps you recall a particular roof on which fell our general rain? Was Langston Hughes too young yet to have that experience of memory when he wrote this poem? I cannot say, but I have that now, and so I add a bit of wistfulness to his words today.
A hundred years ago, a teenager is riding on a train to Mexico. He’s just left his high school in Ohio. He’s Black. Most of the school was white. When he was in Junior High, the class was asked to elect a class poet. The teacher suggested it should be someone who understood rhythm, and so they elected him. Ah huh…but then he’s also done well at school and now his teachers are suggesting college. That poetry that he had been elected to is sticking with him, literature too. The first successful Black American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had been from Ohio. He thinks “This is possible.”
The teenager is traveling alone on the train. He’s already accustomed to that. If his poppa was a rolling stone, then his mom was moss. They’d split up before he entered school. His father moved far about, following his business interests, and he was the one in Mexico the young man was traveling to. His mother had left him when he was a young child in the care of his grandmother, and then the grandmother died just as he became a teenager. After that, he and his mother tried to reconnect. Mother. Son. Perhaps the deepest tie there is. It didn’t quite work.
The train crosses the Mississippi, the indispensable dividing river of America. He watches out the train window. A train line is a story someone wrote. A river is history — it’s there even if you don’t know it is. But the young man knows more history than many young men knew then, or that many know now.* In particular, he knew that Abe Lincoln, scuffling for work as a young man, had manned a freight-loaded flatboat down that river to New Orleans in 1828. His freight was goods in crates, and New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi was a commercial center for goods. While there young Lincoln sees another market, another type of goods: Black people being bought and sold as livestock.
How ignorant was the young Lincoln of slavery? There were a small number of slaves in the Illinois County Lincoln was traveling from.** The slave market in New Orleans was Americas largest. Perhaps slavery was mostly a story someone told Lincoln before that.
Back in 1920, our Black teenager on the train pulls out the handiest scrap of paper he can find, a letter from his father. On the bare places of that paper, outside his father’s words, he composes today’s poem. He’s going to Mexico City to spend some time with his father and to ask him if he’ll help pay for college so he can study literature.
They spend a summer together in Mexico. Father and son. So often there’s a deep tie between such, but in this case it didn’t quite work. In the end this was the deal they negotiated: yes, he’d help his son with college — but no, he had to study something useful: engineering.***
The young man tries to hold up this agreement. He enters Columbia University in New York City to, yes, study engineering. It doesn’t work. The young man drops out of college and begins working as a bus-boy, but he’s writing poems, and in June of 1921 W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis magazine publishes today’s poem, the one he wrote on the back of his father’s letter on the train: “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In 1925 it also appears in The New Negro anthology which I’m using as a theme here this month. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
Our young man was Langston Hughes. Today’s post is a story based on the little I know about how he came to become a writer. Stories are something we have to write, we engineer them, we build them, lay them out. But, history? History is a river. It’s there whether you know it or not. Surely it goes on, whether you know it or not. Shouldn’t you know it? Shouldn’t I know it? Shouldn’t we know it?
Full circle. After Hughes died in 1967 his ashes were interred in the the middle of this mosaic depicting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the floor the lobby of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
*Indeed, somehow our teenager knew more about Black history than many would have in his time, and the chance that he learned much if any of this in school was low. Forty some years later when I was a teenager, I asked my Freshman Western Civ. teacher an innocent question: “Were the ancient Egyptians Black?” He seemed startled at the question. Hughes was hip to that question in 1920.
However interrupted and strained Langston Hughes’ relationship with his family was, he must have been pointed in some directions by them. A chief source was likely that grandmother who took care of him until she died when Langston was 13. Did she know stories or history? Well, Hughes’ grandmother’s first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, who died during the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid just before the Civil War.
Returning now to the poets presented in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, we’ve come to the poet I most associate with the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. Though he was born in the Midwest and traveled some, Hughes actually lived for much of his life in New York City, unlike some others associated with that artistic flowering. And though Locke’s book concentrated on young, up and coming writers for the most part (Hughes was 23 when The New Negro was published) Hughes’ literary career continued on a more or less continuous path until his death in 1967.
So, if I was asked “Name a Harlem Renaissance poet.” My first answer would have always been “Langston Hughes.” And if Locke’s book is the launch point for that, Hughes was as prominent as any other young writer featured there and then, even if in 1925 he had yet to publish a single book.
Young Langston Hughes. Hey Pharrell, pretty sharp work on those fedora creases don’t you think.
This makes it strange then when I went to do a little research on how Hughes was judged during his 40 plus years as a literary artist. The summaries I read often point out that he was down-rated during his career, and to some degree up to the present day. Why? Well, he did have to go through the dangerous 1930s when political engagement was expected of writers, and like some others he had to handle the double-bind of associations and sympathy for the Russian Revolution and Communism and then later criticism of its faults. Many of the promotors of The New Negro era were so focused on up-lifting the race and demonstrating high-culture acceptance that they were uneasy about Hughes’ embrace of a wider range of Afro-American experience. And finally, there seems to be an element of purely literary judgement he shares with Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman (two of Hughes’ influences) that what he wrote was judged as too simpleminded and unironic. Sure, the high-culture critics would essay: that kind of poetry might have readership broader than many, but it doesn’t fit the literary criteria ascendant as the 20th century unrolled.
Today’s piece, “Dream Variation,” one of Hughes’ poems printed in The New Negro, is a short nature poem. Here’s a link to the full text of it.* Like a lot of lyric poetry, you can read it quickly and superficially with some pleasure. It has rhyme and its rhythms. It counts off some pleasant if not overly spectacular word-music. The first time through you may think it’s just pointing out a commonplace, something one could summarize as: “Hey, it’s nice when it sunny and you’ve got a day outside. And then a summer night when you finally go to bed — that’s nice too.”
Wait a minute. What’s with Hughes’ title: “Dream Variation?” First off, that seems to say that kind of summer carefree pleasure isn’t something the poem is experiencing right now. Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, the poem’s speaker is experiencing this mentally, as if in a dream. That’s a different thing isn’t it. In the same way that a love poem about lost love is not the same as a poem about present love, this is a poem containing longing. Many of us are reading this during this February in North America. Likely you may relate to that state the poem is actually portraying.
I have no way of knowing what the weather was like when Hughes wrote his poem, but Hughes estranged father lived in Mexico where Hughes visited him before embarking for New York City and the beginnings of his literary career. So that titular variation may be a dream not only of passing seasons but of lost places too.
But there’s another way that variation means. In music it’s when a composer modifies elements of an established motif and we see it morph into a new related shape. Do you see what Hughes does here in his short poem? There’s a statement about dancing, arms wide and accepting, in the sun — and then resting in the evening “beneath a tall tree.” An interlude, when inside the body of the poem they express that this is “my dream” — not what they’re doing as they speak the poem. Next we learn that the “bright” day is now described as “quick” and the following “cool” evening is now “pale” evening. And finally, the real metamorphosis: the poem’s speaker is now not “Beneath a tall tree” — there is just a tall tree that remains as night comes.
This variation is subtle and somewhat undefined, mysterious, once you notice it. Is this a statement of the poem’s speaker’s absence from the warm place, that in the variation he’s no longer present? Has the speaker’s life, the proverbial “quick day” ended? Or, is it something even stranger: in the dream he’s no longer the external dancer beneath the tree, external to the day, external to the night, but now he’s become them?** In dream logic it can be all those separate things at once. That’s part of why a dream experience can be so striking!
In this poem, like in some of the poems of Sandburg that I’ve presented here, I maintain that the simple language and seemingly straightforward scene of the poem has misled some readers and some critics. If I was encountering this poem as if I was translating from some Tang Dynasty Chinese classical poet, I would be aware that the poem may not be whamming me on the head about “Look it’s clever metaphor after metaphor! My, how complex a plot I can stuff into my poem! I bet no one ever said anything as complex as this ever before!” Perhaps the assumption is that a working-class Afro-American or the son of a Swedish immigrant can’t be thinking anything more complex than class-struggle position papers.
In my performance of Hughes’ “Dream Variation” I consciously sought to bring out the mysterious element here. Stubbornly the harmonic progression I composed sticks closely to a core around the D note of the scale. Chords move between major and minor however and there’s a rub up and down with a D# Major7. The player to hear my musical performance may appear below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.
*I used the text as printed in Locke’s anthology for my performance as it’s in the public domain. The version I link to is later and includes some, well, variations. In the newer version taken from Hughes’ Collected Poems, the title has become plural, “Variations,” “the bright day” has become “the white day,” and a couple of other smaller changes were made. One could speculate that the “bright day” vs “white day” could have been suggested by an editor as less confrontational.
**And I haven’t even entered into the significant racial aspect that is there as well. The dark night in the poem’s first experience as being first external to the poem’s speaker and being one with it in the second “Black like me.” As an Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes almost certainly intends this, and it may be the most consciously intended message he wished the reader to receive: that poem’s journey via its variation is from experiencing one’s Blackness as externally to an internalized appreciation of it, and that later revision from “bright” to “white” for the first instance of the day underlines that reading. I featured the above reading not to obscure that, but because our particulars as persons bleed into our commonalities as people. When William Butler Yeats or Joseph Campbell speak of being colonialized Irish, it’s not just about their particulars. When Du Fu speaks of being overcome by great events, it’s not just 8th century China that has felt that. When Emily Dickinson’s mind grasps onto a flower or abstract thought and sees its edges always curling, she’s not reduceable to a bourgeois New Englander. And so to when Langston Hughes speaks about being Afro-American in 1920s America. And frankly, I’m hesitant to assume an Afro-American identity as a performer of Hughes’ poem, even as I want to bring it forward to your attention.
Update: An alternate primary reading that the first dream variation is an unachieved dream and that the second is a reflection of the reality of Afro-American life colored by racism seems widespread. Widespread enough that I wonder if Hughes wrote of his intent or understanding of his poem’s meaning at some point. For example many of the alternate readings say the poem’s second dance and whirl is work-a-day and likely menial work inside a Capitalist and Racist system that wouldn’t value Hughes. Hughes experience and political thoughts could be consistent with writing a poem that expressed that. As much as I should doubt my reaction to the text of the poem as printed in 1925, I’m still not seeing that as being the inevitable and singular reading of the second variation, but I offer this update as a self-confessed non-expert on Hughes’ work and because I suspect not a few students come here via web searches to seek insight into poems, and so they should be aware of this other reading.
Since I’ve been unable to supply new pieces for the past few days, it has occurred to me that I could point out some other pieces this project has already done that fit into the Black History Month theme. Here’s one that has been found by a number of visitors during their own searches here this month: Fenton Johnson’s “A Dream.”
Johnson is another Afro-American writer who sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance even though he doesn’t seem to have spent significant time in New York. Instead, Johnson worked in Chicago. He was active and publishing before Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, yet while James Weldon Johnson’s earlier The Book of American Negro Verse included a selection of fine poetry from Fenton Johnson, The New Negro only mentions him in passing. As we’ve seen earlier, some of what Locke aimed to do was to bring forward quite young poets and writers, and even if Johnson was only 38 when The New Negro was issued, it may be that he was considered “the older generation.”
Fenton Johnson. Dressed conservatively here, but he wrote Modernist and socially engaged poetry.
When it comes to pieces for Valentine’s Day, there’s a great deal of love poetry to draw from. And it’s not uncommon for those love poems to be sonnets — after all, that form has been used from the times of Petrarch and Shakespeare for poems about passionate relationships. The course of love is often complex and unstraightforward, and fittingly most sonnets contain a volta, or turn, where the poem shifts from one aspect to another, a feature that is useful for portraying the alternating currents of passion.
For today’s piece I’ve used a distinctive winter love poem by Afro-American and Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. In this poem, “The Snow Fairy,” McKay uses an unusual form, a double sonnet, a pair of 14-line poems that allows additional volta/turns. Here’s a link to McKay’s text if you’d like to follow along.
poet Claude McKay as a young man
“The Snow Fairy” opens with a fine sonnet about a winter snowfall. If one was to read it as a stand-alone poem it wouldn’t seem truncated or insufficient by itself, but McKay wants to present it as part of a pair, and as we’ll see it’s both foreshadowing — and in a time-twist, the actual conclusion of the poem chronologically. Sonnet I has the snow, as per the title, personified as fairies, a kind of otherworldly being that may have connotations of light-heartedness or simple wonder. But note a very subtle shift in the supernatural creatures fluttering down in the second quatrain: “As though in heaven there was revolt and riot.” The merely fantastic in the opening quatrain has taken a more consequential air. I’m not sure how many readers notice this, but to me this is an unmistakable reference to Milton and Satan falling after the war in heaven in Paradise Lost.
Third quatrain, and we’ve switched our attention to the poem’s speaker, who’s gone to bed without mention of any other person, and awakes to view the once individual fairies/fallen angels, now lying still, yet joined together after their night long whirling dance. In the concluding couplet, as often in a Shakespearean sonnet form like McKay uses, we have a turn. We’ve spent our focus up to now on these snowflakes, but in the couplet he tells us by the end of the day they’ve melted away.
In sonnet II, the poem’s speaker flashes backwards in time, connecting via the memory of the first sonnet’s night of winter snow. He’s reminded of a “you who came to me upon a winter’s night” as did our snowflake/fairy/fallen angel creatures did in sonnet I. In sonnet II’s second quatrain this couple are like our snowflakes of the first sonnet, tossed and dancing in what he tells us is passion. In an echo of the third quatrain of the sonnet I, in the same quatrain of sonnet II, they are tenderly joined and bedded.
And then the turn, the volta: faster even than the by midday melting snow of sonnet I, at the break of dawn the partner is gone, leaving the poem’s speaker alone to be the writer of sonnet I, watching the snow fairies fall in winter.
Read with modest care, the story told in the most minimal of sonnet sequences is plain. Love is wonderous. Love joins us, un-times us for a time — and then, whether parting by the single night or death, it is “stol’n away.” But are there additional undercurrents?
I sense there’s a question in the last row of readers out there, and over the Internet I can’t tell if it’s snarky, sincere, or asked hesitantly: “The title is ‘The Snow Fairy.’ Is this two guys hooking up? Is McKay gay?”
Even today when the acronym for non-heteronormative affections and gender extends ever outward, such answers aren’t always simple binary switches, but yes, it seems generally assumed that Claude McKay had erotic connections with other men. McKay never “came out” in a way that folks in our lifetimes do. In the context of this poem, the question may be focused to a subsidiary question, is “The Snow Fairy” a coded statement of his sexuality, written so that that those who know would know, and the others would not?
One could write an essay longer than this post, but on balance my reading is that, like his equally lovely summer-day-long love poem “Memory of June” this feels as if McKay is describing the difficulties of gay people being able to form lasting relationships when that was desired in his time. The subtle turn from fairies to Miltonic fallen angels in sonnet I also seems to be signaling outsider status. There’s also a possible significance in the title snow fairy being singular while the snow fairies/snowflakes are multitudinous. But was “fairy” a clear signaling word? It seemed like that to me when I first read this poem, but upon research that’s ambiguous. Terms used for gay people have a history of emerging and shifting over time, both inside and outside the community. Fairy as a slang word for an effeminate man seems to have emerged in the mid-to-later 1920s,* and was in common understanding by 1940 or so, but this poem was published in 1922. That means that it might be too early for it to be understood by other gay people generally, or even McKay, as signaling. On the other hand, it seems likely that a general reader in 1922 would not read fairy = gay when seeing this poem on the page then.
But in another way, is that the only thing that matters about this poem? No. Love and desire is both complex and unitary. Passing love, passing sweetness, unrequited desires, loneliness for absent lovers — put all the genders, nationalities, races and practices together in one snowbank and you can’t separate out the unique snowflakes. We love and we are gone is one whole part of humanity. Perhaps that’s why Valentine’s Day is but a day?
I performed Claude McKay’s “The Snow Fairy” in this simple arrangement to get it done in time. I had another version with basic tracks of a more full-band arrangement, but this one with just 12-string acoustic guitar and bass was easier for me to complete. To hear my performance, use the player gadget below — or if you don’t see the player this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too.
Continuing in my celebration of Black History Month, I’m going to return to the 1925 anthology that is often thought of as the launching point of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. This book’s editor Alain Locke wanted to demonstrate the breadth of new expression by Afro-Americans in his time, and so concentrated on young and living artists for the most part. In traveling back to 1925 to visit this book, I have to readjust myself to the way Locke and his alternate presenters frames these young artists compared to how someone might do so today.
Each essay I’ve read so far in The New Negro is written in a careful and august style. Don’t get me wrong, the style is not overly academic, and the introductory essays don’t descend into esoteric terminology. It appears that Locke wanted this book to speak to any educated person, white or Black — and probably to non-American’s too. But there’s a focus on the fine arts and how Afro-American work may be measured favorably in those fields — and then some discomfort with the popular arts where Afro-Americans are also increasingly visible to white folks.
There are some complex reasons for that, more than today’s post will have time to go into in any depth. The simplest heading for a large concern there is “minstrelsy,” the long-standing and once highly popular American tactic of using Black characters to represent unvarnished and unrepentant foolish and clownish behavior,* extended often through the use of white actors or artists portraying Black characters. In the popular arts, some of the breakthrough “cross-over” artists of Locke’s time were working off the grounds of this comic and derogatory white approximation of Blackness, giving them back a Black reflection of a racist white reflection of Blackness. Tough way to work!
Midway through I’ve come to the book’s section on music, and in this case Locke himself leads off that section with an essay somewhat different from the main thrust of the book, a lengthy appreciation of “The Negro Spirituals,” a folk music form with almost entirely anonymous composers that came to cultural attention in the 19th century, not in his modern 20th. Locke deftly deals with the dialect of those lyrics, and even at times concedes a judgement of simplicity on the music, countering by pointing out the — well — spiritual concerns, and the evident depth of feeling. He points out that European composers had long been drawing on that continent’s folk music and orchestrating it for concert halls** and suggests the same may be a path for Spirituals going forward.
The next essay in the Music section of The New Negro does speak to a 20th century Afro-American form, one not yet considered a fine art: “Jazz At Home” by J. A. Rogers.*** Rogers has a lot to say in his essay, and for someone like me who many decades later became interested in Blues, Jazz and their descendant forms, it’s interesting to see how one intelligent Afro-American in the middle of the emergent “Jazz Decade” of the 1920s viewed this music. Here’s a few excerpts that will give you the flavor:
The Negroes who invented [Jazz] called their songs the ‘Blues,’ and they weren’t capable of satire or deception….[Jazz] is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were. It is hilarity expressing itself through pandemonium; musical fireworks…..in idiom — rhythmic, musical and pantomimic — thoroughly American Negro; it is his spiritual picture on that lighter comedy side, just as the spirituals are the picture on the tragedy side. The two are poles apart, but the former is by no means to be despised and it is just as characteristically the product of the peculiar and unique experience of the Negro in this country.
Jazz, it is needless to say, will remain a recreation for the industrious and a dissipater of energy for the frivolous, a tonic for the strong and a poison for the weak. For the Negro himself, jazz is both more and less dangerous than for the white — less, in that he is nervously more in tune with it; more, in that at his average level of economic development his amusement life is more open to the forces of social vice….Yet in spite of its present vices and vulgarizations, its sex informalities, its morally anarchic spirit, jazz has a popular mission to perform. Joy, after all, has a physical basis. Those who laugh and dance and sing are better off even in their vices than those who do not…. It has come to stay, and they are wise, who instead of protesting against it, try to lift and divert it into nobler channels.”
The “Um, actually…” annoying and opinionated pedant in me wants to correct him at times,**** which when you think about it, is presumptuous. I’ve got decades of scholarship and hindsight that I didn’t have to do myself to prop me up. Rogers couldn’t listen to Charlie Patton records anytime he wanted to in 1925, so if he thinks Blues was sorrowful and was “incapable of satire or deception” I can’t bring him my evidence back to his time. And if he views Jazz in 1925 as merely happy-go-lucky, is he a reliable first-hand witness to his time and place that I’m not — or is he reflecting the types of Jazz that found the quickest acceptance by broader audiences including whites? Rogers lived long enough that it’s possible he could have listened to “A Love Supreme” before he died, and if so he would have found there the spiritual jazz expression he predicted.
So here I am, some other kind of fool, writing this introduction to — what? — some introductory essays, because directly following Rogers essay in our 1925 book is today’s piece, a poem by another writer who was totally unknown to me: Gwendolyn B. Bennett. She gives us an example of how poetry differs from the typical essay, and it’s not hard to think that Locke consciously chose that position, because her poem extends his and Rogers’ essays, giving us a set of words that are aware of the ideas they wrote about, but Bennett is telling sharply how those ideas feel.
Bennett’s poem, which she called just “Song” is too good to be overlooked, and so despite my current limitations with creating musical pieces I felt I had to present it. One choice I had to make in inhabiting it was just what was Bennett’s overriding stance on the dialectic between Black musical expression — even sincerely joyful Black expression — within an ignorant majority white culture. As in Rogers’ essay, Bennett’s poem seems to be balancing, recognizing the salve of joyful music, and the grace of Black joy and art against Black sorrow. I cannot ask Bennett, but I decided this piece’s performance needed to bring forward the white culture not quite grasping the Black performers’ balancing act, keying off things like the compressed eloquence of lines like “Breaking heart/To the time of laughter/Clinking chains and minstrelsy/Are welded fast with melody.”
In so doing maybe I bring a little white history to Black History Month. After all, it is presumptuous for a white guy to perform a Black woman’s poem, but I can bring my experience of ignorance.
*My cultural curiosity causes me to note that the trope of finding some outsider group to assign the most unalloyed foolishness to for what will be read by the insider group as humor is widespread. See the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare, dumb Polish/Irish/Scandinavian/Italian, etc. immigrant jokes, and hillbilly plays. Of course in America, the ways these ready-mades were employed using Black faces on top of the outrages of slavery was extraordinarily cruel.
**Locke also points out the historical link between Spirituals and educated culture in that many of the pioneering Black colleges had raised funds by touring Afro-American choirs presenting arrangements of these songs.
***Oh man, there is nowhere near enough time to discuss Rogers! He doesn’t seem to have been a music writer, but is instead a self-educated and often self-published crusading polymath with an unquenchable interest in every unlit corner of Black history. His books helped inspire a young Henry Louis Gates Jr.
****This is one of my worst personal characteristics. Hopefully I keep it away from you dear reader. Rogers is so concerned with uplifting the race, that he seems to have internalized (from white critics?) a fear that Jazz and Jazz lovers are backwards and that their effects were achieved naively. And many of the most popular jazz records of the 20s were fast numbers that stressed novelty effects, like this one by “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” White guys. Um, actually…
When I look through an old anthology like Locke’s The New Negro from 1925, my eye is not just looking for the well-known work featured there, but to the ones that somehow got overlooked, and that’s how today’s piece “Escape” by lesser-known Black poet Georgia Douglas Johnson came to my attention. Unlike Countee Cullen from last time, or several other authors in that handsome book that served as the bound and determined launch point of what would be called The Harlem Renaissance, I don’t think I even knew Johnson’s name.
Why would I not know Johnson’s work, or even her name? I’ve got some initial theories. Like a few others classed as part of the Harlem Renaissance (old favorites from this blog Anne Spencer and Fenton Johnson are two others) she never spent any significant time in New York City, and so missed out on the direct network effects of that vibrant cultural scene. She was a woman, and by 1925 that was not where literary culture was focused. She was politically engaged, but as far as I can tell, not closely associated with the Communist left that was an important nexus for Afro-American radicalism between the world wars, and her early poetry from which The New Negro had to draw from was more like the work of some other American women poets* of her time: lyrical, interested in presenting complex interpersonal relations and emotions considered at the time as being outside of politics.
Georgia Douglas Johnson, 16 of her lines brought her to my attention, and now to yours.
Johnson spent most of her life in Washington D. C. where she was married to a man who had a lower-level government job when her first books of poetry were published. The short biographical notes say that her husband wasn’t fully supportive of her literary efforts — but then her situation changed again without advantage when she was widowed at age 45 with two children to support. Somewhat like one of my grandmothers, she was forced to scramble for low-paying clerical jobs that were among the few open to middle-aged women in the days when the want ads were as segregated by gender** as many public accommodations were by race.
One good thing that came to her from widowhood was that she founded a long-standing literary salon in her modest home in Washington which seems to have been — like Anne Spencer’s home in Lynchburg, Virginia — a place to celebrate, support, and promote Afro-American thought, activism, and arts.
But if it’s her poem that brought Johnson to my attention instead of her fame, we should move onto that. “Escape” is another of those short lyric poems that can seem slight on first reading, something that might justify itself solely for being musical on the page. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet, if one looks closely at what it’s saying, its insight should come forward. This is a poem of withdrawal into solitude to escape sorrow. Though short, the poem makes clear this isn’t some kind of graceful meditative solitude either. She calls it a “black abyss.” Though the cause of the sorrow that the poem’s speaker is fleeing is not stated, I note that Georgia Douglas Johnson genders this pursuing sorrow as “She.***” If one stays with the poem a bit, as I had to as I composed today’s music and figured out how to perform it, its easy to consider that the poem’s speaker’s “Escape” has her fleeing one sorrow for another, and an even lonelier one at that.
Here’s another quick judgement to avoid with this or other poems. Johnson isn’t necessarily advocating for what the speaker of the poem describes. Because the poem doesn’t go into specifics, we are free to supply from our own experience what is the sorrow that has caused the poem’s speaker to flee to an abyss. Patriarchy? Racism? Poverty? The struggle to create art in a society that has many competitors to that? Something else?
Johnson’s life tells us she fought off that sorrow, suspended herself from that abyss of loneliness, sought to advance her art and other Black artists, and to redress the inequalities of racism. I think she left us with a statement about what such sorrowful obstacles feel like, and it also tells us, “Yes, I know how that feels — but it’s a trap.”
Besides composing today’s music, I made two additions to Johnson’s words for today’s presentation of “Escape.” Because I was attracted to the “music of thought” in how Johnson uses parallels/refrains in her account of fleeing from sorrow, I decided to end the piece with the same word, “sorrow” that ended the first stanza. A second addition happened as I was performing the song. As I got to the second or third take, I started to sense somehow a song by the American composer Moondog was asking to be let in, and so I sang a phrase from his piece “Loneliness” using the variation of his lyric that Janis Joplin used when she sang it.
Musically, I think it’s an interesting chord progression I used. The song is in the key of E, but besides using the obligatory 5th more as a passing tone, I dwell on the key of E’s 2nd and 6th degrees in this piece. The player gadget to hear my performance of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Escape” should be below, but if you don’t have it in your blog viewer, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Examples of non-Black American woman writers working with these subjects include Sara Teasdale, early Genevieve Taggard, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Taggard and Millay were moving to political engagement in causes also championed by male writers by this time, and Georgia Douglas Johnson is noted in many passing mentions of her work as also being an anti-lynching activist. For Taggard and Millay this change in subject matter didn’t really prevent them from being de-emphasized by the more male-centric literary culture of mid-century America.
**I don’t know how many young people read this blog, but when I was growing up a great many job listings were printed in pages of small print in daily newspapers. Hard as it may be to believe, they were explicitly split into jobs for men and jobs for women.
***My reading? This is something she feels women may inflict on themselves.
A new month, and I hope to have some new pieces here with a focus on February and Black History Month. It’s also a new year, and there are now some new books and works available in the public domain that I can freely adapt for use here.
I found today’s piece “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young” while reading one of those newly PD books, Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro, An Interpretation published in 1925. This book was something of the premier book-length publication of what became known as The Harlem Renaissance. Unlike James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of just three years prior, The Book of American Negro Poetry, Locke’s book was a collection containing only the work of living writers, and with a particular focus on younger Afro-Americans who were just then coming to the fore. And so it is that after an introductory essay on “Negro Youth Speaks*” by Locke that I began to read his selection of youth of his day with the first poet in the alphabetical section: Countee Cullen.
Locke’s The New Negro is a beautiful book too, with striking woodcuts and illustrations of the authors.
Let me once more demonstrate the gaps in my scholarly education. I knew Cullen’s name and little else about him. The various short literary assessments I’ve since read to get some quick handle on him concentrate on his eventual estrangement from the development of Afro-American literature and poetic Modernism in general because his verse used 19th century Romantic poets as its models, and as his career progressed there was a feeling that his youthful promise didn’t sufficiently develop. After the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance passed by, Cullen in the 1940s was teaching middle school. One of the young teenagers he taught? A kid named James Baldwin.
So, what stood out as I came upon “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young” in Locke’s anthology? Well, there’s a mystery there for one thing. The poem read alone on the page seems to evoke something, but I suspect few readers will grasp what it means. Here’s a link to the text of Cullen’s poem. For me, and probably for you, that mystery starts right-off with the title. You may well ask: who the hell is Colonel Charles Young? Why would this young Afro-American be writing a poem about him? I need to tell you a story.
It starts in 1865. The American Civil War is raging. An enslaved Black man in Kentucky, Gabriel Young, escapes to Ohio leaving his wife and one-year-old son in order to join the Union army. After the end of the war, Gabriel uses his veterans’ pension to buy some land and a house for his young family. That toddler grows up to be a very sharp student, graduating first in his class in his high school. Perhaps thinking of the way his father had used military service to advance himself, that young man, Charles Young, decides to enter the U. S. Army military academy at West Point in 1884.
To say the least this was not an established path for an Afro-American in 1884. Indeed, Charles Young was only the second Afro-American to attend, and the first had entered only the year before and would become Young’s roommate at the school. The Academy had a well-established culture of hazing and a peer-discipline system based on fellow students issuing demerits on their own initiative. These pioneering Black students where therefore subject to every racist and discriminatory action the white student body could generate, and it was all so-easily cloakable as “tradition.”
Young persevered through all that, graduated, and was given his commission as a second lieutenant. He began his career in the still segregated U. S. Army in Nebraska and Utah with an Afro-American cavalry regiment. In 1894 he was assigned to Wilberforce College back in Ohio where he established the military services department at that historically Black college. He left there to serve during the Spanish American War of 1898, commanding a Black regiment in that conflict. After that war his military career took him to various assignments, including a time as the Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, various overseas assignments with Military Intelligence working at American embassies, and even a gun battle during the Pancho Villa expedition into Mexico in 1916. By this point he had risen to become the Colonel Charles Young of Cullen’s poem’s title.
And this brought upon the most remarkable event of his career as the United States entered WWI the following year. As the U.S. mobilized rapidly to enter the war, a veteran officer with war and foreign experience like Young should have been a prime resource. A white officer with a similar resume would have been rapidly promoted to general and put in charge of one of the regiments of the newly created expeditionary force. But this situation pointed out a problem with a segregated Army: there was no way to do that without making an Afro-American the out-ranking commander of some white soldiers. If there’s one thing white supremacists can’t account for it’s that, just maybe, there might be some Black folks with every demonstrated reason to out-rank them. Drives them nuts.
The Army decided to “solve” this problem by pulling Young from active duty, declaring him unfit for the war due to high blood pressure. Young attempted to refute that claim by riding on horseback from Wilberforce college in Ohio to Washington D. C., but less than a week after he arrived, the Armistice was signed to end WWI.
Young was returned to active duty however, and he died in 1921 while serving overseas with Military Intelligence in Nigeria. He was buried with military honors at Arlington cemetery, and thus we have the grave that Cullen would use as the scene for his poem.
So now that you know this as you read the text of this poem, or hear Cullen’s references to Young’s career in my performance, you should have a sense of its full import, one that should inform you as we celebrate Black History Month. Charles Young gave his full measure of service to America even if America gave him back something less than that. This is an example of what history is about. You may feel anger, puzzlement, gratitude, regret, or admiration at Young’s life. It might be most appropriate to feel all of those things. One task for poets and singers, from Homer to Countee Cullen, and onto you or me, is to be the trees with tongues to tell that Cullen ends his poem with.
*There’s nothing untoward about that categorization. Odd as it seems to think of these men and women who I think of as of my grandparents’ generation as ‘youth,” Countee Cullen was just 22 in 1925, the exact same age as our recent Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman is today.
Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.
John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.
John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.
And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.” This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.
I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.
Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.
Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.
American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.
For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.
How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.
Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.
The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.
And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.
What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.
What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,” use the player below. If you can’t see the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to hear it.
Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”