Archive for the Poets Category

Poet #5: Sterling Brown

Posted in Poets with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2009 by czarnickolas

Sterling Brown

“[T]he sincere, sensitive artist, willing to go beneath the cliches of popular belief to get at an underlying reality, will be wary of confining a race’s entire characters to a half-dozen narrow grooves.”
— Sterling Brown

(© unknown)

The African American poetic tradition spans over 200 years and features many celebrated artists, such as Phillis Wheatley – a slave at seven-years-old and the first published African American poet; Robert HaydenUS Poet Laureate and one of the genre’s great scholars; Gwendolyn Brooks – another US Poet Laureate and advocate for public readings; and Derek Walcott – winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for literature, just to name a few. In their collection, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton assembled the works of 50 essential contributors. What may surprise many readers is how much attention is paid to a poet too often overlooked, a man whose whose efforts birthed the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movements. I refer to Mr. Sterling Brown.

“From the ‘adopt’ and ‘adapt’ phases of African American poetry – its adoption of rhetoric and form from English poetry in Wheatley and others and its adaptation of these forms to distinctly black subjects in the Harlem Renaissance – this tradition could be said to have come into its own with Brown’s ‘adept’ creation of an entirely new prosody. Though often confused with the work of ‘dialect poets,’ poets who simply forced black speech into English forms in some of their poems (Dunbar and Hughes among them), Brown’s poetic project was in fact quite different. His life’s work was to foreground the ‘folk.’ He strove to show that rural southern blacks in particular, while generally dismissed by white Americans, even those who worked for social reform, as passive sufferers, had in fact developed a system of active strategies for encompassing the harsh economic and social situations in which they foun themselves. Brown’s poetry does not ennoble his subjects but serves to underscore their preexisting nobility.”
— Harper/Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

Brown’s goal detailed by Harper and Walton comes across immediately in most of his work, including the poem “Southern Road”:

Southern Road

Swing dat hammer–hunh–
Steady, bo’;
Swing dat hammer–hunh–
Steady, bo’;
Ain’t no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Burner tore his–hunh–
Black heart away;
Burner tore his–hunh–
Black heart away;
Got me life, bebby,
An’ a day.

Gal’s on Fifth Street–hunh–
Son done gone;
Gal’s on Fifth Street–hunh–
Son done gone;
Wife’s in de ward, bebby,
Babe’s not bo’n.

My ole man died–hunh–
Cussin’ me;
My ole man died–hunh–
Cussin’ me;
Ole lady rocks, bebby,
Huh misery.

Guard behin’;
Guard behin’;
Ball an’ chain, bebby,
On my min’.

White man tells me–hunh–
Damn yo’ soul;
White man tells me–hunh–
Damn yo’ soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Chain gang nevah–hunh–
Let me go;
Chain gang nevah–hunh–
Let me go;
Po’ los’ boy, bebby,
Evahmo’ . . .


“In ‘Southern Road,’ Brown abstracts the rhythms of a work song to make it slightly more regular and so to emphasize the grinding, repetitive nature of the chain gang.”
— Harper/Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

Born on the campus of Howard University in 1901, Brown’s aptitude and scholarly instincts brought him through Dunbar High School, Williams College, and Harvard University. After his formal education – and prior to his appointment as Professor of English at Howard – Brown spent three years in Lynchburg, Virginia, teaching at the Virginia Seminary and College. “It was within this intimate, rural niche of African American culture,” write Harper and Walton, “that his talents as a teacher and a folksayer without peer blossomed.”

“I learned the arts and sciences at Williams, I learned the humanities in Lynchburg, Virgina.”
— Sterling Brown

(photo © Roy Lewis)

Perhaps Brown’s greatest gift as a poet was his ear, which helped him merge “common, racy, living speech” with the traditions of A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy. “Brown’s poetic goals were communal,” explain Harper and Walton. “His hope was to create a community of voices and readers in antiphony.” Brown also found inspiration from W. B. Yeats’s Irish Renessaince.

Slim Greer in Hell

Slim Greer went to heaven;
St. Peter said, “Slim,
You been a right good boy.”
An’ he winked at him.

“You been travelin’ rascal
In yo’day.
You kin roam once mo’;
Den you come to stay.

“Put dese wings on yo’ shoulders,
An’ save yo’ feet.”
Slim grin, and he speak up,
“Thankye, Pete.”

Den Peter say, “Go
To Hell an’ see,
All dat is doing, and
Report to me.

“Be sure to remember
How everything go.”
Slim say, “I be seein’ yuh
On de late watch, bo.”

Slim got to cavortin’
Swell as you choose,
Like Lindy in de Spirit
Of St. Louis Blues.

He flew an’ he flew,
Till at last he hit
A hangar wid de sign readin’

Den he parked his wings,
An’ strolled aroun’,
Gittin’ used to his feet
On de solid ground.

It’s a crime that Brown continues to be overlooked, but there is no shortage of theories about why this is so. Perhaps the most logical comes from Harper and Walton in African American Poetry‘s introduction:

“Brown’s life’s work was to hold up the face of [the southern, rural man] and make us look behind it. He aimed to take his reader through the looking glass in a sense – into that part of society that “society” has defined itself against. His work was dismissed because the face he held up is in fact a looking glass: to see that face accurately we would first have to see ourselves, to see those things about ourselves and the country we have made that we still, even at this late date, do not like to see.”
— Harper/Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

Sterling Brown was a native of Washington, D.C. After attending Williams College and Harvard University, he taught poetry at Howard University for forty years. His students included Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks among many others. Brown died in 1989.

(© unknown)


Poet #4: Kenneth Koch

Posted in Poets with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2009 by czarnickolas

Kenneth Koch

“When you finish a poem, it clicks shut like the top of a jewel box, but prose is endless. I haven’t experienced an awful lot of clicking shut!”
Kenneth Koch

(© unknown)

Kenneth Koch, whose work spans over fifty years, is often grouped with the likes of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery as part of the famed New York School of poetry. My good friend and fellow poet Alex Carnevale gave me Koch’s final book of poetry, New Addresses, as a graduation gift in 2003. The book collects poems written directly to a variety of subjects, including marijuana, insults, and orgasms. These poems remind me of Alex and his own style: direct, enthusiastic, and humorous. Koch’s work proves, once and for all, that one need not be dreary and depressed to be a great poet.

“I simply was ignoring the fact that The Waste Land indeed made it seem to many poets that one had to be depressed-not that The Waste Land is a bad poem, it’s a wonderful poem-that one had to feel despair, that one had to think that the modern world was terrible.”

It took a while for Koch’s work to gain acceptance. His early writing struck critics as obscure, such as the epic Ko, or A Season on Earth (1959). He and his fellow New York School poets avoided the soul-baring styles of the Confessional poets in favor of a more cosmopolitan approach that adapted the art of action painting to a poetic medium. Over time, Koch developed a clear voice, renown for its lyricism, and he helped grow a style akin to French Surrealism, buoyed by unusual juxtapositions and underlying philosophical assertions.

(photo © Dodie Bellamy)

“As I understand the surrealist program, it was programmatically in favor of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious; programmatically in favor of chance, even programmatically in favor of a certain kind of violence and all that dream stuff.”

Even in his seventies, Koch produced work that was driven by the frenetic energy of The City:

To Various Persons Talked To All At Once

You have helped hold me together.
I’d like you to be still.
Stop talking or doing anything else for a minute.
No. Please. For three minutes, maybe five minutes.
Tell me which walk to take over the hill.
Is there a bridge there? Will I want company?
Tell me about the old people who built the bridge.
What is “the Japanese economy”?
Where did you hide the doctor’s bills?
How much I admire you!
Can you help me to take this off?
May I help you to take that off?
Are you finished with this item?
Who is the car salesman?
The canopy we had made for the dog.
I need some endless embracing.
The ocean’s not really very far.
Did you come west in this weather?
I’ve been sitting at home with my shoes off.
You’re wearing a cross!
That bench, look! Under it are some puppies!
Could I have just one little shot of Scotch?
I suppose I wanted to impress you.
It’s snowing.
The Revlon Man has come from across the sea.
This racket is annoying.
We didn’t want the baby to come here because of the hawk.
What are you reading?
In what style would you like the humidity to explain?
I care, but not much. You can smoke a cigar.
Genuineness isn’t a word I’d ever use.
Say, what a short skirt! Do you have a camera?
The moon is a shellfish.
I can’t talk to most people. They eat me alive.
Who are you, anyway?
I want to look at you all day long, because you are mine.
Might you crave a little visit to the Pizza Hut?
Thank you for telling me your sign.
I’m filled with joy by this sun!
The turtle is advancing but the lobster stays behind. Silence has won the game!
Well, just damn you and the thermometer!
I don’t want to ask the doctor.
I didn’t know what you meant when you said that to me.
It’s getting cold, but I am feeling awfully lazy.
If you want to we can go over there
Where there’s a little more light.

— from New Addresses

(© Colpitts Poetry)

It is the comedic character of Koch’s poetry that engages me the most. “There was a certain amount of humor in all our work,” Koch remarked about the New York School. “Maybe you can almost characterize [our] poetry… as having as one of its main subjects the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness.” Koch’s sense of humor comes across well in his amusing poetic manipulations of William Carlos Williams’ poem, “This is Just to Say“:

Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Kenneth Koch was a poet, professor, and playwright. He died of leukemia in 2002. Take a moment to listen to him read his poem One Train May Hide Another.

(photo © Larry Rivers)

Poet #3: Lawson Inada

Posted in Poets with tags , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by czarnickolas

Lawson Inada

“The point is: Poetry happens – wherever, whenever it wants – and the poet simply has to be ready to follow through on the occasion. That’s the way I do it, and it’s always a wonder, a mystery, when it happens – something like a trance, a transmission, a ‘higher state’ while sitting in the state you’re in: you become a vehicle while awaiting your vehicle. It’s actually rather simple, ordinary, like the daydreams we all experience. Thus, it’s not big deal – I just happen to write mine down, as poetry.”
Lawson Fusao Inada, Preface from Legends from Camp

(photo © Richard Green)

While a junior in college, I had the good fortune to study poetry with Michael S. Harper, recent Frost Medal recipient, one-time poet laureate for Rhode Island, and the toughest professor on the Eastern seaboard. Professor Harper – who will get his own tribute on these pages soon enough – has a knack for introducing his students to poets they should know based on their expressed interests. He knew I was fond of jazz, basketball, and Japanese culture, so he insisted that I investigate Lawson Fusao Inada. Harper met Inada during their studies in Iowa:

“Inada, who had two roommates and was looking for more space and privacy, soon moved into the same building I was in, with no furnishing…  From his arrival I could hear his music collection through the walls of his apartment, and I could count on sophisticated and low-down programming from early morning to very late at night.  Lawson also received ‘care’ packages from home, Fresno, full of exotic delicacies from his parents; and he sometimes shared them…

“One day I was playing a record by Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue,’ and Inada knocked on my door to find out what I was playing.  I showed him the album.  So much did Lawson love the first side of ‘Kind of Blue’ he was afraid to turn it over and be disappointed; what he’d heard was side two of ‘Kind of Blue.’”

— from “Every Shut-Eye Ain’t Asleep; Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone” by Michael Harper

So in love with jazz was Inada that he spent some of his life as a bassist, this before Philip Levine got him more focused on his writing. “Listening Images,” a favorite of both Harper’s and mine, effectively conveys Inada’s passion for jazz:

Listening Images


Yes, clouds do have
The smoothest sound.


Hold a microphne
Close to the moon.


Rapids to baptism
In one blue river.


A hawk for certain,
But as big as a man.


Such fragile moss
In a massive tree.

The current poet laureate of Oregon is probably most well-known for his collection of poetry, Legends from Camp (much of which can be previewed here). Legends, winner of an American Book Award, is a remarkably accessible book that covers concentration camp life, Fresno, jazz, and many other things, and it’s full of “songs, paintings, photographs, prayers, and stories–that just happen to look like poetry” (Inada’s own words).

(photo © Tom Peck)

Some of the legends:

Legends from Camp (excerpts)

I. The Legend of Pearl Harbor

“Aloha or Bust!”

We got here first!

II. The Legend of the Human Society

This is as
as it gets:

In a pinch,
of your pets.

III. The Legend of Protest

The F.B.I. swooped in early,
taking our elders in the process–

for “subversive” that and this.

People ask: “Why didn’t you protest?”
Well, you might say: “They had hostages.”

VI. The Legend of the Great Escape

The people were passive:
Even when a train paused
in the Great Plains, even
when soldiers were eating,
they didn’t try to escape.

XI. The Legend of Shoyu

Legend had it that, even in Arkansas,
some people had soy sauce.
Well, not exactly our soy sauce,
which we were starved for,
but some related kind of dark
and definitive liquid
to flavor you through the day.

That camp was in the Delta,
where the Muddy Waters lay.

Black shoyu. Black shoyu.
Let me taste the blues!

Lawson Fusao Inada is an emeritus professor of writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, and the author of five books: Legends from Camp, Drawing the Line, In This Great Land of Freedom, Just Into/Nations and Before the War.

lawson-inada(photo © Michael Green)

Poet #2: Lyn Hejinian

Posted in Poets with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by czarnickolas

Lyn Hejinian

“Reading Lyn Hejinian’s Happily can make one imagine a second, somewhat happier Stein telling stories in single long or short lines that are aware of one another as they go about their own affairs.”
Bob Perelman

While a sophomore in college, I took a poetry workshop taught by a graduate student named Mark Tardi. Mark had a wonderful gift for thematic grouping, and his class syllabus reflected this. That semester, our assigned readings came solely from still-breathing, female poets: Barbara Guest, Rosmarie Waldrop, Harryette Mullen, Joan Retallack, Thalia Field, Lisa Jarnot, Erin Mouré, and Lyn Hejinian. (For the record, we also read Gertrude Stein; the inclusion of a then-dead writer was, no doubt, our university’s mandate).

Hejinian, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, is commonly associated with the Language poets, a postmodern avant garde movement whose work – in the simplest of terms – challenges its readers to participate in creating the meaning of the poem. A comprehensive discussion of the movement is outside the scope of this post, but the curious can learn more here (and here!), or simply deduce what they can from the excerpts contained below.

Happily (excerpt)

Every day we may never happen on the object hung on a mere

When and where one happens it will surprise us not in itself but
in its coming to our attention not as something suddenly
present but as something that’s been near for a long
time and which we have only just

When we might ask did we begin to share that existence

What have we overlooked

Nostalgia is another name for one’s sense of loss at the thought
that one has sadly gone along happily overlooking some-
thing, who knows what

Perhaps there were three things, no one of which made sense
of the other two

A sandwich, a wallet, and a giraffe

Logic tends to force similarities but that’s not what we mean
by “sharing existence”

The matter is incapable of being caused, incapable of not being
so, condensed into a cause – a bean, captive forever


Because this object is so tiny

A store of intellect, a certain ethical potential, something that
will hold good

Like ants swarming into pattern we get to the middle of the
day many distinct sensations that must be it

Music checks the relaxation the contrasting aspects constantly
changing set going

The ceaseless onset cuts this recognized sensation hurrying
after it alive

It seems we’ve committed ourselves

One of the things that struck me about Happily was how every line felt like a crooked, sighed-out aphorism, and I mean that in best possible way. The “Stein” contained in the work – the linguistic reinvention and playfulness – coupled with the simple truths that seemed to keep popping up kept me engaged throughout my initial reading. The lines operate as autonomous units, but – as Perelman notes – they are also aware of each other. The effect is both alienating and beautiful.

Hejinian’s breakthrough work, My Life, is an unusual biography that eschews traditional details in favor of minutiae. The original version comprises 37 poems – one for each year of Hejinian’s life – and each poem contains 37 lines. An updated version, written eight years later, contains eight new poems, with each of the 37 original poems receiving eight new lines.

As for we who “love to be astonished” (excerpt – full poem here), from My Life

You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called “sea glass,” bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one’s tears. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. She could only give a little shrug. The family had little money but plenty of food. At the circus only the elephants were greater than anything I could have imagined. The egg of Columbus, landscape and grammar. She wanted one where the playground was dirt, with grass, shaded by a tree, from which would hang a rubber tire as a swing, and when she found it she sent me. These creatures are compound and nothing they do should surprise us. I don’t mind, or I won’t mind, where the verb “to care” might multiply. The pilot of the little airplane had forgotten to notify the airport of his approach, so that when the lights of the plane in the night were first spotted, the air raid sirens went off, and the entire city on that coast went dark. He was taking a drink of water and the light was growing dim. My mother stood at the window watching the only lights that were visible, circling over the darkened city in search of the hidden airport.

Hejinian is the author of numerous books of poetry and essays. She currently teaches at University of California, Berkeley.

(photo © Carolyn Andrews)

Poet #1: Paul Beatty

Posted in Poets with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2009 by czarnickolas

Paul Beatty

“I write because I’m too afraid to steal, too ugly to act, too weak to fight, and too stupid in math to be a Cosmologist.”
— Paul Beatty

And thank the good lord for that. Had Carol Jago not introduced me to Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle during my senior year of high school, I may never have taken up poetry. I had just written a short story – highly derivative of Kurt Vonnegut, of course – called “Joey Jordan, And So Forth.” It was about a basketball-playing poet who never missed a shot. Amazingly enough, so too is The White Boy Shuffle. Ms. Jago saw the similarity, recommended I read the book, and I became a poet. It was really that simple.

Like the good Reverend King
I too “have a dream,”
but when I wake up
I forget it and
remember I’m running late for work.

— from The White Boy Shuffle

I was raised on Dead White Poetry. Although my curriculum included the otherworldly creations of Jack Kerouac, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Estlin Cummings, my distaste for most things dead and white kept me from embracing poetry as my own. It was an art form I never competed in, as opposed to music and calculus. Besides, it just wasn’t black enough for me.

Born to a father who spent his twenties and thirties writing scripts intended for Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, I could not escape my fate. I was doomed to be the kid who showed up the first day of junior high decked from head to toe in Cross Colours gear and talking like a Boyz n the Hood redshirt. I fetishized basketball, hip hop, and enormous pants, although I found little success with any of them. A boy with my disposition wanted nothing to do with John Keats and William Carlos Williams.

Paul Beatty turned my fetish on its head.

Stall Me Out

why you no rhythm

afraid of women asexual pseudo intellectual
bald mt. fuji shaped head

no booty havin big nose
size 13 feet pigeon toed crook footed

taco bell burrito supreme eatin
day dreamin

no jump shot can’t dunk
comic book readin
nutrition needin

knock kneed sap sucker
non drivin
anti fashion
constantly depressed clumsy no money mutherfucker

take your weak ass poems
and go back to los angeles

While simultaneously channeling his id, ego and superego, Beatty wields metaphors like a battle rapper and apologizes for nothing. As one critic put it: “he makes you laugh in self-defense.” The White Boy Shuffle challenged my notions of poetry and of myself. Beatty’s words were “verse” enough to count, but cool enough to convince 16-year-old me to try playing with poetry.

TWBS and Joker, Joker, Deuce (Beatty’s second published collection of poetry) inspired me so much that the former became my go-to referral for friends and loved ones in search of an interesting read, and the latter a gift to anyone I felt needed a little poetry in their lives.

In addition to re-calibrating my life, Paul Beatty has also remixed the haiku. Like Jack Kerouac before him, Beatty writes poems that – while not adhering to traditional haiku form – accomplish the lots-of-meaning-in-a-little-space goal first mastered by Matsuo Bashō in seventeenth century Japan. Some of these poems feel tongue-in-cheek.

Why That Abbott and Costello Vaudeville Mess Never Worked with Black People

who’s on first?
i dont know, your mama

Others are profound (…and mildly profane).

Mickey Mouse Build a House

don’t you ever feel
like in the game of life

you was the last motherfucker to say


It is entirely possible that I may have stumbled into poetry eventually without Mr. Beatty’s help, but writing conditionally about the past seems beyond the scope of The Poetry Project. What happened, happened, and I will always thank Paul Beatty for helping me get my head on straight (at least at the time).

NF with Paul Beatty

Yours truly, age 18, with Paul Beatty.

Beatty is the author of three novels and two books of poetry. His most recent work, Slumberland: A Novel, has been available for about ten months and makes an excellent gift.