“Our particular whirlwind”: poetry by African-American Innovators

Poet Bob Kaufman_1925 to 1986. . .

Gwendolyn Brooks

(1917-2000, Topeka, Kansas, USA)

Sadie and Maud


Maud went to college.

Sadie stayed at home.

Sadie scraped life

With a fine-tooth comb.


She didn’t leave a tangle in.

Her comb found every strand.

Sadie was one of the livingest chits

In all the land.


Sadie bore two babies

Under her maiden name.

Maud and Ma and Papa

Nearly died of shame.

Every one but Sadie

Nearly died of shame.


When Sadie said her last so-long

Her girls struck out from home.

(Sadie had left as heritage

Her fine-tooth comb.)


Maud, who went to college,

Is a thin, brown mouse.

She is living all alone

In this old house.

. . .

Gloria Oden

(1923-2011, Yonkers, New York, USA)

Testament of Loss


You would think that night could lift;

that something of light would sift

through to grey its thick self



It’s five years now.

Still black gloams over

day unable to slip

across my sill

one finger

to raise its white form

of hope.

. . .

Bible Study


In the old testament

Hizzoner” was forever

singling out someone

to speak with.


and he would make

a visit.

Cruise the world

from your favourite

mountain top

and he would come

to call.


Even out of the garrulous

mouth of the whirlwind

he would fetch

himself forth

for a bit of

spirited conversation.


he was apt to

catch up with you

at the most staggering

of times,

and in the most debatable

of places.


So, I think,

he does still.

Who else, my dear,

could have snapped us

together and put us

so warmly to bed?


What puzzles me now

is our particular whirlwind.

Tell me,

did the Old Guy

trumpet us out of

your upset

or mine?

. . .

Bob Kaufman

(1925-1986, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA)



You are with me, Oregon,

Day and night, I feel you, Oregon.

I am Negro. I am Oregon.

Oregon is me, the planet

Oregon, the state Oregon, Oregon.

In the night, you come with bicycle wheels,

Oregon you come

With stars of fire. You come green.

Green eyes, hair, arms,

Head, face, legs, feet, toes

Green, nose green, your

Breasts green, your cross

Green, your blood green.

Oregon winds blow around

Oregon. I am green, Oregon.

Oregon lives in me,

Oregon, you come and make

Me into a bird and fly me

To secret places day and night.

The secret places in Oregon,

I am standing on the steps

Of the holy church of Crispus

Attucks St. John the Baptist,

the holy brother of Christ,

I am talking to Lorca. We

Decide the Hart Crane trip,

Home to Oregon,

Heaven flight from Gulf of Mexico,

The bridge is

Crossed, and the florid black found.

. . .

Dolores Kendrick

(born 1927, Washington, D.C., USA)

Jenny in Love

[the poet imagines the voice of a young black slavewoman in the nineteenth century]


Danced in the evenin’


the supper




in the morning:


danced again!

. . .

Ted Joans (born Theodore Jones)

(1928-2003, Cairo, Illinois, USA)

The Overloaded Horse


On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his buttons were crushed into powder for their soup

his hair was wovened into ship sails

his foreskin was sewn by an antique dealer

his manure supplied several generations with xmas gifts

and now they speak bad of him, the horse, the head of their family

On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his earwax was packaged in America

his rump was displayed on early morning garbage trucks

his crossed eye is on loan to a soap museum

his manners have since been copied by millions of glass blowers

and still yet, they spit at this stable, the horse, the head of the house

On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his ribs were riveted outside an airbase

his knees bend in shadows of Russia

his shoelaces are used to hang lovely violinists

his dignity is exported as a diary product to the Orient

and in spite of it all, those he loved most, lie and cheat horse’s heirs

On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his tears now drown the frowning yachtsmen

his urine flows rapidly across millionaires’ estates

his annual vomit destroys twelve dictators’ promises a year

his teeth tear wide holes in the scissormaker’s Swiss bank account

and even in death, filled with revenge, they eat him, again and again

they deny and lie as they speak bad of the horse,

the head of their house, the father of their home

. . .

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones)

(1934-2014, Newark, New Jersey, USA)

How People Do


To be that weak lonely figure

coming home through the cold

up the stairs

melting in grief

the walls and footsteps echo

so much absence and ignorance

is not to be the creature emerging

into the living room, an orderly universe

of known things all names and securely placed

is not to be the orderer the namer, the stormer

and creator, is not to be that, so we throw it

from our minds, and sit down casually

to eat.

. . .

Jayne Cortez

(born 1934, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, USA)



Listen i have

a complaint to make

my lips are covered

with thumb prints

insomnia sips me

the volume of isolation

is up to my thyroid

and i won’t disappear

can you help me

Poet June Jordan_around 1968_photograph possibly taken by Louise Bernikow

June Jordan

(1936-2002, Harlem, New York, USA)

All the World moved


All the world moved next to me strange

I grew on my knees

in hats and taffeta trusting

the holy water to run

like grief from a brownstone



Blessing a fear of the anywhere

face too pale to be family

my eyes wore ribbons

for Christ on the subway

as weekly as holiness

in Harlem.


God knew no East no West no South

no Skin nothing I learned like

traditions of sin but later

life began and strangely

I survived His innocence

without my own.

. . .

Lucille Clifton

(1936-2010, Depew, New York, USA)

why some people

be mad at me sometimes


they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories


and i keep on remembering


. . .

Joseph Jarman

(born 1937, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, USA)


what we all

would have of

each other

the men of

the sides of ourworlds


in a window

yes ”  go contrary

go sing……….

to give

all you have


to each yourself

yet never

to remember

to look back

into a void

––it is time

yes; to move from

yourself to

yourself again

to know


what you are



. . .

Ishmael Reed

(born 1938, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA)


(in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man)


i am outside of

history. i wish

i had some peanuts, it

looks hungry there in

its cage


i am inside of


hungrier than i


. . .

William J. Harris

(born 1942, Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA)

Practical Concerns


From a distance, I watch

a man digging a hole with a machine.

I go closer.

The hole is deep and narrow.

At the bottom is a bird.


I ask the ditchdigger if I may climb down

and ask the bird a question.

He says, why sure.


It’s nice and cool in the ditch.

The bird and I talk about singing.

Very little about technique.



. . . . .

The poems above are by no means representative of all the Innovators among African-American poets; they are a brief sample. Readers should also look up the following poets’ work, wherever it is available – whether at the library, the bookstore, or upon the internet!

Lloyd Addison

Russell Atkins

Lawrence S. Cumberbatch

Randy Bee Graham

Percy Johnston

Stephen Jonas

Eloise Loftin

Clarence Major

Oliver Pitcher

Norman Pritchard

Ed Roberson

Melvin B. Tolson

Gloria Tropp

Tom Weatherly


. . .


Bob Kaufman in the 1950s

June Jordan in 1968

. . . . .


Gwendolyn Brooks: La Verdad / Truth

Rembrandt van Rijn_Jesús sepultado_Jesus Entombed_etching_1654

Rembrandt van Rijn_Jesús sepultado_Jesus Entombed_etching_1654


Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

.     .     .

La Verdad
Y si el sol viene,
¿cómo debemos saludarle?
Deberíamos temer a él,
Deberíamos amilanarse por él,
después de una sesión larga con la sombra?
Aunque hemos llorado por él,
Aunque hemos rezar
Durante los años de noche
– ¿Qué pasará si nos despertamos en una mañana reluciente para
Oír el martilleo feroz
De sus nudillos firmes,
Fuerte en la puerta?
¿Deberíamos temblar,
Deberíamos huir
Hacia el querido albergue grueso
Que es la niebla conocida y propicia?

Qué dulzura – cómo es dulce –
Dormir en el fresco
De un desconocimiento cómodo.


La oscuridad cuelga pesadamente
Sobre los ojos.

.     .     .     .     .

Gwendolyn Brooks: “Estar enamorado” / “To be in love”

Francks François Décéus _Cloud 9_2012

Francks François Décéus _Cloud 9_2012

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

“Estar enamorado”


Estar enamorado

es tocar con mano más suave.

En tú mismo te estiras – y estás bien.

Miras las cosas con los ojos de él.

Es rojo el cardenal, es azul el cielo;

y de repente sabes que él lo sabe también.

Él no está allí pero

sabes que ustedes los dos están probando juntos

el invierno o el tiempo primaveral.

Cuando toma tu mano

es demasiado soportar.

No puedes encontrar sus ojos

porque tu pulso no debe decir

lo que no debe ser dicho.

Cuando cierra la puerta,

o cuando él no está,

tus brazos se convierten en agua.

Y eres libre con una libertad horrible.

Eres la bella mitad de un daño de oro.

Recuerdas…pues codicias su boca

– tocarla, y susurrar sobre esos labios.

Ay, cuando declarar el Amor – ¡es una Muerte, por seguro!

Oh, cuando notificar es cautivar…

Y ver rendirse la Columna de Oro

en ceniza ordinaria.


Traducción del inglés: Alexander Best

.     .     .

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

“To be in love”


To be in love
Is to touch with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things
Through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The winter, or a light spring weather.
His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.
You cannot look in his eyes
Because your pulse must not say
What must not be said.
When he
Shuts a door,
Is not there,
Your arms are water.
And you are free
With a ghastly freedom.
You are the beautiful half
Of a golden hurt.
You remember and covet his mouth
To touch, to whisper on.
Oh, when to declare
Is certain Death!
Oh, when to apprize
Is to mesmerize,
To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
Into the commonest ash.

.     .     .

Otros poemas de Gwendolyn Brooks:


.     .     .     .     .

Gwendolyn Brooks: “Mis sueños, mis trabajos, tendrán que esperar hasta mi vuelta del infierno”

Gwendolyn Brooks_1917 to 2000Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

La balada-soneto”


Oh madre, madre, ¿dónde está la felicidad?

Se llevaron a mi alto amante a la guerra.

Me dejaron lamentándome. No puedo saber

de qué me sirve la taza vacía del corazón.

Él no va a volver nunca más. Algún día

la guerra va a terminar pero, oh, yo supe

cuando salió, grandioso, por esa puerta,

que mi dulce amor tendría que serme infiel.

Que tendría que serme infiel. Tendría que cortejar

a la coqueta Muerte, cuyos imprudentes, extraños

y posesivos brazos y belleza (de cierta clase)

pueden hacer que un hombre duro dude –

y cambie. Y que sea el que tartamudee: Sí.

Oh madre, madre, ¿dónde está la felicidad?




Versión de Tom Maver

. . .

“Mis sueños, mis trabajos,
tendrán que esperar hasta
mi vuelta del infierno

Almaceno mi miel y mi pan tierno
en jarras y cajones protegidos
recomiendo a las tapas y pestillos
resistir hasta mi vuelta del infierno.
Hambrienta, me siento como incompleta
no se si una cena volveré a probar
todos me dicen que debo aguardar
la débil luz. Con mi mirada atenta
espero que al acabar los duros días
al salir a rastras de mi tortura
mi corazón recordará sin duda
cómo llegar hasta la casa mía.
Y mi gusto no será indiferente
a la pureza del pan y de la miel.


. . .

“El funeral de la prima Vit


Sin protestar es llevada afuera.
Golpea el ataúd que no la aguanta
ni satín ni cerrojos la contentan
ni los párpados contritos que tuviera.
Oh, mucho, es mucho, ahora sabe
ella se levanta al sol, va, camina
regresa a sus lugares y se inclina
en camas y cosas que la gente ve.
Vital y rechinante se endereza
y hasta mueve sus caderas y sisea
derrama mal vino en su chal de seda
habla de embarazos, dice agudezas
feliz, recorre senderos y parques
histérica, loca feliz. Feliz es.




Versiones de Óscar Godoy Barbosa

Gwendolyn Brooks as a teenager
ZP_Poetry Magazine_March 1949 issue
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks in the mid1960s_photo by Art Shay

Gwendolyn Brooks woodcut from 2001 by Dirk Hagner

Gwendolyn Brooks

The Sonnet-Ballad”


Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

They took my lover’s tallness off to war,

Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess

What I can use an empty heart-cup for.

He won’t be coming back here any more.

Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew

When he went walking grandly out that door

That my sweet love would have to be untrue.

Would have to be untrue. Would have to court

Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange

Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)

Can make a hard man hesitate–and change.

And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

. . .

My dreams, my works, must wait till after Hell”


I hold my honey and I store my bread   

In little jars and cabinets of my will.   

I label clearly, and each latch and lid   

I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.   

I am very hungry. I am incomplete.

And none can tell when I may dine again.   

No man can give me any word but Wait,   

The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;   

Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt   

Drag out to their last dregs and I resume   

On such legs as are left me, in such heart   

As I can manage, remember to go home,

My taste will not have turned insensitive   

To honey and bread old purity could love.

. . .

The rites for cousin Vit”


Carried her unprotesting out the door.

Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,

That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,

The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.

Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,

She rises in the sunshine. There she goes,

Back to the bars she knew and the repose

In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.

Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.

Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,

Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks

Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks

In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge

Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

. . .

Gwendolyn Brooks (Topeka, Kansas, EE.UU.) 1917 – 2000

Primera autora negra ganadora del Premio Pulitzer de poesía (1950, Annie Allen). Comprometida con la igualdad y la identidad racial, fue una poeta con conciencia política, dedicada activamente a llevar la poesía a todas las clases sociales, fuera de la academia. Brooks visitaba a Etheridge Knight después de su encarcelación para animarle en su escritura de poesía. Para leer los poemas de Etheridge Knight (en inglés) cliquea el enlace.


Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000) was the first Black woman to win The Pulitzer Prize – in 1950 for her poetry collection Annie Allen. Concerned with racial equality and identity, Brooks dedicated herself to bringing poetry to people of all classes – outside of the realm of academe. A woman of political conscience, she would visit the unjustly over-incarcerated Etheridge Knight in jail to encourage him in the flowering of his poetic voice. Click the link below to read his poems.


.     .     .     .     .

Thanksgiving Poems: a Cornucopia

Thanksgiving Bounty 

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

I had no time to Hate”


I had no time to Hate –


The Grave would hinder Me –

And Life was not so

Ample I

Could finish – Enmity –


Nor had I time to Love –

But since

Some Industry must be –

The little Toil of Love –

I thought

Be large enough for Me –

.     .     .

Emily Dickinson

They might not need me – yet they might”


They might not need me – yet they might –

I’ll let my Heart be just in sight –

A smile so small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity.

Emily Dickinson_1830-1886

Emily Dickinson

Who has not found the Heaven – below”


Who has not found the Heaven – below –

Will fail of it above –

For Angels rent the House next ours,

Wherever we remove –

Paul Laurence Dunbar at age 19_1892

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

A Prayer”


O Lord, the hard-won miles

Have worn my stumbling feet:

Oh, soothe me with thy smiles,

And make my life complete.


The thorns were thick and keen

Where’er I trembling trod;

The way was long between

My wounded feet and God.


Where healing waters flow

Do thou my footsteps lead.

My heart is aching so;

Thy gracious balm I need.

.     .     .

Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Sum”


A little dreaming by the way,

A little toiling day by day;

A little pain, a little strife,

A little joy,–and that is life.


A little short-lived summer’s morn,

When joy seems all so newly born,

When one day’s sky is blue above,

And one bird sings,–and that is love.


A little sickening of the years,

The tribute of a few hot tears,

Two folded hands, the failing breath,

And peace at last,–and that is death.


Just dreaming, loving, dying so,

The actors in the drama go–

A flitting picture on a wall,

Love, Death, the themes;  but is that all?

.     .     .

Guido Guinizelli (1230-1276)

Of Moderation and Tolerance”


He that has grown to wisdom hurries not,

But thinks and weighs what Reason bids him do;

And after thinking he retains his thought

Until as he conceived the fact ensue.

Let no man to o’erweening pride be wrought,

But count his state as Fortune’s gift and due.

He is a fool who deems that none has sought

The truth, save he alone, or knows it true.

Many strange birds are on the air abroad,

Nor all are of one flight or of one force,

But each after his kind dissimilar:

To each was portion’d of the breath of God,

Who gave them divers instincts from one source.

Then judge not thou thy fellows what they are.


Translation from the Italian: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1861)

.     .     .

Luci Shaw (born 1928)

But not forgotten”


Whether or not I find the missing thing

it will always be

more than my thought of it.

Silver-heavy, somewhere it winks

in its own small privacy


the waiting game for me.


And the real treasures do not vanish.

The precious loses no value

in the spending.

A piece of hope spins out

bright, along the dark, and is not

lost in space;

verity is a burning boomerang;

love is out orbiting and will

come home.

.     .     .

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)



Hope means to keep living

amid desperation,

and to keep humming in darkness.

Hoping is knowing that there is love,

it is trust in tomorrow

it is falling asleep

and waking again

when the sun rises.

In the midst of a gale at sea,

it is to discover land.

In the eye of another

it is to see that he understands you.

As long as there is still hope

there will also be prayer.

And God will be holding you

in His hands.

.     .     .

Walt Whitman(1819-1892)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer”


When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured

with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

Speech to the Young, Speech to the Progress-Toward

(Among them Nora and Henry III)”


Say to them

say to the down-keepers,

the sun-slappers,

the self-soilers,

the harmony-hushers:

Even if you are not ready for day

it cannot always be night.”

You will be right.

For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for the battles won.

Live not for the-end-of-the-song.

Live in the along.

Rabindranath Tagore in 1886

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Closed Path”


I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,

that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted,
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that Thy Will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

.     .     .

William Matthews (1942-1997)



How easily happiness begins by   

dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter   

slithers and swirls across the floor   

of the sauté pan, especially if its   

errant path crosses a tiny slick

of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.


This could mean soup or risotto   

or chutney (from the Sanskrit

chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions   

go limp and then nacreous

and then what cookbooks call clear,   

though if they were eyes you could see


clearly the cataracts in them.

It’s true it can make you weep

to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   

from the taut ball first the brittle,   

caramel-coloured and decrepit

papery outside layer, the least


recent the reticent onion

wrapped around its growing body,   

for there’s nothing to an onion

but skin, and it’s true you can go on   

weeping as you go on in, through   

the moist middle skins, the sweetest


and thickest, and you can go on   

in to the core, to the bud-like,   

acrid, fibrous skins densely   

clustered there, stalky and in-

complete, and these are the most   

pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare


and rage and murmury animal   

comfort that infant humans secrete.   

This is the best domestic perfume.   

You sit down to eat with a rumour

of onions still on your twice-washed   

hands and lift to your mouth a hint


of a story about loam and usual   

endurance. It’s there when you clean up   

and rinse the wine glasses and make   

a joke, and you leave the minutest   

whiff of it on the light switch,

later, when you climb the stairs.

.     .     .     .     .