'Today,' Frank O'Hara
Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they’ve always talked about
still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.
Frank O’Hara (1926—1966) was an American poet, writer and art critic, as well as curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He attended Harvard to study music funded by a veteran’s scholarship for serving in World War II, although he changed his major and graduated in 1950 with a degree in English Literature. After completing an M.A. at the University of Michigan he moved to New York; he became intimately associated with the city and it appears in many of his poems.
O’Hara’s poetry is often autobiographical and most famously chronicles his experiences in New York. They are usually written in the present tense and characteristic to his verse is a fast-paced, hurried style which suggests both joyful exuberance and the bombardment of senses present in hectic city life. When considering the influences on his writing, O’Hara aligned himself more closely with Pound and Carlos Williams than the scholarly verse of T.S. Eliot, and this can be observed most obviously in his direct, un-metaphorical language. Nearly all his works centre around O’Hara as an individual, with specific references to real people, locations and events in O’Hara’s life.
'Today,' is almost a manifesto for this style. While many poor imitators of O'Hara throw about material references for reasons of style or taste, he makes clear here that these touches are key to his presentation of the materialist and cosmopolitan nature of the post-WWII world. Abstraction, to O'Hara's mind, only removes the poet from the world and makes art a puzzle: direct, concrete images place both poet and reader within the world of the poem. To see them as humorous or camp is a mistake: even the silliest details of modern life are with us ‘even on beachheads and biers.’ In making them the foundation of his poetry, O’Hara promises his biographical lyrics will ‘have meaning.’
'To Germany,' Charles Sorley
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other’s truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain
Charles Sorely (1895—1915) was a British poet who served as a lieutenant and captain in the First World War. Shot by a sniper at the age of twenty, his poetry was published posthumously to much popular acclaim. Born in Aberdeen, he was educated at Marlborough College and then traveled and studied in Germany until the outbreak of the war.
'To Germany' is not a particularly strong poem—'But gropers both through fields of thought confined / We stumble' is an extremely cumbersome line, and Sorley seems to run out of words by the end of it. However, the political themes present point to a nascent Modernism as well as a view of the First World War which is fairly unique among the 'War Poets.'
Whilst living in Germany Sorely studied the language and local culture, and fell in love with the nation:
And when I got home, I felt I was a German, and proud to be a German…I felt that perhaps I could die for Deutschland
Like some of the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (who Sorley never met), ‘To Germany’ is a sonnet, and ironises this traditionally romantic form with it’s subject matter of war. Additionally, it plays on the trope of the sonnet being written to an unrequitable, doomed, lover.
The octave begins and closes with images of ‘the blind,’ which suggests with Biblical allusion that the soldiers on both sides have been fooled into participating. But Sorley volunteered to fight, and it may be that the awkward phrase ‘fields of thought confined’ anticipates ideas of propaganda and ideology which would not be theorised until well after the war. With it’s focus on the questionable legitimacy of the war that octave is peppered with hard stresses and thudding end-rhymes (understand / planned / mind / stand / blind) which reflects Sorley’s clear anger at both sides of the war for having allowed the situation to arrive.
The sestet changes the focus to ‘peace,’ opining that ‘each other’s truer form’ will be revealed after the conflict, and the warmer ringing sounds of the sestet suggest an overall optimistic point of view. This raises the question of who the true subject of the poem is: Germany, or her people? Sorley seems to believe that the fighters of the war can reconcile once the war is over: they are only in conflict because of the ideological necessities of their rulers. Yet the opening lines of the poem seem to directly address ‘Germany’ the nation-state.
This is where the significance of the poem lies for me: while clearly under the poetic influences of the Romantics and Georgians, Sorley anticipates the Modernist beliefs that would follow the war, in the same way that Sassoon and Owen did. The plain, matter-of-fact language is part of this shift, but also the theme of differentiation between country and people—an acknowledgement that the desires of the ruling classes have taken precedent over the well-being of the middle and working classes, and thereby a new cynicism of the ideologies they espouse.
'Black Art,' Amiri Baraka
Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, wd they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after pissing. We want live
words of the hip world live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between ‘lizabeth Taylor’s toes. Stinking
Whores! We want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff
poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite
politicians. Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
…rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … Setting fire and death to
whities ass. Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
& puke himself into eternity … rrrrrrrr
There’s a negroleader pinned to
a bar stool in Sardi’s eyeballs melting
in hot flame. Another negroleader
on the steps of the white house one
kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs
negotiating coolly for his people.
Aggh … stumbles across the room …
Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked
to the world! Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth
Poem scream poison gas on beasts in green berets
Clean out the world for virtue and love,
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
cleanly. Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors. Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
Amiri Baraka (1934—2014) was an American writer of poetry, plays, fiction and essays. He was an immensely important figure in the Black Arts Movement as well as the poetry scene of the 1950’s and 60’s, founding with his then-wife Hettie Totem Press, which published the early works of many Beat poets. He was also the editor of various poetry magazines throughout his life. Controversial for his aggressive and sometimes offensive poetry, Baraka helped define much of the Black radical poetry which appeared in the latter half of the 20th Century.
'Black Art' is as much a declaration and thesis as it is a poem, a constitution for the Black Arts Movement and the position of poetry within the Black Power movement. Baraka was deeply critical of 'assimilationist' blacks (and Jews), and much of the early African-American literature such as that produced by the Harlem Renaissance writers. He felt that those writers—like Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois—were too eager to imitate white writers, and please white audiences, writing 'middle-class poems' instead of ‘“poems that kill” / Assassin poems, poems that shoot / guns.'
For Baraka it was the duty of the radical black writer to produce work that was fully integrated within the struggle against racism. Like William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound he wrote as an objectivist, focusing on real concrete images to make his black audiences see themselves in the poem, and here writes about his wish to have ‘poems that wrestle cops into alleys / and take their weapons leaving them dead.’ Black poetry, he felt, should imagine a revolutionary world where African-Americans had the agency to reverse the dynamics of power between white and black people. The deliberately shocking and surreal movements this poem takes are all part of that, using slang of the black community as if daring white audiences to try to understand it.
Written in 1966, after the assassination of Malcolm X radicalised Baraka and he left the Beats in New York to live in Harlem, it is a reflection of the frustration and anger Baraka felt at the time and his then belief that the entire American system had to be overthrown for any real liberation of the black community to occur. Only then could they ‘ understand / that they are the lovers and the sons / of lovers and warriors and sons / of warriors. Are poems & poets & / all the loveliness here in the world.’
Later in life Baraka would recant much of his Nationalist stance after reading Marx and becoming an advocate for Third World Socialism, but his taste for controversy and wish for radical change never wavered, with his template for ‘Black Art’ inspiring the work of a generation.
'Meeting the British,' Paul Muldoon
We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender
and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)
and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French
across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst
nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.
As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-
kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.
They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.
Paul Muldoon (1951—) is an Irish poet, born near Portadown, Northern Ireland. He rose to fame alongside ‘the Belfast poets’ (which included Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley). From 1973-86 he was the arts produced for the BBC in Belfast, where he observed The Troubles at close distance, which informed two of his early collections of poetry, Why Brownlee Left and Quoof. His work is known for combining simple poetics with complex images and literary allusions. He is the current president of the British Poetry Society, as well as poetry editor for The New Yorker magazine.
'Meeting the British,' from Muldoon's collection of the same name, is a careful and precise poem that focuses on the role of language in colonialism. Muldoon's first poems were written in Irish Gaelic, but like many other Irish poets, later collections were written in English and as with most other Irish citizens, much of his day-to-day speaking occurs in English. As seen in Native American poets featured on this blog, they too write in English in order to reach a larger audience. In this way, parallels are drawn between the British colonialism of Ireland and America.
The poem recounts the infection of smallpox passed to members of the Ottawa tribe in 1763, at the end of the Pontiac war (although Amherst and Bouquet did not personally hand over the blankets, as in this imagined reconstruction).
Language takes a centrality from the start of the poem: ‘The sky was lavender / and the snow was lavender-blue’ draws our focus to the repetition of lavender and cues the reader in to pay close attention to the words in the poem. It appears again when Colonel Bouquet explains to the Ottawan (in French), ‘It is lavender, a flower purple as the sky.’ The unequal, couplet structure of the poem with its strange slant-rhymes also calls our attention to language in its careful unfolding of the story: for a reader not overly familiar with the war, we would not fully understand the narrative until the final line.
What occurs is a clash of cultures, and boundaries are everywhere in the poem, from the bleeding/reflective lavender-blue snow, to the ‘two streams coming together.’ The details of the scene are sparse but from the mention of Amherst and Bouquet it is suggested the two groups meet as equals to perform a ceremonial trade: of course, we know this is not the case. Using this dramatic irony Muldoon is able to make the case that language’s supposed neutrality can become a fierce weapon when great inequalities exist between opposing groups. This inequality is seen in the lines ‘across that forest-/clearing,’ which highlights the constructed nature of languages and culture, as well as foreshadowing the destruction which faces the land and the tribesman’s people. The British can’t ‘stomach’ the Ottawans but use charm and artificiality—in the lavender-scented handkerchief—to cover up their biological warfare.
The French the Ottawan already speaks sounds strange to him, something which doesn’t match supposed reality, such as the flowing frozen stream. How equally alienating it must be to also relate this in English, for both him and the Gaelic Muldoon. Despite the intense dread built up in this poem (also caused by the sparse lines and unequal rhythms of the rhyming lines), though, the poem overall is not necessarily defeatist: the speaker says the sky is lavender, which we discover is a word not known to him until after the meeting, suggesting the erasure his culture has suffered.
But perhaps it is because of this construction that is forced onto him he is able to see it’s artificiality and undermine it: the blurred lines of historical fact evident in the poem point to a way that language, and poetry, can be used to make history ‘living’ again. The war of the cultures has not been lost: a clear demarcation remains between the two groups, and the speaker is able to use language in shocking and surprising ways to force us to consider the horrors of colonialism beyond warfare atrocities.
'Years of the Modern,' Walt Whitman
Years of the modern! years of the unperform’d!
Your horizon rises—I see it parting away for more august dramas;
I see not America only—I see not only Liberty’s nation, but other nations preparing;
I see tremendous entrances and exits—I see new combinations—I see the solidarity of races;
I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the world’s stage;
(Have the old forces, the old wars, played their parts? are the acts suitable to them closed?)
I see Freedom, completely arm’d, and victorious, and very haughty, with Law on one side, and
Peace on the other,
A stupendous Trio, all issuing forth against the idea of caste;
—What historic denouements are these we so rapidly approach?
I see men marching and countermarching by swift millions;
I see the frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies broken;
I see the landmarks of European kings removed;
I see this day the People beginning their landmarks, (all others give way;)
—Never were such sharp questions ask’d as this day;
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God;
Lo! how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest;
His daring foot is on land and sea everywhere—he colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes;
With the steam-ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war,
With these, and the world-spreading factories, he interlinks all geography, all lands;
—What whispers are these, O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas?
Are all nations communing? is there going to be but one heart to the globe?
Is humanity forming, en-masse?—for lo! tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim;
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war;
No one knows what will happen next—such portents fill the days and nights;
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it, is full of phantoms;
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me;
This incredible rush and heat—this strange extatic fever of dreams,
O years! Your dreams, O year, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake!)
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance, advance upon me.
Walt Whitman (1819—1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. He is regarded as one of the most influential American poets, and the father of free verse poetry; his merging of transcendental themes with social realism and a want to make his work as appealing to the public as possible led him to be loved publicly while retaining a strong influence over the works of future generations of poets.
I’ve feature Whitman on this blog not too long ago but I re-read this poem the other day for the first time in years and was restruck by it’s power. The typically Whitman long lines are truly used in full force here: grand, rolling lines like great waves which strike with great strength then spill their remainder over us: ‘With the steam-ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war…’. Normally repetition is my least-favourite poetic device—too often I see it as stagnation or a mawkish attempt at grandeur—but Whitman really uses the repeated ‘I see’ and other refrains as a way of drumming up excitement and anticipation. It feels a lot like the repetitions are the speaker catching his breath (accentuated by the pattering of anapest rhythms ending each line) before wildly continuing, regaling with a desperate urgency his dream and hope for the future.
It’s only in the final lines that this restlessness ceases, as Whitman muses on his own mortality and the sense he will miss out on some of the grandest eras of humanity, but the fact we are only given a mere whisper of this despair adds to the poem’s power. By not overexplaining this side of the poem, it is given greater power because it so precisely contrasts with the excitement of the previous lines: the darkness is more vivid when juxtaposed with the brilliant light of Whitman’s humanism: ‘Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God.’
There are many great lines in this poem but it’s truly Whitman’s mastery of rhythm that is most prominent here, from the heavy thuds which end each section of the poem to the steadily climaxing hammering which reaches to a clamor in ‘Your dreams, O year, how they penetrate through me!’. It was a reminder to me that the simplest poetic devices can be what truly elevates a thought into a great poem.
'I hear the twang of the mid-string,' Empress Kōgyoku
Presented to the Emperor Jomei by a messenger, Hashibito Oyu, on the occasion of his hunting on the plain of Uchi.
I hear the twang of the mid-string
Of his royal birchwood bow,
Which my Sovereign, ruling in peace,
Loves to handle at break of day,
And fondly leans against with dusk.
Now he must be out for his morning hunt,
Now he must be out for his evening chase;
I hear the twang of the mid-string
Of his loved birchwood bow!
With horses drawn abreast
On the open waste of Uchi,
This morning he must be trampling
That grassy land!
Empress Kōgyoku (594—661) was the 35th and 37th monarch of Japan (briefly abdicating in favour of her brother before his assassination), ascending to the throne after the death of her husband and uncle, Emperor Jomei. She was the second of eight empress regents.
This poem is found in the first book of one of the most famous collections of traditional Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū. Compiled sometime after 759 AD, it is one of the most important works in the study of Japanese literature, including some of the earliest examples of features which are now seen as quintessentially characteristic of both Japanese poetry, and Japanese language. The writing system used in the Man’yōshū, named after it as man’yōgana, is a prototype of modern Japanese kana, using modified Chinese characters to describe syllables of the emerging Japanese language.
Unlike many Western languages Japanese has little variety in the tone and stresses of particular syllables. So while the organisation of traditional Western poetry has focused on meter—the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables—in Japanese poetry it has more typically revolved around the larger rhythms of syllabic verse: usually patterns of lines with five or seven on (slightly different to syllables in English). Traditionally it is also less concerned with metaphor than Western poetry, and those it does use are hard for readers not familiar with the tradition to spot. Japanese literature is more likely to use ‘pillow-words’; repeated phrases used in association with typical words which allude to a rich tradition of imagery.
We can see in this poem how these differences in the ‘tools’ of poetry are used to create a radically different poetics. The form is a chōka, a series of 5-7 couplets closing with a final line of 7 on. Each couplet presents us with a clear, brief image, which are used in juxtaposition to complement and contrast the other images of the poem. The ‘envoy’ is a secondary poem, which again is used to juxtapose the rest of the poem.
The contrasts in this poem are chiefly of time: ‘Loves to handle at break of day / And fondly leans against with dusk.’ We sense the poets obsession through the repetition but also the acknowledgement she has thought of her lover throughout the entire day. She can picture him so well that she can imagine the resonance of his favoured bow. In this case, ‘birchwood’ is a translation for one of those ‘pillow-words,’ azusa, which signifies good fortune as well as the imperial family. In this period, the shamanic and animalistic qualities associated with azusa might also signify the vibrancy which which she can see him.
It’s through these subtle contrasts that we can feel the intensity of Kōgyoku’s emotions more than a series of overly sentimental metaphors and similes. The envoy too, by being a far more active depiction of Jomei, contrasts to show the adoration that she feels for him. Typically emotions are shown in how the speaker reacts to the world around them, but in this example it is also seen in how it colours her imaginative depiction of her lover. A meditative contemplation, we can see through it an example of momentary obsessions in thoughts which overtake us all.
'An Ancient Gesture,' Edna St. Vincent Millay
I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.
And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892—1950) was an American poet, born in Maine, best known for her sonnets. While Millay was one of the most well-known poets in her lifetime, earning immense public popularity, critical appreciation of her poetry has varied wildly: she was the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, but fell out of critical favour with the emergence of the modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, causing her work to be seen as rigid and outdated. In the 1990s, however, she was ‘rediscovered’ by feminist scholars who praised Millay’s strong independence voice, and many present scholars extol the subtle mesh of modern sensibilities with historic lyric poetry forms which can be found in her poems.
'An Ancient Gesture' was one of the last poems Millay wrote, first published in her posthumous collection Mine The Harvest. It uses the myth of Ulysses and Penelope to explore themes of grief and loneliness, among others. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, while awaiting the return of her husband Ulysses from the Trojan War, had to put off the advances of multiple suitors in order to maintain her faithfulness. She did this by saying once she had woven a shroud for her father-in-law she would pick a new husband, but unpicked her work during the night so it would never be completed.
Millay connects this mythical figure with the modern day quickly and undramatically, stating simply, ‘Penelope did this too.’ We are not sure what the main character of the poem is doing, but from the mention of ‘apron’ we can surmise it has something to do with kitchen activities, placing her within the traditional domestic sphere of the woman.
Written after the death of Millay’s husband and focusing on the uncertainty Penelope experienced while waiting for Ulysses to return, we can guess the absence of the woman’s husband is prolonged, perhaps even permanent. But there is a stark lack of melodramatic language in the poem, which focuses on discrete concrete details: ‘Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight.’ It is described matter-of-factly, as if the woman is trying not to dwell on it: ‘I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron,’ suggesting this is an unexpected and unwanted breakdown. The allusion to Penelope’s weaving is not only reflected in the shifting rhythm of the poems but also in the lines ‘you can’t keep weaving all day / and undoing it all through the night,’ which to me imply the woman’s attempts to push through the grief in mundane daily activities fail to stop her nighttime contemplations.
The allusions to Penelope are not just for the purposes of poetic analogies, however. Millay deliberately twists the myth of Ulysses, placing his wife as the primary character, and therefore highlighting the heroic qualities of Penelope’s grief and faithfulness. The woman’s grief is small and solitary, perhaps viewed as an annoyance, but by comparing it to Penelope it becomes the ‘ancient gesture’ of the title: suddenly gaining a long context, and in the illumination of history can be appreciated in a new light.
There is even the suggestion in the lines ‘Ulysses did this too / …He learned it from Penelope,’ that unlike the tears of Ulysses (who cried to manipulate the Phoenicians into granting his passage home) that tears of women are more ‘unique’: the authentic feminine gesture went unpraised while Ulysses’ appropriation granted him power. In this way Millay causes us to re-evaluate the more passive nature of Penelope’s heroism and not view the gesture of crying as a weakness or breakdown of proper composition, but instead an important aspect of the human condition which has lasted for millennia.
'Elegy For My Father, Who Is Not Dead,' Andrew Hudgins
One day I’ll lift the telephone
and be told my father’s dead. He’s ready.
In the sureness of his faith, he talks
about the world beyond this world
as though his reservations have
been made. I think he wants to go,
a little bit—a new desire
to travel building up, an itch
to see fresh worlds. Or older ones.
He thinks that when I follow him
he’ll wrap me in his arms and laugh,
the way he did when I arrived
on earth. I do not think he’s right.
He’s ready. I am not. I can’t
just say goodbye as cheerfully
as if he were embarking on a trip
to make my later trip go well.
I see myself on deck, convinced
his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced
I’ll see him standing on the dock
and waving, shouting, Welcome back.
Andrew Hudgins (1951—) is a American poet currently living in Upper Arlington, Ohio, where he has a position at Ohio State University—one of the few poets to hold the position of Distinguished Professor of Research. Born in Texas, his father was a member of the U.S. Air Force and Hudgins moved frequently as a child before the family settled at the U.S. air base in Montgomery, Alabama. Much of Hudgins’ poetry reflects his love of Southern America and his strict Baptist upbringing.
'Elegy For My Father, Who Is Not Dead,' appeared in Hudgins' 1991 collection The Never-Ending. It plays on conventional elegies by mourning before death occurs—striking us with the confrontational title, before unfolding his rationale to the reader. We know from the outset father and son are somewhat separated: ‘One day I’ll lift the telephone / and be told my father’s dead.’ For whatever reason, Hudgins is sure he will not be with his father at his death, and will receive it as unceremonious albeit shocking news. As the poem continues, it is clear religious differences are at least one aspect of this separation.
While elegies typically have mourning as their most prominent emotion, here anxiety is most at the forefront. Hudgins’ conversational prose matched with impeccable control of meter gives the language a confessional tone, as if spoken to a therapist. The iambic tetrameter is slightly shorter than the pentameter typically used for meditative contemplations, and Hudgins repeatedly uses a structure of long flowing lines broken up by short sentences: ‘He thinks that when I follow him / he’ll wrap me in his arms and laugh, / the way he did when I arrived / on earth. I do not think he’s right. / He’s ready. I am not.’ There is a feeling of shortness of breath, while the unambiguous declarative statements suggest a resignation to the situation.
What are the roots of this angst? I believe that from the very subject matter it is obvious Hudgins’ cares for and will miss his father, and this is the immediate focus of the poem. But I also think the key lines are ‘I see myself on deck, convinced / his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced /
I’ll see him standing on the dock.’ The repetition of ‘convinced’ shows the surety both father and son have in their beliefs, which are irreconcilable. But it is also significant that they are already on separate ‘ships.’
The differences in their beliefs in life after death cause anxiety for Hudgins as he feels he is watching a tragedy he is unable to intervene in, and that his father is oblivious to. He will miss his father after his death, yet also realizes their differences are so fundamental that they are already deeply separated. Hudgins’ father will say ‘Welcome back,' upon greeting him in heaven, pleased to see Hudgins return to the fold and family of Christianity, but the way they view death—and therefore life—might in the extreme even divide the two into two entirely disparate beings.
'Mmenson,' Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Summon now the kings of the forest,
horn of the elephant,
mournful call of the elephant;
summon the emirs, kings of the desert,
horses caparisoned, beaten gold bent,
archers and criers, porcupine arrows, bows bent;
recount now the gains and the losses:
Agades, Sokoto, El Hassan dead in his tent,
the silks and the brasses, the slow weary tent
of our journeys down slopes, dry river courses,
land of the lion, land of the leopard, elephant,
country; tall grasses, thick prickly herbs. Blow elephant
trumpet; summon the horses,
dead horses, our losses: the bent
slow bow of the Congo, the watering Niger…
Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930—, often referred to as just Kamau Brathwaite) is a Barbadian poet, born in Bridgetown, who received his education at Cambridge and the University of Sussex. He is most well-known for his Passage trilogy of poetry books and his study of Black cultural life within the Caribbean and other African diasporas, as well as his scholarly and poetic works on creole language. He currently teaches Comparative Literature and New York University.
'Mmenson,' comes from his collection Masks, the middle part of his Passage trilogy, which largely deals with the slave trade and the recovery of African cultures in the New World. The title refers to a West African instrument made from the tusk of an elephant, closely associated with processions and inaugurations of kings and other officials.
Brathwaite uses this allusion to recall the majesty of classical African cultures, which throughout Masks he argues was not lost in the passage to the Americas but merely hidden through codes of ritual by the slaves of the colonial projects. Other allusions build up this atmosphere of past glory: emirs, caparisons, beaten gold.
However, it’s also created through his poetics: the most obvious feature is the repetition in the last two lines of the stanzas. Even though the linebreaks are used to stress and bring attention to the words, Brathwaite varies his line-length to prevent the repetition from becoming boring—instead creating a slow, hypnotizing cadence. There are also subtle uses of internal rhyme and assonance: ‘horn’ and ‘mournful,”horses’ and ‘losses,’ ‘dead’ and ‘tent.’
This stately, thudding cadence progresses us through the imagery of African landscapes and civilization, and through this evocative poem Brathwaite manages overall to suggest not distance but how readily this cultural memory can be recovered, as if it lies only beneath the surface, waiting to be freed.