Poem of the Week | March 12, 2013

This week, March 14-15, the English Department at The University of Missouri–Columbia, in conjunction with Cave Canem Foundation, is hosting a three-day academic symposium that celebrates and explores the multi-faceted contributions of Michael S. Harper. Scholars, poets, and jazz musicians will participate. Read more here.

Harper has been a major voice in American poetry, and a widely influential teacher at Brown University, since the early 70s, when his first book Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970) broke new ground. The first Poet Laureate of Rhode Island (1988-1993), he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. In 2008 he won the prestigious Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Society of America. In 2009 he published a new collection, Use Trouble.

This poem first appeared in the Winter 2009/2010, Vol. 39 Issue 3 of The Iowa Review.

Author’s Note:

“Négritude,” a world-wide movement of the African diaspora usually attributed to Aimee Césaire & Léopold Sédar Senghor, on and off the continent of Africa, and answerable, by metaphor, to the violation of the African Slave Trade, better known as the “Triangular Trade.” Robert Hayden, the translator of “Two Flutes,” is also author of the modem epic, “Middle Passage,” a poem written in eight dramatic voices assembled to place rhetorical blame on the complicity of the many agents of profit, large & small.

Négritude: a Poem Written When Everything Else Fails To Translate

In Hayden’s Senghor translation of “Two Flutes”
it is the mayflies image that handles the stress


in translation from French to American idiom
Senghor (President of Senegal) and co-founder of Négritude


is angling for the French Academy [Aimee Césaire is not angling on his island]
though Gorée is just off the coast


There is a hustler named Ted Joans (a black American)
reading his jazz poems across the Continent


his search for venues his newest song
caught in his knapsack for he is homeless while traveling


Senghor is out of his own country on a visit to France
(though he is the president—there has been no coup d’etat in his absence)


What is Négritude the Academy senators ask of Senghor?
Gorée & Martinique he answers & writes the original Two Flutesin French


meanwhile Hayden mentions      kalaam without translation
a stringed instrument so beautiful its vernacular cannot be copied


the reader is asked to approximate this song
there is a hint in the title


allegory dualism symbolic geography idiomatic text
& the singer caught amidst mayflies


the silence of Négritude
caught at the Sorbonne


& studied there
on the Seine & its islands and bridges


in the City if Light many border crossings
where all is dark as night


@Michael S. Harper, 2008