In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou history

What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…

So, in the space of six months two beacons of justice and equality have flickered out.  First Nelson Mandela, now Maya Angelou. Confirming her death today, Maya Angelou’s son said: ‘She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’.

Maya Angelou’s life was a s remarkable as Nelson Mandela’s: born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she survived the trials of a terrible childhood. Born into poverty in the depression and the racist, segregated American south, she survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute. The opening section of her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood, closes with this vivid assertion:

Growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an
unnecessary insult.

Yet that volume opens with the words quoted at the top of this post: ‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay’ – a suggestion of her fierce determination to transcend her circumstances. It’s the same spirit that burns through her wonderful poem ‘Still I Rise’  – the determination to rise above ‘history’s shame’, the past of pain, terror and fear, of terrible suffering. But the shared history of her people has also yielded so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Like Mandela, Maya Angelou did rise – above the hatefulness and suffering, the violence and prejudice directed against herself and her people, to write inspirational texts such as ‘Human Family’:

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

At the same time, in memoirs such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote with brutal directness of the racism she had endured: of  ‘the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’:

A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.

In one scene that she describes, Maya is among a crowd gathered around a store radio with the rest of her community to listen to Joe Louis, ‘the Brown Bomber’, defend his world heavyweight boxing title. In a passage that conjures black pride in the face of oppression, she writes:

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.

As Lyn Innes writes in her obituary for the Guardian:

The book is also a celebration of the strength and integrity of black women such as Angelou’s grandmother, who enforced the respect of white adults and endured the impudence of white children. […] It gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of a beleaguered black community while also humorously dramatising Angelou’s need to find self-fulfilment outside it.

And what a fulfilling life she achieved for herself.  Lyn Innes summarizes the bare outline of an amazing story in her obituary.  It’s a story narrated by Angelou in the several volumes of autobiography that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

While this first volume of her memoirs is generally considered to be the best, the subsequent instalments – Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin‘ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) and Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – have also achieved a large and appreciative audience. Collectively, they portray Angelou’s experience as a young single mother; her travels in Europe and Africa with the cast of Porgy and Bess; her involvement with the civil rights movement and meetings with iconic figures such as King, Malcolm X and Billie Holiday; her life in Ghana, her son’s car accident and her decision to leave him in Ghana to recover; and finally the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to begin writing her first book.

Also in the Guardian, there’s a lovely appreciation by Gary Younge which begins with his memory of a day spent in her company in 2002.  He recalls:

She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was drunk or not. There’d been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she’d also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don’t take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.

Angelou was, Younge writes:

A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humour and some style”.

Finally – was there ever any moment in our lives more inspiring than Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993?  Those lines:

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

And the concluding verse:

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

The caged bird sings: of things unknown but longed for still

The caged bird sings: of things unknown but longed for still

Caged birds

Four days in Naples, and of all the images imprinted on my memory from that city of teeming alleyways and cacophonous streets, one lingers ineradicable.  I was waiting outside a shop in a narrow street echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing.  Then, above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang.  Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size. Imprisoned, the bird was repeating the same movements over and over, the way I’ve seen a caged zoo animal  pace incessantly one way and back again. The bird fluttered to a top corner of the cage and back down, over and over without pause. The song I had heard was a fearful, endless shriek.

I wanted to climb the stairs and free the bird, but of course I didn’t. But the image of that desperate flapping has not left my mind. I’ve since discovered that what I saw was just one example of a plight that ensnares countless birds in Naples. As this report indicates, birds are caught in large numbers, particularly on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, to be openly sold on the streets of Naples despite Italian laws that outlaw finch trapping:

Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Siskins are traditionally considered to bring their owners luck in the sprawling conurbation of Naples. Everywhere in the narrow streets and alleyways of the old town, stopped up with vehicle traffic, the song of these birds can be heard from countless balconies where they are confined in small cages. For many long term residents of Naples a finch in a cage is a typical household item.

The birds are still  in clap and mist nets, as well as special cage traps, above all on The birds are sold in normal pet shops, which also sell the necessary trapping accoutrements. The birds and equipment are often not just available ‘under the counter’ but are openly on sale.

The report is illustrated by the photo (above) of goldfinches and siskins seized before they were sold on the back streets of Naples.

Finches in flight
Photo of finches in flight by Roy Churchill (

Of course, the phrase that has been on my mind these last few days has been ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, the title of the first volume of Maya Angelou’s memorable autobiography. In naming her book, Angelou was honouring Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), an African-American poet whose works she had admired for years, and specifically referencing the third stanza of his poem ‘Sympathy’:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Maya Angelou wrote her own poem that shares the same title as her book:

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

There’s a poem by the American Mark Doty, ‘Migratory’, that speaks of longing, of our homesickness for the wild.  As John Burnside observed in a recent New Statesman article, it is a poem that

both delineates and accepts the limitations of being human, rather than animal …. As the birds fly over and away from him, forcing the speaker to admit ‘I wasn’t with them . . . of course I wasn’t’, we nevertheless see that, for the moment at least, he is touched with wonder and a lingering faith in a natural order that we all too frequently ignore. He has seen – and to see another animal in its true light, however briefly, is to recover a little of the connection that makes us compassionate, which is to say: whole. The leap skyward that Doty imagines reminds us that, unless we are able to experience the world, not just alongside but with other living things, we are incomplete. Compassion isn’t just what makes us human; it is what makes us real.

Geese in flight

Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
seventeen wild geese arrowed the ashen blue
over the Wal-mart and the Blockbuster Video,

and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion – not in the parking lot,
the tallowy circles just appearing,

the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil. Their eyes
held me there, the unfailing gaze

of those who know how to fly in formation,
wing-tip to wing-tip, safe, fearless.
And the convex glamour of their eyes carried

the parking lot, the wet field
troubled with muffler shops
and stoplights, the arc of highway

and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
with its failing barn…The wind
a few hundred feet above the grass

erases the mechanical noises, everything;
nothing but their breathing
and the perfect rowing of the pinions,

and then, out of that long, percussive pour
toward what they are most certain of,
comes their – question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria – as delivered
by something too compelled in its passage
to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length
of me until I am involved in their flight,
the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
needing nothing…Only animals
make me believe in God now

– so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
But I wasn’t with them,

as they headed toward Acushnet
and New Bedford, of course I wasn’t,
though I was not exactly in the parking lot

either, with the cars nudged in and out
of their slots, each taking the place another
had abandoned, so that no space, no desire

would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing
– is that what that sound is for? –

I seemed to be nowhere at all.

Recently I’ve been reading Michael Symmons Roberts’ new collection Drysalter; among the fine poems is this hymn to birds, the risks they run and the meaning they hold for us, epitomised in the sound of the dawn chorus:

It begins in song, in fact in songs, such chaos
it’s as if each dead bird is reborn to join
the same dawn chorus: all those shot, mauled,
widow-blind, the roadkill, those whose
gist gave out in mid-migration, those whose
picking at the dry soil drew a blank, now caught
in one tremendous rinse and swoon of multiples
then down the song stoops circling and the tone
slides from tin to wood to stone it tips into
the vortex of its making, a sheer weight
of song too great to hold still and the birds
themselves are sucked in with it, corkscrew
curl of down, crop, tail and crest until it all
collapses into one dun thrush, a dusk yard,
cherry bough, a single note swells in its gullet.

(‘Abyss of Birds’)