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wetleaf2018

It was a windy day when I recently walked along the Charles River. The river itself did not move very fast. The water was low and though it be mid-April, all around were the dead leaves of the previous seasons. Only a few daffodils brightened the shore. I decided to work with what I had and so I photographed the leaves in their watery haunt. Most of the images didn’t come out, at least to my liking, but this one seemed rather poetic to me.

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Poetry Made Visible (2017) is described as “a guidebook for tourists and natives of the Boston Area, for students and teachers, for lovers of poetry and lovers of public art.” Well, in order to review the book and write about it, I knew I had to use the book. So I began with the first chapter focused on the main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. As I walked around what Bresler refers to as “the temple of poetry,” an amazing thing began to happen. I walked around the library with an open book, reading, pausing, looking, and guess what? People began to notice me. They too paused and looked and, since they had no book in-hand, their brows furrowed as they tried to see what I might be seeing, carved into stone or sculpted into a door.

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Poetry with her halo, McKim building door

As I traveled around the library, I found myself engaging with librarians. While Bresler does an amazing job of pointing out the poetry integrated into the library’s exterior and interior structure, the challenge is that the Boston Public Library’s interior design is quite dynamic and in the past year there have been major renovations and redecoration. So I had to converse with the librarians to ascertain where certain sculptures had been moved because the book’s walking directions don’t always match up.

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Dare I say that I believe that the librarians had a great time helping me to track down the various sculptures mentioned, and peering into the book because it was a resource that was helping them to see their building with fresh perspective. And I think that’s the strength of this book. As the title suggests, Bresler truly does make poetry visible. I’ve lived in Boston long enough that I take the Boston Public Library for granted, but with his book in-hand I paused and peered up and truly looked at what was there. And so did the little kid next to me.

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Throughout the book he asks thought-provoking questions. They cannot be answered by “yes” or “no.” One must actually pause, ponder, reflect. I can imagine a teacher or a parent using excerpts of this book to help guide their students or children in seeing the world around them and exploring how something done so long ago, whether the poem or the sculpture, has relevance to their lives today.

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Maya Angelou Bust in Boston Public Library

You’ve heard of a date movie? This is a date book.” So it says on the back cover. Well, when you look at the list of Dispersed Sites of poetry that he has compiled, I can see that it would be fun to make a date with a friend to see a site, to reflect upon the poets remembered, and the contemporary artists capturing their spirit in stone and more.

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As has the Boston Public Library, the City of Boston and surrounding areas will continually change. I do hope that the sculptures and other public artworks that Bresler has captured survive over time. I think Bresler’s book is a wonderful reminder of the literary heritage of the Greater Boston area and the important role of poetry in society.

Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers, Art Lovers & Lovers

 

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There’s one positive to the long winter/long early spring commutes in Boston when your primary form of transportation is the train and bus. Plenty of time to read. Two books have been in my bag of late that I’d like share in some fashion. Very different books, indeed, but there is a common thread of poetry and the poetic. First up, Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869.

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In November 1861, shortly after the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Union fleet took command of Port Royal, South Carolina and neighboring sea islands including St. Helena and Hilton Head. Plantation owners fled leaving behind 10,000 slaves, and a bumper crop of sea island cotton.

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A project was conceived known as the Port Royal Experiment. Its purpose? By working with this group of 10,000 freed slaves, in a relatively contained area, perhaps solutions could be found for the greater looming challenge of how to integrate into society millions of emancipated slaves.

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At least three different groups were involved in the experiment, including Northern missionaries who focused on education and training, entrepreneurs who wanted to show the profitability of free labor versus slave labor, and the U.S. government which, most immediately, needed more men on the battlefield. These groups sometimes worked together but were more often at odds. For an excellent scholarly analysis of the Port Royal Experiment, please read Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment.

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port royal students

Teachers immediately went to work setting up schools. Entrepreneurs began implementing their free labor experiment offering to pay the former slaves to cultivate the cotton.  But as for volunteering to fight for the military?

 

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escaped slaves wearing old union uniforms

Since the beginning of the war, Union officers in the field saw the need for trained black troops. Early attempts to recruit  had met with poor results and had little initial support from Lincoln’s White House. But finally, with Port Royal, a new more coordinated effort was to be made.  In November 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from Brigadier General Rufus Saxton. “I am organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, with every prospect of success. Your name has been spoken of, in connection with the command of this regiment, by some friends in whose judgement I have confidence. I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Colonel in it … I shall not fill the place until I hear from you …”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Higginson was a poet, biographer and novelist as well as a Unitarian minister. From a prominent, wealthy New England family, he had long been a staunch abolitionist, social reformer and a major supporter of John Brown. Once the Civil War began, he joined the Union Army. Though he already served another regiment, he accepted Saxton’s invitation to visit Port Royal. He doubted he would accept the commission but, after meeting the people, he accepted his new role without hesitation.

During his time with the regiment he would record detailed entries in his diary about the people, the Sea Island landscape, and of course about the regiments military actions. After becoming ill, in 1864, he would return to New England, resign his commission, and resume researching and writing. Essays about his wartime experiences with the First Regiment appeared infrequently in the Atlantic. By 1869, he compiled the essays, diary excerpts and other work into the book, Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings.

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First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the introduction to his diary entries, Higginson tells the reader:

I am under pretty heavy bonds to tell the truth, and only the truth; for those who look back to the newspaper correspondence of that period will see that this particular regiment lived for months in the glare of publicity, such as tests any regiment severely, and certainly prevents all subsequent romancing in its historian. As the scene of the only effort on the Atlantic coast to arm the negro, our camp attracted a continuous stream of visitors, military and civil. A battalion of black soldiers, a spectacle since so common, seemed then the most daring of innovations, and the whole demeanor of the particular regiment was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. I felt sometimes as if we were a plant trying to take root, but constantly pulled up to see if we were growing.”

Of discipline there was great need … Some of the men had already been under fire but they were very ignorant of drill and camp duty. The officers, being appointed from a dozen different States … had all that diversity of methods which so confused our army in those early days. The first need, therefore, was an unbroken interval of training. During this period, which fortunately lasted nearly two months, I rarely left camp … Camp life was a wonderfully strange sensation to almost all volunteer officers, and mine lay among eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers …

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Infantry Members

Each subsequent diary entry reveals Higginson’s poetic nature. “Yesterday afternoon we were steaming over a summer sea, the deck level as a parlor-floor, no land in sight, no sail, until at last appeared one light-house … The sun set, a great illuminated bubble, submerged in one vast bank of rosy suffusion; it grew dark; after tea all were on deck, the people sang hymns; then the moon set, a moon two days old, a curved pencil of light, reclining backwards on a radiant couch which seemed to rise from the waves to receive it…”(November 24, 1862)

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Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

“… One adapts one’s self so readily to new surroundings that already the full zest of the novelty seems passing away from my perceptions, and I write these lines in an eager effort to retain all I can. Already I am growing used to the experience, at first so novel, of living among five hundred men, and scarce a white face to be seen, — of seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white. Each day at dress-parade I stand with the customary folding of the arms before a regimental line of countenances so black that I can hardly tell whether the men stand steadily or not; black is every hand which moves in ready cadence as I vociferate, “Battalion! Shoulder arms!” nor is it till the line of white officers move forward, as parade is dismissed, that I am reminded that my own face is not the color of coal.” (November 27, 1862)

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Infantry Member Henry Williams

Higginson paints a poetic picture of both people and place. “All the excitements of war are quadrupled by darkness; and as I rode along our outer lines at night, and watched the glimmering flames which at regular intervals starred the opposite river-shore, the longing was irresistible to cross the barrier of dusk, and see whether it were men or ghosts who hovered round those dying embers. I had yielded to these impulses in boat-adventures by night … and fascinating indeed it was to glide along, noiselessly paddling, with a dusky guide, the reed-birds, which wailed and fled away into the darkness, and penetrating several miles into the interior, between hostile fires, where discovery might be death.

The book is a time capsule chronicling an important period in American history. These soldiers predated the more famous Massachusetts 54th regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson brings to life the courage, the ingenuity and discipline of these early troops.  He shows them to be as human as their white counterparts, their brothers in arms. And though the people of the Sea Islands, for the most part, had known nothing other than slavery, they were prepared with the right training to fight for and defend their freedom and that abstract thing known as “the Union” that their labor had sustained for generations.

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Higginson’s book reminded me of the unique nature of the Sea Islands, a uniqueness that Higginson remarks upon in a post-war essay about the Negro as a Soldier. “I had not allowed for the extreme remoteness and seclusion of their lives, especially among the Sea Island. Many of them had literally spend their whole existence on some lonely island or remote plantation, where the master never came, and the overseer only once or twice a week.”

Under these conditions the slaves developed a patois that is now known as Gullah, a blending of standard English and its Southern regionalisms with different West African languages. By the time the Civil War began, there were over 400,000 slaves in South Carolina alone. Such a large investment in labor was needed for the labor intensive yet highly profitable cultivation of cotton and especially rice.

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During one expedition along the Edisto River with his now-trained troops, Higginson confronts the enemy near some of these rice fields.

“The battery — whether fixed or movable we knew not — met us with a promptness that proved very short-lived. After three shots it was silent, but we could not tell why. The bluff was wooded, and we could see but little. The only course was to land, under cover of the guns. As the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, I looked across the rice-fields which lay beneath the bluff. The first sunbeams glowed upon their emerald levels, and on the blossoming hedges along the rectangular dikes. What were those black dots which everywhere appeared? Those meadows had become alive with human heads, and along each narrow path came a straggling file of men and women, all on a run for the riverside. I went ashore with a boat-load of troops at once. The landing was difficult and marshy. The astonished negroes tugged us up the bank …They kept arriving by land much faster than we could come by water … What a scene it was! With the wild faces, eager figures, strange garments, it seemed, as one of the poor things reverently suggested, [like judgment day]. “

Bless you” and “Bless the Lord,” were the exclamations Higginson remembers hearing over and over again. “Women brought children on their shoulders; small black boys carried on their backs little brothers … Never had I seen human beings so clad, or rather so unclad … How weak is imagination, how cold is memory, that I ever cease, for a day of my life, to see before me the picture of that astounding scene!” That day they rescued approximately two hundred slaves.

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escaped slaves 1862

 

Higginson, with his Boston Brahmin background, was an outsider looking into another culture. There is condescension on occasion but while he may refer to the former slaves as docile, he makes clear he knew they were not mentally deficient as so many others would report in northern publications. “I cannot conceive what people at the North mean by speaking of the negroes as a bestial or brutal race. … I learned to think that we abolitionists had underrated the suffering produced by slavery among the negroes, but had overrated the demoralization.”

Higginson viewed his troops as human beings who had been denied basic human privileges, privileges he had literally fought for long before the Civil War. Throughout the book he presents the former slaves as active participants in shaping their own destiny.”One half of military duty lies in obedience, the other half in self-respect,” Higginson writes. “A soldier without self-respect is useless.” Recognizing what he describes as the bequest of slavery, Higginson worked with his officers to “impress upon [the troops] they did not obey their officers because they were white, but because they were their officers, just as the Captain must obey me, and I the general; that we were all subject to military law, and protected by it in turn.”

Over time, more black regiments were formed. In 1864 the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry’s name was changed to the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops. The men served until February 1866 when the troop was finally mustered out. “It is not my province to write their story, not to vindicate them … Yet this, at least, may be said. The operation on the South Atlantic coast, which long seemed a merely subordinate and incidental part of the great contest, proved to be one of the final pivots on which it turned. All now admit that the fate of the Confederacy was decided by Sherman’s march to the sea. Port Royal was the objective point to which he marched, and he found the Department of the South, when he reached it, held almost exclusively by colored troops. Next to the merit of those who made the march was that of those who held open the door. That service will always remain among the laurels of the black regiments.”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“… we who served with the black troops,” Higgins writes, “have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. … We had touched upon the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

 

Sources and Additional Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_South_Carolina_Volunteers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wentworth_Higginson

Army Life of a Black Regiment

Army Life in a Black Regiment (Amazon)

http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/library/book-recommendations/athenaeum-authors/colonel-thomas-wentworth-higginson

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/thomas_wentworth_higginson

https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/rehearsal-for-reconstruction/

https://www.lowcountryafricana.com/project/history-of-the-33rd-united-states-colored-troops-usct/

http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonportroyalexperiment.html

https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/population.html

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1862).Bombardment of Port Royal, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f9a8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1861 – 1865).Two views. Dress parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored), near Beaufort, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-c8e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Please note that the Library of Congress has an extensive collection of photographs available online from this period in U.S. history.

 

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One year ago it was my pleasure to share, in his own words and images, a glimpse into the life of painter Donald Langosy. Through his 14-page Story of My Art, that I condensed into roughly six blog posts, Mr. Langosy shared his amazing creative journey that involved the likes of Ezra Pound, William Blake, his wife Elizabeth and of course there is Shakespeare. His work is unique and quite inspiring as can be seen in the new book Donald Langosy: The Poet’s Painter. This book of 99 poems by Eric Sigler illustrated with full-color reproductions of the 99 paintings by Mr. Langosy that inspired the poet.

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Available online from a variety of vendors as listed below. If I have one criticism, after having seen firsthand the scale of some of these paintings, it is that I wish the book was physically bigger. Meanwhile I hope there will be an art opening one day so that more people can view his work up close and meet both painter and poet!

https://eyewearpublishing.glopal.com/en-US/p-8574461128/donald-langosy-poets-painter.html

 

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This past year I read quite a few slave narratives by African Americans who were interviewed in the late 1930s to document their childhood experiences and memories of slavery prior to the Civil War. These people, ranging in age from octogenarians to centenarians, were also asked about their feelings toward the people who had formerly owned them. The wide-range of responses highlight the complex relationships that developed between those who enslaved and those who were enslaved within an institutionalized system of slavery as it existed in the United States for well over two centuries.

The following words that I call Winter into Spring were inspired by one man’s memory of the tough times after the Civil War and his continuing close relationship with the family who had previously owned him. In broken English, he conveyed the depth of his feelings using visual metaphors. He spoke only of his personal experience, but I was moved by something that I felt was universal … how people experience grief whatever its source. And so I took this man’s words, tapped into my own personal experiences and observations of others to draft the following. It may be a work in progress …

 

Winter into Spring

I remember the day, both of their days,

the soil covering them like I no longer could.

What can I say except losing them was like being a tree in the winter wood. 

Understood?

Every cold wind, so sharp, blowed my leaves and tore them loose.

They fell to the ground, crumbling to dust, as if to follow those two,

my master and mistress, into their graves below.

I was in a world so dark I could not see.

Naked and alone. Stripped bare like a tree soon to fall.

Then one day I felt whole.

It was a strange day. What day, do you say?

That day it was like Spring, and it come bringing light!

I could see.

Well I guess you could say that little tree it was me.

You asked me how it felt and now I’ve told you.

When they passed I felt done, but the day did come,

though I still sometimes wonder why,

when I finally felt alive again.

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Its leaves have turned from green to brown

with little variation in between

but still the light shines through them bright

revealing dark beauty to be seen.

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I’ve been researching the year 1927 for a project and came across an issue of  The Crisis Magazine for that year. In this issue, several new artists were featured. Even though they were not the focus of my research, I became curious about who these people were and who they became. I knew of Countee Cullen but the others … I began by looking up Blanche Taylor Dickinson. The article in The Crisis notes that she “received honorable mention for her poem, “That Hill,” in The Crisis contest of 1926. Four of her poems have recently been accepted to appear in “Present Day Poets.” She was featured alongside Cullen, Loren R. Miller, Anita Scott Coleman and Eulalie Spence.

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Three years earlier, Dickinson had written W. E. B. Du Bois, co-founder and editor of The Crisis. “I am a teacher and a reader of The Crisis but am just becoming a suscriber. You edit a fine magazine and it is a great factor in helping to bring us more and more into the recognition of the opposite race.” Enclosed with the letter were poems but no envelope with return postage because, as Dickinson wrote, if the poems were unacceptable to Du Bois, “you have a waste basket handy I am sure.”

Du Bois read her poems and then sent a reply, despite her lack of return postage. “You have some poetic feelings but are not good enough to publish. You must read more poetry. Buy Rittenhouse’s Little Book of Modern British Verse.”

Dickinson does indeed read Rittenhouse and other compilations. In 1925 she wrote Du Bois once more.

Once before I was ‘nervy’ enough to write you a personal letter and you were kind enough to advise. So pardon this second intrusion and say, ‘She is determined to hold out to the end.’ I have read or you might say studied the book you mentioned … and feel that I have profited thereby. I have made a study of several others, too. Now if I could see a few expressions of mine in our own magazine, CRISIS, I imagine I should feel as I imagine one feels in your own sphere. I am not working for money now but for RECOGNITION. It is unwomanly of me to beg favor of your staff but I do ask please read these lines from the angle of the writer and others less favored and see what you can find in them that deserves criticism or comment.”

Du Bois’s reply? “I do not think that the poems which are enclosed are quite good enough for publication but I do think that the course of study upon which you are embarked is worth while and I hope you will keep it up.”

Dickinson, who’d been writing since childhood, would continue to work at her craft and her poetry would be published in a number of publications during the late 1920s. A little but not a lot is written about her life. Born in 1896 to a prosperous Kentucky farmer, she did well in school (including having her writing published), attended university, became a school teacher and worked as a journalist. She married a truck driver and moved around a bit. In 1929 she interviewed Amelia Earhart for the newspaper, Baltimore Afro-American. In 1930 Dickinson would deliver a speech about “The Cultural Values of Negro Poetry,” but little writing can be found after this time.

Her poetry is quite moving and suggestive of how she (or perhaps women around her) may have felt about life as a woman in the 1920s in general and as an educated African American woman specifically.

“Ah, I know what happiness is …

It is a timid little fawn

Creeping softly up to me

For one caress, then gone

Before I’m through with it …

Away, like dark from dawn!”

— excerpt from poem, A Sonnet and a Rondeau, 1927

Her words can be raw as in this excerpt from, The Good Wife, appearing in a 1932 newspaper, where her words reference the to-this-day divisive issues of class, color and even education level within the African American experience.

All day long

I been sipping suds.

Money making’s mine- 

Money spending’s Bud’s.

Folks keep asking,

How could I

Let a man black as Bud

Take my eye.

I keep rubbing

‘Till my po’ head swim.

‘T ain’t worthwhile to answer

‘Cause Bud ain’t courted them!

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Her work can be found online and in print anthologies from and about the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Blanche Taylor Dickinson died in 1972.

Sources & Additional Reading

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b168-i213

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b169-i545

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b169-i546

Shadowed Dreams: Women of the Harlem Renaissance by Maureen Honey

Kentucky African American Encyclopedia edited by Smith, McDaniel and Hardin, p. 142

New Negro Artists, The Crisis, February 1927, p. 206

The Good Wife, The Greeley Daily Tribune, October 10, 1932, p. 3.

Revelation, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/revelation-16

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