VerseDay: Strike Straight

Rocket to the Moon (1971)In this week’s poetry thread, I’d like to acknowledge pieces written by Americans of color, including African-Americans, Latinos, native peoples, etc., specifically (shorter) works capturing some aspect of life in America as perceived from the vantage point of a minority.

Some of the many notable creators in this broad and rich genre are Maya Angelou, N. Scott Momaday, Gil Scott-Heron, Suheir Hammad, John Yau, and Denver’s own Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales.

As inspiration, and a vague point of reference, I’ve included the brilliant collage Rocket to the Moon by Romare Bearden, whom I consider a “visual poet” as much as an artist. I look at his work and I feel words.

Gwendolyn BrooksOne of my favorite poems ever, and certainly Gwendolyn Brooks‘ most noted (much to her chagrin), is We Real Cool. I had the honor and pleasure of attending a lecture in college by Ms. Brooks, who would pass away shortly after at age 83. She didn’t discuss We Real Cool then, but you can hear her read it herself in her wonderfully deep, staid voice, along with interesting commentary at this link, taken from an appearance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in the early 1980’s. Further discussion is here.

What thoughts or feelings does it evoke in me? Fleeting youth, freedom, fellowship, frivolity, fatalism. All of which tend to hang together.


We Real Cool

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.


We real cool. We

Left school. We


Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We


Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We


Jazz June. We

Die soon.


10 replies »

  1. The Poet Man.

    Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops
    De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots
    Dis poetry is designed fe rantin
    Dance hall style, big mouth chanting,
    Dis poetry nar put yu to sleep
    Preaching follow me
    Like yu is blind sheep,
    Dis poetry is not Party Political
    Not designed fe dose who are critical.
    Dis poetry is wid me when I gu to me bed
    It gets into me dreadlocks
    It lingers around me head
    Dis poetry goes wid me as I pedal me bike
    IÕve tried Shakespeare, respect due dere
    But did is de stuff I like.
    Dis poetry is not afraid of going ina book
    Still dis poetry need ears fe hear an eyes fe hav a look
    Dis poetry is Verbal Riddim, no big words involved
    An if I hav a problem de riddim gets it solved,
    I’ve tried to be more romantic, it does nu good for me
    So I tek a Reggae Riddim an build me poetry,
    I could try be more personal
    But youÕve heard it all before,
    Pages of written words not needed
    Brain has many words in store,
    Yu could call dis poetry Dub Ranting
    De tongue plays a beat
    De body starts skanking,
    Dis poetry is quick an childish
    Dis poetry is fe de wise an foolish,
    Anybody can do it fe free,
    Dis poetry is fe yu an me,
    DonÕt stretch yu imagination
    Dis poetry is fe de good of de Nation,
    In de morning
    I chant
    In de night
    I chant
    In de darkness
    An under de spotlight,
    I pass thru University
    I pass thru Sociology
    An den I got a dread degree
    In Dreadfull Ghettology.
    Dis poetry stays wid me when I run or walk
    An when I am talking to meself in poetry I talk,
    Dis poetry is wid me,
    Below me an above,
    Dis poetry’s from inside me
    It goes to yu
    WID LUV.

    B Z

  2. When I was in grad school at Iowa State pursuing my English MA (creative emphasis, of course) we read the great Audre Lorde in one of my classes. It felt that all eyes turned to me, because by that point I had established myself as … ummm, how to put this? … a man of strong opinions. I was also a Southern White Man who struck many of these folks as far more conservative than I ought to be (and than I actually was).

    So naturally, I’m supposed to have issues with a black Yankee lesbian poet. As it turned out, she was marvelous. And my last semester she came to Ames and did a session – this was when she was dying of cancer and had little time left, so it took a toll on her. I’ll never forget one undergrad, a white girl, launching into how could she possibly work for justice on behalf of minorities when she was white. It was one of the more disturbing bouts of self-loathing I had ever seen, and Lorde jumped on it hard. She told her that she had to accept herself, because whatever power she could have in life, it had to issue from WHAT and WHO she WAS.

    Lorde was remarkable, not only as a voice for minorities, but as a voice that accepted that white people could be part of the solution, too.

    The black unicorn is greedy.
    The black unicorn is impatient.
    ‘The black unicorn was mistaken
    for a shadow or symbol
    and taken
    through a cold country
    where mist painted mockeries
    of my fury.
    It is not on her lap where the horn rests
    but deep in her moonpit
    The black unicorn is restless
    the black unicorn is unrelenting
    the black unicorn is not

  3. Thanks for this thread and the opportunity to pimp Kansas City’s own tragic oracular voice, Mbembe Milton Smith. His four books were published locally, but I know they still show up in some classrooms and secondhand shops around the country. He was better than we knew, and we knew he was fine. (And Ms. Brooks confirmed it, more than once.)

    Here are a handful of his poems:


    And here’s one of them, just to make sure you go:

    Nostalgia of The Mud
    (for Etheridge Knight)

    you remind me of my father–
    the pain somehow aesthetic
    the way they’ve strung you out
    over a religion

    that skips Sunday,
    turns up red-eyed
    ’bout 2 o’clock Monday afternoon.
    there’s a jazz riff, a waywardness
    at the core of your Karma.
    reminds me of the time
    the family was walking from church
    & we dug my old man
    in the alley drinking wine.

    must be we inherit red eyes.
    our folk hugged against ghetto walls
    bent by so much dark blue living.

    give me the bottle too.
    hope this poem kills the poison
    off the wine we’ve uncapped
    but if not, drink up, pass the grapes ’round.

  4. A piece from N. Scott Momaday that always speaks to me (I think this qualifies as prose poetry) and that takes me back to my first experience of the West:

    One morning on the high plains of Wyoming I saw several pronghorns in the distance. They were moving very slowly at an angle away from me, and they were almost invisible in the tall brown and yellow grass. They ambled along in their own wilderness dimension of time, as if no notion of flight could ever come upon them. But I remembered once having seen a frightened buck on the run, how the white rosette of its rump seemed to hang for the smallest fraction of time at the top of each frantic bound–like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills.

  5. A couple weeks ago Bill Moyers had Martin Espada on. I was previous unfamiliar with his work, but was impressed. You have to respect a guy who works this hard getting poetry into urban communities that are prone to anything but poetry.


    It hunches
    with a brittle black spine
    where they poured
    gasoline on the stairs
    and the bannister
    and burnt it.

    The fire went running
    down the steps,
    a naked lunatic,
    calling the names
    of the neighbors,
    cackling in the hall.

    The immigrants
    ate terror with their hands
    and prayed to Catholic statues
    as the fire company
    pumped a million gallons in
    and burst the roof,
    as an old man
    on the top floor
    with no name known
    to authorities
    strangled on the smoke
    and stopped breathing.

    Some of the people left.
    There’s a room on the third floor:
    high-heeled shoes kicked off,
    a broken dresser,
    the saint’s portrait
    hanging where it looked on
    shrugging shoulders for years,
    soot, trash, burnt tile,
    a perfect black light bulb
    to remember everything.

    And some stayed. The old men
    barechested, squatting
    on the milk crates to play dominoes
    in the front-stoop sun;
    the younger ones, the tigres,
    watching the block with unemployed faces
    bitter as bad liquor;
    Mrs. Báez, who serves coffee
    on the third floor
    from tiny porcelain cups,
    insisting that we stay;
    the children who live
    between narrow kitchens
    and charred metal doors
    and laugh anyway;
    the skinny man, the one
    just arrived from Santo Domingo,
    who cannot read or write,
    with no hot water
    for six weeks,
    telling us in the hallway
    that the landlord set the fire
    and everyone knows it,
    the building’s worth more empty.

    The street organizer said it:
    burn the building out,
    blacken an old Dominicano’s lungs
    and sell
    so that the money-people
    can renovate
    and live here
    where an old Dominicano died,
    over the objections
    of his choking spirit.

    But some have stayed.
    Stayed for the malicious winter,
    stayed frightened of the white man who comes
    to collect rent
    and borrowing from cousins
    to pay it,
    stayed waiting for the next fire,
    and the siren,
    hysterical and late.

    Someone poured gasoline
    on the steps outside her door,
    but Mrs. Báez
    still serves coffee
    in porcelain cups
    to strangers,
    coffee the color
    of a young girl’s skin
    in Santo Domingo.

  6. Fresno poet Blas Manuel de Luna’s voice is urban, gritty and real. His poems are evocative and a call to action.

    Here are lines from his poem “Today”:

    Today, where my mother works,
    a young man,
    no older than myself,
    lost his hand
    in a machine.
    He screamed when his hand came off.
    My mother told me
    she could not get the scream
    out of her head. All around them,
    the pistachios, on the conveyor belt,
    and on the ground, reddened.