It’s April at last – spring and poetry are in the air. I don’t always stay on top of national month themes but try to integrate all kinds of books by all kinds of authors into my blog. I did set aside a few books to share for national poetry month, though, because poetry’s one of the reasons I’m the bookaholic I am today.
Poetry is such an organic form of telling our truth. Not everything we know, see or feel fits neatly into narrative. A poem can express what is deep and true in our hearts, even when we don’t entirely understand that truth. Poetry honors and elevates pure emotions and images. It ranges from highly structured forms to free and fragmented beauty. It part of oral traditions as well as academic studies.
When I was working in radio years ago, I once asked a poet when he started writing poetry. His answer was “when did everyone else stop?”
There’s a lot in our education system that inhibits and stops us from feeling free to express our deepest truths. And there have been times when it was illegal for certain Americans to write poetry, or to write at all.
One of my favorite books published last year is about a poet who wrote in spite of those laws. Poet: the Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, by Don Tate, Peachtree, 2015, brings an important American poet out of the shadows and back into our hearts.
Horton lived from approximately 1798 – 1883. He and his family were enslaved on a farm in Chatham County, North Carolina. Tate’s book starts with the simple sentence: “George loved words.”
Such a deep love of words is hard to hold back. George struggled until he taught himself how to read.
He loved poetry best. While he went about his work and tended his master’s cattle, he composed verses in his head.
Then tragedy struck. His master sent him away from his family.
But George found a way to honor his pain and the pain he saw all around him. He composed poetry in his head. He sold his master’s fruits and vegetables at the University of North Carolina. The students teased his shabby appearance and to soothe himself, he recited his poetry.
“Every eye grew wide and every mouth fell open at the sound of George’s voice, uttering beautiful verses. Students were awestruck when they found out that he had composed them himself.”
He was then helped by the wife of a professor to learn to write. He wrote poems that protested slavery.
In the afterword, Tate talks about the unique characteristics of slavery in North Carolina:
“North Carolina was home to one of the largest free black populations in all of the colonies. Many North Carolinians supported antislavery organizations and the emancipation of slaves. Plantations were smaller, requiring fewer laborers, and often less affluent farmers worked their land alongside their slaves. In fact, peculiar as this may sound, slaves were sometimes considered family members. No doubt, Horton benefited from this more open-minded atmosphere.
“Life for an enslaved person was still not easy in North Carolina. Slaves performed daylong, back-breaking work for no pay. Their diet, provided by their owners, was typically poor, and their clothing inadequate. Families could be torn apart and sold at any time, never to see each other again – as happened to George. In the face of these adversities, Horton’s achievements were monumental.”
George was a white man’s property. For the time George spent writing, he had to pay his master back. He saved his money to buy his freedom and others tried to help him, but his master refused to sell him.
Then laws became stricter against teaching slaves to read or write. George returned to slave labor.
George was 67 when the Civil War ended and he was finally free.
I love everything about this book. It’s a story of coping with extreme hardship through literacy and self-education. It’s a testament the power of poetry and language. It explains the brutality of slavery in a way that children can understand. And even if his story was lost for a while, that he wrote it down, made it available to future generations.
I’ve loved reading this book with children and the ensuing conversations that it provokes. For several of the children I’ve read it with, this is their first book that discusses slavery or poetry.
I read it to two of the girls I mentor at Bridge Meadows, Monica and Karishma, ages 7 and 8. When I took out the book, Monica didn’t want to hear it. She said she hates poetry. Karishma wanted to hear it, though, so we read it together. Monica wound up very interested and engaged in it. After I read it, she told me about Henry Box Brown, whose story she heard at school.
We also talked about poetry – how inter-related music and poetry is, how lyrics are like poetry. We may even try to write some at our next meeting.
In the afterword to Poet, Tate tells about his experience writing this book and his hope “young readers will see themselves in the story of George Moses Horton – a person with talents and hopes and dreams, and a desire to be free. Just like them.” I think he’s succeeded in every way. The drawings are engaging and expressive. He uses strong lines and beautiful washes. His writing style is clear and compelling. He handles difficult material with finesse and honesty.
Poet has won numerous awards which you can read about here. Tate’s website has great activity guides to go along with this book, as well as information on his other remarkable books. He’s a wonderful writer and his illustrations just beam.
You can read an interview with him at the Ezra Jack Keats Award website. Tate is the 2016 New Writer award recipient.
Here’s one of George Moses Horton’s poems that resonates with me.
George Moses Horton, Myself
I feel myself in need
Of the inspiring strains of ancient lore,
My heart to lift, my empty mind to feed,
And all the world explore.
I know that I am old
And never can recover what is past,
But for the future may some light unfold
And soar from ages blast.
I feel resolved to try,
My wish to prove, my calling to pursue,
Or mount up from the earth into the sky,
To show what Heaven can do.
My genius from a boy,
Has fluttered like a bird within my heart;
But could not thus confined her powers employ,
Impatient to depart.
She like a restless bird,
Would spread her wing, her power to be unfurl’d,
And let her songs be loudly heard,
And dart from world to world.
(Source: African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
You can read more of Horton’s poetry here. The Poetical Works of Georg M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina, To Which is Prefixed The Life of the Author, Written by Himself, George Horton, is available as a free download at Documenting the South, a website of the University of North Carolina, here.
Thanks for reading my blog. I hope a poem blossoms for you today.