Jean Toomer

October 31, 2006

jean-toomer.jpg
(1894-1967)

Born to racially mixed parents: his father left soon after his birth and his mother died when he was 15, after which he lived with his grandparents
Grew up in Washington, D.C. and New Rochelle, New York
His light-skinned appearance allowed him to live alternately as a black and a white person
Attended five different colleges after high school and never received a degree
Wrote experimental poetry that was indebted to imagism, urbanism, and East Asian poetic forms
Protested against fallacious racial stereotypes
Wrote one of the classic books of American literature with “Cane”: alternates lyric poems with prose pieces and combines features of the Harlem Renaissance and the modernist movement
Many of his poems’ speakers bear witness to the difficult and often heroic struggles of an oppressed people sustained by their culture and community
After “Cane”, Toomer abandoned his racial subject matter and commenced a spiritual quest that would occupy him for the rest of his life
Became a follower of the European mysic George Gurdjieff who advocated a personal transofmation into heightened awareness
In the mid-1930’s Toomer and his wife and daughter turn from Gurdjieff to the Quaker Society of Friends
For 15 years he wrote religious treatises, autobiographies and unpublished poems

Quotations:

A cow-hoof imprint / pressed against the under-asphalt of / Fifth Avenue, sustains it
The osseous teat of an inverted cow / spurts s k y s c r a p e r s / against a cloud / racing to / dusk, / and / it / sprays / in / num / er / ab / le / blunk peaks against / the milky-way.

-Skyline (in whole)

Hair – braided chestnut, / Coiled like a lyncher’s rope / Eyes – fagots, / Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters, / Breath – the last weet scent of cane, / And her slim body, white as the ash / Of black flesh after flame.

-Portrait in Georgia (in whole)

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