Geographically, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was closer than that of Elijah McClain because it occurred only an hour’s drive from where I grew up and where people who mean a great deal to me have family members. But for some reason McClain’s death, although it occurred all of 1,600 miles away in Aurora, Colorado, felt closer. I did not understand why until recalling two poems written more than a decade ago. The memory of both forced me to sit down and wonder how it was something written so far in the past was having such a powerful impact on my life in 2020.
The first composition is a song lyric titled “ELI-JAH” originally published in the first edition of the novel Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (sung by a character named Ruzahn), and later in the poetry collection titled Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. It is about a man who refuses to accept reports his brother has been killed so he keeps singing his name, Eli-Jah, to let him know he’s committed to finding him. The complete lyric is too lengthy for the purposes of this post but these are the last 2 verses:
The second text which surprised me with an unexpected emotional connection to McClain is 2 lines at the end of the poem “Vampire Song: The Last Bloodfeast,” also from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. I recalled when writing the lines that they sounded strange and I changed them several times but always switched back because somehow they felt honest. Reading them, now, I’m stunned at how close they come to an image combination frequently associated with Elijah McClain: the violin and kittens, for his compassionate practice of playing for them on his lunch breaks. This is the quote from “Vampire Song”:
“Soft upon my right thigh, an oddly-colored kitten
There is a possibility I’m making more of these parallels than I should and some might even argue I am forcing them where there are none. They would have a right to that belief.
Before identifying the subconscious links stirring within me such a strong response to the shooting death of McClain, I considered writing a blog titled Music for a Black Skylark in Mourning to express the lingering grief. So I looked for a music video with the words “Black Skylark” in the title and found two. Either one, I felt, could serve as a worthy tribute to McClain and believe he would have appreciated either. The one with which I’ve chosen to close is from volume 5 of the China Meditation Ethno Music Project and titled “A Black Skylark.”
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Individuals often turn to poetry, not only to glean strength and perspective from the words of others, but to give birth to their own poetic voices and to hold history accountable for the catastrophes rearranging their lives.” --Aberjhani from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays. ©Postered Poetics based on original poetry Spencerian calligraphy art by G.A. Gaskell. #NPM16 #PocketPoem
The launch of National Poetry Month, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, in April 1996, came just three years after the debut issue of the Savannah Literary Journal in 1993. In addition to 49 poems by 35 brilliant writers with regional and national reputations, the 1996 edition of the journal featured six works of fiction and three pieces of creative nonfiction.
My contribution to the journal that year was a personal essay but the title of it, Angels and Shakespeare (later published in I Made My Boy Out of Poetry), revealed the central place verse has always held in my life. So did this epigraph borrowed from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
“For this reason Monday burns like
Both National Poetry Month and the publication of the journal (up until 2001) could be considered as invitations to readers, writers, and publishers to explore a more deeply intimate relationship with language. These invitations coaxed them as well to experience the different levels of power words can wield when endowing our lives with either newly-claimed or wholly-unexpected meaning.
The responses, now 20 years down the timeline, have mushroomed into a worldwide cultural mainstay where National Poetry Month (NPM) is concerned. In regard to the Savannah Literary Journal, published by the former Savannah Writers Workshop, it has confirmed the value of one of the city’s most prized artistic legacies.
Of Bloggers and Nobel Laureates
But what should we say of poetry as a whole during the last two decades when life as so many once knew it shape-shifted into a spinning mass of digital signals, globalized communities unbounded by geographic borders, and astounding varieties of terror clashing head-on with determined demands for liberty?
That now populous demographic of humanity known as bloggers did not exist in 1996 and programmer Peter Merholz would not condense the term “weblog” to invent the word “blog” until 1999. Nevertheless, poetically-inclined bloggers during the first and second decades of this 21st century have done a great deal to ensure poetry occupies a prominent position within the global imagination and humanity’s collective ethical consciousness.
Moreover, the ever-mindful Nobel Prize Committee actually saw fit in 1996 to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." And in 2011 it bestowed that same honor upon Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer , "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."
A Movement Designed to Inspire
Obviously the Academy of American Poets’ commitment to recognizing, honoring, and documenting literary excellence within the work of American Poets did not begin with the establishment of NPM. That happened back in 1934 when founder Marie Bullock surveyed America’s literary landscape and came to a certain conclusion.
Despite the quietly-evolving cultural canonization at the time of such poets as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), and other American quill-masters of the period, it became apparent that more needed to be done to place poetry on some level of esteem comparable to what it stirred in the literary capitals—such as Paris, London, and Dublin––of Europe.
National Poetry Month more than half a century later represented a game-changing upgrade from previous efforts. Since its start, affiliated programs each successive year have helped observations to grow in scope and influence. Initiatives such as Poem in Your Pocket Day (observed this year on April 21), the Dear Poet Project, and Poem-A-Day (via email) contribute immensely to sustaining the sweet joyful howl of poetry in these new millennial times. The key words and hashtags that dominate social media every April––like #npm16, #pocketpoem, #jazzpoetry, #celebratingpoetry, and the tagged names of favorite poets––denote only one small measure of how successful the campaign has become.
It also did not hurt when citizens of the United States elected a lover and writer of poetry, Barack H. Obama, as their first African-American president in 2008. The following is from a 2009 essay written to commemorate both NPM and Jazz Appreciation Month:
…The birth of the Academy meant the birth of a movement designed to inspire, cultivate, and preserve the voice of American poets. And although it likely was not his intention to do so, President Barack Obama extended that movement not only by bearing the “stigma” of being an accomplished wordsmith but by inviting Elizabeth Alexander––an author of several books but of whom many had never heard until Obama spoke her name––to serve as his Inauguration Day poet.
If there is one thing populations of the world have needed, and received, from poetry for the past two decades, it has been inspiration. But not only inspiration in that classic form which reaffirms the value of faith.
Poetry in our post 9/11 era provides the kind of inspiration that defiantly raises poets’ voices against the brutalities of war, the insanities of terrorism, and the indignities of oppression in all its toxic forms. It empowers the simplest of lives to confront the most extreme sorrows with courage, and motivates the mightiest of offices to humbly heed lessons in compassion.
Although the last edition (to date) of the Savannah Literary Journal was published in 2001, its legacy continues to stand as a richly inspiring one. Many of the poets, essayists, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers featured in its pages have since gone on to win national and international acclaim in various fields. These are but a few listed in no particular order: Janice Daugharty, Linda Rocheleau, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, David C. Hightower, Susan Johnson, Lily Keber, Ja A. Jahannes (1942 -2015), Errol Miller, Kathleen Thompson, Toussaint St. Negritude, Dufflyn Lammers, Anis Mojgani, and Vaughnette Goode-Walker. Again, these represent only a few.
Most would probably tell you their greatest contributions to the literary arts thus far have not been particular poems or stories or books. They have instead been the relationships cultivated with the hearts and souls who heard what they had to say and then drew from that hearing enough motivation to speak their own truths to power and pain and joy.
Despite the Cacophony
Whether through contributors to literary journals, the sustained dedicated efforts of members of the Academy of American Poets, or bloggers content just to have a platform where they could post lines at will, poetry has maintained a dynamic living breathing presence in the world.
Despite the cacophony of bombs and bullets which so often drown out the music of laughter (or possibly because of them) poetry at this point in history may very well be more commanding than any other previous time. There are many reasons to believe its potency, and its beauty, shall grow even stronger in the future.
© National Poetry Month 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.