The Weary Blues of Langston Hughes

American Poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Great poetry is not necessarily white. Sometimes it comes from something deeper, like the centuries-old suppression of the black man in America. It becomes even more interesting when it is tied to the blues, as this poem is:

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

“Obscurest Night”

English Poet William Cowper (1731-1800)

It was the last poem Cowper (which he pronounced “Cooper”) ever wrote, shortly after he read the tale of Commodore George Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe, as described in his A Voyage Round the World in 1740-4. Cowper’s 1799 poem tells of one of Anson’s crewmen washed overboard and drowning within full view of his shipmates during an awful storm.\

Curiously, I discovered the poem as a resulting of reading Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, which discusses the poem at some length. Here it is in its entirety:

The Castaway
Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
         Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
         Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
         Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast,
         With warmer wishes sent.
He lov’d them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
         Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
         Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
         To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
         That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
         And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
         Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
         Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
         Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
         In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow’r,
         His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!

At length, his transient respite past,
         His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry blast,
         Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
         Of narrative sincere;
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
         Is wet with Anson’s tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
         Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
         A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
   Its semblance in another’s case.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
         We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

“Her Leopard Legs”

A Poem by the Chilean Writer Roberto Bolaño

I never thought of Roberto Bolaño as a poet before, but his collection entitled The Romantic Dogs set me straight on that score.

LUPE

She worked in la Guerrero, a few streets down from Julian’s,
and she was 17 and had lost a son.
The memory made her cry in that Hotel Trébol room,
spacious and dark, with bath and bidet, the perfect place
to live out a few years. The perfect place to write
a book of apocryphal memories or a collection
of horror poems. Lupe
was thin and had legs long and spotted
like a leopard.
The first time I didn’t even get an erection:
and I didn’t want to have an erection. Lupe spoke of her life
and of what, for her, was happiness.
When a week had passed, we saw each other again. I found her
on a corner alongside other little teenage whores,
propped against the fender of an old Cadillac.
I think we were glad to see each other. From then on
Lupe began telling me things about her life, sometimes crying,
sometimes fucking, almost always naked in bed,
staring at the ceiling, hand in hand.
Her son was born sick and Lupe promised la Virgen
that she’d leave her trade if her baby were cured.
She kept her promise a month or two, then had to go back.
Soon after, her son died, and Lupe said the fault
was her own for not keeping up her bargain with la Virgen.
La Virgen carried off the little angel, payment for a broken
     promise,
I didn’t know what to say.
I liked children, sure,
but I still had many years before I’d know
what it was to have a son.
And so I stayed quiet and thought about the eerie feel
Emerging from the silence of that hotel.
Either the walls were very thick or were the sole
     occupants
or the others didn’t open their mouths, not even to moan.
It was so easy to ride Lupe and feel like a man
and feel wretched. It was easy to get her
in your rhythm and it was easy to listen as she prattled on
about the latest horror films she’d seen
at Bucareli Theater.
Her leopard legs would wrap around my waist
and she’d sink her head into my chest, searching for my
nipples or my heartbeat.
This is the part of you I want to suck, she said to me
     one night.
What, Lupe? Your heart.

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs: 1980-1998 (New York: New Directions, 2006).

The Great Yes and the Great No

This posting originated on Blog.Com on August 16, 2009.

Today, as I was walking along the beach in Venice, I started thinking about sand castles. Then I saw this gem of a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933). If you have ever read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you will remember Cavafy as the “poet of the city” who is not named but whose spirit pervades Alexandria, the city where he was born and lived much of his life. In his own words:

I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria—at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian.

Here is one of my favorite poems of his:

Che fece …. il gran rifiuto

 

To certain people there comes a day
when they must say the great Yes or the great No.
He who has the Yes ready within him
immediately reveals himself, and saying it he goes

against his honor and his own conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Should he be asked again,
he would say no again. And yet that no—
the right no—crushes him for the rest of his life.

The Definition of Victory

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA

I thought that today I would like to present one of Emily Dickinson’s simpler poems. Emily (1830-1886) is one who was well acquainted with defeat, yet who was victorious in the greatness of her literary output.

Success Is Counted Sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

 

“On Angels”

Cuzco School Detail of an Angel

I love this poem by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). Sometimes I think that those who have lived much of their lives under Communism understand best our need for angels.

On Angels
All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe you,
messengers.

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.

They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightning.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

Day draw near
another one
do what you can.

I love the message conveyed by the angel: “do what you can.”

“This Tumult in the Clouds”

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Below is one of my favorite poems by William Butler Yeats, who, to my mind, is the greatest poet writing in English in the 20th Century.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Time To Take In Sail

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Having just finished an absorbing biography of Henry David Thoreau, I thought I should also give some attention to his friend and neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here is a poem of his that impressed me entitled “Terminus”:

Terminus
It is time to be old,
To take in sail:—
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,
And said: “No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root.
Fancy departs: no more invent;
Contract thy firmament
To compass of a tent.
There’s not enough for this and that,
Make thy option which of two;
Economize the failing river,
Not the less revere the Giver,
Leave the many and hold the few.
Timely wise accept the terms,
Soften the fall with wary foot;
A little while
Still plan and smile,
And,—fault of novel germs,—
Mature the unfallen fruit.
Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires,
Bad husbands of their fires,
Who, when they gave thee breath,
Failed to bequeath
The needful sinew stark as once,
The Baresark marrow to thy bones,
But left a legacy of ebbing veins,
Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,—
Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb,
Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.”

As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.” 

Seeing vs Thinking

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Painted by Almada Negreiros

We tend sometimes to forget that Portugal even exists, yet the tiny country at the left edge of the Iberian Peninsula has a way of grabbing our intention, especially with its literature. Fernando Pessoa was such a rich trove that he split himself into some some seventy-five heteronyms, or authorial entities. The following excerpt from “The Keeper of Sheep” is by one of his most prominent heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro.

My gaze is clear like a sunflower.
It is my custom to walk the roads
Looking right and left
And sometimes looking behind me,
And what I see at each moment
Is what I never saw before,
And I’m very good at noticing things.
I’m incapable of feeling the same wonder
A newborn child would feel
If he noticed that he’d really and truly been born.
I feel at each moment that I’ve just been born
Into a completely new world...

I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it.
Because to think is not to understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and be in agreement.

I have no philosophy, I have senses...
If I speak of Nature it’s not because I know what it is
But because I love it, and for that very reason,
Because those that love never know what they love
Or why they love, or what love is.
Love is innocence,
And the sum of innocence is not thinking...

Statue of Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

In a mock interview with “Alberto Caeiro,” Pessoa wrote:

I’m not a materialist or a deist or anything else. I’m a man who one day opened the window and discovered this crucial thing. Nature exists. I saw that the trees, the rivers and the stones are things that truly exist. No one had ever thought about this.

I don’t pretend to be anything more than the greatest poet in the world. I made the greatest discovery worth making, next to which all other discoveries are games of stupid children. I noticed the Universe. The Greeks, with all their visual acuity, didn’t do as much.

The poem and the quote come from the Pessoa collection entitled A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems translated by Richard Zenith.

“I Am Everything I Have Already Lost”

Argentinean Poet and Writer Silvina Ocampo Aguirre (1903-1993)

I’m not about to call her a poetess, because she could hold her own in the literary world of women and men. She was a great writer who was married to another great writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, friend of Jorge Luis Borges. I understand she is buried in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, which I have visited three times without finding her grave. I will have to make another visit and try harder to find her so that I can pay homage to her beauty and talent.

The following poem is from her collection Poemas de amor desesperado (Poems of Desperate Love, 1949).

Song

Oh, nothing, nothing is mine,
not the tone of my voice, nor my absent hands,
nor my distant arms!
I have received it all. Oh, nothing, nothing is mine.
I am like the reflections of a gloomy lake
or the echo of voices at the bottom of a blue
well when it has rained.
I have received it all:
like water or glass
that turns into anything,
into smoke, into a spiral,
into a building, a fish, a stone, a rose.
I am different from me, so different,
like some people when they are in society.
I am all the places I have loved in my life.

I am the woman I hated most.
and the perfume that wounded me one night
with decrees of an uncertain destiny.
I am the shadows that entered a car,
the luminosity of a port,
the secret embraces hidden in the eyes.
I am the knife of jealousy,
and the aches red with wounds.
Of the long eager glances I am the sparkle.
I am the voice I heard behind the blinds,
the light, the air above the cypress trees.
I am all the words that I adored
on the lips, in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.

 

This poem can be found in the excellent edition of Silvina Ocampo’s poetry published by NYRB/Poets and translated and edited by Jason Weiss.