Make America America

In about a week we start another school year — my thirteenth year teaching, and my first to teach eleventh graders.

I’m excited for the new class. There’s a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, so this week I started pulling down and rereading some favorite poems and stories, trying to decide which texts to share with my kids. I’ve been flipping especially through the giant Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. It’s been a while since I’ve read “Let America Be America Again,” first published in 1936; I look forward to reading it with my students in the new age of #MAGA.

If you don’t know it, check it out, below. If you do, why not slow down to read it again?

Langston Hughes.jpg

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free’.

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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P.S. I kind of took a summer break from this blog; hopefully I can get back again soon into the habit of regular posting. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s something good you can store away for a rainy day (or a sunny one) soon: Langston Hughes speaking at UCLA in February of 1967, just months before he died.

Peace.

This Is What You Shall Do

This one’s quoted often but rewards frequent revisits. So — from the original preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855 …

Version 2

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

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Things Found in Books

Alongside the tables and booths at Crestwood Coffee runs a row of old and donated books, with a “take a book, leave a book” policy. Yesterday I picked up this one, from 1939: Ted Malone Presents The American Album of Poetry. Ted Malone (I’ve since learned) hosted a popular CBS radio show, “Between the Bookends” for more than thirty years, and on it he championed the everyday poetry of everyday people. “This Album,” the intro to his book begins, “is made up of poems written by poets—but these are the poets who in daily life are housewives, business men, professional people, teachers and students, and their poems are composed wholly for the joy of self-expression.”

The coffee shop copy also bears a handwritten inscription, dated May 10, 1941: How about going poetic, it says—From Your Brother & Sister, Alonzo & Alma. And stuck between the pages of the book are a few typewritten pages of poetry, each signed L. C. Steiner, Jr. Whoever Steiner was, he seems to have been just the sort of poet Ted Malone would have loved: neatly typing his poems on the backs of business stationery (Alexander Motors, Mobile, Alabama), numbering them in pencil, and folding them up and sticking them inside the Album. My favorite of the batch, “Tribute to King Booze,” begins:

       A man does strange things when he gets himself drunk.
       His legs go to shaking and his mind’s full of junk.

Here’s the whole thing. You can barely make out the Alexander Motors letterhead through the paper.

Jesse James inside cover

*

I’m always on the lookout for inscriptions, marginalia, and things stuffed between the pages of old books; they let us glimpse the ghosts of readers past. We get through these artifacts only a cryptic fraction of a larger story and are left to wonder at the rest. What about L. C. Steiner? If he’s the brother to whom the book was inscribed, did the gift inspire him to “go poetic” as challenged—or was he a secret poet already?

Who else got to read his poems?

*

Several years ago in a Chapel Hill bookstore I bought an old biography of Jesse James for fifty cents. The Rise and Fall of Jesse James was published in 1926, its author Robertus Love; my copy belonged at one point to the Sondley Reference Library in Asheville, North Carolina. I haven’t read it and don’t expect to; I laid down my fifty cents for the sake of this lengthy tirade written on the book’s first blank page:

Version 2

Here’s what it says, in case you find that hard to read:

The Yankees who, unprovoked, murdered thousands of Southern people, men and women and children, and stole millions of dollars worth of Southern property and deprived Southern survivors of their liberties and burned their homes and ever since have continued to rob them and slander them with the most nefarious lies and have attempted to deify an atrocious murderer and thief named John Brown and an equally vile beast named Abe Lincoln (or something else) are horrified when a few of the robbed men turned the tables and robbed the robbers.

The writer of this book is a dirty Yankee liar and his statements are entitled to no credit.

If that were not enough, there’s a rejoinder underneath, from another, more modern hand: And the critique above, it announces, was written by an ignoramous!

This, I suppose, is what lately we’ve come to call “trolling”; it’s the Youtube comments before there was Youtube.

And there’s more, too: finally, a third voice weighs in at the top of the page, rendering a final judgment on the entire affair—book, notes, and all.

50¢, it says. A steal!

*

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found inside an old book? I invite you to describe your favorite finds in the comments below. But first, here’s a poem by Billy Collins, another lover of poetry in the everyday .

It’s called “Marginalia.”

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page–
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

a few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil–
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet–
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

 

How to be a poet (drawing)

Wendell Berry

A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniels wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berrys books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”

A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berrys reminders a comfort and encouragement. Heres the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.

Don’t forget to breathe.

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Hail, Hail! Viva, Viva!

I.

Chuck Berry, the great poet-hero of rock and roll, died yesterday at the age of 90.

In one of his music’s definitive anthems, “School Day,” he gave us this little couplet:

   Hail, hail, rock and roll
   Deliver me from the days of old

Those lyrics, I think, are rock and roll’s most perfect poem.

II.

But then, too, there’s this, from “Viva Viva Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a raucous highlight of the extraordinary album, San Francisco Dues:

   Rock on!
   Go ahead and jerk it, child, work it
   Rock on!
   Go ahead and shake it, I can take it
   Rock on!
   Oh, my soul—
   Viva, viva, rock and roll.

If you haven’t heard that song, plug into some good speakers and play it now, loud. A few times. I’ll post it below.

A purer, more joyous celebration of rock and roll you can’t hope to find.

III.

There’s much more to be said about this man and his music, but for now I’ll leave it at that, and at this:

Thank God for Chuck Berry.

Hail, hail.

Viva, viva.

Rock on.

Amen.

P.S. This Saturday I’ll play an hour of Chuck Berry songs on the radio. I hope you’ll tune in 9 to 10 a.m. on Birmingham Mountain Radio, roll down or throw open your windows, and (again) play it loud.

P.S. also: I promised Part Two of my Ethel Harper biography this week, and got a little slowed down. If not tonight, it will be up tomorrow. Meanwhile, if you missed it, here’s Part One.

A message for desolate hearts

For today’s post I mostly want to share a poem I learned today, by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. First, a quick backstory. (Skip the story and scroll straight to the poem if you like—I don’t mind!)

Last semester I had in my Creative Writing class an exchange student from Chile—for the sake of this blog, we’ll call him “Nico”—the sweetest, kindest kid you could hope to teach. It was a one-semester deal. His summer just started with the new year, and Friday he goes home; this week he unenrolled from our school. He stopped by today to say goodbye.

It’s one thing when a great kid graduates; you’ll still probably see that kid around, or at least you know it’s a possibility. But when that kid disappears to another hemisphere—that’s a real bummer. It was an emotional goodbye.

My other students are as brokenhearted about it as I am. Once last semester Nico was absent for just one day, and a student insisted we couldn’t go on without him. “He’s the backbone of this class!” she cried. I laughed but demurred. “You’re all the backbone of this class,” I said lamely, and I repeated it and hoped it sounded sincere: “This class has twenty backbones!” I did mean it, mostly. It really is a great group of students, and it’s an appealing metaphor, too—the class as a single freakish organism, made up of many backbones. But we all knew she was right. The day just wasn’t the same.

As it turned out, Nico and I got each other parting gifts. I gave him a copy of Ziggy Stardust; he was really into Bowie’s Blackstar album this year but hadn’t yet heard the stuff that made Bowie famous.

He gave me a Pablo Neruda book, one he had his mom send up from Chile. We’d read some Neruda in class last semester and watched the Italian movie about him, Il Postino. I’d shared with the class, among other things, Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines…,” and it made the whole room wonderfully miserable—a triumph for poetry. (I challenged the class to find a better break-up poem or break-up song than that one, anywhere. So far no one has.) We read Neruda’s “Ode to the Tomato” and wrote our own giddy odes to ordinary things. Whenever we’d read Neruda poems in class I’d asked Nico, since he was game, to read the originals out loud in Spanish, and the whole class would sit in attention; then someone would read a translation. I teach Neruda in Creative Writing most years. This year we did more than usual.

The book Nico gave me today was a Chilean edition of a book I’ve never heard of, 20 Poemas al Arbol y un Cactus de la Costa (20 Poems to Trees and a Cactus of the Coast). The poems are printed in Spanish and English, with beautiful illustrations opening each poem, every poem a different tree.

“Those who do not know the Chilean woods,” Neruda writes in a sort of preface, “do not know the planet. From those lands, from that soil and that mud, from that stillness, I have come out to walk, to sing throughout the world.”

*

After Nico left today I skipped to the last poem in the book, the “Ode to the Cactus of the Coast.” This is why I’m writing this post, to share a chunk of that poem.

It’s a good poem for any January—and, I think, for this January especially. The year opens not just with a sense of uncertainty but for a lot of us with anxiety and despair and, perhaps, a dangerous sense of depletion. At any rate, I know it was helpful for me to read these lines today. Maybe you’ll find help in them too, for reasons of your own. I plan to reread these words often, whenever I can use them.

The translation is by Mónica Cumar. The poem is a few pages longer than this, but this is how it ends, and how the book ends:

… Thus is the story,

and this

is the moral

of my poem:

wherever

you are, wherever you live,

in the last

solitude in this world,

in the scourge

of the earth’s fury,

in the corner

of humiliations,

brother,

sister,

wait, work

hard

with your little being and your roots.

 

One day

for you,

for all of us

from

your heart a red ray will burst forth,

you’ll also bloom one morning; the Spring

has not forgotten you, brother,

sister,

no,

it has not forgotten you:

I say it to you

I assure you of that,

because the terrible cactus,

the bristly

son of the sands,

conversing

with me

entrusted me with this message

for your desolate heart.

 

And now

I tell you

and I tell myself:

brother, sister,

wait,

I am certain:

Spring shall not forget us.

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