restricted access A Needful Thing
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29 A Needful Thing I have been greatly influenced by Robert Hayden, the man and his poetry, but recently I argued with myself for days, wondering if I have been perhaps more profoundly influenced by Frederick Douglass. I arm-­ wrestled myself, going back and forth, and, of course, Douglass finally overpowered Hayden. When I return to the pages Douglass amassed, his spirit prevails. Here is a man born a slave; his mother dies when he is only seven; he confronts the slave-­ owner and the slave-­ breaker, educates himself, and demands to be heard. He was not only a great observer but an acute listener—­ and most likely this is why there’s a pristine tonality in his language: a language of unearthing, not obfuscation. As a poet, I read everything aloud as I write; after thinking about the music pulsing in Douglass’s prose, I believe he also read his work aloud as he traversed the deep night of the soul. One doesn’t have to tick off this man’s attributes to realize he invented himself through a superb imagination. Douglass portrays himself through vivid imagery. We find ourselves facing a man anointed by violence, touched by an urgency embedded in language, moved by a dignified music. What he says is momentous, but how he says it is momentous also, with reverence for beauty and concision. The timbre of his voice doesn’t convey a hint of sentimentality. His call is rendered through the shape of a merciless question beckoning in the double darkness of a personal history that still tinctures our presence. His voice is a struck bell left quivering in the metallic air lit by “a cowskin and a heavy cudgel.” Ironically, I have returned repeatedly to Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” to grasp his presence again: From PEN America 13 (2010). 30 When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air, usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole, reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, this man, superb in love and logic, this man shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing. Hayden’s Douglass, “this man” shaped by a heroic reasoning, is for many of us a signpost. To be a true citizen is to honor what he stands for. This becomes apparent especially in “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? An Address Delivered in Rochester , New York, on 5 July 1852.” Returning to this piece after many years, I was surprised by the poetry in Douglass’s prose—­ which has been measured and honed—­ as well as the inclusion of quotations from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” Garrison’s “The Triumph of Freedom,” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and, of course, numerous poetic biblical references throughout. The echo of poetry guides Douglass to moments such as this: “From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day—­ cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-­ tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.” Nowhere in the text does his inclination toward poetry resonate more poignantly than here: “When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!” One hears in the orator a rhetoric of urgent 31 necessity informed by cadences that seem natural. The passion is bare to the bone. It was Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Douglass” that first brought me to this man. I came to his work when I was twelve, before Walt Whitman and James Baldwin, a decade or so before engaging the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth...


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