THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS

May 18, 2014

Because poems aren’t only for April, I bring you another poetry guest post, this one from brilliant poet Arianne Zwartjes.  Ari and I earned our MFAs together; she is single-handedly responsible for me not completely losing my mind after my father died.  I am so very lucky to call her my friend. 

The poet I first fell in love with was Langston Hughes. It was eighth grade. I was in Mr. D’s history class, not my favorite class, partially because it was dry and involved memorizing lots of war-related dates, and partially because he was accused of being overly interested in his female students. But. In that terrible eighth-grade public-school history textbook, someone in the authorship pool had mercifully thrown in a poem. And the poem was this.

poetry guest post by Arianne Zwartjes | Blue Jean Gourmet

THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS

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.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 I was captivated. I loved his language: simple, clear, a bit mournful, and lyrically beautiful. It made me feel things I couldn’t put into words. I had written a few poems before but never experienced what it is to fall in love, really in love, with a poem you encounter.

This was all back in the day when, given our textbooks at the beginning of each school year, we would take them home and make brown paper covers out of grocery bags—do public school students still do that?—and then decorate them. I can still picture my enthusiastically-handwritten copy of Hughes’ poem in large letters on the brown-paper cover of that text, where I read and re-read it each day as I sat in class.

I soon found a book of his selected poems, which I still have to this day, full of poems more racially outspoken than—unsurprisingly—the one chosen for that history textbook. I was drawn by his refusal, in the words of Poets.org, “to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America,” a refusal to “turn inward, [to write] obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever-decreasing audience of readers,” as so many other poets of his time were doing. The book is dog-eared, a few pages stained pink from some disaster I don’t remember, others water-marked and thumb-printed. Well-loved.

An interesting twist is that this year I taught his poems for the first time in my English class. Because my old copy was so raggedy, I ordered a new book of his poems: his entire collected works, with all the poems he’d ever published. And I discovered that that little Selected Poems book I’ve cherished all these years left something out. A big something. Langston Hughes started his career publishing poetry that spoke from and to the African-American community and their collective experience. But a decade or two in, his writing shifted: the collective experience he began to focus on was that of all workers, and of the socialist and communist revolutions happening around the world. Later in his career, he became dispirited with the targeting and marginalization he experienced while writing with this provocative political bent, and perhaps-cynically shifted back to a less-radical focus on “the black experience.”  That little selected-poems volume I loved for so many years had neatly excised those more politicized decades from his writing career, as though they never existed. Not a single poem from that era, referencing workers’ rights or collective movements, could be found there.

I was surprised to find that this poet whose work I’d loved for so long—who was responsible for me going on to read the poetry of Alice Walker, and then June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Sandra Cisneros, and even, much later, going on to earn an MFA in poetry—had an entire side of his written work that I’d been completely unaware of. It was a good lesson in the redactive power of the “selected works.”

At any rate, my English classes, with students from Mexico, the Bahamas, Germany, Nigeria, Denmark, Uganda, China, Lebanon, and the US, seemed to love Hughes’ poetry; at the very least, they read it aloud with gusto, in impressive performances of Hughes’ passion. I harbor the unvoiced hope, of course, that he will do for one or two of them what he did for me so many years ago: foster an early spark of love for the vast field of diverse voices, and the appreciation of small details in the world around us, which poetry has to offer us.

Arianne Zwartjes photo   After receiving her MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona and teaching English and creative writing there for six years, Arianne Zwartjes is now in northern New Mexico serving as the director of the wilderness program at the United World College. She won the 2011 Gulf Coast prize for nonfiction, and her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, No Tell Motel, Cue, and elsewhere. The University of Iowa Press published her essay collection Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy in the fall of 2012. Her previous works include Disem(body), The Surfacing of Excess, and (Stitched) A Surface Opens: Essays.

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