Wednesday, April 25, 2018

ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance poem "A Song for Old Glory"

Welcome to day #25 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 Kiesha at Whispers from the Ridge to see how our Progressive Poem is progressing!

Today I'm continuing my Harlem Renaissance poetry project with a 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:

"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 Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing. It's the cover piece for this series! I learned it was brought to the White House when Clinton was President... and it's still there! Read about it here.

So I started thinking about what the painting has seen, what it would say... and then I remembered the hymn, which is so joyous and hopeful and encouraging... how to bring all of that into my poem??

AND THEN... I noticed the flag has no stars. And there's a ladder! What does this mean? What did William Johnson intend? Of course we can't know for sure, but some have suggested that he was questioning this democracy... as in freedom and justice for all? Really? So this is where I landed.

A Song for Old Glory

These red stripes
have known blood

these blue stripes, tears.
And you – yes, you!

are one of 325 million
brilliant, blazing stars.

So stop being invisible!
Lift your voice,

illuminate darkness!
Be the bird that is both

coal mine canary
and Emily's thing with feathers.

Remember: sometimes
you must climb a ladder

before you can fly.

Irene Latham

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed seeing all the other paintings that have been chosen, too, Irene. I like your reflection for this painting, that you saw that altered flag and that he offered a ladder. Love the idea of both "coal mine canary/and Emily's thing with feathers."


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