Closing Thoughts for National Poetry Month : Poems by Countee Cullen and Natasha Trethewey

I pledged at the beginning of April to post poetry that engaged in the conversation about race in America. I didn’t quite meet my goal of several posts a week, but NaPoMo is a busy time.

And then all hell broke loose in Baltimore — and so many people were saying things — poetry seemed like it might be a very small voice among all that noise. Searching online for “Baltimore + poetry” brings up many voices and images; I share two poems that seem horribly relevant.

First, this poem, called “Incident” by Countee Cullen, about a moment of racism in the early 20th century.

Incident

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Second, this poem of the same name, “Incident,” by Natasha Tretheway, former U.S. Poet Laureate. She opens with a few comments about her life in 1950s Mississippi. Hear Tretheway reading it at this link.
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Additionally:
The most interesting thing I found is this Harriet blog post on the Poetry Foundation’s website, in which Jericho Brown eviscerates Wolf Blitzer — “How Not to Interview Black People about Police Brutality” — worth the time to read and think about.
jericho-brown

Jericho Brown

Poetry (if we let it) opens our ears and eyes to — and fills our hearts and imaginations with — the injustices of the world. What we do with those open eyes, those hearts and imaginations vibrating with expressions of anger, pain, fear, is up to us. How many more poems about “incidents” will people of all races have to write in America, before such things are history? I am not wise enough to know the answer. I know I ask this question from privilege and try to ask it none the less with humility.

Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’

2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act (1964). As part of a series of stories on this subject, NPR has run several stories and videos.

Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’.

In this one, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Jeffrey Brown recently traveled from Mississippi to Alabama on a pilgrimage to witness the historical struggles and sorrows people faced during the civil rights movement. On their 100-mile journey, they examine the role of poetry in advancing the movement’s message for justice and freedom.

The video is about eight minutes long, and Ms. Trethewey only recites part of her moving and calmly horrifying poem “Incident,” about a black family looking through their living room curtains at a cross burning in their neighborhood. Here is the poem in its entirety. The form may be recognizable to some of you; it is a special stanza form called a pantoum.

I hope you’ll agree, as is mentioned in the video, that poetry is a form of sacred language, a way to speak (and sing) when you are afraid to speak.

Incident

By Natasha Trethewey

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shade drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our room and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

Gentle reader, you might find interesting another poem, by an African American poet, Countee Cullen, also named “Incident.” Poets like to do this, comment and copy and call out after one another.

Incident

By Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

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