Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day: Poems by Two Gay Guys Who Lived In New York

Jacob Riis, Lower East Side Tenements, 1890s



Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

--Langston Hughes,





South Street Docks, 1887



Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry

1

FLOOD-TIDE below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

2

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.
Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.


3

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not; 20
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d; 25
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow, 30
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward, 35
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships,
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops—saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars, 40
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun-set,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening, 45
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.

4

These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you; 50
I project myself a moment to tell you—also I return.
I loved well those cities;
I loved well the stately and rapid river;
The men and women I saw were all near to me;
Others the same—others who look back on me, because I look’d forward to them; 55
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

5

What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

6

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine; 60
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution; 65
I too had receiv’d identity by my Body;
That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body.

7

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw patches down upon me also;
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious; 70
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? would not people laugh at me?
It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;
I am he who knew what it was to be evil;
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d, 75
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting. 80

8

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!
I was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping, 85
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.




9

Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance; 90
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?
It is not you alone, nor I alone; 95
Not a few races, nor a few generations, nor a few centuries;
It is that each came, or comes, or shall come, from its due emission,
From the general centre of all, and forming a part of all:
Everything indicates—the smallest does, and the largest does;
A necessary film envelopes all, and envelopes the Soul for a proper time. 100


10

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-hemm’d Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter; Curious what Gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as I approach;
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face, 105
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you.
We understand, then, do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish, is accomplish’d, is it not?
What the push of reading could not start, is started by me personally, is it not? 110


11

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me;
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn! 115
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly!
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name! Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress! 120
Play the old role, the role that is great or small, according as one makes it!
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you; 125
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sun-lit water;
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset;
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses;
Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are; 130
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul;
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas;
Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers;
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual;
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting. 135


12

We descend upon you and all things—we arrest you all;
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids;
Through you color, form, location, sublimity, ideality;
Through you every proof, comparison, and all the suggestions and determinations of ourselves.
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers! you novices!
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward;
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us;
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us;
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also;
You furnish your parts toward eternity; 145
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

--Walt Whitman

13 comments:

JCF said...

Whitman and Hughes: God blessed America!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

So sad!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Hughes' poem is one of my favorites and fitting for the holiday.

Pardon my ignorance, but I did not know Whitman was gay. Back in the ancient days of my high school and university years, same-sex orientation was unmentionable. I'm catching up only now, although a plain reading should have clued me in earlier.

JCF said...

Pardon my ignorance, but I did not know Whitman was gay.

:-0

Mimi, he was even portrayed as gay 10 years ago . . . on Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman!

Grandmère Mimi said...

JCF, I didn't always watch Dr Quinn. I admitted my ignorance. What do you want? Blood? :-(

Counterlight said...

Even better than watching Dr. Quinn, read the Calamus Poems and keep some smelling salts handy. The homo-eroticism in those poems can be very candid and passionate.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I'll check out the Calamus poems.

JCF said...

Cher Mimi, I didn't mean to upset you. I was just surprised, is all (my paperback Penguin Collected Whitman---which is probably 25 years old?---has a homoerotic painting of nekkid men swimming on it).

Grandmère Mimi said...

JCF, hang on. I was joking.

Remember that I attended university and graduate school 50 years ago. And I'll be honest and say that Whitman is not one of my favorite poets, and I did not often seek out his poems once I left school.

JCF said...

Who are your favorite poets (any nationality, any era)? Just curious.

Counterlight said...

I'm no literary maven. Mimi is much better qualified for that role than me.

Some poets that I've always liked...
I like Whitman better than Mimi does. On the other hand, I really like his opposite, TS Eliot. I've always enjoyed WH Auden's poetry, and WB Yeats. I like Seamus Heany and James Fenton. There are some poems by Allen Ginsberg I really like.
I also like some ancient poets like Ovid, Hesiod, Pindar, and the Homeric hymns. Of course I really enjoy all the dirty stuff in the Greek Anthology.

JCF said...

Goodness gracious, now (posted) comments are disappearing! :-0

Grandmère Mimi said...

JCF, I share Counterlight's fondness for Eliot, Auden, and Yeats. I like the Metaphysical Poets and Wm. Blake, and, of course, The Bard. A contemporary poet whom I admire is Wendall Berry and a fellow parishioner, David Middleton, who is not at all well-known, but I think he writes lovely poetry.