I’m officially ashamed of myself. One of my absolute heroes of any regard (whatever the medium, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, literature, political and social life, intellectual, orator, moral example, thinker, etc., etc.) is James Baldwin, and yet, somehow, it has escaped my attention that Baldwin has also written poetry.
If Charles Bukowski, who I’ve been posting about recently, is an in-your-face poet about the underbelly of life in terms of day-to-day living, then Baldwin is the foremost thinker about the “underbelly” of American society. That is, racism. And at least, in the time he grew up in and talked about these issues, it most certainty wasn’t the underbelly, even though in the American imagination it is thought of as the underbelly.
Man, I love me some James Baldwin. How did I not know he’s done some poetry? Gah.
The author saw himself as a “disturber of the peace”—one who revealed uncomfortable truths to a society mired in complacency. – From the Poetry Foundation
Okay, okay, to be fair to myself, The Los Angeles Times in a 2014 article vindicates my obliviousness somewhat. They talked about how he published Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, a collection of 25 poems he published. So it’s not like his oeuvre is extensive. But still.
If you didn’t know Baldwin was a poet, you’re not alone — although it makes sense because his prose was always visionary and poetic, built on a torrent, a flow of words. – The L.A. Times.
The first poem of his I want to talk about is, “Untitled,” which, compared to his essays and oratory, is decidedly … tame? For lack of a better word. That is, it’s not as in-your-face as one might expect from Baldwin. Instead, I interpret it as a metaphor. Here’s the poem from the Jimmy’s Blues collection:
when you send the rain
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath that water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.
At first blush (as I’ve mentioned, that’s how I prefer to do my analysis of poems), this is how I interpret the, “Untitled,” poem: America sees itself as a blessed nation. In fact, America sees itself as a uniquely blessed nation. In the poem then, I see rain as the plentiful bounty that America has accrued, and it can be lovely, the sound of falling water and the “marvelous light,” but there is always, always someone left out in the rain, and it’s not so beautiful and marvelous then. In America, that would be minorities, who don’t have a seat at the table. And worse than merely not being beautiful and marvelous, it’s actively falling with “great force.”
Also, I don’t know why this is untitled and it may be a completely unintended and innocuous reason, but for fun, if I were to interpret that, it’s untitled because who is the person having rain fall on them to question the Lord of all beings in the universe (aka, who is the minority to question the status quo in America?)? As such, it’s unwritten and untitled.
The second poem I wanted to touch upon is, “Amen,” decidedly more up-front.
No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.
I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge
I love, love that first bit: “No, I don’t feel death coming/I feel death going.”
That’s a profound line, and if I was going to wrestle my brain to try to figure out what he means, my first thought was that Baldwin lived a full life. After all, he lived to be 63-years-old, which nowadays isn’t that old, but for someone born in the 1920s, that’s a pretty good long life. He lived the intellectual life, laying all of his thoughts on the line. He didn’t life a live in the shadows, and what else is there for him to give?
That also makes sense with the idea of death throwing up its arms, but I’m not sure what to make of that. Did Baldwin escape death at some point, and Death was like, “Whatever, I’ll get back to you.”
Or, that as a black man in America, Death coming for him wouldn’t be the most surprising thing? It would be expected? Even though he lived to 63, it was 63 years of borrowed time?
What do you make of these particular poems and James Baldwin?