Poet Laureate of Harlem

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love poetry. The first poem I read that gave me a real sense of how wonderful poetry could be was e.e. cumming’s “in-Just spring.” I was either in the 3rd or 4th grade and the poem just bowled me over because it was so simple and it was so different from any other poem I had read and it made you feel what he was writing about. “When the world is mud-lucious . . . puddle wonderful . . . eddieandbill” – I remember it was cold outside but as I read the poem, I felt I was touching spring.

Since then I have always preferred poets whose styles are similar in some way to cummings. People like William Carlos Williams, Aram Saroyan, and Charles Bukowski to name a few. For me, the best poets use as few words as possible. That’s one reason why I also like Chinese and Japanese poetry so much. Saroyan once wrote a poem that consisted of just one word – crickets – typed repeatedly down the center of the page. You can see that poem and more of his minimalist word experiments here.

Langston Hughes is another poet I admire.  He’s best known for the work he did during the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s and he was one of the first poets to experiment with blues and jazz rhythms.

Saturday’s post featured one of Hughes’ poems and I thought that some readers might not be too familiar with him or his work. You can read about Hughes here, while today, I present another of his poems. I think it’s one of the best pieces of poetry ever written.

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while riding a train on his way to Mexico to visit his father. He was just 18 years old. Short and spare, yet containing powerful imagery, the poem manages to tell the story of human civilization in a mere 60 words.

I am not African-American, but this poem speaks to me. I, too, am familiar with rivers and very familiar with the last one he mentions, along with that city, and I’ve seen the river just as he describes.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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What happens to a dream deferred?

On this date, 47 years ago:

Some 200,000 people were gathered for “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” an event that was more of a rally than a march. They stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the great man in white marble looked down upon them, and where the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, uttered these historic words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

According to biographer Anthony Scaduto, young folksinger Bob Dylan, who was to perform that day along with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and others, while in a private moment, looked over to the Capitol with a skeptical eye and said, “Think they’re listening? No, they ain’t listening at all.”

Hope and optimism was in the air. The times they were a’changin’. Yet, Dylan had already sensed the dark days ahead.

Only some listened and the country paid a heavy price: riots ignited in cities across the country and the cities went up in flames to the chants of “Burn, Baby, Burn!”, assassinations, student protests over the war in Vietnam turned into violent melees – unrest was as much the tenor of the times as peace and love.

In 1951, the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I remember a day in April of 1992: I stood on the roof of my building which offers a panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black cloud. Smoke. Plumes of smoke rose from locations all over the city. I went downstairs and on TV was Rodney King, the man savagely beat by the policemen whose acquittals had sparked the riots. Rodney King was speaking to a group of reporters. He looked confused, overwhelmed, like a man caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. He said, “Can’t we all . . . just . . . get along?”

It seems so simple. If we could just get along . . .

Another Buddhist blogger, Adam, at Fly Like A Crow, wrote yesterday that he was tired of talking about race. I left a comment on his blog, agreeing. I am tired of talking about race. I am tired of racism. I am tired of everything having to be an issue. Tired of no one listening and everyone shouting. I am tired of young people dying in wars that should not be waged. I am tired of terrorism, and really tired of what it has done to our lives and our politics. I’m tired of the way that we can’t get along.

I changed my mind about that comment. I realize now that I can’t stop talking. We can’t be silent when there is injustice in the world. No matter how weary we may be, we can’t give in to complacency. We are interdependent, so when one dream is deferred, all of our dreams are deferred.

The former Mayor of Los Angeles, the late Tom Bradley (an African-American) once proposed the rather controversial idea of taking kids out of the ghettos and barrios and putting them into camps where they could get the kind of education and exposure to positive thinking they deserved. The problem he said was that many children, African-American youth especially, didn’t know how to dream. After being beat down for so many generations, they had lost the ability to dream. Their parents didn’t teach it to them because their parents had not taught it to them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and almost fifty years later the dream is still deferred for too many Americans. Hate crimes are on the rise. The nation is a battleground and the ominous signs of violent confrontations once again are on the horizon.

Yesterday I also read a piece by Katie Loncke at The Buddhist Channel who said she disagreed with the notion that smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism. But that is just the sort of thing that many people can do in the midst of their busy lives to keep talking. We don’t have to open our mouths to communicate. It seems to me, from my experience, that a smile can be a pretty powerful thing.

Loncke talked about inner work and outer work. I don’t know what that means. The work is both. There is no duality. In Buddhism we call it esho funi – self and environment are two but not two. However, the environment itself is really one. We all share the same environment, this world. When we strive to make it better for others, we’re making it better for ourselves, too.

We need to keep talking, but even more importantly, we need to listen. We should be like Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, the Hearer of the Cries of the World. We need to lay down our soldier arms, lay down our barbs and jabs, our hate and selfishness – lay down these arms so that we can embrace our brothers and sisters, so that we can smile and hold them close, and hear their cries, and smother those cries with our understanding and compassion.

First smile, then listen, and then talk . . .We cannot continue to defer this universal dream.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . .

If you have never watched or heard the complete speech delivered by Dr. King on August 28, 1963, here it is:

This is Bob Dylan with Joan Baez at the March singing “When The Ship Comes In” along with a snippet of Dylan doing “Only A Pawn in Their Game” (both songs introduced by the late actor and social activist, Ozzie Davis):

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