Living in a Terrifying World – Three Responses from Three H’s – Hughes, Hirschfield and Hayden

American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967)


Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

What a way it was to begin a poetry reading! But that’s how Sharon Olds began her public reading in Vancouver about ten years ago. And that’s how I first encountered the poetry of the celebrated African American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

Hughes poem has stayed with me. The stark reality of it that seems truer the older I get. Why are some lives seemingly blighted with suffering and others not? It’s one of life’s big questions but Hughes nails it with a poetic punch that leaves my heart with a black eye. And reminds me to not take for granted the joy flung my way, the love I have been given. Family and friends. Oh my. And to be worthy of my sufferings.

Hughes poem, as his poems tend to do with me, set me thinking about another poem that confronts me the way Hughes’ poem does: Jane Hirschfield’s poem The Weighing, how it challenges me, disturbs me:

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks for more and we give it.

Jane Hirschfield from The October Palace, Harper Perennial, 1994

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

The way a poem insinuates itself, hovers somewhere on the periphery of conscious thought. I never know when I will receive these visitations as from a poetic will-o-the-wisp but I know I had such a visit a few days ago. An emotional response to lines from a Jane Hirschfield poem that came, as if out of nowhere, into my mind. And then the Hughes poem brought them back again today.

The emotion I felt was visceral. A sadness, verging on anger about what the world asks of us. A sadness, verging on anger from the last three lines of Hirschfield’s The Weighing which I had revisited a few months ago.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks for more and we give it.

The first two lines of the last stanza presume much, are hammerhead bold. Confident. The world asks of us/ only the strength we have and we give it. But before I can even begin to ask if it’s true Hirschfield then slams me with another daring declarative: Then it asks for more and we give it. I don’t know if I should be outraged by the comment or in a strange way, comforted.

Is the last line true? Always a danger in making a declaration in a poem. If the reader disagrees you can lose them. In my case I bridle at the idea that the world can push us to our limits and then push us some more.  This isn’t theoretical. I know and you know people who are pushed too far. They can’t give more without something breaking in their spirit. Maybe that’s where my anger comes from. The world not only bends people, it can break them as well. And I won’t judge them better or worse for this.

Hirschfield ultimately doesn’t lose me in this poem. She stretches me. Challenges me but I know there is truth in what she says. Not a universal truth for all people but a truth for many. And that’s where I find the comfort in Hirschfield’s poem. The hope that in many cases our strength is more than we know.  We bend and then bend some more but don’t break.

The first two poems in this blog post are self confident and declarative. They say this is the way it is. They risk back talk, an argument. But their power resides in their boldness. How they engage both my mind and my feelings. My outrage as life’s sometimes cruel vicissitudes. No neutral inside these poems.

American poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980)

The next poem is such a companion piece to the others. Such a contrast. It’s The Ice Storm by the African American poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980) who in 1975 was the first African American writer to be appointed to the role we know now as the U.S. Poet Laureate. There is no neutral inside this poem either but it is much more open ended. More nuanced. And in that way, for me, more of a cry from the heart. Less from the head.

Ice Storm

Unable to sleep, or pray, I stand
by the window looking out
at moonstruck trees a December storm
has bowed with ice.

Maple and mountain ash bend
under its glassy weight,
their cracked branches falling upon
the frozen snow.

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
My God, than they?

Robert Hayden from the Collected Poems: Robert Hayden. Ed. Frederick Glaysher, Liveright, 1985


Ah, how this poem gut-rocks me. How it echoes the heart-crys in the Biblical Psalms. This poem doesn’t tell of the agony of being alive in this world like the first two by Hughes and Hirschfield. It shows the agony. And it leaves the question in the last two lines pointed like a knife against the heart and throat of the narrator and reader alike. This poem says indirectly to Hirschfield. No. No. There are times when we break. We break! At the trunk, not just the extremities.  And here the narrator seems at his limit. The world has asked and asked and now it seems just too much. That paralyzing moment. That awful truth. Oh, that awful moment and truth:

The trees themselves, as in winter’s past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. Am I less to You
My God than they?

What a prayer! And at these, everything-in-the-balance-moments, sometimes that is all that is left. And sometimes the prayer is answered. And sometimes not.

I have yet to lose my interest in these poems. Ones that touch so close to the heart of my humanness. Humanness. Another H! And my thanks to these three great poets, three H’s – Hughes, Hirschfield and Hayden.







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