Next week I’m going to have dinner with my poet-loving, poet friend and I want to be able to speak a coherent word or two about contemporary poetry. So I am back with ModPo this evening, my poetry MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania. It really is quite a brilliant class.
Although one must make a conscious effort not to flop down on the couch and hit ON for a pre-holiday weekend evening of the everlasting pondering of black and white and violence and dead kids. Just shut up, I want to say, we’re a racist society, will we ever deal with that? No? Then admit who we are. Isn’t that an AA thing, acknowledge your problem and then you can deal with it. Not us. America is in a perpetual state of denial. Who me? Racist? Sometimes I truly loath this country. But then where’s the kumbaya land we’re all searching for…
OR I could switch to some sitcom too brainless to watch even on a pre-holiday weekend evening.
Poetry it is.
When I sit down in front of my computer, me and the very smart funny almost mesmerizing (in a good way) professor and that small gang of intelligent photogenic kids, I am engaged. I am not simply a lump of breathing non-thought.
Tonight’s good with the Harlem Renaissance and Communist poets of the thirties. Yay. I actually understand them. After Stein and her compatriots understanding is a beautiful state to be in—if only for a class or two.
Even though the modernist movement was going full swing, this group of poets generally rejected it in order to express their solidarity with the masses. The depression and its consequences were felt deeply by these radical poets and activists who frequently sacrificed their love of experimentation and the pure joy of the possibilities inherent in words to speak what they felt was the language of the oppressed.
Here is an example:
COUNTEE CULLEN “The Incident” (Cullen was one of the most famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance)
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I say a Baltimorean
Keep Looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
The class discussion focused on whether the nursery rhyme format of the poem detracts from its power. I’m with the majority in believing that it does not. Certainly so jarring a memory could have called for a jagged form; on the other hand the very lilting innocence of the beginning makes ‘the incident’ that much more unexpected, more brutal. And the last stanza is so very hard to read, to hear, made harder by the simplicity and rhyme that will make it stick forever in our memory.
That poem, almost 100 years old, against the background of Ferguson would make it appear no time has passed,