Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Poetry on My Mind

Some of you may know that I am an avid poetry reader. It is a passion my mother instilled in me at an early age by reading me her favorites, like Blake and Shakespeare and Keats, when I was a kid. But the poetry collections to be found in my childhood home were not nearly extensive enough, and much of my library time as a kid was spent digging through old poetry volumes looking for new and interesting things. Beyond the esteemed Langston Hughes, African American poets were not very well showcased in the sricki household when I was younger. My mom was a British literature addict, so you were much more likely to find D. H. Lawrence on our shelves than Maya Angelou. While it was unfortunate in many ways that there was a general paucity of poetry authored by African Americans in my home growing up… at the same time it enabled me to make many an exciting discovery as I sought out new poetic frontiers.

I could ramble about poets all week, but for now I thought I’d just showcase three of my favorite African American poets. The three you’ll find below are certainly very widely known, but I steered clear of Angelou and Hughes specifically because they are so well known by evvvvvverybody. Maybe not everyone is as intimately familiar with Paul Laurence Dunbar, Phillis Wheatley, and Countee Cullen. All three are of tremendous historical importance, authors of stirring poetry, and were taken from this world far too soon (all before the age of 45).

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had escaped slavery in Kentucky. Before Matilda and Joshua Dunbar separated, they instilled in their son Paul a passion for education. Matilda in particular loved poetry and fostered her children’s enthusiasm for reading. Paul wrote his first poem at only six years of age and gave his first public recital at nine. His first published work appeared in a newspaper printed by his school acquaintances Wilbur and Orville Wright (yes, those Wright brothers!). Dunbar became editor and publisher of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper geared toward the African American community, and he published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. The book was relatively well-received on the local level, but Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator to repay his debt to his publisher.

When he was invited to recite his poetry at the World’s Fair in 1893, he had the honor of meeting abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who referred to Dunbar as, “the most promising young colored man in America.” It was with the publication of Dubar’s second book, Majors and Minors, that he finally began to receive some of the recognition he deserved on the national stage. By 1897, that national recognition had spread and carried him to England to recite his works on the London literary circuit. Shortly following his return from England, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a budding author, teacher, and social activist. Dunbar began working at the Library of Congress in D.C., but he found the work tedious. The library’s dust likely also worsened his tuberculosis, and he quit the job within a year and devoted himself to writing full time. Following his separation from his wife in 1902, depression led him into alcohol dependence, but he continued to write. He died from tuberculosis on February 9, 1906, at the tragically young age of 33.  All told, in his short but prolific life, Paul Laurence Dunbar produced twelve books of poetry, a play, five novels, and four books of short stories.

Sources: The University of Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Website and Wikipedia

The poem of Dunbar’s I most want to share is called Paradox, and it is one of my favorite poems of all time. I discovered this poem when I was in middle school. I have a deep fascination with the idea of paradoxes, so it was no wonder that my meandering searches ultimately landed me here. My advice to those of you who are not familiar with it: Read slowly, read carefully, read… repeatedly. It is most wonderful.

Paradox by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I am the mother of sorrows,

I am the ender of grief;

I am the bud and the blossom,

I am the late-falling leaf.

I am thy priest and thy poet,

I am thy serf and thy king;

I cure the tears of the heartsick,

When I come near they shall sing.

White are my hands as the snowdrop;

Swart are my fingers as clay;

Dark is my frown as the midnight,

Fair is my brow as the day.

Battle and war are my minions,

Doing my will as divine;

I am the calmer of passions,

Peace is a nursling of mine.

Speak to me gently or curse me,

Seek me or fly from my sight;

I am thy fool in the morning,

Thou art my slave in the night.

Down to the grave I will take thee,

Out from the noise of the strife,

Then shalt thou see me and know me–

Death, then, no longer, but life.

Then shalt thou sing at my coming,

Kiss me with passionate breath,

Clasp me and smile to have thought me

Aught save the foeman of death.

Come to me, brother, when weary,

Come when thy lonely heart swells;

I’ll guide thy footsteps and lead thee

Down where the Dream Woman dwells.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley’s exact date and location of birth are not known. It is believed, however, that she was born somewhere in West Africa in 1753. She was brought to Boston Massachusetts in 1761 on a ship known as The Phillis. At the tender age of eight, she was sold as a slave to John Wheatley, who purchased her to be a servant girl for his wife Susanna. They named the young girl after the ship who brought her to America. She first came under the tutelage of the Wheatleys’ daughter Mary. John Wheatley was known for his “progressive” viewpoints, and he saw to her education in spite of her African heritage and her gender. When by twelve years of age Phillis was already reading Greek, Latin, and the Bible on her own, the Wheatleys made her education a priority (in no small part to “show her off” to family and friends in the Boston area). By thirteen, Phillis was writing her own poetry, heavily influenced by the work of Alexander Pope and John Milton. She showed a distinct interest in poetry in general and ultimately became the first published African American poet and the second woman to publish a book in the colonies.

Wheatley’s first poem to appear in print was On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin in 1767, but she did not achieve widespread recognition until the publication of An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine…George Whitefield in 1770. Wheatley generally steered clear of discussing slavery, though she offers a delicate but clear admonition to her white readers in her most widely known poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America (1768): “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain / May be refined, and join th’ angelic train.” She received acclaim for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. She was known for her exuberance and enchanting personality, and she won friends and admirers in many venues, particularly when she was escorted to London by the Wheatleys’ son Nathaniel the year her first book was published. It was in part due to the insistence of friends she made in England that she was
freed shortly after. No longer enslaved, she was still not given the full rights of a free woman until years later in 1778 when her master died. Though a great supporter of the American Revolution, the war made the publication of her poetry far more difficult. Shortly after John Wheatley died, Phillis married John Peters. The union was tumultuous, due to poverty and the deaths of two young children. Finances and the impact of the war prevented Wheatley from publishing further volumes of poetry, and her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784. This left her to care for an ill child, and she was forced to seek employment as a scullery maid. Phillis Wheatley passed away on December 5, 1784, at only 31 years of age. Her infant son died mere hours later. Many of her poems were published posthumously, and she was honored by some of America’s founding fathers.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia

I don’t want to post Wheatley’s most famous poem here, since I think most people have already read it at some point in their lives. So let me instead share with you another truly stunning poem she wrote entitled An Hymn to Humanity. For its beauty, its eloquence, and its brilliance, it should be on everyone’s list of favorite poems.

An Hymn to Humanity by Phillis Wheatley


Lo! for this dark terrestrial ball

Forsakes his azure-paved hall

A prince of heav’nly birth!

Divine Humanity behold,

What wonders rise, what charms unfold

At his descent to earth!


The bosoms of the great and good

With wonder and delight he view’d,

And fix’d his empire there:

Him, close compressing to his breast,

The sire of gods and men address’d,

“My son, my heav’nly fair!


“Descend to earth, there place thy throne;

“To succour man’s afflicted son

“Each human heart inspire:

“To act in bounties unconfin’d

“Enlarge the close contracted mind,

“And fill it with thy fire.”


Quick as the word, with swift career

He wings his course from star to star,

And leaves the bright abode.

The Virtue did his charms impart;

Their G—–! then thy raptur’d heart

Perceiv’d the rushing God:


For when thy pitying eye did see

The languid muse in low degree,

Then, then at thy desire

Descended the celestial nine;

O’er me methought they deign’d to shine,

And deign’d to string my lyre.


Can Afric’s muse forgetful prove?

Or can such friendship fail to move

A tender human heart?

Immortal Friendship laurel-crown’d

The smiling Graces all surround

With ev’ry heav’nly Art.

Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen was born Countee LeRoy Porter on May 30, 1903. It is speculated that he was abandoned by his parents at birth, but the truth remains unknown, in part due to his secretiveness in life. What is known, however, is that Cullen was raised by his grandmother until she passed away in 1908, at which time he was informally adopted by Reverend Frederick Ashbury Cullen, who was a minister at the local Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. Frederick Cullen was an early African American activist minister who, by the time he moved his church to Harlem in 1924, had pulled together a devoted membership of over 2,500. The two traveled abroad together, and Countee Cullen appears to have been strongly influenced by the reverend. At DeWitt Clinton High School, Cullen edited the school newspaper and began writing poetry that came to the attention of others. He won a citywide poetry contest while still in high school with the poem I have a Rendezvous with Life. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University and, shortly thereafter, published his first volume of poems entitled Color. He went on to secure an M.A. degree from Harvard. During this time he became one of the most prominent and popular African American literary figures in the country.

He earned more literary prizes than any other African American writer of the 1920’s and received critical acclaim across the nation. On April 9, 1928, he married Nina Yolande Du Bois (only child of W.E.B. Du Bois), but the marriage ended within two years. From the 1930’s onward, Cullen wrote less, in part due to his work as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High. In addition to writing books and poetry, he did some work as a playwright. In 1935 he translated Euripedes’ Medea, and he wrote a one act play called The Third Fourth of July, which ran for 113 performances at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway. In 1940 he married Ida Mae Roberson, and in 1946 he passed away suddenly, succumbing to uremic poisoning and complications from hypertension at the all too young age of 42. Cullen is still considered one of the greatest writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and a collection of some of his best work was compiled and published after his death in On These I Stand.

Sources: Harvard Square Library and Wikipedia

I know what I said about trying not to post these poets’ most famous works, but I’m going to make an exception here. One of the poems Cullen is undoubtedly best known for is his stunning, poignant The Shroud of Color. It might seem a bit lengthy to some, but it is very much worth the read. It is a heart-rending, powerful piece of art, and I highly encourage everyone to take it in slowly (and at least twice).

The Shroud of Color by Countee Cullen

“Lord, being dark,” I said, “I cannot bear

The further touch of earth, the scented air;

Lord, being dark, forewilled to that despair

My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt

Beneath my brother’s heel; there is a hurt

In all the simple joys which to a child

Are sweet; they are contaminate, defiled

By truths of wrongs the childish vision fails

To see; too great a cost this birth entails.

I strangle in this yoke drawn tighter than

The worth of bearing it, just to be man.

I am not brave enough to pay the price

In full; I lack the strength to sacrifice

I who have burned my hands upon a star,

And climbed high hills at dawn to view the far

Illimitable wonderments of earth,

For whom all cups have dripped the wine of mirth,

For whom the sea has strained her honeyed throat

Till all the world was sea, and I a boat

Unmoored, on what strange quest I willed to float;

Who wore a many-colored coat of dreams,

Thy gift, O Lord–I whom sun-dabbled streams

Have washed, whose bare brown thighs have held the sun

Incarcerate until his course was run,

I who considered man a high-perfected

Glass where loveliness could lie reflected,

Now that I sway athwart Truth’s deep abyss,

Denuding man for what he was and is,

Shall breath and being so inveigle me

That I can damn my dreams to hell, and be

Content, each new-born day, anew to see

The steaming crimson vintage of my youth

Incarnadine the altar-slab of Truth?

Or hast Thou, Lord, somewhere I cannot see,

A lamb imprisoned in a bush for me?

Not so? Then let me render one by one

Thy gifts, while still they shine; some little sun

Yet gilds these thighs; my coat, albeit worn,

Still hold its colors fast; albeit torn.

My heart will laugh a little yet, if I

May win of Thee this grace, Lord: on this high

And sacrificial hill ‘twixt earth and sky,

To dream still pure all that I loved, and die.

There is n
o other way to keep secure

My wild chimeras, grave-locked against the lure

Of Truth, the small hard teeth of worms, yet less

Envenomed than the mouth of Truth, will bless

Them into dust and happy nothingness.

Lord, Thou art God; and I, Lord, what am I

But dust? With dust my place. Lord, let me die.”

Across earth’s warm, palpitating crust

I flung my body in embrace; I thrust

My mouth into the grass and sucked the dew,

Then gave it back in tears my anguish drew;

So hard I pressed against the ground, I felt

The smallest sandgrain like a knife, and smelt

The next year’s flowering; all this to speed

My body’s dissolution, fain to feed

The worms. And so I groaned, and spent my strength

Until, all passion spent, I lay full length

And quivered like a flayed and bleeding thing.

So lay till lifted on a great black wing

That had no mate nor flesh-apparent trunk

To hamper it; with me all time had sunk

Into oblivion; when I awoke

The wing hung poised above two cliffs that broke

The bowels of the earth in twain, and cleft

The seas apart. Below, above, to left,

To right, I saw what no man saw before:

Earth, hell, and heaven; sinew, vein, and core.

All things that swim or walk or creep or fly,

All things that live and hunger, faint and die,

Were made majestic then and magnified

By sight so clearly purged and deified.

The smallest bug that crawls was taller than

A tree, the mustard seed loomed like a man.

The earth that writhes eternally with pain

Of birth, and woe of taking back her slain,

Laid bare her teeming bosom to my sight,

And all was struggle, gasping breath, and fight.

A blind worm here dug tunnels to the light,

And there a seed, racked with heroic pain,

Thrust eager tentacles to sun and rain:

It climbed; it died; the old love conquered me

To weep the blossom it would never be.

But here a bud won light; it burst and flowered

Into a rose whose beauty challenged, “Coward!”

There was no thing alive save only I

That held life in contempt and longed to die.

And still I writhed and moaned, “The curse, the curse,

Than animated death, can death be worse?”

“Dark child of sorrow, mine no less, what art Of mine can make thee see

and play thy part? The key to all strange things is in thy heart.”

What voice was this that coursed like liquid fire

Along my flesh, and turned my hair to wire?

I raised my burning eyes, beheld a field

All multitudinous with carnal yield,

A grim ensanguined mead whereon I saw

Evolve the ancient fundamental law

Of tooth and talon, fist and nail and claw.

There with the force of living, hostile hills

Whose clash the hemmed-in vale with clamor fills,

With greater din contended fierce majestic wills

Of beast with beast, of man with man, in strife

For love of what my heart despised, for life

That unto me at dawn was now a prayer

For night, at night a bloody heart-wrung tear

For day again; for this, these groans

From tangled flesh and interlocked bones.

And no thing died that did not give

A testimony that it longed to live.

Man, strange composite blend of brute and god,

Pushed on, nor backward glanced where last he trod:

He seemed to mount a misty ladder flung

Pendant from a cloud, yet never gained a rung

But at his feet another tugged and clung.

My heart was still a pool of bitterness,

Would yield nought else, nought else confess.

I spoke (although no form was there

To see, I knew an ear was there to hear),

“Well, let them fight; they can whose flesh is fair.”

Crisp lightning flashed; a wave of thunder shook

My wing; a pause, and then a speaking, “Look.”

I scarce dared trust my ears or eyes for awe

Of what they heard, and dread of what they saw;

For, privileged beyond degree, this flesh

Beheld God and His heaven in the mesh

Of Lucifer’s revolt, saw Lucifer

Glow like the sun, and like a dulcimer

I heard his sin-sweet voice break on the yell

Of God’s great warriors: Gabriel,

Saint Clair and Michael, Israfel and Raphael.

And strange it was to see God with His back

Against a wall, to see Christ hew and hack

Till Lucifer, pressed by the mighty pair,

And losing inch by inch, clawed at the air

With fevered wings; then, lost beyond repair,

He tricked a mass of stars into his hair;

He filled his hands with stars, crying as he fell,

“A star’s a star although it burns in hell.”

So God was left to His divinity,

Omnipotent at that most costly fee.

There was a lesson here, but still the clod

In me was sycophant unto the rod,

And cried, “Why mock me thus? Am I a god?”

“One trial more: this failing, then I give You leave to die; no

further need to live.”

Now suddenly a strange wild music smote

A chord long impotent in me; a note

Of jungles, primitive and subtle, throbbed

Against my echoing breast, and tom-toms sobbed

In every pulse-beat of my frame. The din

A hollow log bound with a python’s skin

Can make wrought every nerve to ecstasy,

And I was wind and sky again, and sea,

And all sweet things that flourish, being free.

Till all at once the music changed its key.

And now it was of bitterness and death,

The cry the lash extorts, the broken breath

Of liberty enchained; and yet there ran

Through all a harmony of faith in man,

A knowledge all would end as it began.

All sights and sounds and aspects of my race

Accompanied this melody, kept pace

With it; with music all their hopes and hates

Were charged, not to be downed by all the fates.

And somehow it was borne upon my brain

How being dark, and living through the pain

Of it, is courage more than angels have.I knew

What storms and tumults lashed the tree that grew

This body that I was, this cringing I

That feared to contemplate a changing sky,

This that I grovelled, whining, “Let me die,”

While others struggled in Life’s abattoir.

The cries of all dark people near or far

Were billowed over me, a mighty surge

Of suffering in which my puny grief must merge

And lose itself; I had no further claim to urge

For death; in shame I raised my dust-grimed head,

And though my lips moved not, God knew I said,

“Lord, not for what I saw in flesh or bone

Of fairer men; not raised on faith alone;

Lord, I will live persuaded by mine own.

I cannot play the recreant to these;

My spirit has come home, that sailed the doubtful seas.”

With the whiz of a sword that severs space,

The wing dropped down at a dizzy pace,

And flung me on my hill flat on my face;

Flat on my face I lay defying pain,

Glad of the blood in my smallest vein,

And in my hands I clutched a loyal dream,

Still spitting fire, bright twist and coil and gleam,

And chiseled like a hound’s white tooth.

“Oh, I will match you yet,” I cried, “to truth.”

Right glad I was to stoop to what I once had spurned.

Glad even unto tears; I laughed aloud; I turned

Upon my back, and though the tears for joy would run,

My sight was clear; I looked and saw the rising sun.

I really could go on and on about poetry, but I’ll stop for now. Many of you are probably familiar with all three of the above poets and their work, but I hope that I’ve introduced someone out there to something new. Truly, the body of work between these three is beyond impressive, and there’s absolutely something for everyone to enjoy. I hope anyone who was unfamiliar with any of them takes the time to look them up. Here I would go into another ramble on how great poetry is, but Audre Lord said it better:

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.Audre Lorde


  1. The Loss of Love

    All through an empty place I go,

    And find her not in any room;

    The candles and the lamps I light

    Go down before a wind of gloom.

    Thick-spraddled lies the dust about,

    A fit, sad place to write her name

    Or draw her face the way she looked

    That legendary night she came.

    The old house crumbles bit by bit;

    Each day I hear the ominous thud

    That says another rent is there

    For winds to pierce and storms to flood.

    My orchards groan and sag with fruit;

    Where, Indian-wise, the bees go round;

    I let it rot upon the bough;

    I eat what falls upon the ground.

    The heavy cows go laboring

    In agony with clotted teats;

    My hands are slack; my blood is cold;

    I marvel that my heart still beats.

    I have no will to weep or sing,

    No least desire to pray or curse;

    The loss of love is a terrible thing;

    They lie who say that death is worse.

    Countee Cullen 1903-1946

  2. I am especially fond of the poets I read as a youth, but I also read contemporary poets. Here’s an African-American poet I stumbled across in my poetry wanderings. Reading this poem for the first time was one of those experiences where I realized that while I could empathize with the plight of blacks, I could never really live it.


    It was 1963 or 4, summer,

    and my father was driving our family

    from Ft. Hood to North Carolina in our 56 Buick.

    We’d been hearing about Klan attacks, and we knew

    Mississippi to be more dangerous than usual.

    Dark lay hanging from the trees the way moss did,

    and when it moaned light against the windows

    that night, my father pulled off the road to sleep.


    that usually woke me from rest afraid of monsters

    kept my father awake that night, too,

    and I lay in the quiet noticing him listen, learning

    that he might not be able always to protect us

    from everything and the creatures besides;

    perhaps not even from the fury suddenly loud

    through my body about his trip from Texas

    to settle us home before he would go away

    to a place no place in the world

    he named Viet Nam. A boy needs a father

    with him, I kept thinking, fixed against noise

    from the dark.

    Written by Forrest Hamer

  3. and I’ve noticed they don’t really get a lot of participation. I suspect that is because some people don’t feel all that knowledgeable about poetry. If you are one of those people and you’ve always wanted to develop an interest it poetry, but didn’t really know where to start then I’ve got a site that you may find interesting.

    Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins created a program for high school students with 180 poems – one for each school day. It has been turned into a web site by the Library of Congress.

    While the poems were selected with high school students in mind, they can be enjoyed by anyone. Most are fairly short and fairly easy to understand. It’s a great place to start to explore poetry. You can read a few and then use the internet to learn more about a poet you find interesting.

    I hope this helps someone take their first step on the road to a lifelong appreciation of poetry.

  4. spacemanspiff

    spiffy open thread and charlie sheen vs. sarah palin don’t?

    What is it with this place and quality control.

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