Negro Poets and Their Poems/Chapter 5
THE NEW FORMS OF POETRY
The newer methods in poetry—free-verse, rhythmic strophes, polyphonic prose—have been tried with success by only a few Negroes. Of free-verse particularly not many noteworthy pieces have come from Negro poets. Well or ill, each may judge according to his taste. But the objection has been made that the Negro verse-makers of our time are bound by tradition, are sophisticated craftsmen. More independence, more differentness, seems to be demanded. But the conditions of their poetic activity seem to me in this demand to be lost sight of. They are as much the heirs of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as their white contemporaries. And the Negro is said to be preëminently imitative—that is, responsive to environing example and influence. One requirement and only one can we lay upon the Negro singer and that is the same we lay upon the artists of every race and origin. However, for artistic freedom he has an authority older than free-verse, and that authority is not outside his own race. It is found in the old plantation melodies—rich in artistic potentiality beyond exaggeration.
In Negro newspapers and magazines, rarely as yet in books, are to be found some free-verse productions of which I will give some specimens. From Will Sexton I shall quote here two brief poems in this form and in a later chapter another (p. 233). His Whitemanesque manner will be remarked. These brief pieces will suggest a poet of some force:
Songs of Contemporary Ethiopia
THE BOMB THROWER
Down with everything black!
Down with law and order!
Up with the red flag!
Up with the white South!
I am America’s evil genius.
THE NEW NEGRO
Out of the mist I see a new America—a land of ideals.
I hear the music of my fathers blended with the “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
I am the crown of thorns Tyranny must bear a thousand years—
I am the New Negro.
Another vers-librist of individual quality is Andrea Razafkeriefo. He is a prolific contributor to The Negro World, the newspaper organ of the Universal Negro Improvement Society. This paper regularly gives a considerable portion of a page of each issue to original verse contributions. One of Mr. Razafkeriefo’s recent free-verse poems is the following, in which the style seems to me to be remarkably effective:
THE NEGRO CHURCH
That the Negro church possesses
That it is the greatest medium
For influencing our people,
That it long has slept and faltered,
Failed to meet its obligations,
Are, to honest and true thinkers,
Facts which have to be admitted.
For these reasons there are many
Who would have the church awaken
And adopt the modern methods
Of all other institutions.
Make us more enlightened Christians,
Teach us courtesy and English,
Racial pride and sanitation,
Science, thrift and Negro history.
Yea, the preacher, like the shepherd,
Should be leader and protector,
And prepare us for the present
Just as well as for the future;
He should know more than Scriptures,
And should ever be acquainted
With all vital, daily subjects
Helpful to his congregation.
Give us manly, thinking preachers
And not shouting money-makers,
Men of intellect and vision,
Who will really help our people:
Men who make the church a guide-post
To the road of racial progress,
Who will strive to fit the Negro
For this world as well as heaven.
In another chapter I give one of Mr. Razafkeriefo’s poems in regular stanzas of the traditional type. It is but just to state that his productions exhibit a great variety of forms. His moods and traits, too, are various. There is the evidence of ardent feeling and strong conviction in most he writes.
This poet gets his strange name (pronounced rä-zäf-kerrāf) from the island of Madagascar. His father, now dead, “falling in battle for Malagasy freedom,” before the poet’s birth, was a nephew of the late queen of Madagascar, Ranavalona III. His mother, a colored American, was a daughter of a United States consul to Madagascar. The poet was born in the city of Washington in 1895 and now resides in Cleveland, Ohio.
To a young student in Columbia University we are indebted for some of the most symmetrical and effective free-verse poems that have come to my attention. His name is Langston Hughes. For information about him I refer the reader to the first index, at the end of this book. This poem appeared in The Crisis, January, 1922:
I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.
I’ve been a slave:
Cæsar told me to keep his door-steps clean,
I brushed the boots of Washington.
I’ve been a worker:
Under my hand the pyramids arose.
I made mortar for the Woolworth building.
I’ve been a singer:
All the way from Africa to Georgia I carried my sorrow songs.
I made ragtime.
I’ve been a victim:
The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
They lynch me now in Texas.
I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.
Other specimens of free-verse have been given on pages 67, 102, and 119. In every instance the poet’s choice of this form seems to me justified by the particular effectiveness of it.
II. Prose Poems
I. W. E. Burghardt DuBois
The name of no Negro author is more widely known than that of W. E. Burghardt DuBois. Editor, historian, sociologist, essayist, poet—he is celebrated in the Five Continents and the Seven Seas. It is in his impassioned prose that DuBois is most a poet. The Souls of Black Folk throbs constantly on the verge of poetry, while the several chapters of Darkwater end with a litany, chant, or credo, rhapsodical in character and in free-verse form. In all this work Dr. DuBois is the spokesman of perhaps as many millions of souls as any man living.
“A Litany at Atlanta” placed as an epilogue to “The Shadow of the Years” in Darkwater should be read as the litany of a race. Modern literature has not such another cry of agony:
A LITANY AT ATLANTA
O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful
Hear us, good Lord!
Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery in Thy Sanctuary. With uplifted hands we front Thy Heaven, O God, crying:
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!
We are not better than our fellows, Lord; we are but weak and human men. When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed,—curse them as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done to innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.
Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners!
And yet, whose is the deeper guilt? Who made these devils? Who nursed them in crime and fed them on injustice? Who ravished and debauched their mothers and their grandmothers? Who bought and sold their crime and waxed fat and rich on public iniquity?
Thou knowest, good God!
Is this Thy Justice, O Father, that guile be easier than innocence and the innocent be crucified for the guilt of the untouched guilty?
Justice, O Judge of men!
Wherefore do we pray? Is not the God of the Fathers dead? Have not seers seen in Heaven’s halls Thine hearsed and lifeless form stark amidst the black and rolling smoke of sin, where all along bow bitter forms of endless dead?
Awake, Thou that sleepest!
Thou art not dead, but flown afar, up hills of endless light, through blazing corridors of suns, where worlds do swing of good and gentle men, of women strong and free—far from cozenage, black hypocrisy, and chaste prostitution of this shameful speck of dust!
Turn again, O Lord; leave us not to perish in our sin!
From lust of body and lust of blood,—
Great God, deliver us!
From lust of power and lust of gold,—
Great God, deliver us!
From the leagued lying of despot and of brute,—
Great God, deliver us!
A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack, and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars where church spires pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men who hide behind the veil of vengeance.
Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!
In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed. We stopped our ears and held our leaping hands, but they—did they not wag their heads and leer and cry with bloody jaws: Cease from Crime! The word was mockery, for thus they train a hundred crimes while we do cure one.
Turn again our captivity, O Lord!
Behold this maimed and broken thing, dear God: it was an humble black man, who toiled and sweat to save a bit from the pittance paid him. They told him: Work and Rise! He worked. Did this man sin? Nay, but someone told how someone said another did—one whom he had never seen nor known. Yet for that man’s crime this man lieth maimed and murdered, his wife naked to shame, his children to poverty and evil.
Hear us, O Heavenly Father!
Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God? How long shall the mounting flood of innocent blood roar in Thine ears and pound in our hearts for vengeance? Pile the pale frenzy of blood-crazed brutes, who do such deeds, high on Thine Altar, Jehovah Jireh, and burn it in hell forever and forever!
Forgive us, good Lord; we know not what we say!
Bewildered we are and passion-tossed, mad with the madness of a mobbed and mocked and murdered people; straining at the armposts of Thy throne, we raise our shackled hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of Thy crucified Christ: What meaneth this? Tell us the plan; give us the sign.
Keep not Thou silent, O God.
Sit not longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb suffering. Surely Thou, too, art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing!
Ah! Christ of all the Pities!
Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words! Thou art still the God of our black fathers and in Thy Soul’s Soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.
But whisper—speak—call, great God, for Thy silence is white terror to our hearts! The way, O God, show us the way and point us the path!
Whither? North is greed and South is blood; within, the coward, and without, the liar. Whither? To death?
Amen! Welcome, dark sleep!
Whither? To life? But not this life, dear God, not this. Let the cup pass from us, tempt us not beyond our strength, for there is that clamoring and clawing within, to whose voice we would not listen, yet shudder lest we must,—and it is red. Ah! God! It is a red and awful shape.
In yonder East trembles a star.
Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord!
Thy Will, O Lord, be done!
Lord, we have done these pleading, wavering words.
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!
We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of women and little children.
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!
Our voices sink in silence and in night.
Hear us, good Lord.
In night, O God of a godless land!
In silence, O Silent God.
II. Kelly Miller
Dr. Kelly Miller is professor of sociology in Howard University. He has been professor of mathematics. He is the author of several prose works—able expositions of aspects of inter-racial problems. It is rumored that he is a poet. However that may be, his admirable volume of essays entitled Out of the House of Bondage concludes with a strophic chant, highly poetical, and poured forth with the fervor of some old Celtic bard, triumphant in the vision of a new day dawning:
I SEE AND AM SATISFIED
The vision of a scion of a despised and rejected race, the span of whose life is measured by the years of its Golden Jubilee, and whose fancy, like the vine that girdles the tree-trunk, runneth both forward and back.
III. Charles H. Conner
As a companion piece to this litany and this vision I will present another vision that for calm, clear beauty of style takes us immediately back to Pilgrim’s Progress. The author calls it a sermonette, and it is one of three contained in a very small book entitled The Enchanted Valley. But the author is no preacher. He is a ship-yard worker in Philadelphia—I almost said a “common” worker. But such workmen were never common, anywhere, at any time. Charles Conner wears the garb and wields the tools of a common workman, but he has most uncommon visions. He is a seer and a philosopher. He has informed me that there is American Indian blood in his veins. From the mystical and philosophical character of his writings, both prose and verse, I should have expected an East Indian strain. Twice have I visited his humble habitation, and each time it was a visit to the Enchanted Valley.
THE LIFE OF THE SPIRIT IN THE NATURAL WORLD
At the dawning of a day, in a deep valley, a man awoke.
It was a valley of treasures that everywhere abounded.
He opened his eyes, and beheld the greensward bedecked with many colored jewels that sparkled in the light.
His ears caught the medley of sounds, that awoke innumerable echoes; and with the balmy air peopled the valley with delights. How he came there, or why, he knew not; nor scarcely thought or cared.
As he gazed upon the multitude of things, in his heart upsprung desire; and he gathered the treasures that lay around, till his arms were full, and his body decked in all their bright array.
Then the sun went down behind the hill; and the vale grew dark; and the night air chill; and the place grew solemn, silent, still.
A new thing then, to mortal ken, seemed hovering on the threshold near. A strange, fantastic thing, it crept, intangible, nearer, nearer swept, the pallid, startling face of Fear!
But, the night brings sleep at last—and dreams; and day follows night; and sunshine follows storm throughout the length of days. But a trace of the dreams remains, like the faintly clinging scent that marks a hidden trail; and so, because of his dreams, the man’s desire reached out, and scaled the lofty peaks that walled him in.
His pleasant valley seemed too narrow and confined.
So, with his treasures fondly pressed to his beating heart, he tried to scale the heights.
He scrambled and struggled with might and main, slipped and arose; and fell again and again. The spirit was willing, and valiant, and brave; but the treasure encumbered it with fatal hold; and held him bound, as with fold on fold a corpse is held in its lowly grave. So, try as he might, he could not rise much higher than one’s hands can reach; and one by one, his gathered treasures lost their brightness and their charm; as gathered flowers wilt and fade; and his arms weary from the burden that they bore, let fall and scattered lie, little by little, more and more of the things he had gathered and vainly prized. And each thing lost was so much lightness gained, enabling him to mount a little higher up the rugged steep. And so it was till night was come again at last; and worn and weary, he sank down to sleep and rest.
And, as he slept, his arms relaxed their hold; and down the steep his dwindling treasures rolled, till the last of them found their natural level and resting place, the lower stretch of ground. ’Twas then a strange sight met my gaze, long to be remembered in the coming days of trial and endeavor.
From out that sleeping form a luminous haze arose, airy and white; and glowed within it an amber fire, as it mounted higher, higher; and, as it arose, it had the appearance of a man; and its countenance was the countenance of him that slept. Thus up and up it winged its flight, until above the highest peak ’twas lost to sight. I pondered the matter in wonder and awe, until long past the midnight hour, how that a soul at last gained its longed for power to win the distant height.
There is a kingdom of earth, and of water and of air.
Each has its own. The heavier cannot rise above its level, to the next and lighter zone
The treasures of the soul’s desire, were treasures of earth, whose lightest joys were too heavy and too gross to be sustained in the finer, rarer atmosphere; and thus were as a leaden weight that anchored the soul to earth, without its being at all aware that the things it thought so pleasant and so fair, were shackles to bind it hard and fast; and make it impossible for it to gain the region that instinctively it felt and knew was the rightful place of its abode.
IV. William Edgar Bailey
Yet one more prose-poem I will give, as a sort of coda to the series. It is taken from a paper-covered booklet entitled The Firstling, by William Edgar Bailey, from which The Slump, on page 65, was taken:
TO A WILD ROSE
The wild rose silently peeps from its uncouth habitation, thrives and flourishes in its glory; its fragrant bud bows to sip the nectar of the morning. Its delicate blossom blushes in the balmy breeze as the wind tells its tale of adoration. Performing well its part, it withers and decays; the chirping sparrow perches serenely on its boughs, only to find it wrapped in sadness and solemnity―yet its grief-stained leaf and weather beaten branches silently chant euphonic choruses in natural song, in solemn commemoration of its faded splendor.
Dead, yes dead―but in thy hibernal demise dost thou bequeath a truth eternal as the stars. I saw thee, Rose, when the elf of spring hung thy floral firstling upon that thorny bower and robed thy ungainly form in a garb of green, and, Rose, thou wert sweet!
I saw the same vernal sprite pay homage to thy highbrowed kinsman in yonder stench-bestifled dell, and, in his pause of an instant, baptized its sacred being in the same aromatic blood. I saw thee, Rose, in thy autumnal desolation, when the Storm-God was wont to do thee harm, laid waste thy foliage, and cast at thy feet, as a challenge, his mantle of snow, and the Law of Non-resistance was still unbroken.
Tell me thy story, Rose! Do the stars in their unweary watch breathe forth upon thee a special benediction from the sky? Or did the wind waft a drop of blood from the Cross to thy dell to sanctify thy being? Oh, leave me not, thou Redeemer of the Woods, to plod the way alone! My Nazarene, grant but to me a double portion of thy humble pride―and in my tearful grief permit thou me to pluck a fragrant thought from thy thorny bosom!
V. R. Nathaniel Dett
Primarily a composer and pianist, Mr. Dett exemplifies the close kinship of poetry and music, for in the former art as well as in the latter he exhibits a finely creative spirit. To speak first of his compositions for the piano, the following works are widely known and greatly admired by lovers of music: “Magnolia Suite,” “In the Bottoms Suite,” “Listen to the Lambs,” “Marche Negre,” “Arietta,” “Magic Song,” “Open Yo’ Eyes,” and “Hampton, My Home by the Sea.” Mr. Dett took a degree in music at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and a Harvard prize in music (1920). The musical endowment for which his race is celebrated is cultured and refined in him and guided by science. The basis of his brilliant compositions is to be found in the folk melodies of his people. The musical genius of his people expresses itself through him with conscious, perfected art. To sit under the spell of his performance of his own pieces is to acquire a new idea of the Negro people.
The same refined and exalted spirit reveals itself in Mr. Dett’s verse as in his music. Having this combination of gifts, he cannot but raise the highest expectations. I present in this place a poem in blank verse of nobly contemplative mood, suggesting far more, as the best poems do, than it says:
—No, no! Not tonight, my Friend,
I may not, cannot go with you tonight.
And think not that I love you any less
Because this now I’d rather be alone.
My heart is strangely torn; unwonted thoughts
Have so infused themselves into my mind
That altogether there is wrought in me
A sort of hapless mood, whose phantom power
Born perhaps of my own fantasies
Has ta’en me. By its subtle spell
I’m wooed and changed from what’s my natural self.
I am so possessed I can but wish
For nothing else save this and solitude.
If in companionship I sought relief
Yours indeed would be the first I’d seek.
There is none other whom I so esteem,
None who quite so perfect understands.
Your presence always is a soothing balm,
—Ne’er failing me when troubled. But tonight,
Forgive me, Friend—I’d rather be alone.
Leave me, let me with myself commune.
Presently if no change come, I shall go
Stand in the shadowed gorge, or where the moon
Throws her silver on the rippling stream,
List to the sounding cataract’s thundering fall,
Or hark to spirit voices in the wind.
For methinks sometimes that these strange moods
Are heaven-sent us by the jealous God
Who’d thus remind us that no human love
Can fully satisfy the longing heart:
Perhaps an intimation sent to souls
That he would speak somewhat, or nearer draw.
Therefore I’ll to Him. Talking waters, stars,
The moon and whispering trees shall make me wise
In what it is He’d have my spirit know.
And Nature singing from the earth and sky
Shall fill me with such peace, that in the morn
I’ll be the gay glad self you’ve always known.
Urge me no further, now you understand.
A nobler friend than you none ever knew—
But not this time. Tonight I ’ll be alone;
And if from moonlit valley God should speak,
Or in the tumbling waters sound a call,
Or whisper in the sighing of the wind,
He’ll find me with an undivided heart
Patient waiting to hear; but Friend,—alone.
- Published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, by whose kind permission I use this selection.