20th Century Poets-4

Documentary and William Stafford reading his poem “Traveling Through the Dark”:


M. J. Hummingway reads William Stafford’s “Ask Me”:



Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen’s short but powerful poem “Incident’:


Another Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”:


We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes–

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties,

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries

To Thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile,

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!


by Paul Laurence Dunbar





Lord, there are creatures in the understory,
snails with whorled backs and silver boots,
trails beetles weave in grass, black rivers
of ants, unbound ladybugs opening their wings,

spotted veils and flame, untamed choirs

of banjo-colored crickets and stained-glass cicadas.
Lord, how shall we count the snakes and frogs
and moths?  How shall we love the hidden
and small? Mushrooms beneath leaves

constructing their death domes in silence,

their silken gills and mycelial threads, cap scales
and patches, their warts and pores. And the buried
bulbs that will bloom in spring, pregnant with flower
and leaf, sing Prepare for My Radiance, Prepare

for the Pageantry of My Inevitable Surprise.

These are the queendoms, the spines and horns,
the clustered hearts beating beneath our feet. Lord
though the earth is locked in irons of ice and snow
there are angels in the undergrowth, praise them.


by Dorianne Laux


© Dorianne Laux.  All Rights Reserved.



Poem beginning with a line from Gwendolyn Brooks

I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer. I
see the leaves turning on their stems. I am
not oblivious to the sun as it lowers on its stem, not
fooled by the clock holding off, not deceived
by the weight of its tired hands holding forth. I
do not think my dead will return.  They will not do
what I ask of them.  Even if I plead on my knees.  Not
even if I kiss their photographs or think
of them as I touch the things they left me.  It
isn’t possible to raise them from their beds, is
it?  Even if I push the dirt away with my bare hands? Still-
ness, unearth their faces.  Bring me the last dahlias of summer.

by Dorianne Laux


© Dorianne Laux. All Rights Reserved.



Red Wing


Here’s where they make the good work shoes

in the long brick buildings beside the road.

Shoes whose stitched, crepe-wedge soles

and full-grain, oil-resistant leathers

bless tiny bones in the ankles and feet, shoes

of carpenters balanced on roof beams,

electricians, farmers, iron workers, welders –

cuffs frayed with sparks from the torch.

At shift’s end the socks emerge tinged

pale orange, tops of the arches crisscrossed

with lace marks, propped up in front

of the six o’clock news. Here’s to the sweet

breath of pond mist filling the lungs of summer.

Here’s to baked beans and twelve hours off.

Here’s to dust from the trucker’s shoe, dust

he stepped into three states back.

Here’s to shingles, aluminum flashing,

wall studs, rafters, ten-penny nails,

here’s to tomatoes, onions and corn,

here’s squatting down and here’s reaching over,

here’s to the ones who showed up.

—Joseph Millar


From Fortune by Joseph Millar, 2006
Eastern Washington University Press, Cheney, WA

Copyright 2006 by Joseph Millar.
All rights reserved.


Norman Dubie reads his poem:


Of Politics & Art

for Allen


Here, on the farthest point of the peninsula

The winter storm

Off the Atlantic shook the schoolhouse.

Mrs. Whitimore, dying

Of tuberculosis, said it would be after dark

Before the snowplow and bus would reach us.


She read to us from Melville.


How in an almost calamitous moment

Of sea hunting

Some men in an open boat suddenly found themselves

At the still and protected center

Of a great herd of whales

Where all the females floated on their sides

While their young nursed there.

The cold frightened whalers

Just stared into what they allowed

Was the ecstatic lapidary pond of a nursing cow’s

One visible eyeball.

And they were at peace with themselves.

Today I listened to a woman say

That Melville might

Be taught in the next decade.

Another woman asked, “And why not?”

The first responded, “Because there are

No women in his one novel.”


And Mrs. Whitimore was now reading from the Psalms.

Coughing into her handkerchief. Snow above the windows.

There was a blue light on her face, breasts, and arms.

Sometimes a whole civilization can be dying

Peacefully in one young woman, in a small heated room

With thirty children

Rapt, confident and listening to the pure

God-rendering voice of a storm.


—Norman Dubie


from The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001, 2001
Copper Canyon Press

Copyright 2001 by Norman Dubie.
All rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press from The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001. Copyright 2001 by Norman Dubie.


Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” read by Tom O’Bedlam:

Pound’s English-language version of Li Po’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” read by actress Jodie Foster:



Marilyn Nelson reads:


Thus Far By Faith

Thomas Chapel C.M.E., Hickman, Kentucky

I. Sermon in the Cotton Field
Philippians 2:12b-15a

His heart’s upwelling of its own accord
slackens the reins, stopping the plow mid-row
beside a sea of furrows, as the word
whirling within takes shape: Whoa, brothers, whoa.
One mule cranes questioningly; the other nips
his neck, ears back. They bray against the hitch
which matches them. And Uncle Warren wraps
his arms around the sky and starts to preach.

Beloved, stop your grumbling. Be the stars
what give a twisted generation light.
That’s what the book say. But old Satan roars
louder, sometimes, than master. He say, Hate
the whip-hand and the yoke: Why be a fool?
The Lord Hisself were tempted, Brother Mule

II. Sermon in the Woodlot
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

The Lord Himself was tested, Brother Mule,
but y’all would try the patience of a saint.
There’s only a few more loads of lumber to haul;
Git up, there! You know Master don’t know no cain’t.
The Book say, run so as to win the crown
imperishable. That mean man must grunt
and sweat from first light ’til the sun sink down,
same as a mule. We can run lightfoot with praise
or toting a croaker sack of dead-weight sins around.

Come on now, git.
The wagon creaks and sways,
a mockingbird trills from a branch almost overhead.
Uncle Warren nods to a quietly working slave
whose bare brown back is criss-crossed with black and red.
The mules meander into sunshine, leaving the wood.

III. Sermon in the Ruined Garden
James 2:14-18

A mule meanders into sunshine from the wood
near Sally’s garden. Almost nothing left
after the locust tides of the bereft
swept north. Some die for truth; some died for food.
Uncle Warren plucks a few choice stalks of grass,
chirrups and holds it in an outstretched hand.
The mule flinches just out of reach, to stand
flat-eared, tail flickering, willful as an ass.
Uncle Warren says, Uh-huh: You think you smart.
Well, don’t hee-haw to me about how faith
helped you survive the deluge. Save your breath.
Show me. Faith without works ain’t worth a fart.
People is hungry. Act out your faith now
by hitching your thanks for God’s love to my plow.

IV. Meditation over the Washtub
Exodus 19:4-6a

Oh, I’m hitching my love for Jesus to my plow;
Aunt Sally hums thanksgiving to her Lord,
pausing occasionally to wipe her brow,
scrubbing wet, soapy darks on the washboard.
The clean whites undulate against a breeze
scented with hyacinth and simmering greens.
So this is freedom: the peace of hours like these,
and wages, now, for every house she cleans.
Her singing starts as silence, then her throat
fills with a bubble of expanding praise.
A deeper silence underlies each note:
a lifting mystery, the sky of grace.
Aunt Sally sings, Yes, Jesus is my friend.
Hosannas rise like incense on the wind.

V. Palm Sunday, 1866
1 Peter 2:22-24

Make our hosannas incense on the wind;
may we wave palms of welcome
 . . . Listening
from the colored pew, Aunt Sally nods amen.
From beside her, T.T., bored and fidgeting,
chases his rubber ball into the aisle.
The front pew kneels at the communion rail,
heads bowed. Aunt Sally, reaching for the child,
bumps into Captain Randall. He goes pale
with cursing rage, jumps up, and knocks her down.
In the hush that follows, the minister proclaims,
Coloreds aren’t welcome here, from this day on.
T.T.’s blue eyes meet hers, sharing her shame.
The colored worshippers, silent and grim,
file out as the organist strikes up a hymn.

VI. Good Friday Prayer
Psalm 51

Defy him! Tear his organ off! Strike him
with righteous lightning! Make the devil pay!
Uncle Warren paces, has paced since Sunday,
wrestling with demons and with cherubim,
reaching for heaven, balancing on hell’s rim.
Life’s promise seems to him a vast array
of shit and more shit, followed by decay.
Now, on Friday evening, he kneels to pray a psalm,
remembering His unearned suffering,
and how he said, Forgive them. Poor, poor fools.
The spade of prayer cuts stone, untaps a spring
of clear compassion. Uncle Warren feels
God present again. Help ME do no wrong.
The others? Well, it’s like preaching to mules

VII. Easter Sermon, 1866
Acts 10:40-43

Others might think it’s like preaching to mules
to preach to dark-faced people who sign X
laboriously. They listen on cotton bales
as Uncle Warren reads from the book of Acts.
A rose-gold dawnlight streams in through the chinks
and roosters halleloo the sun’s return.
In a makeshift church reeking with familiar stinks,
field hands, bricklayers, and domestics yearn
toward Jesus.
                        Well, sir, like the gospels say,
only a handful saw the risen Lord:
What was true in them days still holds true today.
Be a witness. Pull the plow and sow His word.
Come harvest you’ll have love you can give away,
and a heart that wells up of its own accord.


15¢ Futures

Marilyn Nelson, 1946

Epiphany Davis, 1825


I set up my cash box and my bones and cards

on Broadway, most days, offering what I see

of what’s to come. For a donation, words

fall from my mouth, surprising even me.


Uncle Epiphany doesn’t forecast death

or illness worse than gout or a broken bone.

The sailors stop. They listen with caught breath

as I tell them some girl’s heart is still theirs alone.


(… or not. Young love is such a butterfly.)

Girls come, arms linked, giggling behind their fans.

The sad come. Uncle Epiphany does not lie.

I close shop, and come back up here to my land.


It’s a new world up here, of beggar millionaires:

neighbors who know how we all scrimped and saved

to own this stony swamp with its fetid air,

to claim the dream for dreamers yet enslaved.


I’m Epiphany Davis. I am a conjure-man.

I see glimpses. Glass towers … A horseless vehicle …

An American President who is half African …

Until you pay me, that’s all I’m going to tell.


Ian Dury reads Beat bard Gregory Corso’s humorous poem “Marriage”:


Allen Ginsburg reads his “A Supermarket in California”:

Collaboration with musicians Philip Glass, Paul McCartney and others and director Gus Van Sant: