Friday, April 13, 2018

ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance poem "The Birthday Birds of Bonaventure Island" (for Lee)

Welcome to day #13 of 2018 ARTSPEAK!, in which I am focusing on art and artists from the Harlem Renaissance. Today I am in Tallahassee, FL, where I will be visiting family (yay!) and participating in the Word of the South Festival tomorrow... on stage at noon, with author-illustrator Laura Freeman.

And it's a very special Poetry Friday, thanks to our hostess with the mostest, Robyn Hood Black, who's throwing a birthday party for the one and only Lee Bennett Hopkins!!! Be sure to grab cake and confetti and other mayhem during today's Roundup at Life on the Deckle Edge.

To celebrate, I decided to write today's poem for Lee!

Before we get to today's poem, please be sure and visit Linda at A Word Edgewise to see how our Progressive Poem is progressing!

Today I'm continuing my Harlem Renaissance poetry project by introducing another artist, the third so far in this series: Palmer Hayden.

Here are the poems in the series so far:

"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

I learned in the book HARLEM STOMP! that Hayden was a janitor and then came to prominence as the first winner of the Harmon Foundation art competition in 1926 (an art contest created to recognize African American artists). Much of Hayden's work centered on black American life, legends and folk heroes. He was criticized for lapsing into a portrayal of blacks that seemed rooted in cultural stereotypes, a reminder that “blacks were performing for a white audience.” I also love the information about Palmer's life and work found here.

And I love this quote: "I decided to paint to support my love of art, rather than have art support me." — Palmer Hayden quoted in Nora Holt, "Painter Palmer Hayden Symbolizes John Henry," New York Times, 1 Feb. 1947. We'll be sticking with Hayden for a few more days.

One thing I learned about Palmer Hayden is that he painted a lot of boats and seascapes, both here in the U.S. and in Europe... and Canada, as it turns out! I learned that thanks to today's piece: Isle de Bonaventure.

The Isle of Bonaventure is off the coast of Quebec, Canada, and it is hosts a significant migratory bird population. The birds in the painting are gannets (which I'd never heard of). It's their black-tipped wings that give them away! Read more here.

And since today is Lee's birthday, and we're all celebrating, I thought first of playing a version of "Happy Birthday" on my cello, but I'm in a hotel room (!), and so I thought the best I could do is make my poem somehow about Lee's birthday. Here's where I landed. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LEE!

The Birthday Birds of Bonaventure Island
- for Lee Bennett Hopkins on his 80th birthday

The gannets wing in
same time each year

their graceful white bodies
warming the sky,

each wingbeat
echoing past year's journey:

its hurricanes
and oil spills

its glide-rise currents
and stunning skyscapes.

Have you ever seen
so many birds?

Look closer:
their black tipped wings

are commas,
urging you onward,

                        ever onward.

- Irene Latham


  1. Onward indeed! Thank you for this beautiful contribution to the celebration today, Irene. And go get 'em tomorrow - wish I could cheer you on in person! Safe travels and adventures.

  2. "each wingbeat/echoing past year's journey" is beautiful, Irene. Have a great trip!

  3. Another lovely art poem, Irene. Love the vivid imagery, the painting, and learning more about the artist. :)

  4. Each art poem inspired by Palmer Haydn is a work of art, Irene. And today, such a way with punctuation, these skyward gannets have in your hands. I can tell you channeled Lee, who is all about onward, as are you!

    And yay! for tomorrow. A :) marks the spot on my program where I will cheer for you & Laura from the audience. I hope to have your paws on books, too. Soon!

  5. Your poem affected life?! Yes, you can share your lovely poem and its great "after story" with the world... Submit now on

  6. Commas urging you onward, ever onward! I fully expected to see a comma at the end of the poem. I don't know how you create such beautiful poems every day, but we are the lucky ones who get to read them. Enjoy your time with family and at the festival.

  7. So lovely! And I got a postcard in the mail from you today, and that was lovely too! Thank you!

  8. A wonderful poem, Irene! I love the lines "each wingbeat / echoing past year's journey" and your final words "ever onward." Blessings tomorrow at the festival and your visit with family.

  9. Beautiful imagery in your poem Irene, thanks for taking me to Bonaventure Island, through this artist's eye! I followed the links you shared, the Island is gorgeous, and so old–some of the views look like they are out of a fairytale. I also appreciated learning about Palmer Hayden, I wasn't familiar with him or his art. Gorgeous paintings!

  10. That is the most beautiful use of the comma I've ever seen. Wow! What a gorgeous poem. You certainly are in your groove in April, Irene. I am so enjoying every one of your poems. Thank you for sharing your learning, your journey and joy. I feel so special to be able to watch as you work.

  11. Don't you love when the art sends you on toward research and finding things like Bonaventure, Canada and gannets? And the comma in the sky sending us onward. Thanks for this poem!

  12. Lovely poem, Irene! I love the "glide-rise currents" and the commas!

  13. Such a glorious image to carry into sleep, those birds bringing birthday wish. I love the way words embrace in your poems.

  14. Gorgeous poem, Irene. I especially love your description of the past year's journey and those black-tipped commas urging us onward. A fitting tribute to Lee to be sure. xo

  15. This is a lovely poem--with those wing beats echoing from year to year.


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