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James Weldon Johnson's "A Poet to His Baby Son"
James Weldon Johnson
Introduction and Text of Poem, "A Poet to His Baby Son"
James Weldon Johnson’s speaker in "A Poet to His Baby Son" offers a tongue-in-cheek complaint that his baby son might be contemplating becoming, like his father, a poet.
A Poet to His Baby Son
Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,
And cursed with your father’s mind.
I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?
Why don’t you kick and howl,
And make the neighbors talk about
"That damned baby next door,"
And make up your mind forthwith
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter
Or—?—whatever you decide upon,
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts
About being a poet.
For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.
My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.
Take the advice of a father who knows:
You cannot begin too young
Not to be a poet.
First Stanza: “Tiny bit of humanity”
In the opening three-line stanza, the speaker is having a little talk with his infant son. He calls the baby boy a “[t]iny bit of humanity” and describes him as looking like his mother but thinking like his father. The speaker is happy with the first quality but distressed over the second.
Second Stanza: “I say cursed with your father’s mind”
The speaker is so distressed over the fact that the baby has his “father’s mind” that he calls the child “cursed” with that quality, repeating that lined in both the opening stanza and the second.
The speaker then begins his exposition of the reason for thinking the baby cursed. Before dropping the bombshell though, he relates that the baby can do baby things like lying “so long and so quietly on [his] back, / Playing with the dimpled big toe of [his] left foot”—a little-baby activity that the speaker finds charming.
But the speaker also senses a musing quality in the baby’s stare, “looking away, / Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.” This searching stare suggest to the poet that his baby is contemplating becoming a poet when he grows up.
Third Stanza: “Why don’t you kick and howl”
The speaker then rhetorically queries his son, suggesting that he “kick and howl” and annoy the neighbors to get them to exclaim, “That damned baby next door.” Such behavior he suggests would ensure that his son might decide to be a “go-getter” like “a banker / Or a politician.”
The speaker insists that no matter what the kid does, he should “[r]id [himself] of these incipient thoughts / About being a poet.”
Fourth Stanza: “For poets no longer are makers of songs”
In the longest stanza, the speaker details his reason for dissuading his son from becoming a poet. The poet/speaker decries the modernist bent of poets. They “no longer are makers of songs, / Chanters of the gold and purple harvest, / Sayers of the glories of earth and sky.”
The modernist poets are no longer interested in exploring and dramatizing “the sweet pain of love” or “the keen joy of living.” They have ceased to dream “essential dreams,” and they do not interpret “eternal truth / Through the eternal beauty.”
Instead of all these endearing qualities that have infused and sustained poetry and poetry lovers for centuries, these new poets have become “unfortunate fellows.” They have become “[b]affled in trying to say old things in a new way / Or new things in an old language.”
The poet describes the claptrap of modernist poetry: “The talk abracadabra / In an unknown tongue.” Individualism has become an affliction instead of an article of authenticity. The modernists are fabricating a “wordy world of shadow problems.” They are like “a self-imagined Atlas” “with puny legs and arms.” They bitch and moan about their victimhood.
Fifth Stanza: “My son, this is no time nor place for a poet”
It is then for the reason spelled out in stanza four that the poet proclaims that now “is not time nor place for a poet.” He suggests to the infant that he “join the big, busy crowd / That scrambles for what it thinks it wants.” This world will always be this same old world, and this poet/speaker’s experience tells him that it is not a place for poet.
Sixth Stanza: “Take the advice of a father who knows”
Finally, the poet/father/speaker admonishes the baby son to follow his warning because it is coming from “a father who knows”: “You cannot begin too young / Not to be a poet.”
Commentary on Trend in Victimology Poetry
This poem is playful, yet serious. The speaker is only musing on the possibility that his son is contemplating becoming a poet, but he uses the poem as a forum to express his dismay at the way poetry was becoming a cesspool of victimology and self-aggrandizement at the expense of truth and beauty.
Biographical Sketch of James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. The son of James Johnson, a free Virginian, and a Bahamian mother, Helen Louise Dillet, who served as the first black, female school teacher in Florida. His parents raised him to be a strong, independent, free-thinking individual, instilling in him the notion that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.
Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after graduation, he became principal of the Stanton School, where his mother had been a teacher. While serving as principle at the Stanton school, Johnson founded the newspaper, The Daily American. He later became the first black American to pass the Florida bar exam.
In 1900, with his brother,J. Rosamond Johnson, James composed the influentional hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which became known as the Negro National Anthem. Johnson and his brother continued to compose songs for Broadway after moving to New York. Johnson later attended Columbia University, where he studied literature.
In addition to serving as educator, lawyer, and composer of songs, Johnson, in 1906, became a diplomat to Nicaragua and Venezuela, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. After returning to the United States from the Dipolomatic Corps, Johnson became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1920, he began serving as the president of that organization.
James Weldon Johnson also figures strongly in the arts movement known as the Harlem Rensaissance. In 1912, while serving as the Nicaraguan diplomat, he penned his classic, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Then after resigning from that diplomatic position, Johnson retured to the States and began writing full time.
In 1917, Johnon published his first book of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems. This collection was highly praised by critics, and helped establish him as an important contributor to the Harem Renaissance Movement. He continued to write and publish, and he also edited several volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).
Johnson's second collection of poems, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, appeared in 1927, again to critical acclaim. Education reformer and best-selling American author of the early 20th century, Dorothy Canfield Fisher expressed high praise for Johnson's work, stating in a letter to Johnson that his works were "heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed."
Johnson contined to write after retiring from the NAACP, and he then later served as professor at New York University. About Johnson's reputation upon joining the faculty, Deborah Shapiro has stated:
Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.
At age 67, Johnson was killed in an automobile accident in Wiscasset, Maine. His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people. Johnson's creative power rendered him a true "renaissance man," who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American Literary Scene.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes