Bob Kaufman’s Necessary Poem
Like Countee Cullen, you must doubt not that God is good, well-meaning, and kind. Omnipotent in mercy, God is eternally watching and listening. If you are a hard-shell, titanium-plated Christian, you believe. Period.
Nevertheless, you ought not wear out your welcome with incessant knocking on heaven’s door and 24/7 requests that the Lord should resolve a problem that you can manage with help from poems by Bob Kaufman, Wanda Coleman, Walt Whitman, Amiri Baraka, Howard Nemerov, Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton and a thousand other American poets. Chinese philosophy, empirical evidence paid for with your tax dollars, and Einstein’s general and specific theories of relativity can also be of some assistance. No, poems do not solve problems. Poems put you in a state of mind to think about solutions. This is not a claim that poetry is innately more effective than prose, only that some readers are more stimulated by poetry.
The Old Testament prophet was right: there is a time for everything. There is a time for torture and terror. There is a time for beatitude There is a time for violence (racial and non-racial), for post-global insanity, for civility and tolerance, and for revenge. There is a time to be as brutal and dumb as war, and a time to be as still and wise as peace. There is a time for paradox.
If the atomic clock is accurate, late 2014 is a time for interrogating Kaufman’s beautiful lyric “I Have Folded My Sorrows.” [See Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.]
When you need the common words to deal with the surreal in 2014, you find them easily in televised Democratic, Independent, Republican and politically unidentifiable noises, in the clamor of those Kaufman identified as “addled keepers of yesterday’s disasters.” Some of the speakers do employ poetic devices in their speech, but they usually intend to establish the shock of difference.
In reporting or commenting on “the news,” many journalists and pundits seem have a remarkable poverty of understanding that cheap reification of the threadbare “black and white binary” lacks credibility in a world that has many colors. If you want words that have a better claim on being “true” and worthy of communicating serious news rather than slimy distractions, you have to risk getting them from combat zones created by morally compromised hackers. A safer alternative is to depend on common sense and instructive poetry.
Kaufman’s “I Have Folded My Sorrows” is designed to enlighten. He begins the poem with a conceit of fictive truth:
I have folded my sorrows into the mantle of summer night,
Assigning each brief storm its allotted space in time,
Quietly pursuing catastrophic histories buried in my eyes.
Six lines later, Kaufman asserts “Blues come dressed like introspective echoes of a journey,” thereby establishing that an essentially American music can sponsor rational thought. The next three lines, marked by the anaphoric “And yes, I,” speak of searching “the rooms of the moon,” of refighting “unfinished encounters” although they “remain unfinished,” of wishing to be “something different.”
The poem ends with a poignant couplet:
The tragedies are sung nightly at the funeral of the poet;
The revisited soul is wrapped in the aura of familiarity.
Does the initial “I” refer to Kaufman the poet, to a persona he constructed as a supreme authority, or to you the reader? If you allow the lines to activate full affect, you can identify your existence in 21st century “catastrophic histories.” It is a mark of your intelligence to refuse to have your identity named by others, even by others who are said to look like you. Your intellectual soul can select its own society.
As you wrestle with Kaufman’s form and content, do memories of then link up with your ongoing awareness of now? Does a critical unification occur? Can the spatial and temporal patterns of a problem (or many problems) begin to give you greater focus and agency? If you can honestly say “Yes” to each question, you have begun the work of determining what individual and collective solutions will be. Kaufman’s necessary poem has helped you to elect your destiny. Even if you absolutely reject theological narratives, you will have made a crucial choice in folding your sorrows.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. December 15, 2014