TCS: If We Have Not Struggled – Three American Poets

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Write what should not be forgotten.
— Isabel Allende


Three very different U.S. poets were born in September: Hamlin Garland was born on September 14, 1860, Claude McKay on September 15, 1890, and Kay Ryan on September 21, 1945.

Hamlin Garland is best-known for the autobiographies and poems he wrote about growing up among Midwestern farmers. “And all night long we lie in sleep, Too sweet to sigh in, or to dream . . .”

Claude McKay, though born in Jamaica, became a notable writer of the Harlem Renaissance. “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

Kay Ryan is from Northern California, and was relatively unknown when she was chosen to be America’s Poet Laureate. “What’s the use of something as unstable and diffuse as hope—the almost-twin of making do . . .”

One thing they do have in common: a struggle for meaning, both in their work, and in their lives.


The Cry of the Age

by Hamlin Garland

What shall I do to be just?
What shall I do for the gain
Of the world—for its sadness?
Teach me, O Seers that I trust!
Chart me the difficult main
Leading out of my sorrow and madness
Preach me the purging of pain.
Shall I wrench from my finger the ring
To cast to the tramp at my door?
Shall I tear off each luminous thing
To drop in the palm of the poor?
What shall I do to be just ?
Teach me, O Ye in the light.
Whom the poor and the rich alike trust:
My heart is aflame to be right.

Indian Summer

by Hamlin Garland

At last there came
The sudden fall of frost, when Time
Dreaming through russet September days
Suddenly awoke, and lifting his head, strode
Swiftly forward–made one vast desolating sweep
Of his scythe, then, rapt with the glory
That burned under his feet, fell dreaming again.
And the clouds soared and the crickets sang
In the brief heat of noon; the corn,
So green, grew sere and dry–
And in the mist the ploughman’s team
Moved silently, as if in dream–
And it was Indian summer on the plain.

“The Cry of the Age” and “Indian Summer” are both in the
public domain.

Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) American novelist, poet, biographer, essayist and short story writer, who grew up on a farm in the Midwest. He was also a Georgist (proponent of the “single tax movement” based on the writings of Henry George), and a parapsychology researcher. He is best known for his Middle Border series. A Daughter of the Middle Border won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It is the sequel to his autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border. He devoted his last years to investigating  psychic phenomena, which was the subject of his final book, The Mystery of the Buried Crosses, published in 1939.


Harlem Shadows

by Claude McKay

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.


by Claude McKay

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

“Harlem Shadows” and “America” from Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay, a 2018 reprint of the 1922 edition

 Claude McKay (1899-1948) was born in Jamaica, novelist, short story writer, memoirist, non-fiction writer and poet, who became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His first collection of poems, Songs of Jamaica, was published in 1912, the same year he first came to the United States to attend college, but he moved to New York City two years later, working as a waiter on the railways, then in a factory, and as an editor of The Liberator.  He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and became involved with a group of black radicals. In 1919, he went to London, and joined the International Socialist Club, the Rationalist Press Association, the Workers’ Socialist Federation, and he wrote for the Workers’ Dreadnought, a leftist and suffragist newspaper run at the time by Sylvia Pankhurst. He spent time in Paris, was invited to go with Max Eastman to Russia to take part in the 4th Congress of the Communist International in 1922, and traveled in Morocco. His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. McKay wrote five novels, including Home to Harlem, a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold medal for Literature in 1928. He became disillusioned by communism, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1944, just four years before his death from a heart attack at age 58 in 1948.


Ideal Audience

by Kay Ryan

Not scattered legions,
not a dozen from
a single region
for whom accent
matters, not a seven-
member coven,
not five shirttail
cousins; just
one free citizen,
maybe not alive
now even, who
will know with
exquisite gloom
that only we two
ever found this room.


by Kay Ryan

Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.

Why We Must Struggle

by Kay Ryan

If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us,
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble,
how loss activates
a latent double, how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

“Ideal Audience” “Losses” and “Why We Must Struggle” from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, © 2010 by Kay Ryan – Grove Press

 Kay Ryan (1945 – ) American poet and community college English teacher, was born in San Jose California. She has published nearly a dozen poetry collections, beginning with Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, published privately in 1983. It was her sixth book of poetry, The Niagara River, winner of the 2004 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, which brought her some national attention. She was a surprise choice when the U.S. Library of Congress named her as Poet Laureate (2008-2010). “I felt completely unequal to the task. I thought, no, never in a million years . . .” In spite of her self-doubts, and the diagnosis of her life partner, Carol Adair, with advanced stage cancer, she accepted, and emphasized the value of community colleges during her tenure. Adair died in 2009, during Ryan’s second term. Kay Ryan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with a National Humanities Medal. Her latest poetry collection is Erratic Facts, published in 2016.


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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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