Saturday, April 28, 2018

ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance poem "She"

Welcome to day #28 of 2018 ARTSPEAK!, in which I am focusing on art and artists from the Harlem Renaissance. 
Before we get to today's poem, please be sure and visit Kat at Kat's Whiskers to see how our Progressive Poem is progressing!

Today I'm continuing my Harlem Renaissance poetry project with a last look at painter William Johnson! Here is a quote I found in the book HARLEM STOMP by Laban Carrick Hill:
“My aim is to express in a natural way
what I feel both rhythmically and spiritually,
al that has been saved up in my family
of primitiveness and tradition. – William H. Johnson


“his work contained the Expressionist quality of broad, emotional paint strokes and bright colors that was very much informed by his exposure yo European Modernism. Many African American critics, however, were put off by his work because he seemed to them to be reinforcing cultural stereotypes of the ignorant, unskilled Negro rather than the cultured 'New Negro' they were so committed to promoting.”

Turns out that Johnson's earliest works were mostly landscapes. After traveling to Europe, Scandinavia, and North Africa during the 1930s, Johnson came back to the States with a Danish wife and a new commitment to featuring African American subjects in a simpler, folk art style. We'll stick with Johnson for the rest of the week!

Here are the poems in the series so far:

"Poems Come Lately" after Still Life with Flowers and Chair by William Johnson
"Papa with a Pipe" after Self-Portrait with Pipe by William Johnson
"A Song for Old Glory" after Lift Thy Voice and Sing by William Johnson
"Midnight Party" after Harbor Under the Midnight Sun by William Johnson
"Summersong" after Children at the Ice Cream Stand by William Johnson
"Trio" after Art Class by William Johnson
"To a Water Boy" after The Water Boy by Meta Warrick Fuller
"Storytime" after Storytime by Meta Warrick Fuller
"Sorrow" after Sorrow by Meta Warrick Fuller
"My John Henry" after When John Henry Was a Baby by Palmer Hayden
"Night Music" after Untitled by Palmer Hayden
"A (Sub)way of Looking" after The Subway, 1930 by Palmer Hayden
"Girl to Mama" after Madonna at the Stoop by Palmer Hayden
"For Love of the Game" after Checkers Game by Palmer Hayden
"The Birthday Birds of Bonaventure Island" after Birds of Isle de Bonaventure by Palmer Hayden
"Boat Dock, Early Evening" after Boats at the Dock by Palmer Hayden
"Prayer for the Berry Pickers" after Berry Pickers by Palmer Hayden
"Sometimes Books Are the Only Playground I Need" after Among Them is a Girl Reading by Palmer Hayden
"Measurements" after Octoroon Girl by Archibald Motley
"Barbeque" after Barbecue by Archibald Motley
"American Idyll, 1934" after An Idyll of the Deep South by Aaron Douglas
"The Toiler" after The Toiler by Aaron Douglas
"Let There Be Poetry" after The Creation by Aaron Douglas
"Boy with Plane" after Boy with Plane by Aaron Douglas
"To a Dancer" after Sahdji (Tribal Women) by Aaron Douglas
"For the Builders" after Building More Stately Mansions by Aaron Douglas
"This Poem is a Dream" after Aspiration by Aaron Douglas

Today's piece is called Portrait with Flowers. I was instantly drawn to the steely look in this woman's eye and wanted to say something about her. In some way she reminds me of my Grandma Oslund, who was one sharp cookie (a chemist/teacher/librarian/needle craftswoman). One might underestimate her... until you looked her in the eye. Then you knew she was something special. All that sharpness also came out of her mouth-- I have some not-so-nice memories of ways she hurt me with her words -- but these days I am more and more aware of how strong she was, and how grateful I am to have known her, and how we have this mad creativity in common... I do hope I am never as sharp-tongued as, but I also hope to be as creatively productive and active all of my days, as she was. What an inspiration!


She keeps her feet
on the floor,
her hair slick,
hands proper –

yet her mind won't
be held by chair

Her heart spills
her lungs grow
a field of poppies.

Can't you see?
Her eyes
are caves
of diamonds.

- Irene Latham


  1. I love the way you've found complexity and beauty in this character.

  2. I love those "caves of diamonds" and hearing about your own grandmother, Irene. Women of that generation had to hold strong, didn't they, to keep their passions? I wonder if the woman in the painting was uncomfortable posing?

  3. "Her heart spills sunflowers." So much to love in this line. Like Linda, I love the connection you shared to your own Grandma. I just saw a recent pic of my grandma shared on FB by a cousin. It was a much younger Grandma than the one I remember. How I wish she had written about her life, I would love to read her words.


Your thoughts?