Baldwin’s Blues

An article about James Baldwin inspired this post. I was familiar with James Baldwin the novelist (Go Tell It on the Mountain) and essayist (Notes of a Native Son), but not James Baldwin the poet. LA Times book critic David L. Ulin tells us about Baldwin’s poetry in this in-depth piece titled “James Baldwin, poet? But of course.”

James-BaldwinBaldwin is unquestionably one of the major American writers of the last century. An African American, a bisexual, an expatriate, a civil rights activist, his writing represented the voices of those who American society then and now marginalizes, neglects, and often persecutes.

The occasion for Ulin’s article is the recent reprint by Beacon Press of Baldwin’s poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, originally published one year before his death in 1987.

For more about Baldwin’s life and writing, I recommend you read Ulin’s article linked above, or Baldwin’s Wikipedia entry.

For today, continuing the celebration of National Poetry Month, here are two excerpts from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.


No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.

I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge
between us.

Conundrum (on my birthday) (for Rico)

Between holding on,
and letting go,
I wonder
how you know
the difference.

It must be
something like
the difference
between heaven and hell
but how, in advance,
can you tell?

If letting go
is saying no,
then what is holding on
Can anyone be held?
Can I—?
The impossible conundrum,
the c lo s ed c irc le,
does lightning strike this house
and not another?
Or, is it true
that love is blind
until challenged by the drawbridge
of the mind?

But, saying that,
one’s forced to see one’s definitions
as unreal.
We do not know enough about the mind,
or how the conundrum of the imagination
dictates, discovers,
or can dismember what we feel,
or what we find.

one must learn to trust
one’s terror:
the holding on
the letting go
is error:
the lightning has no choice,
the whirlwind has one voice.

Excerpted from Jimmy’s Blues & Other Poems by James Baldwin.  Copyright 2014.  Published  by Beacon Press.


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