For many, James Baldwin is associated with novels, fiction. But my greatest affinity for Baldwin lies with his nonfiction and his role as a public intellectual.
In the volume I co-edited, James Baldwin: Challenging Authors, chapter authors examine Baldwin as a powerful voice across genre and form. Concurrent with that volume is the publication of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.
Baldwin is rarely examined as a poet so this collection is significant for those new to Baldwin as well as those who have studied and treasure his complete canon.
The slim book of poetry is inviting as a paperback—the cover an electric blue to complement the rich use of “blues” in the title—color, music, mood:
“Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin,” the introduction by Nikky Finney, opens the collection passionately and parallels Baldwin’s own challenging persona: “Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide,” Finney warns (p. ix).
Finney introduces readers to Baldwin as well as his poetry—his sexuality and frankness central to both:
Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary brilliance from both the conservative black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leaned — never afraid to say it. (p. x)
Finney emphasizes that Baldwin always remained true to himself: “They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear” (p. xiii). Baldwin always sought Truth, compelled to speak the Truth:
In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on black and poor people….
Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetry — because Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves. (pp. xix, xxi)
For me, as someone drawn to Baldwin’s nonfiction and videos of his speaking, these poems fits into those contexts in ways that give his poetry a vibrancy beyond the grave.
Baldwin’s poetry is Baldwin’s voice.
A 16-page poem in four sections, this opening piece sparks, for me, Baldwin’s “Who Is the Nigger?” from Take This Hammer:
Simultaneously, “Staggerlee wonders” is deeply steeped in the U.S. of Baldwin’s lifetime and disturbingly relevant to 2014. The speaker mentions Russia, China, the Panama Canal, and Vietnam along with “Mad Charlie,” Patty Hearst, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Mohammad Ali. But the historical, political, and pop culture references do not date the poem since Baldwin uses them as vehicles for his truth-telling.
The poem rarely strays too far from colors, or more accurately skin pigmentation. And Baldwin deftly blends slurs and dialects in the voice of the speaker who appears both of the situation as well as above the situation: the racial and social inequities of being Black in the U.S.:
I wonder how they think
the niggers made, make it,
how come the niggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all. (3.1-6)
As an opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders” represents Baldwin’s complexity and richness, as well as his tensions—notably his use of Biblical references bracketed with “though theology has absolutely nothing to do/ with what I am trying to say” and “But we are not talking about belief.”
This poem reveals Baldwin’s craft, his ability to be deeply personal and bound by his moments of history while speaking against and to the great questions of being human when humans fail their humanity.
David L. Ulin poses James Baldwin, poet? But of course. in his review of this new collection from Baldwin, concluding,
This new version of “Jimmy’s Blues” features six poems that until now have only been available in a limited edition chapbook published after Baldwin’s death. Not all of this material is equally resonant, but when he’s on, Baldwin has the rare ability to contain contradictions — and not only to contain them, but also to evoke them on the page.
As National Poetry Month 2014 comes to a close and as we move toward Baldwin’s 90th birthday in August, now appears to be right for exploring Baldwin the poet.
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