Born in Detroit, was raised by a foster family next door to his mother
Struggled with severe nearsightedness
Greatly admired W.H. Auden
Taught until his death
Poet of elegance and restraint, wrote about such emotionally fraught subjects as lynching of African Americans during the civil rights movement, the transport of slaves from Africa to the New World and his own perplexity as a youth raised in a Detroit slum
Poetry condenses and evokes feelings and ideas in intricate sonic textures
Approaches highly charged subjects indirectly, even risking adoption of the voice of victimizer
One of the leading African American poets of the twentieth century
Became Baha’i in 1943, embracing a religion that teaches the unity of all faiths and peoples
Put to powerful use modernist aesthetic principles as concision, allusion, juxtaposition, collage, and symbolism
Jesus, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:
Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,/ sharks follwing the moans the fever and they dying;/ horror the corposant and compass rose.
Middle Passage:/ voyage through death/ to life upon these shores.
“10 April 1800-/ Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says/ their moaning is a prayer for death,/ ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves./ Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter/ to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”
Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:
Standing to America, bringing home/ black gold, black ivory, black seed.
Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,/ of his bones New England pews are made,/ those are altar lights that were his eyes.
Jesus Savior Pilot Me/ Over Life’s Tempestuous Sea
We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,/ safe passage to our vessels bringing/ heathen souls unto Thy chastening.
Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,/ Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;/ have watched the artful mongos baiting traps/ of war wherein the victor and the vanquished
Were caught as prizes for our barracoons./ Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity/ and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,/ Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.
Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,/ the dark ships move, the dark ships move,/ their bright ironical names/ like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;/ plough through thrashing glister toward/ fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,/ weave toward New World littorals that are/ mirage and myth and actual shore.
Voyage through death,/ voyage whose chartings are unlove.
You cannot stare that hatred down/ or chain the fear that stalks the watches/ and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;/ cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,/ the timeless will.
“It sickens me/ to think of what I saw, of how these apes/ threw overboard the butchered bodies of our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsaam./ Enough, enough. the rest is quickly told:/ Cinque was forced to spare the two of us/ you see to steer the ship to Africa,/ and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea/ voyaged east by day and west by night,/ deceiving them, hoping for rescue,/ prisoners on our own vessel, till/ at length we drifted to the shores of this/ your land, America, where we were freed/ from our unspeakable misery. Now we/ demand, good sirs, the extradition of/ Cinquez and his accomplices to La/ Havana.
I tell you that we are determined to return to Cuba/ with our slaves and there see justice done./ Cinquez-/ or let us say ‘the Prince’- Cinquez shall die.”
The deep imortal human wish,/ the timeless will.
Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,/ life that transfigures many lives.
Voyage through death/ to life upon these shores.
Journey of slaves across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas
Poetic voice changes in each part