Authors: James Baldwin
Baldwin wrote poetry because he felt close to this particular form and this particular way of saying. Poetry helped thread his ideas from the essays, to the novels, to the love letters, to the book reviews, stitching images and feeling into music, back to his imagination. From the beginning of his life to the very end, I believe Baldwin saw himself more poet than anything else: The way he cared about language. The way he believed language should work. The way he understood what his friend and mentor, the great American painter Beauford Delaney, had taught himâto look close, not just at the water but at the oil sitting there on top of the water. This reliable witnessing eye was the true value of seeing the world for what it really was and not for what someone reported, from afar, that it was.
When Baldwin took off for Switzerland in 1952, he carried recordings by Bessie Smith, and he would often fall asleep listening to them, taking her in like the sweet Black poetry she sang. It must have been her
Baby don't worry, I got you
voice and their shared blues that pushed him through to finish
Go Tell It on the Mountain
in three months, after struggling with the story for ten years. Whenever Baldwin abandoned the music of who he was and how that sound was made, he momentarily lost his way. When he lost his way, I believe it was poetry that often brought him back. I believe he wrote poetry throughout his life because poetry brought him back to the music, back to the rain. The looking close. The understanding and presence of the oil on top of the water. Compression. Precision. The metaphor. The riff and shout. The figurative. The high notes. The blues. The reds. The whites. This soaking up. That treble clef. Bass. Baldwin could access it allâand didâwith poetry.
He was standing at the bath-room mirror
had just stepped out of the shower
balls retracted, prick limped out of the
thinking of nothing but foam and steam
when the bell
Baldwin integrated the power of sex and the critical dynamics of the family with ease. He spoke often and passionately about the preciousness of children, the beloved ones. He never hid from any language that engaged the human conundrum, refusing to allow the narrow world to deny him, Black, bejeweled, Harlem insurgent, demanding to add his poetic voice to all others of his day. Sometimes employing a simple rhyme scheme and rhythm, as in “The giver,” a poem dedicated to his mother, Berdis, and then, again, giving rise to poetic ear-play in “Imagination.”
creates the situation
and then, the situation
It may, of course
be the other way around:
Columbus was discovered
by what he found
In several of his last interviews you hear James Baldwin repeat something you know is on his mind: “The older you get, the more you realize the little you know.” This Black man of the Black diaspora, born in 1924, the same year that J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the new director of the FBI, forever taking stock of his life as it unfolded:
My progress report
concerning my journey to the palace of wisdom
I lack certain indispensable aptitudes
Furthermore, it appears
that I packed the wrong things
(“Inventory/On Being 52”)
Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems
is being published in what would have been Baldwin'sâour loving, long-cussed, steadfast witness in this world'sâninetieth year. These poems represent the notations, permutations, the Benjamin Bannekerâlike wonderings of a curious heart devoted to exposing tyranny, love, and the perpetual historical lies of the Republic.
In a 1961 interview, Studs Terkel asks Jimmy Baldwin after Baldwin's first twenty years as a writer, “
are you now?”
Who, indeed. I may be able to tell you who I am, but I am also discovering who I am not. I want to be an honest man. And I want to be a good writer. I don't know if one ever gets to be what one wants to be. You just have to play it by ear, and pray for rain
He never rested on any fame, award, or success. He didn't linger in the noisy standing ovation we gave him that night in California. He didn't need the poison of whatever it meant “to be famous” pounding at his door. Refusing to stand in any shadow, Baldwin understood that any light on his life might open some doors, but in the end it was his pounding heart, caring and remaining focused on the community, that had always defined him, that mattered. In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on Black and poor people. He loved it when people came to talk and listen to his stories, his rolling laughter, and consented to be transformed by his various arenas of language and his many forms of expression. These were friends and strangers, artists, who only wanted to feel him say what he had to say. People hungry to hear James Baldwin unabridged, before the night got too late and his devotion would make him rise and return him to the aloneness of his work, in that space he called his “torture chamber,” his study. Baldwin told the
, “Every form is different, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.” There on his desk, the next page of “ass kicking” awaited.
In 1963, James Baldwin visited San Francisco. The journey was amazingly caught on fuzzy black-and-white, educational TV in the KQED documentary
Take This Hammer
. One morning during his visit he found himself speaking with a group of frustrated young Black men standing there on the street. One of the young men reports, “There will never be a Negro president.” Baldwin asks him why he believes this. The young man responds, hardly catching his breath: “We can't even get a job. How can we be president if we can't even get a job?” You see Baldwin on camera move instantly closer to the storm raging from their ring of eyes to his. You see and feel the fire in their faces and in his. He knows this gathering storm well. He can hear the sounds of the thunder gathering deep in his ear. He has seen this same kind of lightning flash, hit, and burn down whole countries, whole neighborhoods, whole city corners, with their standing communities of young Black men. He himself has been soaked in this despair before. His inclination is to lead them away from the storm, but he's in the storm too, and he won't lie to them like everybody else has lied. He looks at them with great love. He can see the oil in the water on their cheeks. “There will be a Negro president,” Baldwin says calmly. “But it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.” It begins to rain. It doesn't really, but that's what the scene feels like to me through the camera's grainy lens, fifty years away from Baldwin and that circle of beautiful and young Black men wanting what other young men wanted, there on that San Francisco street. It begins to rain, at first a light drizzle and next a pounding torrent, great sheets of great water, slanted and falling down from the open sky. Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetryâbecause Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves.
I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
which they have already
blasphemed into dung:
the gentle, wide-eyed, cheerful
ladies, and their men,
nostalgic for the noble cause of Vietnam,
nostalgic for noble causes,
aching, nobly, to wade through the blood of savagesâ
Uncas shall never leave the reservation,
except to purchase whisky at the State Liquor Store.
The Panama Canal shall remain forever locked:
there is a way around every treaty.
We will turn the tides of the restless
the sun will rise, and set
on our hotel balconies as we see fit.
The natives will have nothing to complain about,
indeed, they will begin to be grateful,
will be better off than ever before.
They will learn to defer gratification
and save up for things, like we do.
Oh, yes. They will
We have only to make an offer
they cannot refuse
This flag has been planted on the moon:
it will be interesting to see
what steps the moon will take to be revenged
for this quite breathtaking presumption.
masturbate in winding sheets.
They have hacked their children to pieces.
They have never honoured a single treaty
made with anyone, anywhere.
The walls of their cities
are as foul as their children.
No wonder their children come at them with knives.
Mad Charlie man's son was one of their children,
had got his shit together
by the time he left kindergarten,
and, as for Patty, heiress of all the ages,
she had the greatest vacation
of any heiress, anywhere:
Golly-gee, whillikens, Mom, real guns!
and they come with a real big, black funky stud, too:
oh, Ma! he's making eyes at me!
Oh, noble Duke Wayne,
be careful in them happy hunting grounds.
They say the only good Indian
is a dead Indian,
but what I say is,
you can't be too careful, you hear?
Oh, towering Ronnie Reagan,
wise and resigned lover of redwoods,
deeply beloved, winning man-child of the yearning Republic,
from diaper to football field to Warner Brothers sound-stages,
be thou our grinning, gently phallic, Big Boy of all the ages!
Salt peanuts, salt peanuts,
for dear hearts and gentle people,
and cheerful, shining, simple Uncle Sam!
Nigger, read this and run!
Now, if you can't read,
From Manifest Destiny
(Cortez, and all his men
silent upon a peak in Darien)
to A Decent Interval,
and the chopper rises above Saigon,
abandoning the noble cause
and the people we have made ignoble
and whom we leave there, now, to die,
one moves, With All Deliberate Speed,
to the South China Sea, and beyond,
where millions of new niggers
await glad tidings!
, said the Great Man's Lady,
I'm against abortion
I always feel that's killing somebody
Well, what about capital punishment?
I think the death penalty helps
Up to our ass in niggers
on Death Row.
don't you cry for me!
Well, I guess what the niggers
is supposed to be doing
is putting themselves in the path
of that old sweet chariot
and have it swing down and carry us home.
, as they say,
and they got ways
of sort of nudging the chariot.
They still got influence
with Wind and Water,
though they in for some surprises
with Cloud and Fire.
My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways.
I would not think of them,
one way or the other,
did not they so grotesquely
block the view
between me and my brother.
And, so, I always wonder:
can blindness be desired?
Then, what must the blinded eyes have seen
to wish to see no more!
For, I have seen,
in the eyes regarding me,
or regarding my brother,
have seen, deep in the farthest valley
of the eye, have seen
a flame leap up, then flicker and go out,
have seen a veil come down,
leaving myself, and the other,
alone in that cave
which every soul remembers, and
out of which, desperately afraid,
I turn, turn, stagger, stumble out,
into the healing air,
fall flat on the healing ground,
singing praises, counselling
my heart, my soul, to praise.
What is it that this people
Surely, they cannot be so deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.
Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?
Perhaps that is why they cannot repent,
why there is no possibility of repentance.
Manifest Destiny is a hymn to madness,