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On Poetry and Black American Poets

by Ashley Bryan

I walk through woods to the shore of an island off the coast of Maine. Poems are in my head and in the notebook I carry. You would think, to see me, that I am walking alone, but I feel that poets are with me. They listen, encourage, and respond to the ways in which I practice saying their poems aloud.

I stop along the shore to skip a rock over the waters. It moves swiftly, touching the surface lightly, and then disappears. I’d like to send a poem skipping like that to another person and see it, at the end of its momentum, sink in.

The rocks I climb upon have weathered the poetry of the ages. They go back to the beginning of time. I pick up a small stone, not to skip this time, but to admire. It is smooth and beautiful. I keep the stone, for — like an ancient voice — it recalls sources and continuities, enduring from the earliest times, exposed to the present, divining the future.

Poems signal in this way. They assume a voice that uses and goes beyond words as we define them. The sound is from the beginning, articulating the present, poised for the future. That is why hearing the poem is so important. Poetry, like music, is rooted in the oral traditions of a people. Still, most of our experience with poetry and, alas, that of most critics as well comes through seeing the poem on the page. Such an experience is limiting, just as it would be if one’s knowledge of music were gained only through sight-reading, or one’s conception of painting only through discussion. Hearing is so integral to poetry that it is as unlikely for one born deaf to become a poet as for one born blind to become a painter. The poem’s sound must ultimately be experienced; poetry’s voice is like that of the Sibyl whom Heraclitus wrote about:

The Sibyl with raving lips, speaking words solemn, unadorned and rude, reaches with her voice across a thousand centuries — because of the God that inspires her.

“(S]olemn, unadorned and rude” — words become charged as they enter into poetry and are projected by the voice. Wherever I go I read aloud from poetry to share with my listeners an experience of the living poem — and to share the work of the Black American poets whose fine contributions to American literature are generally overlooked.

I cross boulders to a high jutting rock below which the waters swirl. I sit in a niche, a cleft in the rock, and look out over the Atlantic whose waters touch this New England shore, touch Africa.

So long,
So far away
Is Africa.

Langston Hughes, in his “Afro-American Fragment,” sings of songs:

Beat back into the blood —
Beat out of blood with words sad-sung
In strange un-Negro tongue —

English, the language of the Black American poets whose ancestors crossed this ocean generations ago, in chains. The poets have taken this “un-Negro tongue” and created the sounds and rhythms by which each one is uniquely identified. They have used the forms of poetry in the Western tradition, introduced variations of their own, and have sought to charge these forms with poetic meaning. This search, common to poets in all languages, encourages a freedom of experimentation and of expression that has made poetry a popular art form among Blacks.

So long,
So far away
Is Africa’s
Dark face.

These lines end the poem. I have come back to it. I look to the mountains of the mainland and watch cloud patterns overhead changing, as my efforts to intone this poem change. A poem of Africa, deep down within, so far away. The effort to hold it, through sound, gives it shape; the shape takes on weight, and this figure, like a stone in the waves, rolls back and forth on the tongue until it becomes a polished form.

There is great variety in the voices, themes, and feelings of Langston Hughes’s poetry. Leaning back against the rock, I turn to the mother in “Mother to Son”:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

I work to make the poetic message felt, the mother’s presence as real as those lines draw her. Langston Hughes heard poetry in the speech of the people in the Harlem neighborhood where be lived. He knew their sorrows, their joys, their struggle to survive, and he often drew from this for his work:

What’s that, Central?
You say you don’t care
Nothing about my
Private affair?

Well, even less about your
PHONE BILL does I care!

Uh-humm-m! … Yes!

That’s Madam speaking in “Madam and the Phone Bill” — one of the group of twelve poems, “Madam to You,” that speak right up from the page. Reading them aloud excites vocal slides and phrasings that acknowledge the poet’s rhythmic artistry.

Langston Hughes’s experiments with rhythm in his poetry were inspired by his love of Black music. His “Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz” was dedicated to Louis Armstrong; it is an extended jazz poem set to specific musical indications printed alongside the lines. Hughes enjoyed reading his poems to the accompaniment of jazz groups. He was doing this at least twenty years before ” Ask Your Mama” was published in 1961, and the spoken blues form that he introduced into poetry came directly from Black music.

I work on his “Bound No’th Blues” against the repetition, the persistence of waves across the shore.

Road, road, road, O!
Road, road…road…road, road!
Road, road, road, O!
On the no’thern road.

The poem finds its beat. I hold it in mind, then let it sink within. It falls, as the stone falls into the sea, and spreads the effect of entry in ever-widening circles.

I open my notebook to poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar. I have been working with his poems, especially those in standard English. At the turn of the century, when he was one of America’s most popular poets, most of the praise and attention was given to his dialect poetry. This situation has persisted to the present day, and his large body of poetry in standard English is generally slighted, although many of these poems are as beautiful as the best of those in dialect.

I think that hearing is the key to getting the whole body of Dunbar’s poetry into perspective. In this respect dialect has the advantage, for one is almost forced to grasp dialect through sound. The spelling makes the lines difficult to scan swiftly. One is slowed down trying to say the words or even imagining the sound, thus simulating the hearing experience. This is a beginning, however awkward, which puts the reader in touch with the prime intent of poetry; an effort is made to absorb the lines, which means slowing down, and the poem is heard. In one of Dunbar’s love poems, a youthful voice cries out:

Oh! speak to me, my love, I crave a rose.
Sing me a song, for I would pearls were mine.

These concluding lines from “Roses and Pearls” deftly sum up the romantic intent. Dunbar spins the lines lightly, comparing the beloved’s spoken words to roses, her sung words to pearls. The emotion hovers and glides. It is a challenge to feel the sentiment clearly and bring it off.

Another Dunbar love poem, perfect for my seaside setting, is “Longing,”

If you could sit with me beside the sea today
And whisper with me sweetest dreamings o’er and o’er;
I think I should not find the clouds so dim and gray,
And not so loud the waves complaining at the shore.

The long reach of the lines merges with the reflected quiet of the scene. Throughout the poem an even, gray mood prevails. Dunbar chooses words and rhythm to give the tonal color he seeks. It’s as if the words become substances defined anew by carefully set relationships, as a specific color used by the painter is continually changed by context, juxtaposition, and the ingenuity of the artist.

Paul Laurence Dunbar died in 1906 at the age of thirty-three. The theme of death was close to him, and he faced it in much of his poetry. “A Death Song,” in dialect, is an unusual poem. Dunbar generally used dialect for humorous motifs, but here he presents the earnest thoughts of a dignified old man on his coming death:

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch’ll go a-singin’ as it pass.

The old man recalls the treasured sights and sounds of his life that stir deeply felt associations. In his poem “When All Is Done” Dunbar reviews his own life. Unlike the reminiscences of the old man, his are filled with pain. Yet, the poem concludes with the touching assertion:

I greet the dawn and not a setting sun,
When all is done.

It is a mark of Dunbar’s genius that he was able to bring his poems in dialect and in standard English to such a high level of realization, considering the special gifts required for each type. It is also a tribute to Dunbar’s artistry that he fulfilled the commitment to his expressive needs, composing two-thirds of his poetry in standard English, despite the lack of critical support that it received.

For my oral readings I choose from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems in standard English. It is helpful to hear how Dunbar moves a line, the way he can vary slightly the cadence and then fall back onto the beat. I read something from his dialect poetry as well so that the listener may appreciate and acknowledge his extraordinary range. In this way a more balanced evaluation of Dunbar’s poetry may be initiated. This was the purpose behind my selection of his poetry, I Greet the Dawn (Atheneum).

I watch a sea gull glide, balance, and shift from one level of current to another, like the voice adjusting to the currents of sound and feeling that will bear the poem aloft. I use whatever inspiration my environment offers for the saying of a poem.

I have in my notebook poems by Gwendolyn Brooks that I plan to review before leaving this place by the sea. Lately I have been contrasting her Selected Poems (Harper) with her children’s verse in Bronzeville Boys and Girls (Harper) in order to stimulate the use of her poetry by as many people as possible. Certainly her children’s poems should be generally available, for they are ideal to grow with.

From her Selected Poems I try “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery”:

He was born in Alabama
He was bred in Illinois.
He was nothing but a
Plain black boy.

Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot.
Nothing but a plain black boy.

I go over the poem in an effort to fuse the theme of a wasted young life with the singing lines. This poem and the spare chant “We Real Cool” expose the unfulfilled potential of young Blacks. The troubled meanings resonate with social implications within their poetic forms.

In contrast is the promise of the children in Bronzeville Boys and Girls. The title of each poem contains the name of a child.

“Beulah at Church”:

Something there surprises me:
It feels good to be good.

“Dave”:

My baby sister will be fat.
Oh, there is no avoiding that.

And someone speaks up in “Jim”:

There never was a nicer boy
Than Mrs. Jackson’s Jim.

In these poems Gwendolyn Brooks celebrates childhood with radiant wit and style. Read aloud they are eagerly taken up by children and adults. They pose a touching contrast to De Witt Williams and the gang of “We Real Cool.” An innocence glows through them, and I suspect their appeal will remain undiminished for generations of readers. As I practice the poems again, high on a rock, each one plays against the sparkle of sunlight and the shadow of clouds moving across the sea.

The poems I have been reading call for varied intonations. The poets use the voices of men, women, and children, assuming age, sex, or color without hesitation; it is natural for the poet to speak directly in whatever voice the poem requires. As the poet makes his venture authentic, so the reader — in a deeply felt experience — is challenged to find the voice of each poem. He is then free to choose poems, whatever the specific theme or description, and to interpret the poem orally — to give it back as heard. Thus the reader can be the sole actor for all the parts in any group of poems.

A poem may indicate a Black speaker or theme, but the poem as felt poetry is open to any voice. This stimulating freedom of poetry should be exploited in order that the work of the Black American poets may reach the widest possible audience. The non-Black reader should not hesitate to cross the color line in pursuit of a poem. The specific reference to color, age, and sex in a poem is subordinate to one’s identification with the poem and with the practice that makes it one’s own. This is what the great Black singer Marian Anderson meant when she wrote, “A song must belong to one before it can be given to others.”

From Phillis Wheatley, a slave writing of freedom for the Colonies before the American Revolution, to the Black poets of today, still writing of freedom, the Black poet has been actively creating and seeking an audience. The ranks of these poets have swelled since the upsurge of interest in the work of the Black artist during the twenties. This period saw the publication of the poetry of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Arna Bontemps; the following decades offered the works of other fine poets: Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Melvin B. Tolson, Mari Evans, and Gwendolyn Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950.

During the late sixties and early seventies much of the work of a new generation of young Black poets was first given a hearing by the poet Dudley Randall. His Broadside Press in Detroit, Michigan, published the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Audre Lorde, and many others. Pamphlets offered the reader a substantial selection of each poet’s work, allowing the reader a sound basis on which to assess the poetic impulse of each artist. Other small presses as well as commercial publishers have brought out the works of Jayne Cortez, Michael Harper, and Lucille Clifton.

I have named only a few members of the large family of Black American poets. Their work has been a vital source of inspiration for my own work in retelling African folk tales, since we have common roots in the Black oral tradition. These poets offer some of the finest experiences of poetry in the English language. Their contributions form an integral part of American literature, which should be sought out in the poet’s selected or complete works as well as in the fine anthologies of Black poetry edited by Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Arnold Adoff, Dudley Randall, and others.

There is poetry for every level of growth and a thematic range to satisfy any hunger. Poetry’s “raving” transforms not only the mother, the young lover, and the child but also the imaginary world of the phoenix, the unicorn, and the Leviathan. These mythological creatures,

Conceived yet never born
Save in the poet’s breast,

are brought to life in Countee Cullen’s poem “That Bright Chimeric Beast.” He then says,

If beasts like these you’d harry,
Plumb then the poet’s dream;
Make it your aviary,

Make it your wood and stream.

Plumb the poet’s dream — a compelling invitation. What a loss if the works of these poets are not included with those of other American poets, to be read and carried into every phase of one’s maturity.

I close my notebook and stand up to leave. The mountains echo the underlying plea in all I’ve touched upon: Read these wonderful poets. Make the effort to hear the poem; poetry needs the voice. The sea, the rocks, and the clouds bear witness. I reach the path at the edge of the woods and turn to look back across the ocean.

So long,
so far away
Is Africa.

The spirit of the setting has led to finer insights. The rhythms at the source of the poetry can be sensed in the flight of birds, the passage of clouds, the beat of waves — rhythms at the source of nature.

The absorbing spell of poetry crosses irrelevant barriers, and the Black poet seeks an audience which includes all people for whatever can be humanly shared.

From the February 1979 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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