By Georgia Douglas Johnson

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)

Editor’s Note: No matter who you voted for in the primaries nor who you plan to vote for come November, there is no denying that this was an historic week in American history.

In this vein, I dedicate today’s poem–written by a black woman in a white age–to Michelle Obama, a black woman running the White House who reminded us this week that: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” And I dedicate this poem to the fact that, for the first time in American history, a woman has been nominated by a major party to run for President of the United States of America.

Any (reasonable) reservations you (or I) may have about Hillary Clinton and our two-party system aside, this is a moment to pause and marvel, to appreciate what we have accomplished and to believe that this can–and should–be just the beginning of progressive progress. This is a moment to celebrate that the heart of a woman need not try “to forget it has dreamed of the stars,” for it need not break, break, break “on the sheltering bars.”

Georgia Douglas Johnson: A member of the Harlem Renaissance, Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote plays, a syndicated newspaper column, and four collections of poetry: The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World (1962). (Annotated biography courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.)

The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet


The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet

by Michael T. Young



I recently heard a poet complain that the poets he friended on Facebook seemed more like activists than poets. He was considering leaving Facebook until after the election so he didn’t have to listen to the ranting and debating. I thought this was a good thing—the activism that is. It was also proof of what I’ve always argued: that American poets are deeply engaged in the relevant issues of our day.


There’s an assumption that American poets don’t engage politics or social issues. We’re believed to be only concerned with our personal lives and to write only about that. To most Americans our poets are all confessional in the worst sense of the word and write only an obscure, self-absorbed poetry and this is why they aren’t read. However, this is a myth. Although we engage personal issues, it is through them that we engage the true social and political issues of our day and this is the way to be most fully engaged. Take a poem like “Charlie Howard’s Death” by Mark Doty. Charlie Howard was a teenager who was murdered in 1984 because he was homosexual. Three other teenagers chased him down and threw him over a bridge into a river, though he protested that he couldn’t swim. Doty wrote a poem that is not only personally relevant since he is also a gay man, but one that is emotionally powerful and complex, aesthetically beautiful and socially relevant since gay rights are among the most relevant of socio-political topics of our time. Much of Doty’s poetry deals with gay issues, and these are both personally relevant and relevant to the larger cultural setting of our day.


Another poet who engages both socio-political topics and personal issues simultaneously is Gerald Stern. For instance, in his poem, “The Same Moon Above Us,” he imagines a homeless man as the exiled Ovid, which also allows him to identify with Ovid as a poet and thus the three become one and the poem on one of its levels is a commentary on poverty in America. Poverty is exile, and like the exile they are granted no voice because judged already. Who among the homeless are our exiled Ovids, which of them may be an unsung Milton or Keats? Another of Stern’s poems is “June Fourth,” which with subtlety engages the perspective of a worker and the authority that oppresses him. In a short span it ropes together everything from the metaphysical to the economic in a nuanced language about power and what creates the fertile ground of revolt. The poem is set in the world of factory life for Bethlehem Steel. It confronts the core issues embodied in the Occupy Wall Street Movement though written decades ago.


This kind of socio-political engagement can be found in many contemporary poets such as Cynthia Atkins, Okla Elliott, Barbara Elovic, Richard Levine, Djelloul Marbrook, and Joe Weil, just to name a few. Furthermore, many poets are politically active in some respect. Richard Levine identifies himself as a political activist and is quite busy working against fracking in New York. Djelloul Marbrook is a former journalist and, for many, is a source of alternative views to the standard media outlets like the New York Times or CNN. And it is not only these poets who are not nationally known or winning our biggest prizes who are so engaged. For instance, Wendell Berry, in addition to being a magnificent poet, and a recipient of a National Medal of Arts and Humanities, has spent his life writing about and defending small farmers against large corporations and monopolies. In many ways, he was fighting the power of the 1% long before those in Occupy Wall Street were born.


To highlight both their political activism and their engagement with issues in their poetry, is not to argue that our poets use poetry in service to politics or as a mere linguistic soapbox. Nothing could be worse or a greater artistic torture to endure. Our poets know this. If not explicitly, at least implicitly, they know what George Oppen argued, that “the good life, the thing wanted for itself, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly.” Thus to engage the socio-political concerns of our time or any other, is to do it from the point of view of the personal, of the individual life lived. Our poets are in the position to be more clearly engaged with the real issues because they approach them from the point of view of living and not from the stance of rhetoric.


As the myth about the Romantics being non-political crystalized around their actively creating this image, so too the American poet as an apolitical writer intent only on the reality of his immediate world was created by those poets. Our poets often insist on concrete rather than abstract work, the immediate and visceral rather than the remote and intellectual. I think that insistence in theory has resulted in an image that is not true to practice. One reason for it may be that our poetry’s language is the opposite of political speech, which is always evasive, abstract, an incantation of generalizations meant to charm you to sleep and vote. Poetry is meant to wake you up.


Most of the Romantics were active supporters of the French Revolution, much of Blake’s poetry is charged with socio-political concerns and Byron himself died fighting in the Greek War for independence. The critic, Jacque Barzun, wrote a brilliant book called Classic, Romantic, Modern, which debunked the myths about the Romantic poets, one of those myths being that they had no interest in politics. In much the same way, a book could be written debunking this same myth about American poets. But I think a better thing to do is read American poetry and pay attention to the socio-political realities underlying their themes.


If Americans spent a little time reading their poets, they would wake up to the fact that America is rich with a poetry that engages every relevant issue of our time from the personal to the political, and might even learn that most poets realize these can’t be separated. To live life in a democracy is to be political. To grapple with the issues of your daily life and to write about them is to comment on and confront the reality of the republic in which we live. It might also give us, as a country, pause to wonder why exactly our poets are not more widely read since it is not because they don’t address issues relevant to our lives. They are, in fact, more concerned about what’s happening in our country than most. And maybe that’s really why they aren’t read, not because they don’t engage the important issues but precisely because they do. Most other Americans would rather watch a sitcom, wrapping themselves in its humorous triviality, like a child imagining the blanket he pulls over his head can protect him against anything that might emerge from the darkness while he sleeps.



Agrarian Socialism In Oklahoma: The Early Twentieth Century

Oscar Ameringer an Oklahoma Socialist Leader

Agrarian Socialism In America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. By Jim Bissett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.)

Most Americans are unaware of the fact that the rural state of Oklahoma supported the strongest socialist movement that any American State ever produced. This apparently anomalous development has been chronicled by a number of scholars over the past 40 years. The first modern study was Howard L. Meredith’s 1969 Ph.D. dissertation “A History of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma, ” which was soon followed by Garin Burbank’s When Farmers Voted Red and James R. Green’s Grassroots Socialism in 1976 and 1978 respectively.(1) While all three are excellent studies, a more recent book, Jim Bissett’s Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920 (1999), covers the same ground most successfully to date through clear arguments and an energetic and sympathetic point of view. READ MORE