Category Archives: Remembering Poets

Okla Elliott 1977-2017: Gone Too Soon

On March 19, 2017, the young and very accomplished poet Okla Elliott passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He was also a novelist, fiction writer, translator, translator, and teacher, in academia and beyond. I discovered his poetry from Subtropics, where I read the first poem below.

The Patience of the Land Mine 
        

Weeds grow over rusty death

in a field no crops

but many flowers

will populate. The land mine dreams

the sweetness of a child’s foot

or a dog’s paw to depress

its small detonator, dreams

the echoing boom

and the wet bloom of meat and bone.

It dreams its dream for years, decades,

does nothing but dream,

and never grows tired.

But I only experienced his considerateness firsthand when I published a review in the same issue of Tupelo Quarterly Review as he did, after which we became Facebook friends. It seemed as if I merely blinked, maybe twice, and he was gone. What a loss! This article gives an idea of how much he is missed and his legacy, as well as another of his fine poems.

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Remembering Derek Walcott 1930-2017

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who was born and died in the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia, left a larger-than-life legacy of poetry, plays, essays, and more, certainly a prolific and much-lauded literary giant. The Caribbean world imbued his poetry with gorgeous, rich imagery, and permeated his unique style. He will be long remembered. One of his best-known poems is “Sea Grapes”:

Sea Grapes

Related Poem Content Details

That sail which leans on light,

tired of islands,

a schooner beating up the Caribbean


for home, could be Odysseus,

home-bound on the Aegean;

that father and husband’s


longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is

like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name

in every gull’s outcry.


This brings nobody peace. The ancient war

between obsession and responsibility

will never finish and has been the same


for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore

now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,

since Troy sighed its last flame,


and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough

from whose groundswell the great hexameters come

to the conclusions of exhausted surf.


The classics can console. But not enough. 

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Etheridge Knight: Power Voice (1931-1991)

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Sometimes it seems like I’m overusing the words “power” and “powerful” in reference to poetry and poets; perhaps even more so with African-American/ African poetry. Etheridge Knight’s name doesn’t come up too much these days, but it should. His poetry resonates, especially now with a president who doesn’t respect the first amendment, who wants to establish Fox News and Breitbart news as State TV, in whose wake heinous hate crimes are experiencing a revival against people of color, gays, Jews, Muslims, people of Indian descent, anyone who looks Foreign, Non-WASP, non-straight, Other. Knight’s work is a powerful voice for all people who have experienced oppression; his work is daringly universal and forthright, and deserves a place among the top tier poets.

His poetry is also characterized by its depth of understanding, as evidenced here:

A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison

By Etheridge Knight

After explanations and regulations, he
Walked warily in.
Black hair covered his chin, subscribing to
Villainous ideal.
“This can not be real,” he thought, “this is a
Classical mistake;
This is a cake baked with embarrassing icing;
Somebody’s got
Likely as not, a big fat tongue in cheek!
What have I to do
With a prim and proper-blooded lady?”
Christ in deed has risen
When a Junkie in prison visits with a Wasp woman.

“Hold your stupid face, man,
Learn a little grace, man; drop a notch the sacred shield.
She might have good reason,
Like: ‘I was in prison and ye visited me not,’ or—some such.
So sweep clear
Anachronistic fear, fight the fog,
And use no hot words.”

After the seating
And the greeting, they fished for a denominator,
Common or uncommon;
And could only summon up the fact that both were human.
“Be at ease, man!
Try to please, man!—the lady is as lost as you:
‘You got children, Ma’am?’” he said aloud.

The thrust broke the dam, and their lines wiggled in the water.
She offered no pills
To cure his many ills, no compact sermons, but small
And funny talk:
“My baby began to walk… simply cannot keep his room clean…”
Her chatter sparked no resurrection and truly
No shackles were shaken
But after she had taken her leave, he walked softly,
And for hours used no hot words.

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Remembering Monica Hand

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Monica Hand’s powerful and unique voice will be an enduring one through her poetry. In her own words: “My best poems express ideas concerned with civil rights and the human condition and do that in a way that the energy of the poem is felt in the gut, the heart, the throat and the head.” Sadly, she passed on December 15, 2016, unexpectedly and much too soon. She had published her first poetry collection in 2012, nina and Me. She was already an award-winning poet, despite having begun her writing career relatively late, and had almost immediately been recognized as an important voice, having discovered, through study and travel, much information about the African Diaspora, those displaced from their homes by the slave trade. Her poems deal with and recognize that, honoring those who had been treated with such dishonor, and raising the painfully real awareness of that history and its need for honest dissemination.

Wounding Corpus

By Monica Hand

This body – its muscles and its bones
its sagging milk glands no use as fare,
slightly curved back and arthritic knees
no good for carrying. Lost vessel.
Here resides asylum & dangerous
thoughts, capillaries of grief & greed
equally measured. A load like skin,
just like the mammoth’s, I cannot keep
myself cool. This body walks inside
bodies of wounding diction, a fit
inarticulate in its meaning.
To disappear, these unstable bones
rustle across continents, crippled,
a senile beast stuffed into a box.

And here is an ekphrastic poem, one that finds in this iconic painting a greater truth that goes to the heart of justice, a place where art, beauty, and transcendence itself can be applied to the human condition. To, as the poet herself put it, “heal traumas of the heart and the spirit” and to “resist injustices.” Now we are becoming painfully aware of how much we need her voice, still living in her words.

Water Lilies

By Monica Hand

—after Monet

I watch the light change its many colors.
Here, from my little boat on a little pond,

sky, clouds, algae, weeping willow without
edges, no horizon just changing light.

The mutable landscape floats round leaves.
To hold light in a frame is for the bourgeoisie.

Who would try to possess the water’s surface?
Who would flatten prisms of changing light?

Today I’m green. Tomorrow I may be white.
It’s all the same. Light is more than one color.

Black is an invention of man. Colors change,
close up and from the bottom of the pond.

Day-by-day, night-by-night, I see
my visions shift in the light, ever-changing

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Remembering Leonard Cohen

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Even though he was 82 years old, Leonard Cohen’s death feels untimely. A life filled with amazing songs, of which some, at this moment in history, are particularly meaningful. His lyrics “made grown men cry,” not to mention countless women. Those who say song lyrics are not poetry—even though Cohen actually started out as a poet and novelist, not a songwriter—will find a strong rebuttal in the body of his work, of which the two below are powerfully relevant to the catastrophic and shocking election of Donald Trump. His own words are a lasting tribute to Leonard Cohen’s genius.

Democracy

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we’ll be making love again.
We’ll be going down so deep
the river’s going to weep,
and the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on …

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Anthem

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

(Ring, ring, ring, ring)
Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

(Ring, ring, ring, ring)
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

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Remembering Kate Light: Gone too Soon

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Kate Light, poet, violinist, and librettist, died unexpectedly of breast cancer. Too young, too talented to die, she had so many plans in the works, so much she was looking forward to. One of the many fine poets with whom I was still unfamiliar despite her having been featured on the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Despite being a poet who wrote in forms, and highly regarded. A brief selection from her many wonderful poems.

There Comes the Strangest Moment

There comes the strangest moment in your life,
when everything you thought before breaks free–
what you relied upon, as ground-rule and as rite
looks upside down from how it used to be.

Skin’s gone pale, your brain is shedding cells;
you question every tenet you set down;
obedient thoughts have turned to infidels
and every verb desires to be a noun.

I want–my want. I love–my love. I’ll stay
with you. I thought transitions were the best,
but I want what’s here to never go away.
I’ll make my peace, my bed, and kiss this breast…

Your heart’s in retrograde. You simply have no choice.
Things people told you turn out to be true.
You have to hold that body, hear that voice.
You’d have sworn no one knew you more than you.

How many people thought you’d never change?
But here you have. It’s beautiful. It’s strange.

The Self-Taught Man

A man schooled to bits bears a son, and the son
says, No way will I walk where you’ve walked,
and be taught in the methods you’ve been taught.
I want to find out everything on my own!
You see the beauty of it: this son’s untamed,
unbitten, unashamed; head-strong and heart-led,
people come to view him: the self-fed
man! He’s in a niche that stays unnamed
because it’s all his own. And you are drawn
to this one like a horse to water — drink drink drink
beside the self-taught man; listen to him think
as only he can. After he is gone
from the spot you linger, licking your wounds and scars,
because the son listens only, only to the stars.

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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Poets, Remembering Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

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A master of lyric verse, Paul Laurence Dunbar drew on many poetic traditions, writing mainly formal poetry. His famous rondeau, “We Wear the Mask,” below, was my model for learning the rondeau, a powerful form when used well, as Dunbar certainly did. The poet Nikki Giovanni was instrumental in helping bring his work to light as a poetic genius and one of the first African-American great poets to be recognized, even in his own, racially oppressive and segregated time. I also include below his poem, “Sympathy,” which inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Sympathy

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

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Lucille Clifton, Luminary 1936-2010

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Lucille Clifton’s much-lauded poetry shines through today with its eloquent simplicity and choice of worthy topics. But whatever I say about her many awards and her long and influential career cannot speak for her like her poems. Here are three on very different subjects, but all of them testimony to both the evil and the transcendence of humanity.

the lost baby poem

BY Lucille Clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas let black men call me stranger
always for your never named sake

slaveships

BY Lucille Clifton

loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing
Jesus
why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
and hot and red
as our bloody ankles
Jesus
Angel
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen country
Jesus
Angel
ever again
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace Of God
can this sin live

the message of crazy horse

BY Lucille Clifton

i would sit in the center of the world,
the Black Hills hooped around me and
dream of my dancing horse. my wife

was Black Shawl who gave me the daughter
i called They Are Afraid Of Her.
i was afraid of nothing

except Black Buffalo Woman.
my love for her i wore
instead of feathers. i did not dance

i dreamed. i am dreaming now
across the worlds. my medicine is strong.
my medicine is strong in the Black basket
of these fingers. i come again through this

Black Buffalo woman. hear me;
the hoop of the world is breaking.
fire burns in the four directions.
the dreamers are running away from the hills.
i have seen it. i am crazy horse.

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Amiri Baraka, Revolutionary Poet 1934-2014

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Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial names in poetry, a field not known particularly for its controversy, and I say “is” because even since his death in 2014 his work continues to provoke. Now that certainly says something about the power of his poetry. His initial fame came as one of the beat poets, under his birth name, Leroi Jones. But under both names, his focus has always been a social and political one, mainly as a stand, in no uncertain terms, against oppression and injustice, in particular against African-Americans. And he names names with no hesitation.

Perhaps the most well-known and problematic controversy was over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” referencing 9/11. The link above also gives context to the controversy itself in which the state of New Jersey, which had selected Baraka as its Poet Laureate, literally dissolved the post of Poet Laureate under the patently false bit of rhetoric “arts should focus on the art, not the individual (artist)” — as if this was a sudden bolt of intellectual lightning. The purpose of eliminating the position of Poet Laureate was to remove Mr. Baraka because some were offended by his poem. “Some” meaning the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which called the poem “antisemitic” for its implication that Israel was somehow complicit in 9/11. Whether or not one agrees with this opinion, Baraka’s argument on behalf of his poem and his refusal to retract it, was simply that Israel is not the same as Judaism or Jews, but a nation. This implies that the nation could make mistakes, even egregious ones.

Of course, what is at stake is not a “mistake” but complicity in a crime which has become pivotal as the raison d’être of the global war on terror, something Israel would likely find useful to its security, but also something Israel would not to be associated with in this way. That 9/11 was the crime that triggered invasions of other countries, military actions against “terrorism” and the hyping and flame-fanning of war-mongers keen to incite anti-Muslim sentiment, makes such an accusation quite consequential. Nevertheless, it is technically an opinion and not a legal accusation, certainly not a denigration of the Jewish people any more than accusations, within the same poem, against the CIA accusing it also of complicity, is somehow a slander against the American people. State actions are always separate from their people. (Not always an easy fact to maintain in a politicized world.)

Importantly, the poem expressed an opinion, one covered in the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The very same poem also ranted against the Holocaust and against discrimination against Jews among others including African-Americans. Many Jews within the nation of Israel have voiced opinions highly unfavorable of Israeli government policies and actions with impunity. That the ADL would strongarm the State of New Jersey, which was bound by contract to keep Baraka as its Poet Laureate at its contracted salary, to go around their legal obligations by removing the post entirely, indicates there are forces more influential, certainly in this case, than democracy itself or the constitution. That those “forces” or that group would be able to railroad their demands through is also testament to how little people understand what freedom of speech or expression means. That political voices or voices of dissent would be thus deliberately suppressed while pornography or demonstrations by the KKK be allowed under the first amendment speaks volumes. Pornography only offends families of children or women (and some men) who find it misogynist — certainly not so different from antisemitism — but these people have no clout. And without clout, apparently, the Bill of Rights is just another contract to work around and circumvent. Was anyone offended at this unfair treatment or at the defamation of a man merely expressing his opinion. He was outspoken, and not all his opinions are ones I would necessarily agree with. But I would fight to the death for his right to say them.

Meanwhile, here is an older poem about racism, a less controversial subject these days, thankfully. Unless, of course, one accuses the “wrong” person…

Dope

BY Amiri Baraka

uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu uuu ray light morning fire lynch yet
uuuuuuu, yester-pain in dreams
comes again. race-pain, people our people
our people
everywhere . . . yeh . . . uuuuu, yeh
uuuuu. yeh
our people
yes people
every people
most people
uuuuuu, yeh uuuuu, most people
in pain
yester-pain, and pain today
(Screams) ooowow! ooowow! It must be
the devil
(jumps up like a claw stuck him) oooo
wow! oooowow! (screams)

It must be the devil
It must be the devil
it must be the devil
(shakes like evangelical sanctify
shakes tambourine like evangelical sanctify
in heat)

ooowow! ooowow! yeh, devil, yeh, devil
ooowow!

Must be the devil must be the devil
(waves plate like collection) mus is mus is
mus is
mus is be the devil, cain be rockefeller
(eyes roll
up batting, and jumping all the way around
to face the
other direction) caint be him, no lawd
aint be dupont, no lawd, cain be, no lawd,
no way
noway, naw saw, no way jose — cain be
them rich folks
theys good to us theys good to us theys
good to us theys
good to us theys good to us, i know, the
massa tolt me
so, i seed it on channel 7, i seed it on
channel 9 i seed
it on channel 4 and 2 and 5. Rich folks
good to us
poor folks aint shit, hallelujah, hallelujah,
ooowow! oowow!
must be the devil, going to heaven after i
die, after we die
everything going to be different, after we die
we aint gon be
hungry, ain gon be pain, ain gon be sufferin
wont go thru this
again, after we die, after we die owooo!
owowoooo!
after we die, its all gonna be good, have all
the money we
need after we die, have all the food we
need after we die
have a nice house like the rich folks, after
we die, after we die, after we
die, we can live like rev ike, after we die,
hallelujah, hallelujah, must be
the devil, it ain capitalism, it aint capitalism,
it aint capitalism,
naw it aint that, jimmy carter wdnt lie,
“lifes unfair” but it aint capitalism
must be the devil, owow! it ain the police,
jimmy carter wdnt lie, you
know rosalynn wdnt not lillian, his
drunken racist brother aint no reflection
on jimmy, must be the devil got in im, i tell
you, the devil killed malcolm
and dr king too, even killed both kennedies,
and pablo neruda and overthrew
allende’s govt. killed lumumba, and is
negotiating with step and fetchit,
sleep n eat and birmingham, over there in
“Rhodesia”, goin’ under the name
ian smith, must be the devil, caint be vortser,
caint be apartheid, caint
be imperialism, jimmy carter wdnt lie, didnt
you hear him say in his state
of the union message, i swear on rosalynn’s
face-lifted catatonia, i wdnt lie
nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied, hoover
lied hoover sucked (dicks) too
but jimmy dont, jimmy wdnt jimmy aint lying,
must be the devil, put yr
money on the plate, must be the devil, in
heaven we’all all be straight
cain be rockefeller, he gave amos pootbootie a
scholarship to Behavior
Modification Univ, and Genevieve Almoswhite
works for his foundation
Must be niggers! Cain be Mellon, he gave
Winky Suckass, a fellowship in
his bank put him in charge of closing out
mortgages in the lowlife
Pittsburgh Hill nigger section, caint be him.
(Goes on babbling, and wailing, jerking
in pathocrazy grin stupor)
Yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yes-
suh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh,
put yr money in the plate, dont be late, dont
have to wait, you gonna be in
heaven after you die, you gon get all you need
once you gone, yessuh, i heard
it on the jeffersons, i heard it on the rookies,
I swallowed it
whole on roots: wasn’t it nice slavery was so
cool and
all you had to do was wear derbies and vests
and train chickens and buy your
way free if you had a mind to, must be the
devil, wasnt no white folks,
lazy niggers chained theyselves and threw
they own black asses in the bottom
of the boats, [(well now that you mention it King
Assblackuwasi helped throw yr ass in
the bottom of the boat, yo mamma, wife, and
you never seed em no more)] must
a been the devil, gimme your money put your
money on this plate, heaven be here soon,
just got to die, just got to stop living, close yr
eyes stop
breathin and bammm-O heaven be here, you
have all a what you need, Bam-O
all a sudden, heaven be here, you have all you
need, that assembly line
you work on will dissolve in thin air owowoo!
owowoo! Just gotta die
just gotta die, this ol world aint nuthin, must be
the devil got you
thinkin so, it cain be rockefeller, it cain be mor-
gan, it caint be capitalism
it caint be national oppression owow! No Way!
Now go back to work and cool
it, go back to work and lay back, just a little
while longer till you pass
its all gonna be alright once you gone. gimme
that last bitta silver you got
stashed there sister, gimme that dust now broth-
er man, itll be ok on the
other side, yo soul be clean be washed pure
white. yes. yes. yes. owow.
now go back to work, go to sleep, yes, go to
sleep, go back to work, yes
owow. owow. uuuuuuuuuu, uuuuuuuuuuu,
uuuuuuuuuuu. yes, uuuuuuu. yes.
uuuuuuuuuu.
a men.

Source: The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Basic Books, 2009)

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, Remembering Poets

Langston Hughes: World-Opener

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What would a list of African-American poets be without Langston Hughes? Prolific, entirely original, yet intentionally accessible, Hughes is a mountain: one of the most iconic American poets, certainly one of the most well-known and well-received African-American poets, with an impressive lifetime career not only as a poet, but also a novelist, short story writer, playwright, song lyricist, radio writer, translator, author of children’s books, lecturer, world traveler, and more. In the words of Donald B. Gibson,

During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read. He has been, unlike most nonblack poets other than Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg, a poet of the people. . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.

One need only read the poem below to see how Hughes brought his original voice, for and about “ordinary” people, and in particular people of color, in the scope and breadth of Walt Whitman, and also in the same tradition in terms of using poetry to in a sense celebrate humanness and the universality and higher aims of human life, taking into account as many walks of life as possible. This in a time when doing this wasn’t cool. African Americans involved in literature and the arts felt he focused to his detriment on the suffering and oppression and the actual life of Harlem and the ghettos. The white literary establishment was ambivalent but some felt he was too “simple” or down to earth. In retrospect, all these views fell by the wayside. The mountain stands higher, and longer.

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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