I may have been introduced to poems from when I was in the second grade, but it was only in ninth grade, as a 14-year-old, that I first encountered poetry. And it didn’t quite come in the form of a poem.
Yesterday I went up to our attic to look for pajamas and this is what I found.
It's a tattered copy of a copy of Black Boy, which is a childhood memoir of American writer Richard Wright. It's a photocopied version because that's what we were given in school, and that's how I read books through much of my childhood. Which is why it took a while getting accustomed to original copies of novels I had to read in college. This one has a spine made of yellow tape, and the cover page is covered with scribblings of the 14-year-old enthusiast I was. My name features six times, scattered across the cover, going off into every possible direction. There are sound words that, though written with innocence, are of a rather perverse nature. The mind has been stained irredeemably in the past decade. And there's some commentary on the muddy nature of the author's last name, which got me ruminating on ideas of right, wrong, guilt, etc, etc. The back cover is mostly gone.
I spent a better part of my high school years reading and rereading Black Boy as part of our literature class. It came to me at a time when I was sure school was a tiring and useless process, that I was certainly miscast in it. Most of eighth grade had passed without my taking a single look at the blackboard. I also felt general unease at the prospect of having to use the English language so profusely. A language I did not feel at home with. A language I had no confidence using. I wanted to badly quit school.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to poems very early in my childhood. And I began writing them when I was in the seventh grade. I'd carry a notebook with me everywhere I went. That's where I'd write, mostly in verses that rhymed, angry phrases filled with rage, anger, disappointment, humiliation. I'd write to get back at the world for not letting me in. In small hardcover notebooks, I chronicled all the little losses of my life, I tried to store all the things inside me that had remained misunderstood. The world was suffocation and writing easily became my refuge. It became my shield, my armour. But it was not poetry.
Last night, as I was flipping through pages of my tattered Black Boy, I encountered sentences, here and there, at random. And I was surprised by how they made me feel. Every turn of phrase, every progress in narrative carried a momentum, a sound, a rhythm that was oddly and intensely familiar. I remember it had given me a generous learning experience in school, one I eagerly plunged into. But back then I was barely aware of how much of an impact it was to leave on me.
In literature, I depend on and relish in style the most. Style is what gives a peek into the soul of the person behind the words. But style is always, at most, an abstract, intangible thing. And here, with Wright, even after a decade, style was like a life-sized statue placed in the middle of my bedroom. Black Boy has such a strong melody, that if you've spent a part of your youth playing it on repeat, you'll be able to hum it the rest of your life. Or that's what's been true for me. I feel like I can continue reading the book with my eyes closed. In that manner, the book is just like a 295 page-long song. It is one very, very long poem.
I quickly turned to pages that carry my favourite bits. These are lines that gave me the first inkling of what poetry means.
Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountain-like, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet, green garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.
There was the tantalising melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.
There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.
There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.
There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can.
There was the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun.
There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of whitewashed frame houses.
There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.
There was the incomprehensible secret embodied in a whitish toadstool hiding in the dark shade of a rotting log.
There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father’s wrist.
There was the great joke that I felt God had played on cats and dogs by making them lap their milk and water with their tongues.
There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.
There was the hot panic that welled up in my throat and swept through my blood when I first saw the lazy, limp coils of a blue-skinned snake sleeping in the sun.
There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.
There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks.
There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.
There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.
There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odour of new-cut, bleeding grass.
And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights...
Funny how poetry first happened to me in the form of prose. But look at these lines. How ripe they are with feeling, how willingly they offer themselves to your experience. There is memory, and warmth, and wonder, and curiosity, and pain, and pleasure. There is that child’s consciousness--which, like a camera roll, is forever changed with every single exposure to the world. There is nature nudging, inviting, nourishing, biting.
Language was often taught to us as a way of describing things, but these lines taught me how hollow description is when it is presented without feeling. You need distortion, bias, a description of reality layered with your experience of it, and your response to it, for poetry to come alive. Otherwise it will be another science textbook, one anyone could write.
There’s part II to these musical notes that come a bit later, when he’s slightly more grown up, although still very much a child.
The days and hours began to speak now with a clearer tongue. Each experience had a sharp meaning of its own.
There was the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies on drowsy summer nights. There was the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias.
There was the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall green grass swaying and glinting in the wind and sun.
There was the feeling of impersonal plenty when I saw a boll of cotton whose cup had split over and straggled its white fleece towards the earth.
There was the pitying chuckle that bubbled in my throat when I watched a fat duck waddle across the back yard.
There was the suspense I felt when I heard the taut, sharp song of a yellow-black bee hovering nervously but patiently above a white rose.
There was the drugged, sleepy feeling that came from sipping glasses of milk, drinking them slowly so that they would last a long time, and drinking enough for the first time in my life.
There was the bitter amusement of going into town with Granny and watching the baffled stares of white folks who saw an old white woman leading two undeniably Negro boys in and out of stores on Capitol Street.
There was the slow, fresh, saliva-stimulating smell of cooking cotton seeds.
There was the excitement of fishing in muddy country creeks with my grandpa on cloudy days.
There was the fear and awe I felt when Grandpa took me to a sawmill to watch the giant, whirring, steel blades whine and scream as they bit into wet, green logs.
There was the puckery taste that almost made me cry when I ate my first half-ripe persimmon.
There was the greedy joy in the tangy taste of wild hickory nuts.
There was the dry, hot, summer morning when I scratched my bare arms on briers while picking blackberries and came home with my fingers and lips stained black with sweet berry juice.
There was the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich, nibbling at it slowly and hoping that I would never eat it up.
There was the all-night ache in my stomach after I had climbed a neighbour’s tree and eaten stolen, unripe peaches.
There was the morning when I thought I would fall dead from fear after I had stepped with my bare feet upon a bright little green garden snake.
And there were the long, slow, drowsy days and nights of drizzling rain...
My familiarity with Wright’s style is not so much external as it is internal. The thing that my reading last night resonated with most was my own inner voice. And I was shocked to see how much the rhythm of my mind echoes his. The way he uses words and images, how he approaches language, what writing means to him. I hadn’t planned it to happen this way, but looking back, I see how much my obsession with the book, how the way it had salvaged the life of a hapless adolescent had left its imprint. It became my unintended inheritance.
The way I underlined lines on virtually every page, the scribbles on the sides show that there was something deep and wonderful ensuing. There’s this one page towards the end of the book where I’ve written in exasperation, “I don’t know…Shall I underline everything?!” At every turn, the book cracked open understandings that expanded the universe of my experience. New dimensions were revealing themselves to me, and with every read, the world I was living in felt big and mysterious and alluring. More explorable. More negotiable.
A book that charts the life of a black child growing up in the 1920s in the American South is undoubtedly not a light book. There is violence, betrayal, injustice at every corner. The book is packed with instances that are knotted with a complexity of emotional experiences, some excruciatingly painful, others achingly beautiful, others yet undoing all his life’s learnings only to teach him something entirely new. Looking back at his life and trying to measure its worth, Wright seems to have found something valuable in the suffering that formed the bedrock of his existence. That suffering must have deepened his joy, whenever he felt it, that he was able to create poetry out of it.
With this book in hand, I became aware that poetry isn’t just a mere wringing out the contents of your mind, but a fusion of your mind and your heart and your body and your people and your world. Was it at that moment that I changed--somewhat--from someone who wrote angry poems, to someone who started appreciating poetry?
My school life was mostly terrible, but having read Black Boy while I was there makes up for much of it. It taught me the most important thing about poetry--how to love it. And once that love develops, then the lived experience of poetry is no longer limited to a poem, or to words alone. It spills out of your consciousness through your senses and soon enough, the sky is singing to you, the rooftop breeze too. A lonesome tree. A cup of tea. A smile smiled in memory of a dear friend. The sparkle of gold, the mystery of mould. The carefree meandering of a river, the self-effacing patience of a silent stone on its banks. Endless journeys. Emotions that have no name. And on and on and on poetry seeps into every aspect of your life, until the whole world is drenched in melody. Poetry, when it becomes a way of life, enables you to grasp the rhythm of life.
So sing along. Until everything is just an unending song.