Poetry

Gwendolyn Brooks: “Paul Robeson”

 

Paul Robeson

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

 

From The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (Library of America 2005). Copyright © 1970 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted with the consent of Brooks Permissions. Originally published in Family Pictures (1971) and collected in the Freedomways anthology, Paul Robeson, The Great Forerunner (International Publishers 1998) and in Blacks, the collected poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks (Third World Press 1994).

The internet is rich with resources about Gwendolyn Brooks and Paul Robeson; here are a few:

 

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most important poets of 20th-century American poetry. Much-honored in her lifetime, she was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize and to be appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now known as U.S. Poet Laureate. Her body of work and its political consciousness and conscience gives her, according to critic George E. Kent, “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young Black militant writers of the 1960s.” [From www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks]

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917, and raised in Chicago. She was the author of more than twenty books of poetry, including Children Coming Home, Blacks, To Disembark, The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems, Riot, In the Mecca, The Bean Eaters, Annie Allen, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, and A Street in Bronzeville, her first book. She also wrote a novel, Maud Martha, and an autobiography, Report from Part One, and edited Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (Broadside Press 1971).

In 1968, Brooks became Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois. In 1985, she was appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. She received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Frost Medal, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation. She lived in Chicago until her death on December 3, 2000. Author photo credit: Getty Images. [From www.poets.org/poet/gwendolyn-brooks]

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

We are thrilled to present “Paul Robeson,” the first time Poetry Sunday has featured the legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Another kind of homage to Brooks will appear in this column’s 11/22/20 feature of Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise,” a “Golden Shovel” poem that uses the words of Brooks’ “We Real Cool” as its end words.

Today’s poem celebrates and pays homage to a man whose revolutionary spirit and achievements—in an impressive range and number of disciplines—stand out by any measure. An internationally recognized actor and singer, Paul Robeson was also a formidable scholar, lawyer, and political activist who made great sacrifices in his career and personal life to further the interests of social justice. Rejecting Hollywood racism, he retired as a film actor in the 1940s and devoted himself to speaking and singing around the world in support of unions, Black civil rights, communism, and anti-colonialism.

William Carlos Williams said you can’t get the news from poetry, but it was from Jack Hirschman’s poem written in homage to Robeson [here] that I first learned about the infamous Peekskill Riots in 1949. Prior to Robeson’s civil rights benefit in New York, a local right-wing mob attacked concert attendees with baseball bats and rocks, lynched Robeson in effigy, and burned a cross while local law enforcement stood by. A few months later, the rescheduled concert was attended by twenty thousand people. Robeson, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and others performed without incident but afterward, more than 140 concert-goers were injured and their vehicles damaged while law enforcement once again declined to intervene. Robeson was denounced in highly offensive racist language by several members of the US House of Representatives who blamed him and his fans for “provoking” the violence. Mainstream media agreed, and more than eighty scheduled concert dates were canceled. [Read more about the riot here.]

During the 1950s, Robeson was blacklisted by McCarthyism, and his recordings and films were removed from public distribution. His passport was revoked and then restored in 1958, the same year Robeson published a “manifesto-autobiography” titled Here I Stand. His activism continued internationally until health issues forced his retirement in 1963; Robeson remained secluded until his death in 1976. His powerful voice was fueled by a formidable intellect and magnificent human spirit, and it is not surprising that Robeson’s legacy includes many significant awards and recognition from all over the world. [source here]

Today’s poem, “Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks, is a short lyric that uses various kinds of repetition for emphasis. One is anaphora, seen in the repetition of “forgoing” and “we are” at the beginnings of several lines, and another is parallel syntactic construction (“The major Voice. / The adult Voice”) seen in lines 5-6. Sonic repetition occurs in consonance (“cool and clear / cutting,” “tearful tale,” “bale and barge”) and rhyme. Examples of internal rhyme include (“hot”/ “grit”) and “tale”/”bale” in lines 4 and 7. There are just two end rhymes: line 8’s “barge” echoed in line 11’s “large” and my favorite, the rhyme of “despond” in line 9 with “bond” in the line that closes the poem. Meter is emphatic but highly variable, ranging from line 13’s single beat (“Harvest”) to five beats in lines 8-9 (“forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge / and other symptoms of an old despond). These formal devices are subtly wrought in a poem that reads like free verse, but they are the crucial underpinnings of its tremendous resonance.

Robeson is well known for his performance as a riverboat stevedore named Joe singing “Old Man River” in the musical Show Boat, filmed in 1936. Because Robeson was blacklisted, though, the film was not widely seen until forty years after his death. Some parts of today’s poem seem to refer directly to lines from “Old Man River”:

forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge

I am not sure what is meant by “forgoing” in these lines. Is it Robeson forgoing acting for activism? Or, a rejection of the song’s prediction that the river of American racism will “just keep rolling along” despite mounting atrocities? Perhaps it means that through the example of his own life, Robeson refuted the racist stereotype that Jim represents in the film. In any event, this poem makes it clear that Robeson’s activism and songs had a huge impact on the poem’s speaker, as it did on the world. A true warrior and a hero in his time, he selflessly made full use of his many talents to further a higher cause.

“We are each other’s magnitude and bond,” moves me deeply every time I read it, and I keep thinking that I’d like to see the last six lines of “Paul Robeson” added to the Presidential Oath this January. We are not simply defined as individuals by how we care for others; “magnitude” also defines the very limits of our country’s potential and even its future. Put another way, one person’s loss always diminishes the whole. It’s like the golden rule, another simple, elegant, and powerful concept that would not be a bad prescription for American politics.

Brooks understood the power of one raised voice to fight oppression and to speak truth to power—and as a Black woman in America, she had a huge stake in the notion that “We are each other’s harvest.” Part of the poem’s strength, though, is that it transcends racial and other politics to evoke larger issues of humanity and community—the idea that all that we do—consciously or unconsciously—affects everyone else and vice-versa. The poem reminds us that we are quite literally “each other’s business” and that if we do not take care of our entire community, there will be no one or nothing left to take care of us when the need arises. This goes both ways, of course, and it is incumbent on our new president now to pay attention to the sense of disenfranchisement that fueled Republican votes and made this election so close.

This has been a tremendously fraught four years. Everyone has suffered—some much more than others, but no one has been left unscathed by COVID, political turmoil, and the continuing stream of atrocities stemming from our country’s law enforcement and immigration policies. This is a chance for a new administration to speak in that “adult voice” and turn the page on this miserable year. I can’t get Brooks’ lines into the presidential oath of office, but I’ll close on them anyway, hoping their message somehow gets through to the president we are desperately depending on now, finally, to do the right thing:

we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

 

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  • Shawna S November 8, 2020 at 11:06 am

    Thank you so very much for this. What a wonderful poem, that so eloquently speaks to our trajectory as a people, a nation now.

    Reply