20th Century Poets-4




Henry Louis Gates’ short film:

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


                                                             (For Eric Walrond)
Once riding in old Baltimore,
   Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
   Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
   And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
   His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
   From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
   That’s all that I remember.

by Countee Cullen, 1903–1946

From My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Copyrights held by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, administered by Thompson and Thompson, Brooklyn, NY.
Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)


I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

by Countee Cullen, 1903–1946

A Brown Girl Dead

With two white roses on her breasts,
White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;
Lord Death has found her sweet.

Her mother pawned her wedding ring
To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing
To see herself tonight.

by Countee Cullen, 1903–1946

“A Brown Girl Dead” from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Copyrights held by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, administered by Thompson and Thompson, Brooklyn, NY. Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)

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

Sahraya Hunter, of Johnston County Early College Academy, recites “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, another Harlem Renaissance poet:


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, 1872–1906 



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, 1952-

© 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, 1952-

© 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.

by Joseph Millar

From Fortune by Joseph Millar, 2006 Eastern Washington University Press, Cheney, WA Copyright 2006 by Joseph Millar. All rights reserved.

Labor Day

Even the bosses are sleeping late
in the dusty light of September.

The parking lot’s empty and no one cares.
No one unloads a ladder, steps on the gas

or starts up the big machines in the shop,
sanding and grinding, cutting and binding.

No one lays a flat bead of flux over a metal seam
or lowers the steel forks from a tailgate.

Shadows gather inside the sleeve
of the empty thermos beside the sink,

the bells go still by the channel buoy,
the wind lies down in the west,

the tuna boats rest on their tie-up lines
turning a little, this way and that.

by Joseph Millar

Poem copyright ©2012 by Joseph Millar from his most recent book of poems, Blue Rust, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Joseph Millar and the publisher.

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.

by Norman Dubie, 1945-

from The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001, 2001 Copper Canyon Press Copyright 2001 by Norman Dubie. All rights reserved.

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.

by Marilyn Nelson, 1946-

15¢ Futures

      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.

by Marilyn Nelson, 1946-


Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s poem “Recuerdo” read by Tom O’Bedlam:

Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s sonnet “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” read by Jonathan Jones:


Corso‘s humorous poem “Marriage”:

Allen Ginsburg reads his “A Supermarket in California”:

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down 
         the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-
         conscious looking at the full moon.
         In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into 
         the neon fruit supermarket, 
dreaming of your enumerations!
         What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at 
night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the 
tomatoes!—-and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the 

         I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, 
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
         I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork 
chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
         I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans 
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
         We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary 
fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never 
passing the cashier.

         Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
         (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the super-
market and feel absurd.)
         Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees 
add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
         Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue
automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
         Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what
America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out
on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black 
waters of Lethe?

                                                        Berkeley, 1955

by Allen Ginsberg, 1926–1997

from Collected Poems 1947-1980. Copyright © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.


White fog lifting & falling on mountain-brow
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
as on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
along a green crag
glimpsed thru mullioned glass in valley raine—

Bardic, O Self, Visitacione, tell naught
but what seen by one man in a vale in Albion,
of the folk, whose physical sciences end in Ecology,
the wisdom of earthly relations,
of mouths & eyes interknit ten centuries visible
orchards of mind language manifest human,
of the satanic thistle that raises its horned symmetry
flowering above sister grass-daisies’ pink tiny
bloomlets angelic as lightbulbs—

Remember 160 miles from London’s symmetrical thorned tower
& network of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self
the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in 
     eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!

All the Valley quivered, one extended motion, wind
undulating on mossy hills
a giant wash that sank white fog delicately down red runnels
on the mountainside
whose leaf-branch tendrils moved asway
in granitic undertow down—
and lifted the floating Nebulous upward, and lifted the arms of the 
and lifted the grasses an instant in balance
and lifted the lambs to hold still
and lifted the green of the hill, in one solemn wave

A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebbs thru the vale,
a wavelet of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,
the length of all England, valley upon valley under Heaven’s ocean
tonned with cloud-hang,
—Heaven balanced on a grassblade.
Roar of the mountain wind slow, sigh of the body,
One Being on the mountainside stirring gently
Exquisite scales trembling everywhere in balance,
one motion thru the cloudy sky-floor shifting on the million feet of 
one Majesty the motion that stirred wet grass quivering
to the farthest tendril of white fog poured down
through shivering flowers on the mountain’s head—

No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern—

Out, out on the hillside, into the ocean sound, into delicate gusts 
     of wet air,
Fall on the ground, O great Wetness, O Mother, No harm on your body!
Stare close, no imperfection in the grass,
each flower Buddha-eye, repeating the story,
Kneel before the foxglove raising green buds, mauve bells dropped
doubled down the stem trembling antennae,
& look in the eyes of the branded lambs that stare
breathing stockstill under dripping hawthorn—
I lay down mixing my beard with the wet hair of the mountainside,
smelling the brown vagina-moist ground, harmless,
tasting the violet thistle-hair, sweetness—
One being so balanced, so vast, that its softest breath
moves every floweret in the stillness on the valley floor,
trembles lamb-hair hung gossamer rain-beaded in the grass,
lifts trees on their roots, birds in the great draught
hiding their strength in the rain, bearing same weight,

Groan thru breast and neck, a great Oh! to earth heart
Calling our Presence together
The great secret is no secret
Senses fit the winds,
Visible is visible,
rain-mist curtains wave through the bearded vale,
gray atoms wet the wind’s kabbala
Crosslegged on a rock in dusk rain,
rubber booted in soft grass, mind moveless,
breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside,
Heaven breath and my own symmetric
Airs wavering thru antlered green fern
drawn in my navel, same breath as breathes thru Capel-Y-Ffn,
Sounds of Aleph and Aum
through forests of gristle,
my skull and Lord Hereford’s Knob equal,
All Albion one.

What did I notice? Particulars! The
vision of the great One is myriad—
smoke curls upward from ashtray,
house fire burned low,
The night, still wet & moody black heaven
upward in motion with wet wind.

by Allen Ginsberg, 1926–1997