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To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.
— Robert Graves
The people on this list were all born on August 17, and they
- Charlotte L. Forten Grimke
- Wilfrid Scawen Blunt
- Marcus Garvey Jr.
- John Hawkes
- Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt are the only ones best known as poets, but Blunt’s poetry has fallen out of favor, and he had more lasting success as a breeder of Arabian horses. Charlotte Forten Grimke is better known as an educator, diarist, and anti-slavery activist, while a list of the activities of Marcus Garvey Jr. shows, “Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator” but does not list poet. In the biographies of John Hawkes, he is labeled as a postmodern American novelist, and sometimes as a college professor of English and Creative Writing.
Which brings us to a question, what is a poet? The dictionary tells us it is a writer of verse, which isn’t very helpful.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge takes us a little farther: “A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference, therefore, must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise.”
Ultimately, no single definition fits every poet, especially since the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian collection of poems and tales, is considered the oldest known poem. Over so many thousands of years, definitions of who is a poet and what is poetry have undergone quite a lot of changes.
So here are examples of work by the five people listed as poets with birthdays on this day. Which of them would you call poet?
The Journal of Charlotte Forten, 1853
May those whose holy task it is,
To guide impulsive youth,
Fail not to cherish in their souls
A reverence for truth;
For teachings which the lips impart
Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) American essayist, diarist, teacher and poet, born in Philadelphia, into a prominent African American abolitionist family. She was educated at the Higginson Grammar School, a private academy for young women, the only non-white student in a class of 200. Known for its emphasis on critical thinking, the school had classes in history, geography, drawing and cartography. After Higginson, Forten studied literature and teaching at the Salem Normal School, which trained teachers. Like most of the rest of her family, she was active in the anti-slavery movement, helping to build coalitions and raise funds. She arranged for lectures by well-known writers and speakers, and sometimes spoke herself. She kept journals from an early age, and began writing poetry during her recovery from tuberculosis in 1858. During the American Civil War, Forten was the first black teacher to join the mission to the South Carolina Sea Islands known as the Port Royal Experiment. The Union allowed Northerners to set up schools to begin teaching freedmen who remained on the islands, which had been devoted to large plantations for cotton and rice. She became friends with Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and after Shaw and many of the men were killed storming Fort Wagner in 1863, she volunteered to nurse the wounded survivors. After the war, she worked in Washington DC, recruiting teachers, and then as a clerk in the Treasury Department. At age 41, she married Presbyterian minister Francis Grimké, a mixed-race nephew of Southern abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké. She was an organizer of many of the congregation’s charitable and educational efforts. Her diaries were published as The Journal of Charlotte Forten.
Written at Florence
By Wilfred Scawen Blunt
O WORLD, in very truth thou art too young;
When wilt thou learn to wear the garb of age?
World, with thy covering of yellow flowers,
Hast thou forgot what generations sprung
Out of thy loins and loved thee and are gone?
Hast thou no place in all their heritage
Where thou dost only weep, that I may come
Nor fear the mockery of thy yellow flowers?
O world, in very truth thou art too young.
The heroic wealth of passionate emprize
Built thee fair cities for thy naked plains:
How hast thou set thy summer growth among
The broken stones which were their palaces!
Hast thou forgot the darkness where he lies
Who made thee beautiful, or have thy bees
Found out his grave to build their honeycombs?
O world, in very truth thou art too young:
They gave thee love who measured out thy skies,
And, when they found for thee another star,
Who made a festival and straightway hung
The jewel on thy neck. O merry world,
Hast thou forgot the glory of those eyes
Which first look’d love in thine? Thou hast not furl’d
One banner of thy bridal car for them.
O world, in very truth thou art too young.
There was a voice which sang about thy spring,
Till winter froze the sweetness of his lips,
And lo, the worms had hardly left his tongue
Before thy nightingales were come again.
O world, what courage hast thou thus to sing?
Say, has thy merriment no secret pain,
No sudden weariness that thou art young?
Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922), English writer, poet, traveler and breeder of Arabian horses at Crabbet Arabian Stud. He wrote poetry and political essays. He and his wife, Lady Anne Noel, daughter of Ada Lovelace, traveled through Spain, Algeria, Egypt, the Syrian Desert, and India. They set up their stud farm in England, and also a property near Cairo, which housed their horse-breeding operation in Egypt. He generally opposed British imperialism, and was banned from Egypt for four years because he championed the cause of Ahmed Urabi, Egyptian nationalist and officer in the Egyptian army, who was part of a mutiny and uprising against the Anglo-French administration which controlled Egypt. He stood for Parliament three times, but was unsuccessful, and wound up for a time as a prisoner in Ireland, where he supported Irish Home Rule. When he moved the latest of his mistresses into their home, his wife became legally separated from him in 1906, and the ensuing legal fights over the estate led eventually to his granddaughters winning a lawsuit to gain control (with trustees controlling the assets) in 1920. Blunt died two years later.
Get Up and Go!
by Marcus Garvey Jr
Please clear the way and let me pass,
If you intend to give up here:
It seems a shame that you should yield
Your life without its fullest share.
You are a coward for your pains,
To come this way, and then blow out:
Real men are made of stuff to last,
Which they, themselves, would never doubt.
Get up! You broken bits of flesh!
Take courage and go fighting on;
For every black man there’s a day,
Which pride in race has well begun.
Marcus Garvey Jr (1887-1940) was born into moderately prosperous Afro-Jamaican family, and apprenticed in the printing trade, where he became involved in trade unionism. In 1914, he founded and was first president-general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA), through which he declared himself Provisional President of Africa. Ideologically a black nationalist and Pan-Africanist, his ideas came to be known as Garveyism. Although he never visited the continent, he was committed to the Back-to-Africa movement, arguing that many black Americans should migrate there. He was an avowed racial separatist, which put him at odds with W.E.B. Du Bois, who favored racial integration, especially since he sometimes collaborated with white racists, including the Ku Klux Klan. His antipathy toward Jews and people of mixed race, and against socialism, caused rifts between him and other black activists. But his encouragement of pride, self-worth, and business enterprise among the Africa diaspora won him followers. He was seen as a national hero in Jamaica, and his ideas influenced the Rastafari, Nation of Islam and Black Power movements.
I was unable to find a single poem by John Hawkes, but here is the opening paragraph of Naming Names, the first chapter of his novel Second Skin:
Second Skin: Naming Names
by John Hawkes
I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needleppint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.
Second Skin, © 1964 by John Hawkes – New Direction Books
John Hawkes (1925-1998) was born as John Clendennin Talbot Burne Hawkes, Jr. in Stamford Connecticut, and attended Harvard College, and undergraduate branch of Harvard University, where John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Robert Creeley were among his fellow students. His first novel, The Cannibal, was published in 1949, but it was The Lime Twig, published in 1961, that brought him acclaim. He cited Vladimar Nabokov as a major influence. Hawkes taught English at Harvard (1955-1958) and creative writing at Brown University (1958-1988). He is also known for his novels Second Skin and The Blood Oranges.
by Ted Hughes
Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.
Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright
A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there
On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.
Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings
Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.
“Esther’s Tomcat” from Collected Poems: Ted Hughes, © 2003 by The Estate of Ted Hughes – Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was born in Yorkshire, English poet, translator and children’s writer, frequently ranked as one of the best poets of his generation. His first collection The Hawk in the Rain won considerable acclaim, but Crow is considered by many critics as his most significant work, He was appointed the UK’s Poet Laureate (1984-1998). Hughes was married to American poet Sylvia Plath from 1956 until her death by suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. He and Plath had another of a series of fights right before her death, but the versions each wrote about what happened contradict each other, and while his infidelity certainly didn’t help Plath, she was beset by clinical depression most of her adult life, and had attempted suicide before. He was appointed a member of the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II just before his death in in 1998. Poet Seamus Heaney spoke at his funeral, “No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft. No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry’s children could enter and feel secure. His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent. By his death, the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken.”
What is a poet?
Coffee mug poem: “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost