[By Olivia, Charles, & Justine]
Last week, we discussed not modernism “high” or modernism “low,” but what we thought of as a modernism of “others”— of those disenfranchised, of those on the margins who struggled to let their voice bet heard, whether that voice is economic or cultural or political or artistic.
Whitman is not always an easy or enabling figure for these poets, and their voices and themes clash and mesh with Whitman’s own in dynamic ways—ways we engaged in lecture and in class discussions this week as we trace the Whitmanian legacy in African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to the present.
In the context of the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer remains a particularly interesting figure insofar as he struggled to reflect and speak for not only a sense of African American identity, but for a hybrid, multi-racial identity. Toomer was influenced by politically engaged poets—particularly Carl Sandburg, a student of Whitman. This, in turn, provided Toomer’s early work with a distinctly Whitmanian feel. Toomer published his Cane in 1923, the same year as The Waste Land, reinforcing the contemporaneity of the modernist poets we studied last week and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Cane is an innovative, hybrid work shifting from verse poetry to short prose pieces, with both modes exploring the extremes of African American and multi-racial experience, from the north to the south, from the city to the country.
We read two poems from Cane. We began by looking at “Prayer,” whose first line reads: “My body is opaque to the soul.” We discussed the poem in relation to Whitman—a poet for whom the unity of body and soul signified a broader a unity of the American body and some undetermined soul of democracy. In this context, Toomer’s difficulty in finding unity between body, soul, and mind show how Whitman can often be a disabling figure, a figure whose vision does not always reflect individual realities and experiences. We could not find much unity in “Prayer,” finding instead a sense that Toomer picks apart whatever unity people presume to find between the body and soul and leaves it scattered and static and disjointed. This fragmentation reminded us of the bleak modernist world, particularly as represented in The Waste Land; however, we did not feel any possibility of rejuvenation offered at the end of this poem as it returns to a repeated line, foreclosing any sense of progress or growth. The poem seems existentially exhausted and tired.
Keeping in mind Toomer’s exhaustion in “Prayer,” we turned to “Harvest Song” where that sense of existential weariness becomes more bodily. Prof VZ asked us to look at the multiple resonances of the “reaper” and we thought about its functions as the actual person who wields the harvesting machine, the machine itself, and the grim reaper—death. Prof VZ further framed our conversation around Whitman’s poem “A Carol of Harvest,” in which the post-Civil war dead have enriched the land as Whitman moves confidently from crisis to recovery. We compared not only the subject matter of Whitman, but also the style. While Toomer seems to replicate Whitman’s long lines, they do not flow like Whitman’s as a single, exuberant breath. Instead, they are full of stops, periods and pauses, causing the line to break, in a sense, even without a hard visual break. Marco made some interesting comments on the poem, pointing to the use of repeated lines throughout the poem, and the sense of alienation between the worker and master. We looked at one line in particular—“(Dusk is a strange fear’d sheath their blades are dull’d in)”—and thought of the utter despair the reaper feels. Night cannot even bring relief the reaper with his brain so dulled by the labor of the day. In thinking about the modernist elements of the poem, we were overwhelmed by the fear of knowledge expressed here, by the powerful images of dullness, and by voices calling gout that fail to connect throughout the poem. We discussed how this dull fear and lack of connection echoes many modernist themes, but in these poems there seems to be so much more at stake, the pain much more immediate and personal. The referent for the deep sense of disconnection in Toomer’s work seems more pressing and persistent given the recent past of slavery and continued race violence and prejudice.
Shifting to Hughes, Prof VZ read to us from “The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain,” and we spiraled off into a lengthy discussion about the tensions of racism embedded in the literary canon. Marco began with his comment that, given the context of the time, we can see why Hughes strove declare his identity as a black poet. But now, minority poets are too often expected to speak or write solely of their race and experience. They’ve claimed a certain voice, but run into some problems when they work to speak outside of it. One’s expression of their identity through poetry can become not an necessity, but an expectation. Dana noted how this dilemma is reflected in the canon and curriculum more generally. She pointed out how, as English majors, the canon is still almost entirely white, and if one wants to read something outside that scope one has to take a course specifically directed towards minority or international literatures.
Prof VZ granted this concern, but tried to inject a little optimism as he discussed the more inclusive vision of the new Norton anthologies of modern and contemporary poetry, and also how classes here at the College increasingly reflect a more dynamic and evolving canon. Julia Eichelberger’s contemporary poetry class is a case in point, as is the present Whitman course—and there are many other examples once could cite. The question of whether our class’s reading of white modernists one week, and then the writers of the Harlem Renaissance on the next, somehow reinforces enforces the racism and divisions of the canon remains an intriguing and complex one. It seems important to discuss the Harlem Renaissance as a distinct and intentional movement rather than simply conflating all the various energies of Modernism into one group. Indeed, such a conflation would be an ahistorical way of addressing the sense in which certain aspects of modernist were exclusive in terms of class and race. That said, it is just as important to discuss the ways in which writers of the Harlem Renaissance respond in complex and dynamic ways to the forces of modernization and the elusive promises of modernity—and also how they partake in, advance, and subvert the tropes and tricks of a more exclusive “high” modernism.
We briefly compared Harlem Renaissance literature to some of the modernist poems we read last week. Although it’s the same artistic blossoming and attempt to recover from a crisis of innocence being lost, we decided that the writers of the Harlem Renaissance had more at stake than modernist writers, and we could sense this in the very forms the poetry took. Lani commented that while Crane’s The Bridge can be read as a manic, troubled poem on the surface with a deep grounding optimism coursing underneath, Langston Hughes deploys a seemingly carefree, apparently simpler and more accessible rhythm and rhyme-infused tone in his poetry which disguises a more serious and less optimistic subject matter. We might call this Hughes’s optimism deferred, and it creates a deeply moving, disjunctive, and insinuating music.
On Thursday, we had the opportunity to discuss Hughes in more detail. In terms of Hughes’s earlier work, we spend some time with “The Negro Speaks of River,” “I, Too, Sing America” from the ’20s and “Let American be America again” from the ’30s. As for the former, we discussed its use of an expansive Whitmanian “I” to claim various forms of experience from the past. The poem would seem to reflect and celebrate a universal African identity until the poem makes an abrupt turn from the Nile of Egypt to the Mississippi of America. In that quick transatlantic movement, we see the violence and displacement of slavery, thus seeing the poem anew as a poem of African American experience in particular. In “I, Too, Sing America” Hughes offers a restrained Whitmanian vision with short, rough lines and abrupt transitions transitions. The voice is Whitmanian, but the form seems cut short, deferred, just as the poem itself speaks of a time in the future when the poem’s speaker will have a place at the table. Alongside these poems of African American identity from the 20s, Hughes’s more socialist “Let America Be America Again” seemed very different. In this poem, Hughes strategically weaves African American experience into a broader catalog of oppression that includes all races and all forms of oppression. The poem reflects the changing politics of the 30s and Hughes’s increased interest in a more committed, socialist poetry.
Finally, we discussed Hughes long work, Montage of a Dream Deferred, an innovative serial poem composed of a number of shorter units. Students were asked to discuss some of their favorite sections of the poem. One student brought up “Dream Boogie,” in which the poem seems to encapsulate some deep sadness even as the music plays on. Another student drew our attention to “New Yorkers,” a poem in which two lovers from different backgrounds (urban North and rural South) come together and find an uneasy communion in their new urban life. We discussed how Montage as a whole works with the rhythms and breaks of blues and jazz—at times precise and at other times discordant and disjunctive—to capture the dynamism and energy of Harlem.
During the final section of class on Thursday, we broke up into smaller groups to discuss handful of more recent African American poets responding to Whitman. Though we didn’t have time to bring these separate conversations together as a class, Prof. VZ noted the common themes of problematic pastoral imagery, where the land and trees persist as markers of forced labor and violence. A deep sense of crisis persists in these poems, and Whitman remains a difficult presence, a voice at once enabling and disabling, a voice whose vision constantly seems eclipsed by the poet’s present reality.
Quote and Tell:
“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”
The above excerpt from Langston Hughes’s 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” really embodies this week’s focus on a modernism of and for those marginalized, those excluded by a more elite and predominantly white modernism. Hughes was extremely dedicated to forging a strong and committed black identity. Rather than conforming to the lure of whiteness, Hughes fought against the prevailing norms of cultural expression and encouraged his fellow writers to do the same. Hughes urged other writers to not “run away spiritually from [their] race” as he worked to give a voice to the disenfranchised.
The core concept / movement we discussed this week was the Harlem Renaissance, a post-WWI African American cultural movement defined by an explosion of art, literature, theater, journalism, and music. Modernization—along with the Great Migration from the rural South to urban centers in the North—were both major catalysts in the movement.
Influenced in part by returning soldiers’ exposure to the international art scene during WWI, and also by their sense of disappointment that their service to their country was repaid with continued discrimination and racial violence, the Harlem Renaissance was distinguished by a blending of political engagement and artistic experimentation as well as an interest in the lives of working- and middle-class African Americans. The participants in the Harlem Renaissance saw themselves as a part of broader social movements and revolutions against oppressions of all kinds—racial, economic, cultural. In this sense, the political energy generated in the Harlem Renaissance echoes social revolutions happening in countries such as Mexico, China, Russia and elsewhere during the same period of time.
Although Harlem was a crucial center for African American cultural production, it also served as a metaphor for a much broader movement that was happening all over the American and the world. We need only to look at how widely figures such as Hughes and McKay traveled during the 20s and 30s—writing many of their most important works overseas—to grasp how truly transnational a movement this was.
At its heart, the Harlem Renaissance was about the burgeoning power and force of a renewed African American voice and creative spirit. Black intellectuals made an effort to sponsor and cultivate African American literary talent in particular. Though some of these intellectuals had goals that were strictly artistic, others pressed the political ramifications of this redefined African American voice. For them, such a voice couldn’t be contained in art, but must lead out to broader political, economic and cultural recognition.
We have sensed a certain “transnational” energy in Whitman’s own work, and also in the international influences at play in the various modernisms we’ve discussed over the past two weeks. This coming week, we’re going to talk more about the “transnational “as a grounding concept in the study of Whitman and his influence as we begin to look at poets from other countries—predominantly those from Latin America—and how they reflect and embody Whitman in their own work.
On Tuesday, we’ll begin by discussing June Jordan’s essay 1980 essay, “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” Neruda comes up quite prominently in her essay, and she will help as we begin a discussion of the Whitmanian energies in Neruda’s poetry.
Please be ready to answer (in class or in a quiz) questions such as: What, to Jordan, constitutes “New World” poetry? And how do Whitman and Neruda qualify as “New World” poets?
As we did with Hughes’s Montage, please choose a one of Neruda’s poems from The Essential Neruda that struck you most. I should be able to call on any individual and get an intelligent, detailed and thoughtful response about the poem you chose. Don’t feel limited solely by noting some particular evidence of Whitman’s influence. Engage the poems on their own terms. Whitman will likely emerge through that close attention, perhaps even where we least expect to find him.
As always, bring your Whitman, and this week bring your Neruda along with supplementary materials under the “Readings” tab–when you see “(CW)” on the schedule, that means the reading is available on our course website.
Please use the comment box below to fill in any crucial missing details. What was most important and/or moving to you that I didn’t address above?