An Electric Conversation with Hollis Robbins on the Black Sonnet Tradition, Progress, and AI, with Guest Appearances by Marcus Christian and GPT-3

by Bill Benzon

I was hanging out on Twitter the other day, discussing my previous 3QD piece (about Progress Studies) with Hollis Robbins, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Cal State at Sonoma. We were breezing along at 240 characters per message unit when, Wham! right out of the blue the inspiration hit me: How about an interview?

Thus I have the pleasure of bringing another Johns Hopkins graduate into orbit around 3QD. Hollis graduated in ’83; Michael Liss, right about the corner, in ’77; and Abbas Raza, our editor, in ’85; I’m class of  ’69. Both of us studied with and were influenced by the late Dick Macksey, a humanist polymath at Hopkins with a fabulous rare book collection. I know Michael took a course with Macksey and Abbas, alas, he missed out, but he met Hugh Kenner, who was his girlfriend’s advisor.

Robbins has also been Director of the Africana Studies program at Hopkins and chaired the Department of Humanities at the Peabody Institute. Peabody was an independent school when I took trumpet lessons from Harold Rehrig back in the early 1970s. It started dating Hopkins in 1978 and they got hitched in 1985.

And – you see – another connection. Robbins’ father played trumpet in the jazz band at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1950s. A quarter of a century later I was on the faculty there and ventured into the jazz band, which was student run.

It’s fate I call it, destiny, kismet. [Social networks, fool!]

Robbins has published this and that all over the place, including her own poetry, and she’s worked with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. to give us The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006). Not only was Uncle Tom’s Cabin a best seller in its day (mid-19th century), but an enormous swath of popular culture rests on its foundations. If you haven’t yet done so, read it.

She’s here to talk about her most recent book, just out: Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition.

* * * * *

Bill Benzon: I’ve been enjoying reading your book, but it’s going slowly, not because of any difficulty in your prose, which is fine, but because of the richness of your exploration. I keep getting side-tracked by thoughts of jazz, blues, identity & culture, of the young white boy at the beginning of Young Man With a Horn being transfixed by the trumpet virtuosity of a middle-aged black man, who generously mentors him to stardom, a bit like the crows and Dumbo in the Disney film. But then there’s Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra being bent out of shape trying to synch-up with the rhythms of Odadaa!, bell rhythms especially, a music and dance troop from Ghana. All of which is to say, tell me a story, the story you open your book with.

Hollis Robbins: Interesting opening question! With its free-flowing nature it is almost the opposite of a sonnet. The point of the sonnet is that the form is prestigious, rigid, and flexible up to a point. When you choose to write a sonnet, you are choosing to limit yourself and to join a centuries-old practice of self-limitation that has recognizable traditions, protocols, famous practitioners, and important detractors. But mostly you are choosing to limit yourself and be deliberately self conscious of the form and its traditions.

My book is about 200+ years of African American poets who have chosen to partake in this tradition — what they have gotten out of it, who inspired them, why they write sonnets, what they gain from the sonnet, and what the sonnet gains from more than a century of truly innovative African American poetic practitioners. 

Writing this book took a long time because it required telling the history of the sonnet and all the important traditions, telling the story of African American literature and all of the important traditions, and then showing how these two traditions came together to produce something new: a genealogy that has been less overlooked than deliberately disregarded.

If you are sidetracked, you cannot blame the sonnet! The sonnet does not let itself be sidetracked. Leave that to free verse practitioners.

BB: Oh, I’m not blaming the sonnet for anything. But I’m still waiting for that story you tell in the prologue. That story is about identity and art, no? It is conventional to associate jazz with Africa, and for good reason. But that link has to gloss over specific technical differences, differences that Marsalis and the JLCO had to confront when dealing with the Ghanaian rhythms of Odadaa!. The fictional white boy in Young Man with a Horn is remotely descended from the real Bix Beiderbecke, arguably the first important white jazz musician. But, as Amiri Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones) remarked in Blues People, Louis Armstrong’s musical vocation embodied values esteemed in his local culture while Beiderbecke pursued his musical vocation in opposition to his local culture. What’s it take for an African American poet to pursue a form central to European poetic traditions?

HR: OK this is a better question than I first thought. Initially I thought that once again you were taking the long way around to ask a question about a literary form that is the opposite of taking the long way around. But I see now you’re asking a question that can only be asked by taking the long way around: why did African American poets keep denying the sonnet form’s appeal for one hundred years? So: good question!

Gwendolyn Brooks, who was a brilliant sonnet writer, used to lament the fact that African American poets were “twice tried”: under so much pressure to write about race in America they were unable to write sonnets on raindrops until racial equality was achieved. A sonnet on raindrops might well “represent racial tears” but not overtly enough for readers who demanded explicitly racial themes.

African American sonnet writers never stopped loving the sonnet. Dunbar loved it. McKay loved it. Hughes loved it but denied it. Brooks loved it until she was pressured to say it was a white form and then she disavowed it, even while she still loved it and kept writing sonnets. The problem was never on the production side but the demand side. The curators of Black Literature in the 1960s wanted to stamp out demand for the sonnet. The suppliers kept supplying sonnets for all the reasons I write about in my book — it’s an ideal form for distilling, expressing, and performing the immensely complicated experience of being Black in America.

 As for Africa and jazz, I think trying to make connections between jazz conventions and sonnet conventions is not fruitful, really. I understand that you bring to the table great learning in jazz conventions but I’m not finding that they translate to understanding of the sonnet, which is fundamentally different!

Does this make sense?

BB: Oh, it makes perfect sense. Musical culture and literary culture are very different. Notice, for example, that we have had white performers of jazz for as long as we have direct evidence, that, despite the fact that hip hop is now 30-40 years old, there are and have been relatively few white performers of any note.

Meanwhile I offer you the opening of Duke Ellington’s “A Drum is a Woman.” Starting at about 4:00 or so you’ll hear that “rhythm came from Africa, way back”. FWIW, Ellington did not himself use the term “jazz”, a term that has been in dispute in the jazz world for some time.

HR: There’s a lot written on why he emphasized Africa and dreamt about Africa, when he didn’t get there until 1966. There’s a lot written about claims about Africa by Black intellectuals in the 1920s and thereafter, about drums and rhythm.

BB: One of the big issues in jazz studies is just what is it that came from Africa. How did West African rhythm become transformed into a jazz shuffle? Afro-Cuban rhythms are much closer to West African rhythms. Dizzy Gillespie integrated a Cuban drummer, Chano Pozo, into this musical practice in the 1940s and thus amplified the dialog with Latin rhythm that has been very important in jazz. Jelly Roll Morton called it the “Latin tinge”.

HR: OK, But what is less talked about is the way jazz musicians were influenced by the drumming and chanting of Native Americans in Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida. See Ray Noble’s “Indian Suite.” So it’s far more complicated than saying jazz came from Africa.

BB: “Cherokee” has been a jazz standard for decades. Charlie Parker’s “Ko-ko” is based on it. It’s become something of a testing ground for virtuosity.

* * * * *

BB:  One thing that interests me is how the sonnet got established in the first place. Given that establishment, of course all sorts of poets have had to deal with it. But why did that form get established at all?

HR: The sonnet was established in 12th century Italy and I spend an entire chapter in my book on its beginnings, how the idea of metaphysical love was in the air as a result of new interest in Plato, whose works were known through Augustine and in a few Latin translations. The idea of a “pure, unfettered love” made for great poetry and the sonnet form, with its eight lines of metaphysical questioning and six lines of earthly assessment, was easily understandable and endlessly repeatable, with variations. “I love you, but…”. “You are beautiful, but…”. The “but” does all sorts of work in the sonnet form.  The famous early practitioners were Petrarch, Dante, Michelangelo, and hundreds of others.

So this simple form, fourteen lines with a few different rhyme schemes, was taken up by English poets, most famously by Shakespeare, but by many others. The short version is that Milton invested the form with political significance, a Protestant significance, as it were, and Wordsworth continued that tradition. In America, Paul Laurence Dunbar saw its significance for African American political protest, as did Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and many hundreds of others up to the present.  Terrance Hayes’s new book, for example, is American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin.

BB: OK. But by the time Shakespeare came around there were so many sonnets out that that, if you wanted to call yourself a poet, you had to prove yourself in the form. How’d it get to that point? What are the affordances of the form?

HR: According to Petrarch’s Secretum: “For what else does the sublime doctrine of Plato argue but that the soul must protect itself from the passions of the flesh and eradicate its fantasies so it may rise pure and unfettered to the contemplation of the mysteries of the divine, combining meditation on one’s own mortality with that contemplation?”

That’s quite a quote. In the lyric voice of Renaissance humanism, Petrarch’s sonnets enact praise of ideal beauty. His poetic speakers argue with themselves about spiritual love. They also ask themselves: Am I suffering? Am I in bondage? Should I be? Why is it that I am? As you can imagine, these questions are of obvious interest to African American poetry.

 BB: That’s all about meaning, which is fine as far as it goes. But what of time and rhythm? Remember, you’re talking to a musician. For me word meaning is just something that takes up time slots. I keep thinking that the sonnet is really a 16 bar form in which the final two bars are silent so you can rest while the first 14 sink in. The blues, though, three sections of four bars, the blues I understand. I tend to think of the sonnet as the blues of literary art, a short form with infinite possibilities.

HR: Ha — your proposal to think about the sonnet as a 16 bar form cut down to 14 lines, or the sonnet as the blues of literature, might be a misunderstanding of the sonnet. First the blues meter is tetrameter not pentameter. You have four lines of alternating rhymes in tetrameter. Everything wraps up nicely and easily, as expected. The pleasure is in the closure, in the final rhyme of the fourth line.

The sonnet doesn’t work like that.  The Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA for the first 8 lines, which is fundamentally different than ABAB or ABCB or AAAA. With the sonnet, you have to wait for the A rhymes and that delay is important. Moreover, the last eight lines can be a variety of rhymes: CDCDC or CCCDDD or CDDCDC or some variation. You might end with a rhyme that rhymes with the eye but not the ear, like wind and find.

African American sonnet writers used these rhyme conventions in the same way that all other sonnet writers used these conventions, to signal that there aren’t easy resolutions, that progress is delayed, that expectations of deliverance will be met in unexpected ways.

So the sonnet form itself is in conversation with every sonnet. All sonnets are in some way about the sonnet form. A sonnet writer may decide to break form and not rhyme at all or rhyme in unorthodox ways to signal anger or breaking free of the form. This is the beauty of the sonnet — it allows the performance of following rules or the performance of breaking free while it retains its form.

BB: The blues has four lines? Musically it’s a 12-bar structure, 4 + 4 + 4.

HR: You are right of course about the rhyme, which is usually AABB or AAA, but I am right the meter is tetrameter rather than pentameter. Four beat lines not Five beat lines.  It’s hard to sing to pentameter in fact.

BB: What about the audience for the sonnets. What do we know or can infer about demographics?

I ask on general principle, but also because the white audience for jazz as been larger than the black audience since who knows? Perhaps since the early 20th century. The reason is simple, the white population is much larger than the black. The NEA has been doing arts participation surveys since, I don’t know, the 70s, 80s, maybe earlier. When I looked at those for my book on music it was clear the percentage of blacks interested in jazz was larger than the percentage of whites, but when you multiply by total population, the white population is much larger.

Almost every time I’ve heard live jazz, the white audience out-numbered the black. Exceptions, well, there’s the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore where, as I recall – it was a long time ago – the audiences were 2/3rds black. I don’t know how many of those concerts I went to, but a lot over several years. There was an out-door Dizzy Gillespie concert in Baltimore in one of the large parks, I think Leakin. About, say, 10,000 people and only a dozen or so were white. Three of them were with me, a half dozen were on the stage, either in the band or with the crew, and the others here and there. Baltimore’s population, of course, is majority African-American. Then a small neighborhood club in Buffalo in the 1970s and a Sunday afternoon jam session above a funeral parlor in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s.

 HR: Great question about audience — it’s not really a question that comes up often but it is a logical question from a musician. Most poets got their start publishing in newspapers and periodicals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of the canonical sonnets I study were initially published in periodicals so their audience would have been readers of those periodicals. W.E.B. Du Bois’s journal, The Crisis, was affiliated with the NAACP and its mission was in part to fight race violence. So readers of The Crisis might read sonnets alongside news articles about lynchings. Claude McKay published “If We Must Die” in a Socialist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1919, so that sonnet would have initially had an audience of political activists of all races.

Throughout the twentieth century, Black poetry anthologies republished many of these sonnets. The best-selling anthologies of American poetry usually would have some African American poetry but in fact most anthologies ignored Black poetry until a few decades ago. But poetry anthologies edited by African American editors were where many Black readers encountered Black sonnets.

* * * * *

BB: Let’s shift gears. We started out talking about progress a couple of days ago. What does literature, what do sonnets, have to do with progress? What do you think Shelley had in mind when he wrote: “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Don’t you just love that phrase, “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration”?

HR: I love the last line, that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I mostly disregard the “hierophants” line because I think that speaks primarily to Shelley’s poetic practice but not to poets universally. I don’t think most of the African American sonnet writers I study would call themselves interpreters of sacred mysteries but rather keen-eyed observers and truth tellers. Someone like Claude McKay was overtly political and wanted to change the world. A legislator of language and poetic form but not a hierophant. Dunbar too changed language but as a legislator not a hierophant.

BB: I too like the last line. As for “hierophants”, I barely know what it means – had to look it up in the dictionary. I just like the sound.

Back to the last line, in our Twitter conversation you said that progress originates in irritation. What does that mean and how does the African American sonnet tradition speak to that?

HR: Whatever the larger social and economic landscape of support for projects – education, freedom, sufficient resources for a full belly and a roof over one’s head – the provocation for progress is irritation. A person is dissatisfied in some way. Maybe there’s a better way to kill a mammoth or light a fire or craft a vessel for bringing water from the stream or sew a blanket or make a firearm or weave clothing or communicate with a lover across town. Dissatisfaction or restlessness is always present or why would anyone innovate in the first place?

All poetry is a matter of dissatisfaction and absence. There is no poetry about present happiness. Poems might be about past joy or might anticipate future bliss but there are no poems about happiness now.

So — poetry and progress are kin in this way, both born of disquiet.

BB: The African American sonnet tradition has seen a lot of change in 200 years. Do you think that that change represents progress? If so, in what sense?

HR: What is progress in poetry? Certainly the sonnets written by African American sonnet writers this century are more knowing and more richly layered than sonnets 100 years ago because poets have a larger archive to read and respond to. Poets always influence each other and provoke each other to innovate. This is what my book is about.

* * * * *

BB: [To self – might as well give it a shot.] What about sonnets and AI?

HR: I would say that two crucial contributions humanists can make to progress at the moment are 1) demonstrating how the creation of “character” in literature offers ways of understanding data storage and memory and quantum thinking that aren’t yet being studied; and 2) bringing new knowledge about language to AI and how AI understands language.  I find the poetry experiments of GPT-3 to be truly boring, frankly. What does it matter to train GPT-3 to write a poem in the style of Tennyson or Dickinson or to tweet like some famous thought leader?  That’s just goofy. A more important question is how “I Can Has Cheezburger?” is Blakean in its devastating succinctness. It is unforgettable. It is ineffable. When AI does such a thing I will take note.

BB: I’m with you on GPT-3 and Cheezbugers. But I have to push back on 1) and 2). Tossing something over the transom and saying “hey guys! deal with it” is not useful, but that’s pretty much all humanists know how to do. They can’t hold up their end of the conversation. I’m speaking in broad generalities, of course. There are exceptions, but not enough to matter.

We don’t need to become technical experts in AI, but we need to know the language better than we do. In particular we have to appreciate and enter into their intellectual style, a style where discursive prose is not the primary medium of conceptualization. Thinking is done in diagrams, mathematical formalisms, physical gesture, and, yes, code. We have to learn to think outside of and beyond prose.

I recently listened to a YouTube conversation between an AI guy, Lex Fridman, and a microchip designer, Jim Keller. It was fascinating, though much of it whizzed by me. As they talked about processes that happen on and in chips I was visualizing particles moving on surfaces. The visualizations were vague, but essential, the REAL thinking.

How do you implement thought in brute matter? Chip designers do know something about that. Perhaps not as much as they think they know, but what they know is not trivial. What literary critics know is that it (thought in computers, but brains as well) isn’t possible because it’s all wrong. Cheap “knowledge”. Literary critics are de facto mind-matter dualists.

Until literary critics are interested in listening to that chip designer – and others like him, software too – what you’re asking for isn’t going to happen. And I mean listen to him, talk to him, be genuinely interested in what he’s doing. You don’t have to understand him all the way and you don’t have to believe that what he knows will solve everything.

Alas, it’s probably too late for anyone who already has a degree. To make those conversations happen we’ve got to identify undergraduates who both love literature and revel in the computational thought style. They’re out there, though many of them may prefer science fiction to Anthony Trollope or Emily Dickinson. We’ve got to attract them to our graduate programs and then nurture that intellectual style within literary study. We don’t know how to do that.

The profession had a chance at developing useful concepts back in the 1970s, but it decided not to and hasn’t looked back. I’m thinking of structuralism – structuralism, NOT post-structuralism, Lévi-Strauss on myth in particular – some poetics and narratology, even the flirtation with generative grammar. Heck, even contemporary digital humanists are reluctant to go there. I don’t see how anything currently happening in literary studies is going to lead to such concepts and language. The AI folks are doing to have to figure it out on their own.

The ones most likely to do so are the folks who design interactive ‘video’ games. Why? Because they have to figure out how to implement plot structures and characters in code that people can interact with in real time. You can’t do that with GPT-3. You need “old school” symbolic AI and old school computational linguistics, you need story grammars, all that was going on in the 1970s and 80s, but literary critics weren’t paying attention. The discipline may be interested in what the AI folks do, but it’s abrogated the right to participate in the process.

Sorry for the rant.

HR: Excellent rant on AI…

It turns out I have a fairly good understanding of microchip design and manufacture; I worked on an assembly line making integrated circuits through most of high school, during the summers. In fact my interest in microengineering is why I’m interested in the sonnet as a form: it is small, limited, and requires careful engineering to ensure all of the different elements work together in a small space and that one part doesn’t overheat or spark and short another element.

BB: Sounds like Jerry Seinfeld on jokes, each one is a finely crafted machine.

HR: Poetry is engineered language. The problem for AI is that the layers of meaning embedded in individual words, word phrases, and word clusters are not easily archived and cataloged. A person can hear an echo of another poem; an artificial intelligence may not hear that echo. So in fact the problem is not me not listening to chip designers but rather natural language processors not talking to enough poets.

BB: Um, err, we’re talking past one another. Let’s put that aside and try an experiment. Let’s get our hands dirty.


BB: There’s a guy at the Progress Studies Slack, Phil Mohun, who has access to GPT-3 [a state of the art AI natural language generator]. He’s asked for prompts. Why don’t I give him the opening two lines of Marcus Christian’s “The Craftsman” and see what it comes up with.

HR: The classic confrontation. Instead of John Henry we have Marcus Christian…

BB: Right!

HR: …and instead of a steam-powered machine drill we have GPT-3.

* * * * *

BB: Yes! Instead of industrial machine vs. human muscle we have 21st century AI vs. the human soul.

Here’s what GPT-3 did. Phil prompted it with the text in boldface and it replied with the rest:

A sonnet by Marcus Christian:
I ply with all the cunning of my art
This little thing, and with consummate care
Contrive a score of air-tight cells
And coil therein a million filaments.
And yet, despite all my aspiring skill,
All it can do, howe’er I strain and toil,
Is make a drum that, once it is put up,
Can never be made into a bell.

HR: Well it’s not finished as a sonnet of course — it’s the first part of a sonnet, at eight lines. The rhyme scheme is unclear — on the one hand skill/toil is a nice para-rhyme but ‘care’ and ‘up’ don’t seem to have rhymes and that’s a problem in a poem that is explicitly about creating art “with consummate care.”  GPT-3’s six lines are careless. Moreover the words chosen have no coherent meaning. Why use a word like score, with multiple meanings, if you’re not going to lean on the multiple meanings? Why a million? Why the strange archaic syncope, “howe’er”? Who puts up a drum? Why the wasted word phrase, “Can never be made into”?

More importantly there’s nothing to interpret in this poem — there’s no sense of why it is crafted the way it is, what the lines are gesturing toward and alluding to.

When you compare this to Marcus Christian’s full sonnet you see how it can’t possibly achieve what Christian’s sonnet does, with its allusions to other poems and other traditions, situating itself in a complex network of literary production that stretches back hundreds of years to Shakespeare and a hundred or so years back to Keats, and yet is solidly in the tradition of midcentury African American poetic optimism.

In order for GPT-3 really to write poetry in the manner of Marcus Christian it would have to have as inputs not only all of Christian’s poetry but also all the poetry that Christian was reading, including McKay, whom Christian pushed back against in several of his sonnets. Poems are always part of a network and so the network needs to be part of the input.

BB: That’s all well and good. I certainly don’t think GPT-3 is going to put poets out of work. Nor, for that matter, GPT-6, GPT-13, or even GPT-42. I don’t think that’s how this is going to evolve.

But what’s got my attention is the words “drum” and “bell” in those last two lines. What happens in GPT-3 is that it creates a very high dimensional space – a ludicrous space! billions and billions of dimensions – where each word is a point in that space. When you feed it a prompt, those words ‘activate’ a sub-region within that space. That sub-region will, of course, itself be of high-dimensionality, through not as many dimensions the full space. GPT-3 then completes a text from that prompt by moving about in that sub-region. Why is it that both “drum” and “bell” turn up in the sub-region prompted by the first two lines of Christian’s sonnet? And then GPT-3 ended its completion with those two words. Is that mere contingency – you know, monkeys pecking away at typewriters – or was GPT-3 able to “suss out” the nature of the space appropriate for those opening lines and sense that those two words would nicely complete the document?

HR: I have no pretty explanation for the appearance of “drum” and “bell” except to say that both appear fairly often in English language poetry generally. Musical words are like vowels in Scrabble — you’re always going to get a fair number of them sprinkled here and there. Whether they’re “appropriate” to any particular poet is unclear!

BB: OK, but how’d GPT-3 “know” to toss in those musical words at all? For all practical purposes it’s got the entire vocabulary of the English language to draw on. It’s not doing things willy-nilly. There’s a lot of structure there, structure, by they way, that’s opaque to us. We may have created this, this, whatever it is, but its workings are opaque to us.

Yes, it’s a computer. We talk of them as machines; machine translation (aka MT) from one language to another is one of the founding problem areas of computer science. But, as Marvin Minsky remarked a long time ago, digital computers not machines in any ordinary sense. Any intuitions we have from our experience with, say, watches, vacuum cleaners, steam power drills, automobiles, whatever, they mislead us about computers. But computers are not living beings either. What are they? Do we know? I think we’re in “here be dragons” territory.

HR: But…but…

BB: We could go round and round…

HR: Yes. Let’s listen, let Marcus Christian speak.

BB: Agreed. 

* * * * *

HR: Marcus Christian deserves to be better known. He was a poet from New Orleans, born in 1900, largely self educated, worked as a chauffeur and completed high school, worked for the Federal Writer’s Project, and was a librarian at Dillard University until he was fired for not having a college degree. He wrote beautiful sonnets, drawing on Shakespeare and Wordsworth to argue with Claude McKay. Here, Christian’s sonnet evokes Wordsworth’s “Nuns fret not” (souls, solace) and Shakespeare with his evocation of immortality in the couplet. (The source of the quote is unknown.) And while the sonnet is not racialized, phrases such as “laborings of weary hands” and “yearnings infinite—yet dumb—” gesture to sonnets such as Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower.” Christian’s sonnet is wholly optimistic.

I ply with all the cunning of my art
This little thing, and with consummate care
I fashion it—so that when I depart,
Those who come after me shall find it fair
And beautiful. It must be free of flaws—
Pointing no laborings of weary hands;
And there must be no flouting of the laws
Of beauty—as the artist understands.

Through passion, yearnings infinite—yet dumb—
I lift you from the depths of my own mind
And gild you with my soul’s white heat to plumb
The souls of future men. I leave behind
This thing that in return this solace gives:
“He who creates true beauty ever lives.”

Marcus Christian, “The Craftsman,” anthologized in Beatrice M. Murphy, ed. Ebony Rhythm: an Anthology of Contemporary Negro Verse. Exposition Press, 1948.


Poet’s Circle, Jersey City, August 2013, Photo by Bill Benzon