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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

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I have read too many headlines this morning. My head is full of thoughts. I think I shall take a break from the computer screen until I can sort them. Meanwhile, I share these last images from my recent visit to the Boston Public Library’s Abbey Room and painter Edwin Austin Abbey’s expression of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

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Panel XIII. Sir Galahad crosses the sea in Solomon’s Ship

As for what’s happening in this scene, from the BPL website: “Sir Galahad crosses the seas to Sarras in Solomon’s Ship, guided by the Grail borne by an angel. Sir Bors and Sir Percival accompany him, while three spindles for the Tree of Life rest upon the stern of the ship.”

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/sets/72157647672175522/with/15074561737/

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detail from The Arthurian Round Table and the fable of the Seat Perilous

Between 1893 and 1902 fifteen panels were installed in the Boston Public Library in Copley Square depicting the story of The Quest for the Holy Grail. Conceived of by artist Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) he based his work on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s  version of the Arthurian legend. In recent years the BPL has done a magnificent job of capturing the beauty of the full panels and sharing each panel’s story with the public through Flikr. That link is below. When I walk in with my camera I tend to focus in on the details and this is what I recently saw.

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detail from King Amfortas and the Castle of the Grail lie under a spell

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This time one of my favorite panels to focus on what the last in the sequence, The Golden Tree. According to the BPL summary, an adaptation from an outline by Henry James, “Sir Galahad, now the King of Sarras, builds a golden tree. When he is presented with the Grail, his spirit and the Grail ascend to heaven. Like other elements throughout the mural cycle, the golden tree and the Grail are depicted in gilded raised relief, a method that Abbey may have learned from his studio partner John Singer Sargent.”

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Well worth a visit to see in person but until then you can see the full cycle of panels here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/sets/72157647672175522/with/15258034891/

And if you have a large cup of tea at hand, or something else, you can read Tennyson’s Holy Grail upon which the murals were based. They don’t write poems like this anymore. 🙂 http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/tennyson-the-holy-grail

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That is what I encourage you to do if you choose to view the poem, Refugee, written by Miki Byrne and beautifully illustrated by Podessto:

http://popshotpopshot.com/posts/20170215-refugee.html

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When I walked toward the river yesterday, I was so cold. I knew I couldn’t walk the length of the Esplanade photographing its wintry landscape but I felt compelled to try. I had not been to the river in a long time. Rivers have been on my mind of late.

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I’ve been thinking about rivers and how they branch and what you can find in those branches over time. How rivers can run deep, they can run shallow, they shape the land even as the land shapes the flow of the waters.

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Of late both a song and a poem about rivers periodically run through my mind. The song, composed by Sam Cooke, begins …

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will …

The poem, as written by Langston Hughes, opens …

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. …

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My fingers already freezing, I made it to the river’s edge and began walking along an icy stretch.  I looked around waiting for something to catch my attention. I watched where the sunlight fell. Finally I came to a point, as may always be the case, when I had to decide how much further I could safely continue versus turning back.

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I paused, took a deep breath and looked around. I planted my feet and took a few photos. Right there. That was all I had. Just that given moment before I had to race into the nearest shop to warm myself. Later as I scrolled through the few pictures captured I was glad that I had decided to take action in that given moment. What to do in a given moment? That is the question I ponder as I follow rivers and as I do my best to follow the daily news.

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It is a deluge. A constant stream of information. A co-mingling of truth, lies, opinion, jargon and drama spread with too much rapidity across social media platforms, often without deep thought or editing. And not just at the Presidential level. The profound nature of the changes taking place right now in human history across this planet is quite breath-taking. It is paralyzing to some, invigorating to others, and then there is everyone in between. For me,  I am learning, as by the river, to pause and take a deep breath, and then to decide what I can do, from where I am, at a given moment.

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I’m not sure when I will be returning to the river, at least the Charles River. Too cold right now but Spring will come. The bared branches arching over the water will soon enough be green.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

 

 

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a wall I saw today

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

 

Read more Langston Hughes and find other poems for inspiration, reflection and perhaps even motivation at https://www.poets.org/

 

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One day I went wandering by the river because I felt a little lost. I thought I might find focus on the leaves fallen in the water but the sun was at such an angle that I could not get the right shot.  I kept wandering by the river, in hope, still focusing my camera on the leaves.

A leaf or two I did find but they were not exactly what I sought and so I continued my journey by the river, in hope, seeking something, though I knew not exactly what.

I grew cold and frustrated. There I stood on the banks of the Charles River knowing I had to give up.  As I paused, undecided of my direction, my eyes rested on the waters — you see, the sun was so low it was hard for me to look up.

Waters lapped upon the shore, cascaded over the rocks and swirled small broken branches about. A lovely sight especially when I realized in the water the blinding light was subdued. It was a delight.

No doubt there was beauty behind me and there would be beauty before me but on this particular journey I found the beauty right in front of me. And that’s what I chose to photograph.

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James Weldon Johnson and Aaron Douglas

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Originally published in 1927, James Weldon Johnson’s book, God’s Trombones, is a slim volume composed of a prayer and seven poems: Listen, Lord–A Prayer, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, Go Down Death, Noah Built the Ark, The Crucifixion, Let My People Go, and The Judgement Day. The verses were inspired by his experiences attending black churches throughout the American south. The preachers’ oratory inspired Johnson to write these poems and, in the book’s preface, to reflect upon the nature of oration and folk traditions. His poems, I assume, inspired his artistic collaborators, Aaron Douglas and Charles B. Falls. The signature styles of two very different artists were brought together to complement Johnson’s words.

lettering by Charles Buckley Falls

Lettering by Charles Buckley Falls (1874-1960)

A publication was produced that is really quite distinctive with regard to words, images and overall concept. Johnson as scholar as well as poet produced a tome that captured in a unique way the power and importance of religion in the African American experience. He makes real even for those not having attended black churches how the preachers – God’s trombones – used word, rhyme and rhythm to give voice to the stories in the bible even when no bible was present.

Illustration

It would be easy to pick up this book, to skip the preface and go straight to the poems. But don’t. Johnson’s preface is critical, for his brief and cohesive insights into religion and the American experience, and for his guidance in how to truly appreciate what he was attempting to do with this book.

I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons. In the writing of them I have, naturally, felt the influence of the Spirituals. There is, of course, no way of recreating the atmosphere — the fervor of the congregation, the amens and hallelujahs, the undertone of singing which was often a soft accompaniment to parts of the sermon; nor the personality of the preacher — his physical magnetism, his gestures and gesticulations, his changes of tempo, his pauses for effect, and, more than all, his tones of voice. These poems would better be intoned than read; especially does this apply to “Listen, Lord,” “The Crucifixion,” and “The Judgment Day.” But the intoning practiced by the old-time preacher is a thing next to impossible to describe; it must be heard, and it is extremely difficult to imitate even when heard. …

“… The tempos of the preacher I have endeavored to indicate by the line arrangement of the poems, and a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath I have indicated by dashes. There is a decided syncopation of speech — the crowding in of many syllables or the lengthening out of a few to fill one metrical foot, the sensing of which must be left to the reader’s ear. The rhythmical stress of this syncopation is partly obtained by a marked silent fraction of a beat; frequently this silent fraction is filled in by a hand clap. …

The ensuing poems do read like song and the power of the words are echoed and strengthened by the complementary visusals.

Illustrations by Douglas for the poems, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death.

Illustrations by Douglas for the poems, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death.

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Illustration and complementary chapter head for Noah Built the Ark

Illustration for The Crucifixion

Illustration for The Crucifixion

Illustration for Let My People Go

Illustration for Let My People Go

     

Both Johnson and Aaron Douglas are considered key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Charles B. Falls was a noted illustrator and designer especially remembered for the posters he created during World War I and II as part of the Victory Books Campaign.

Over time the book has been reprinted numerous times including an edition by Penguin Classics, edited by Henry Louis Gates and with an introduction by Maya Angelou. As Johnson wrote in his preface the poems are really meant to be performed and over the years many individuals and institutions have done just that. Recordings can be found online.  You can also find the book fully digitized and viewable online thanks to the Documenting the American South project at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my primary source for this post. I hope you have the opportunity to view the book in-hand or online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html

 

Sources & Additional Readings

God’s Trombones (digitized) – http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html

James Weldon Johnson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson

Aaron Douglas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Douglas

Charles Buckles Falls – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Buckles_Falls

The New Negro Renaissance – http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-renaissance.html

More about the Victory Books Campaign – http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/ww2/services/books.htm

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