Poetry

Georgia Johnson Douglas: “Black Woman,” “Foredoom,” and “The Heart of a Woman”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I hadn’t heard of Georgia Douglas Johnson before researching this column, something that astonishes me given her prolific creative output—more than two-hundred poems and forty plays, including Blue Blood (performed in 1926) and Plumes (performed in 1927), as well as thirty songs. She also wrote a long-running newspaper column and edited more than one-hundred books. One reason for her relative obscurity is that her work was not widely published or distributed; until the last few decades, the doors of publishing were closed to most women and especially to women of color. In writing these columns, I’ve been striving for diversity, and the task is harder than I expected it would be. Until recently, women writers were not fostered, and that is putting it mildly. Accounts of Johnson’s life describe her difficulties publishing and her husband’s “reluctant” support for her writing—and that she was the sole parent and breadwinner for her children after his death.

In our time, more women poets are represented, and more of them are from diverse backgrounds and cultures. But go back just a few decades, and you will find a different story. It’s pretty easy now to find poems by women online, less so to find such poems by women over the age of 40, harder still to find such poems written before the Sixties, and harder in allthose categories to find poems by women of color. Just go through any of the many online compendiums of American poetry, and you will see what I mean: columns and columns of names of men—mostly of European descent—with precious few exceptions. Until recently, moreover, few major literary prizes—one of the main channels for getting poetry noticed—were awarded to women. Those lists are depressingly illuminating, along with the fact that until fairly recently, women did not occupy positions of power in the worlds of writing, publishing, or academia.

We’ve seen some progress. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an organization that tracks such statistics for marginalized writers, has been showing encouraging trends in a number of literary journals, a major outlet for poetry publications. [Source here.]  The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, founded by Kim Bridgford, has made a start at filling in the gaps in our literary record. Women are in the field at all levels now, and it’s possible to find many printed anthologies collecting our poetry, as well as articles and anthologies online. Today’s poems are from the American Academy of Poets website, which seems to be striving for more inclusivity and better representation. Ultimately, though, it is not possible to find what has not been published or otherwise preserved—or even in the first instance written—and I cannot help but mourn all the poetry that has slipped through time’s sieve, forever lost.

In this week’s poems, the fixed forms and elevated diction sound archaic to contemporary ears, but their ideas were revolutionary in Johnson’s time and remain relevant today. The message in “Black Woman,” a direct address from a mother to her unborn child, urging him or her not to be born into a world inhabited by “monster men,” reminds me of a central idea in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: sometimes the only way a mother can protect her children is to keep them from living at all. That’s a shocking message for any time, let alone when Johnson was writing, just a few decades after the Civil War and during the turbulent years of Reconstruction and the first assertion of black civil rights.

“Foredoom” rehearses the plight of women doomed from birth to wither within the narrow confines of the roles society prescribes. The lovely, subtle “Heart of a Woman” asserts that women want to be free but are imprisoned by the societal norms ostensibly formulated to protect them; their brave hearts “break” on the bars of their gilded cages. Thwarted freedom is also the topic of “World,” a poem by Johnson that offers more hope. In it, a speaker who used to “abide / In the narrowest nest in a corner” envisions a broader possible life in “a burning desire” to “travel this immensity,” an urge strong enough to lift the author on the wings of her own imagining.

As was true of much poetry during the years Johnson was writing, these poems are formal and observe strict conventions of end rhyme and meter. “Black Woman” is composed in two octets (eight-line stanzas) in ballad meter that alternates lines of iambic tetrameter (four stresses per line) with lines of iambic trimeter (three stresses per line). It employs a device called refrain, repeating whole phrases such as “I cannot let you in” in lines 2 and 8. We also see epistrophe, or end-of-line repetition, in lines 1, 7, and 15, all ending in the word “child.”

The poem’s end-rhyme pattern is more complex than may appear at first glance. In both octets, the first four lines are rhymed abXb where “X” designates a line with no rhyming partner and the second and fourth lines fully rhyme. The last four lines in each octet, though, slightly deviate from that pattern, creating a haunting, anguished quality not usually the product of the more lockstep rhyming patterns common to Douglas’s time. The speaker’s situation in “Black Woman” is impossible and agonizing—a mother having to say “no” to a child asking to be given life because the world is too terrible a place for the child to inhabit. Lest readers find the mother hardhearted, the poem is full of endearments—“little child” (line 1), “child” (line 7), and “precious child” (line 15)—that show the depth of her anguish and love. A jazz motif of repetition-with-variation is at work in “I cannot let you in,” repeated twice in lines 2 and 8, then morphing into “I cannot bear the pain” in line 10, and culminating in the last line in the poem’s most direct statement about what is at stake: “I must not give you birth.” The single quatrain in “Foredoom” employs a straightforward aabb pattern in regular iambic tetrameter with four beats or stresses per line. “The Heart of a Woman” is likewise straightforward with two quatrains rhymed aabb ccdd, also in iambic tetrameter.

Form is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among young poets nowadays, it seems, one reason I am looking forward to developing a new formal poetry track at the 2020 Frost Place Seminar on Poetry run by Patrick Donnelly. We’re going to explore some of the ways form has shaped poetry over the last century and how contemporary poets are using—and bending—it now to their own purposes. My own belief is that form, perhaps paradoxically, frees imagination and expression—some call this “freedom in chains”—and that familiarity and skill with form is crucial to writing poetry well. To use a knitting analogy, you can’t make your own original sweater until you’ve mastered knit and purl and have at least looked at the patterns others have figured out for shaping the neck and arms. Or maybe you can, but you are going to waste an awful lot of yarn—and years—making some disappointing sweaters in the process. Visit here to find out more.

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