Celebrating Black Poetry During Black History Month

Although we’ve already talked about Maya Angelou before, there are several other inspirational and great African-American poets that should be celebrated not only during Black History Month but at any time because there poetry is amazing regardless. But what I love about black poetry is that you can feel the essence and soul that these writers put into their work as they reflect upon the African-American experience. We can feel their pain, their sorrow, their joy and whatever emotion they are willing to share in their piece.

Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her second collection of poems entitled Annie Allen.  She was also the first black woman to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. Her most famous piece, is “We Real Cool” found below:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The Harlem Renaissance is one of the most celebrated times in Black Culture. Jazz musicians like Luis Armstrong and Duke Ellington paved the way for African American musicians, while writers like Langston Hughes broke new ground for African American writers. His most famous poem entitled Harlem (see below) was an inspiration for other black writers. For example, African American playwright  Lorraine Hansberry titled her play A Raisin In The Sun about a black family in Chicago during the time of segregation.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Audre Lorde describes her self as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” During the Civil Rights movement, her poetry reflected the turbulent times. The Brown Menace (below) especially rings true as police brutality, white supremacy and other issues still persist til this day.

Call me

your deepest urge

toward survival

call me

and my brothers and sisters

in the sharp smell of your refusal

call me

roach and presumptuous

nightmare on your white pillow

your itch to destroy

the indestructible

part of yourself.

Call me your own determination

in the most detestable shape

you can become

friend of your image

within me

I am you

in your most deeply cherished nightmare

scuttling through the painted cracks

you create to admit me

into your kitchens

into your fearful midnights

into your values at noon

in your most secret places

with hate

you learn to honor me

by imitation

as I alter–

although your greedy preoccupations

through your kitchen wars

and your poisonous refusal–

to survive.

To survive.

Survive.

Dylan Thomas – A Brief Biography

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born October 27, 1914 in Swansea, South Wales. And it seemed, from the outset of his life, he was destined for the field of literature. His father, an English literature professor, was known to recite Shakespeare to him as a young boy. This relatively simple act seemed to trigger what would soon become a great love for literature and – specifically – poetry. Thomas became particularly fond of the works of D.H. Lawrence, indulging himself in all of the English novelist’s poetry, and he went on to excel in English while neglecting all of his other studies. It wasn’t very long afterward at the age of 16 that Thomas would leave school altogether to pursue an early career in writing as a junior reporter for the South Wales Daily Post. And it wasn’t much longer after that, Thomas had lost his love of journalism and left his job to dedicate himself fully to his poetry, at the age of 18 years old.

It was within the period of his late teenage years that Thomas seemed to be the most prolific. Roughly half of his accomplished works are accounted between leaving school at 16 and moving to London around the age of 20, shortly after publishing “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” in 1933, which was featured in the New English Weekly. It was this first international publication that would spark interest in him, calling him to the attention of several editors of English literary magazines before moving to London shortly thereafter. His first collection of work would later be featured standalone in December of 1934 as “18 Poems.” Several other collections would soon follow, including “Twenty Five Poems” in 1936 and “The Map of Love” in 1939. Thomas’ work and perspective were also unique in that he generally broke away from contemporary tendencies to write about social or intellectual issues such as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, preferring to concentrate his efforts more toward lyrical works and reflecting a mood akin to works of the Romantic period.

Unfortunately, as much as Thomas succeeded in the literary world, the other pieces of his life couldn’t seem to fall into place. During the height of his success as a writer, he wed a dancer named Caitlin Macnamara, and they went on to have three children. However, much speculation would later come about the fidelity of their marriage, even suspicions that both he and Macnamara may have been involved in affairs apart from each other. Thomas also struggled financially at a time where he succumbed greatly to alcohol abuse. He took work for the BBC during World War II as a film scriptwriter, in which he contributed to over a hundred radio broadcasts, one of which would later inspire his radio play “Under Milk Wood,” written in 1953. Thomas even supplemented this income with reading tours – reading tours that were more often characterized as “flamboyant performances – which would eventually see him on his way to the likes of Italy, where he would be inspired to write his most famous poem, “Do no go gentle into that good night,” as well as the United States, where he would tour four times in his life. It was unfortunately there, in New York City, on his last tour that Thomas would meet an unfortunate and untimely demise. Having collapsed at the Chelsea Hotel, Thomas passed away only a few days later at St. Vincent’s Hospital on November 9, 1953. It was discovered Thomas had died of pneumonia, swelling of the brain, and a fatty liver.

Despite the issues surrounding many aspects of his life, Dylan Thomas was most remembered for his contribution to the literary world, both for his work and for the performances of his works, reviving with vigor such traditions as lyricism and reinventing the Romantic poet during his time in America, where he was renowned for being “flamboyantly theatrical” and reading his poetry “with tremendous depth of feeling and a singing Welsh lilt.”

The Frosting of Frost’s Fork

Robert Frost is a true American poetic legend.

His style, his mind-portraits with his words are all masterpieces that are celebrated for generations. But there may be one of his most-famous poems that have been turned into an unfortunate cliché

We have all gotten various greeting cards or “motivational” or “inspirational” notes that refer to the “road less traveled.” That phrase comes from Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but a reading of the poem in its full context reveals that the phrase is misused constantly.

The basis of “The Road Not Taken” isn’t about being a trailblazer or doing something in an unorthodox way. If one actually reads the poem, the theme isn’t on the road that is truly less traveled – which in the poem doesn’t actually exist – but it is instead about the “fork in the road” that is a metaphor for any of life’s choices and decisions we make almost every day.

The truth of the matter is that the title gets misrepresented. We can read that clearly there is no road that is actually less traveled between the two that the narrator is considering. They are both virtually untraveled. The poem is not about blazing trails, it’s about the road our choice takes us down. It is untraveled because that “fork” is the decision that we have yet to make, and so no one else can go down either road because this is a decision that only we have individually.

You see, when we come to a decision, even if 100 other people faced the exact same decision, their “forks” are in a different context of their individual lives. Even if we have the same options, the course of our life will be different than those other 100 people. The untraveled road signifies where we will be going based on our decision. It’s essentially free will combining with what the “plan” will be for us. And our “plan” will be different than those 100 other people who may have had the same decision because all of our lives are individual and we all come to that decision, that “fork,” from different places.

With what is revealed about this poem is that it’s about future potential regret for the road not taken, and about the future and how we might see our lives based on the decision that we are yet to take. On the one hand, there is an expectation of one of two things – either we will remember our past inaccurately, or we will undergo some “revisionism” or hypocrisy about the decision.

On the other hand, the poem is about wondering “what if.” If we take one road, we will wonder at some point down that path whether we should have taken the other road – is the road not taken better than the one we chose? And as we make this choice only once, we are never able to go back and re-visit the fork again, which is also a lamentation in the poem.

Robert Frost is accomplished at painting a picture of nature that explores our psyche and makes us contemplate the beauty and the starkness of the decisions we make and possible consequences. Reading Frost is a fascinating psychological journey.

Famous Children’s Poets Who You Should Know

When we start reading to our kids, we don’t always consider adding variety to the regimen. Sure, simple stories are nice but sometimes kids and parents could both benefit from something a little bit different. Poetry can provide a lot of benefits for a young mind: not only does it make you think and interpret a lot more about a little bit, but it can also help put them to sleep when it’s time for bed. Sure, we all know Dr. Seuss. But there are more poets out there devoted to telling insightful tales to your kids. Here are a few of the great children’s poets whose names you should definitely know.

Shel Silverstein was a Playboy cartoonist, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving his poems a try. Actually, the Playboy mansion was where he wrote a lot of his work. He wrote Where The Sidewalk Ends, a book of poems that was quickly recognized as a classic.

Edward Lear wrote and illustrated his poetic works, and when he wasn’t doing that he was working on other artistic endeavors such as composing music. When he was writing children’s poems, however, he made a name for himself by perfecting the limerick. It could be argued that he’s the only reason most of us have heard so many of them growing up.

Jacqueline Woodson has written a number of successful young adult novels, but she writes for younger kids and even adults as well. She won a National Book Award in 2014 and was appointed as the young people’s poet laureate of the Poetry Foundation.

Robert Louis Stevenson is famous for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde and Treasure Island, but also a number of popular children’s poems on a variety of subjects. He isn’t afraid to venture into more serious topics or at least touch upon the darkness inherent in us all from time to time.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was written by Judith Viorst, but she also wrote poetry for children and parents both. She is especially known for her witty, fun-flavored titles like: Sad Underwear and Other Complications.

Roald Dahl never stopped churning out poetry. He wrote a collection called Revolting Rhymes. In it, he retold famous fairy tales–but these were far darker than your traditional Disney flavor.

You may not have heard of Naomi Shihab Nye, but she’s a master of the narrative whether in the form of narrative or poetic verse. She has won a number of awards and prizes for her writing. She’s known for the kind of imagery she weaves into her tales.

How many of these children’s poets did you recognize? There are dozens more that you might wish to see on the list, but these are a good start.

Seven Controversial Poets You Should Read Right Now

Poetry isn’t for everyone, but there are some poets who write about the most explosive topics you could imagine. Those who are brave enough to venture into this territory of the written word should be commended for both their skill in gaining the attention of the masses and their willingness to do it, even knowing the consequences. These are seven of the most controversial poets you’ll ever hear about, and you should probably read a few of their poems as soon as you can.

W.B. Yeats wrote a poem called The Second Coming, a cold prophecy about the fall of a Christian age that has lasted for two thousand years. He firmly believed that such eras tended to last about that long, and that this one was ending at last. He considered the millions of dead from World War I to be evidence of this.

Amiri Baraka might be the most controversial on the list, and the most contemporary. After the events of 9/11, she wrote a poem called Somebody Blew Up America. A hardcore truther, he believed that President Bush was quite aware of what would transpire that day, as were the Israelis. This publication caused a battle between the poet and a number of government posts including the governor of New Jersey at the time, and soon enough the question of how far free speech can go came up.

Allen Ginsberg published Howl in 1956 inside of a collection. He was a fierce opponent of conformity during a time period that needed such a man to speak for the rest of us who couldn’t. He was openly gay, and at the time such a thing was considered an illness as well as a criminal act. His collection was taken into the court system of San Francisco, a city which thankfully allowed its publication.

T.S. Eliot got The Wasteland published in 1922, and it has graced literature classes ever since. All over the U.S., poetry was somewhat fluffy and light-hearted, and T.S. Eliot’s new work crushed everything we knew about the medium into darkness and oblivion in a post-war world left in extreme emotional pain.

William Shakespeare isn’t all that controversial anymore, but some of his subject matter isn’t for the faint of heart, and it wasn’t always well-received during the time in which it was written. Although it isn’t an explosive reason, some of the controversy surrounding Shakespeare regarded the writing conventions which up to that point hadn’t been standardized. Spelling and grammar were in part up to the author to define. He helped create a number of the words and colloquialisms still in use today.

Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck explored the past, present, and the way the two interact when it comes to the way in which we define the sexuality of women during the women’s movement. The poem is steeped in metaphor, opening with a shipwreck underneath the ocean surface.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, perhaps one of the greatest achievements of his time period. Although his writing isn’t all that controversial in the strictest sense, he managed to strongly impact writing in the form of poetry for some time to come by implementing syllabic meter into his works. This helped propel Middle English used at that time into something that felt a lot more alive.

Five Famous Poems

Poetry is all about emotion and imagination. Some of the best poems by the best poets are windows into the poet’s heart and mind. The most creative way to use language is through poetry, which is also the best way to put emotions and spiritual ideas into a language in a way that can be understood.

Many of us know the names of famous poets – Dickinson, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Poe, Angelou, Frost, Yeats. But do you recognize any of these very famous poems? Let’s take a quick look at five of the most well-known poems, and see how much of them you know.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Perhaps Robert Frost’s most well-known poem is about a patch of woods that belong to a neighbor, which the author observes while on a horse ride.  The quadrameter is attractive as Frost describes the scene with pleasant rhymes and colorful words in two stanzas. The piece ends with:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, (she’s from North Carolina, not from Dallas, Texas like many claim!) was a one-time Poet Laureate of the United States, having one of the most famous poems about woman’s power and mystery. She wrote about a woman’s confidence and answered the question that men seemed to not know why a woman who is not a supermodel can still be so attractive. She puts it this way in one stanza, answering the question why men “still can’t see” her mystery:

I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe

Poe was a poet savant who passed away too young, and mainly of a broken heart. Much of his poetry was dark and anguished, some of it makes for great Halloween entertainment. He had several famous poems, but “The Raven” is probably his most famous, having been spoofed in a Halloween special of the long-running cartoon comedy The Simpsons. What was interesting is that the raven in the title doesn’t come into the poem until halfway through, and it’s introduced with Poe’s characteristic long meter and playful description:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore –
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

A sad but powerful poem from Dylan Thomas, it is written as a final plea of a child to its father who approaches death. A child’s love is crying out for Dad to keep up the fight and to not go into the afterlife without a fight. It can often be used as a ballad for those fighting cancer or other difficult, life-threatening circumstances:

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is known for having bittersweet rhymes, and this ies perhaps oen of his most famous ones. It was immortalized in the 1980s movie Dead Poets’ Society, and the poem describes the “voyage” that is our childhood, captained by our parent or mentor. We celebrate the end of our journey (moving into adulthood), though our mentor has passed away from us. To wit:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Who Was Oscar Wilde And What Is He Famous For?

Oscar Wilde led an interesting life, and that’s putting it mildly. Then again, in order to be a successful writer after you die, you had to have lived in the most tragic of circumstances. Wilde would go down in history as a great writer of fiction and poetry and screenplays, and for a number of more professional essays. He also went down in history for other reasons.

In case you wondered, society has always sucked. In the midst of a feud with his (male) lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, he was accused of sodomy. As we all know, when you’re accused of sodomy you most definitely committed sodomy. Or at least the very possibility was enough to send you off to the bowels of prison, where ironically you’re even more likely to commit this most heinous (still being sarcastic) of crimes. After this accusation was made in public by the Marquess, Wilde accused him of libel. Because libel itself was a crime that carried a prison sentence, the Marquess set out to prove that Wilde had been involved in homosexual love affairs.

Naturally, Wilde had indeed been in a relationship with the man’s son, and so the investigations inevitably bore fruit (pardon the pun). When he was found out, Wilde dropped the libel accusation and was subsequently arrested for sodomy and put on trial in New York City for gross indecency with men. He was convicted. His resulting sentence put him in prison for two years, during which time he was forced to perform hard labor. Wilde continued to write during his sentence.

After this unfortunate occurrence and his release, he went into exile to France–where he would stay until his death.

Meningitis has always been an ailment that left society rattled, and it was no different during Wilde’s life. He developed the ailment and died on November 30, 1900 at the fairly young age of 46. No one is really certain about how he contracted meningitis, although theories range from the interestingly far-fetched–syphilis–to the more pragmatic, yet still uncertain–it came about from the formation of pus after an injury to his right ear that he suffered while in prison. One bad thing in Wilde’s life apparently led to another, through little fault of his own.

Wilde died as any great writer would–that is, without a penny to his name. His apparent sexual orientation and society’s response to it utterly destroyed any chance he had at prosperity, but (sort of) mercifully helped propel him into the annals of history. His “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was the last thing he ever wrote, and remains a chilling reminder of his time in prison. His most popular literary work while he yet lived was “The Importance of Being Earnest” and was performed in London during his feud with the Marquess. Even though he died a slave to society’s whims, the man was at least allowed to know a shadow of his eventual fame while he had the chance.

Our Favorite Poet: Robert Frost

This week’s favorite poet is Robert Frost; a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, renowned for his work about New England and depicting everyday life of the common man. He was the special guest at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and became the unofficial “poet laureate” of The United States

Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874. During his lifetime he had a ton of failed jobs, dropped out of Harvard and suffered through the deaths of his children and wife. In 1912, Frost published his first book of poetry, which was reviewed favorably other famous poets, Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas. Frost credits Thomas as inspiration for his most famous poem “The Road Not Taken” (seen below). Over the course of his life, he earned more than 40 honorary degrees and won the Pulitzer Prize for his books New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range and A Witness Tree.

At Kennedy’s inauguration not wanting to slip, trip and fall, he decided to recite a poem he committed to memory, rather than attempt to read the original that he had written. He died on January 29, 1963, from complications related to prostate surgery. His ashes were interred in a family plot in Bennington, Vermont.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Our Favorite Poets: Emily Dickinson

This week’s favorite poet is none other than Emily Dickinson. Some argue that she might be the most important American poet and some argue that the title belongs to Walt Whitman. But no one can deny that she was incredibly talented, not even the trolls on the internet.

She was born on December 10th in 1830. She wrote almost 1,800 poems but only a few of them ever published during her life. Her poetry was starkly different for the time period (the late 1800s) in which it was published. Most of her poetry utilizes short lines, slant rhymes, and random use of capitalization and punctuation. Some of her works were altered when published to fit what was standard. Her poems are also known for dealing with death and the thought of immortality.

Personality wise, Emily was known as a bit of reclusive and barely socialized. Most of her friendships were maintained through letters. She also never married. One day when baking she fainted which may have been the primary cause of her death. She did not commit suicide as commonly believed. But the fumes from the oven left her weakened and made it difficult for her to breathe.

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility —

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

Or rather — He passed Us —
The Dews drew quivering and Chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The Roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground —

Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity —

Our Favorite Poets: Gertrude Stein

While not in the least bit traditional, Gertrude Stein is one of our all-time favorite poets.

Born in Allegheny, PA on February 3, 1874, she moved to Paris in the early 1900s where she became influenced by the Impressionistic Art of the time. While in Europ she began writing poetry about a variety of subjects including homosexual tendencies and alcohol. These works include Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1914 and The Making of Americans (published in 1925). Taking the abstraction and cubism in prose, her poetry is almost unreadable. This why is she is referred to as a Modernist Poet because it breaks all forms of the tradition of classic poetry. She died in France in 1946 yet her legacy continues. Some critics are in support of her work saying that is defined a genre while other critics claim that her works are utter nonsense.

One of our favorite poems by her is Susie Asado.

You can hear it read out loud by this random YouTubber below. For me, her poetry is about the use of sounds rather than the literal story. What do you think?

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Susie Asado.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Susie Asado.
Susie Asado which is a told tray sure.
A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers.
When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short for incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
What is a nail. A nail is unison.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.