Thursday Poem: The Heart of Harlem by Langston Hughes

In light of last week’s horrific events at Charleston, I wanted this week to showcase poetry by brilliant African-American poets, and I didn’t know which one to choose. I don’t need terrorist attacks, or the continuing murder of innocent Black people in America, to make such an effort – if I did, I’d be posting these every single day. Which I honestly wouldn’t mind, given the sheer depth and range of outstanding poetry available, but I don’t have that kind of time or energy or capacity for heartbreak. As Claudia Rankine discusses here in her excellent NYT editorial, nobody has that capacity; we were not built to withstand grief applied on such a colossal scale.

With that said, as a writer of colour, a non-white poet, an Arab Australian – forgive the repetition, I’m having difficulty with identifiers these days, I keep writing them out to see if one will stick – I have been drawn from the outset to African-American writers, to their struggle. In Australia, Arab youths often play the same part ascribed to our African-American counterparts, both in popular culture and politically; in the first instance, seen as being suspicious, violent, attracted to and proponents of hip hop culture, and in the latter, as dangerous outsiders not compatible with mainstream society (read: white) and its values, as terrorists, as rapists, etc.

Similarly, as well, many of us grew up in poor government-subsidised suburbs rife with the systemic issues that were our daily lives but which only occasionally flared up into the kind of sensationalized stuff the media likes to run with – the drug dealing, welfare claims and gangland violence typically. So it’s no wonder we appropriated, consciously or unconsciously, many aspects of hip hop culture – a term I use as separate to Black culture as a whole, not as a synonym, just to be clear. Nor was it entirely a negative thing, for us growing up, it was more empowering than anything else (though I have a different opinion of it now broadly, being a bisexual man and feminist). But I digress, I just wanted to briefly outline my connection to this subject, these people, in such a way that highlights the similarities in the spaces we occupy in our respective nations today; beyond the symbolic cultural ties and narratives, it becomes a vastly different lived experience, to which I cannot attest.

I typically do not seek out particular voices for this little weekly segment of mine; I merely respond to whichever poem hit me hardest that day, that week, yet somehow, when I look back on the list of poets I’ve spoken about, it is fittingly diverse. I decided to be deliberate in my choice this week in part because of Claudia Rankine’s searing writing in the piece linked to above; I recognized how often the Black voices I was hearing in my day to day life were voices strained with pain, with grief, with rage and loss. Recognised that many of the stories I was reading were acts of memorial, that the deluge of poetry blurred into the names of victims; this is a song they have always been singing, a poem and a grief constantly being updated. But it is not the only one I’ve heard, nor need it be the only one discussed, and so I found myself thinking of one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes, and one of my favourite poems, The Heart of Harlem.

It is not an inconsequential jaunt, and it is not without the context of oppression or suffering; it speaks to the realities I’ve discussed, but it’s also a deeply joyous poem brimming with his love for this place, his home, Harlem, with its hardships and all. I love its rhythm — Hughes is in a category of his own there — I love the lyricism, the evocation of this landscape; I love its uncompromising love, and the fierceness that runs throughout. The message here is a powerful one, and it is outlined from the beginning, which is that Harlem and indeed any place, is so much more than the structures, the buildings and institutions which govern it, it is the people themselves. I can’t quite the spacing entirely right (copying it out of the book) but here it is in full:

The Heart of Harlem

The buildings in Harlem are brick and stone
And the streets are long and wide,
But Harlem’s much more than these alone,
Harlem is what’s inside—
It’s a song with a minor refrain,
It’s a dream you keep dreaming again.
It’s a tear you turn into a smile.
It’s the sunrise you know is coming after a while.
It’s the shoe that you get half-soled twice.
It’s the kid you hope will grow up nice.
It’s the hand that’s working all day long.
It’s prayer that keeps you going along—
That’s the Heart of Harlem!

It’s Joe Louis and Dr. W. E. B.,
A stevedore, a porter, Marian Anderson, and me.
It’s Father Divine and the music of Earl Hines,
Adam Powell in Congress, our drives on bus lines.
It’s Dorothy Maynor and it’s Billie Holiday,
The lectures at the Schomburg and Apollo down
the way.
It’s Father Shelton Bishop and shouting Mother Horne.
It’s the Rennie and the Savoy where new dances are
It’s Canada Lee’s penthouse at Five-Fifty-Five.
It’s Small’s Paradise and Jimmy’s little dive.
It’s 409 Edgecombe or a cold-water walk-up flat—
But it’s where I live and it’s where my love is at
Deep in the Heart of Harlem!

It’s the pride all Americans know.
It’s the faith God gave us long ago.
It’s the strength to make our dreams come true.
It’s a feeling warm and friendly given to you.
It’s that girl with the rhythmical walk.
It’s my boy with the jive in his talk.
It’s the man with muscles of steel.
It’s the right to be free a people never will yield.
A dream…a song…half-soled shoes…dancing shoes
A tear…a smile…the blues…sometimes the
Mixed with the memory…and forgiveness…of our wrong.
But more than that, it’s freedom—
Guarded for the kids who came along—
Folks, that’s the Heart of Harlem!

Thursday Poetics: Ben Lerner on “Disliking Poetry”

So, I’m going to do something a little different today. Recently, I read a fascinating essay by Ben Lerner on Disliking Poetry, which is equal parts lovely writing and interesting thoughts about the nature of poems, so I actually wanted to take some time to respond to that. There’s a lot that he says and I don’t want to be too reductive here but I’m going to break it down into two main points (you should definitely read the whole thing, however) and then talk about what’s being said. The first is:

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.

And the second is:

Even writers and critics allergic to anything resembling avant-garde rhetoric often express anger at poetry’s failure to achieve any real political effects. The avant-garde imagines itself as hailing from the future it wants to bring about, but many people express disappointment in poetry for failing to live up to the political power it supposedly possessed in the past.

Either subject is worth its own essay, but I don’t have much time or energy at the moment, so forgive my brusqueness. Here, in short, is my response: I think it’s true that poetry is by definition self-defeating, that no poem will ever completely capture the transcendent sensation or inspiration which first prompts the poet to put pen to paper, which sets the soul to spinning. There is no means of transferring the intangible into a fixed form without necessarily losing something in the process, so yes, when looked at this way, you can say every poem is a failure. This is also true, it must be said, of every artistic process; even the painter cannot replicate the sky as fully or as brightly as he or she might like, and even though a passerby might not be able to tell the difference between the two, the painter will always be dissatisfied, knowing the range of colours available are simply not comparable to the limitless array of pigments effortlessly used by the atmosphere. So it is with the poet – words will never be enough. We are simply no match for the poetry of the everyday; the river, the mountain, the refuse heap.

In terms, however, of poems failing as artistic products thereafter, of never achieving some expected unifying grandeur as extolled by the likes of Whitman, I disagree. This is blaming poetry for something outside of its power — largely, what we think of it and what it should be doing — as well complain about a vacuum cleaner which can’t fix your broken marriage. You might have thought it would when you bought it, but that it doesn’t is entirely your fault. The problem here is the notion that the poem is the end point, is finished when it is written, and so when there isn’t an immediate result thereafter – should the poem have a socially progressive or political message for example – it can seem as if it has failed. However, I — and I think many poets would agree — don’t see a single poem as the end point but rather the beginning. I don’t see it as finished, I see it as always being written.

A poem (with these lofty aims, and as Lerner says, not all have them) needn’t be the change or even the catalyst to dramatic action; I see it as the Kafkaesque icepick we use to hammer open frozen points in local, state, national and global conversations ongoing at any moment. I see it as dialogue, just one spark among many, the brighter and hotter it is, the better, but it needn’t be the sun. Don’t hate it for not being the sun, that way lies madness. Enjoy it instead for its temporary light, which like our lives, is made precious by its smallness, by the knowledge it will flicker out unless it touches something – someone – however briefly and sets off a mirroring flare.

Here is where it matters that poems are always being written; when you read a powerful poem, it carries on inside you, filtered through the lens of your experience and culture, mutating and changing until it comes out in another way, maybe not as a poem but an impromptu speech to a friend which moves them to vote in the next election, or maybe as an unasked for gift to your partner which is not a vacuum cleaner but a night spent appreciating each other or the night itself, or maybe as a painting, as an especially thankful day lost in the rewarding exertion of building houses.

In this way, it could be argued as well that the intangible otherness which first lent itself to the creation of the poem continues forever in others — the originating poet cannot experience it, it is beyond them now — and that its impact when looked at objectively is impossible to weigh. Just as we cannot measure a smile, or what it might offer to a stranger, so too, the same can be said for poetry, this endless evolution of language, this ephemeral light made solid and then not again, every day.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I would hate to leave y’all without a link to some excellent poetry I’ve read through the week, so just quickly, here are a couple of gems I came across:

1. The Robots Are Coming by Kyle Dargan (really, anything by Dargan, he’s great)

2. Three Poems by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (powerful & beautiful writing here).


Thursday Poem: Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings by Juan Fellipe Herrera

In light of the recent appointment of Juan Fellipe Herrera as U.S Poet Laureate, I thought it would be remiss of me not to talk about one of his poems. Among all the various articles written about him recently, one quoted phrase in particular snagged my attention. It was from his poem Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings, and it is as simple as this:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries
Rather than go through the minutia of what is already a miniature poem (though so breathtakingly large at the same time), I’m just going to use this as a launching point to talk about poetry because it speaks to me on such a personal level and because I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately.
A lot of people don’t like poems which refer directly to or are themselves about poetry, what it means and why we write it – in fact, some journals explicitly ask you not to submit them. Types like this poem today, in fact. I don’t understand that attitude honestly, and not just because I’m inclined to enjoy them; it just seems to me that reflection is intrinsic to the art itself, and so surely there can be nothing more natural for the poet than to look closely at what compels him or her to write it. It’s also, in this deeply commodity-obsessed capitalist culture, an oddity, an aberration; it pays little-to-nothing, and yet here we are devoting our lives to it.

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Thursday Poem: The Place Where Clouds Are Formed by Ofelia Zepeda

I have always loved the sky.

Any writer who has been writing for longer than a few months will come to recognise that there are some constants in his or her work, some elements which sneak into every narrative. One of mine is the sky, and my obsession with it goes beyond rationality. A few years ago I had to get up around 5am to get to work at a reasonable hour, and I remember shuffling up the winding wave of road that led from my house to the bus stop, bundled up against the cold, and stopping every few feet to look up at the sunrise, at the symphony of colours. I fucking loved it.

It wasn’t just a matter of timing, however; even when I came home in the afternoon, I would still be inclined to stop and look up, and after a while, I became convinced that this particular patch of sky was better than any other I’d laid eyes on. It makes no sense, I know, but it’s as if in my mind each eyeful of sky I see has been assigned to an artist and this particular patch in the suburbs of Western Sydney was just lucky enough to be the product of a maestro. I imagine there have to be some dull vistas out there, but I have yet to see it, and I could quite honestly spend an entire day simply staring upward.

It took me a while to understand why, but I have since traced it back to boyhood noontimes, idling flat on my back with grass prickling my shoulder blades, pointing at the fluffy oddness of clouds and describing what they liked like, to great debate among friends. A debate which was meaningless of course because the clouds were always shifting, drifting, falling apart, being remade by the wind into smaller iterations of their former self, reduced to nothing, and then back in a breath (it seemed), bigger and blacker and badder than ever. See, that’s what I love about the sky – it is constantly changing. Even on a bright sunny day absent of white, spend just a few moments staring at the sky and you will notice the gradient of blue slowly changing.

I am addicted to that change – it is for the same reason I can become captivated by a river, even one as dull and littered with garbage barges as the Hudson; the rippling waters, the shivering surface, the ceaseless forward motion will forever capture my attention. No doubt my addiction to change is influenced by inclement weather, terrifying thunder and storms occurring only when the clouds stopped moving fast enough and instead merged into the one huge block of bulging wetness and murk. No doubt the fact I didn’t have a stable home and moved dozens of times as a child also had a part to play; my point is simply that I am absolutely fascinated by the curvature of the world above us. So when I saw the title of this poem, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed, I knew I was in for a treat. It begins:

Every day it is the same.
He comes home.
He tells her about it.
As he speaks, his breath condenses in front of his face.

I love this opening; it’s simple, to the point, utterly ordinary and totally fucking weird all at once. It’s an evocative image, clouds bubbling out of lips, ballooning in front of his face. It would be comical and cartoonish if not for the sparseness of language, the almost-dread it evokes. I’m just wildly in love with the concept. Simply having clouds in the house would have been enough for me, but that it’s internalised entirely within him, and is emerging only when he comes home, when he is not in fact outside or in view of clouds and even then only when he speaks of this place, all of that makes it so much better, heightens the surreal nature of it.

She sees the soft fog that continues to form a halo.
She knows he is still talking about that place.
He never tires of it like she does.
Only on summer days when the air is hot
and moisture is still a long time in coming,
she asks him to tell her about that place.

Ambiguity is a lovely thing employed with enough skill, and it proves to be the case here. There are two points of it moving in opposition to each other, meeting in the middle; the first is that he has seen The Place Where Clouds Are Formed and he likes telling her of it, and the second is that when he does his breath becomes clouds. The magic realism of it is bewitching, and it is left up to you to decide, really, if there is in fact a place from which clouds come, and if they are emerging from his lips, or if she is simply imagining them. Both experiences seem very real to each of them, for different reasons.

He begins, “The first time I saw the place
where clouds are formed was from
the window of a train . . .”
Another time was in a mirage
in the heat outside Tucson.
Once he thought he saw it
in the dry light of stars.

This poem shines brightest when simple language and simple images like these are used to such great effect, with the short sharp lines having the dual effect of driving you through the poem and emphasising the power of the moments highlighted. There are one or two moments where the poem stretches to accommodate not-so-simple words which aren’t in keeping with the rest, but that’s a minor quibble. We learn that this mythical place of cloud-origin shifts, disappearing and reappearing like, well, you guessed it — but maybe not in places you would expect, like in people, as he comes to find it in the eyes of a woman.

Like a child, he rushed to look
into her eyes at every opportunity.
If he could, he would hang on her eye socket,
peering inside,
marveling at her displays.

And in turn, the woman narrating the poem sees that the place is actually in him, issuing forth when he speaks of it, and so when she is in need of shade and moisture, she prods him like he was her very own weather machine and so changes the world around her by delving into the depths of him. This is, quite simply, a gorgeous poem, and I could talk about it at much greater length but I’m already running late for a thing outside, where the sky waits, so I’ll leave you to discover its wonders for yourself.