Jean Toomer

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Jean Toomer Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Jean Toomer was the writer of one book; no matter how often the phrase is used to disparage him, it cannot be denied. Beyond Cane, his only other works of value are the long poem “Blue Meridian,” a small amount of short fiction, and his autobiographical writings. His plays, most of his other poetry, and his nonfiction are negligible, yet even if he had written only Cane, he would always be remembered as a major African American author—and primarily as a poet.

Cane

Cane is an eccentric book, experimental and unclassifiable in its combination of poems and what is technically prose—pieces which are generally developed as short stories (somewhat like those of Anderson or Joyce) but are occasionally “mere” sketches, sometimes prose poems without plot, encompassing no more than a few pages and conveying impressionistically the sense of a person’s spirit. Some of the pieces approach drama, with conversation printed like dialogue, setting described as meticulously as for a stage designer, and action presented in the present tense.

Whether prose, drama, or verse, all are imbued with a poet’s sensibility: precise depiction of details using all the senses vividly, a rhythmic quality without slavish adherence to metrics, a sensitivity to words, phrasing, variations of theme, a fine ear for sound, and a polished sense of organic structure. Few books, whether prose or verse, have less of the prosaic than this one, which can put readers in an almost unabated state of intensity and exaltation, drawing them in by language, sound, rhythm, and form.

Toomer’s purpose in this work is to embody what he sees as the dying folk spirit of the South by depicting the lives of its people and re-creating their feelings through language and rhythm. Cane achieves a vivid sense of the sensuality of its women, the alternating anguish and joy of life in the South, the toughness and beauty of the land of Georgia. These themes appear primarily in the first third of the book; the second third moves into the city in the North, where blacks from the South have difficulty fitting into the white-dominated social patterns while retaining roots in the South; in the final third, Ralph Kabnis, a northern black man, comes South and the focus is on his conflict with the South, looking ahead to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Quentin Compson’s climatic cry “I don’t hate the South!” Throughout the book, Toomer shows both attraction to the South and a sense of holding back from it—on the part of a narrator in the first third, of Kabnis in the last third, and of assorted northern-based characters in the middle third, who are losing touch with their black roots. The book, however, is hardly a glorification of the way of life of southern blacks: Kabnis notes that things are not so bad as the North thinks; yet the South still hosts an occasional lynching, as Toomer several times reminds his readers. Still, Toomer appreciates a vitality in southern blacks that disappears when they are removed from the land, a process that Toomer views as unfortunately inevitable in the modern world.

To create this sense of vitality and closeness to the land and the natural world, Toomer uses a vast array of references to nature—the pines, the cane fields, the sky at dusk, the red soil—as images themselves, as similes or metaphors in connection with his characters, or as recurring leitmotifs in the operatic development of his sketches. He uses rhythm and repetition to engage the reader in the immediacy of these sensory experiences. A close analysis of one of...

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his pieces—“Karintha,” the opening sketch inCane—will illustrate Toomer’s typical methods.

“Karintha”

Like other pieces in the book, “Karintha” opens with an epigraph, a songlike refrain of four lines that recurs throughout the sketch as a unifying device. The first of four paragraphs of varying lengths then introduces Karintha as a child, summing her up in the first sentence, which is poetically accretive rather than prosaically structured; the final adjective cluster echoes words from the epigraph’s refrain. Two sentences in parallel construction follow, dealing with the actions the old men and the young men take with her, followed by two sentences in response to these, describing their respective feelings about her. The final sentence sums up the paragraph and “this interest of the male,” with a metaphoric interpretation of it and a note of foreboding.

The second paragraph re-creates her girlhood in terms of concrete actions and images: visual (color, shape, light), auditory (sounds of feet, voice, silence), kinetic (running, wind), and tactile (stoning the cows, touching the earth). It sums up her sexual nature as well and ends with two sentences referring to the wishes of the old and young men from the first paragraph, regarding Karintha as she matures. Before Karintha is shown as a woman, the refrain of the epigraph is repeated, the first three lines each being cut by a few words. The new rhythm creates a pace appropriately faster than the wondering, more meditative earlier version.

The third paragraph makes assorted references to the subject matter and phrasing of earlier paragraphs. Repetitions of actual sentences and phrases and of sentence structure (in a series of short sentences showing what young men do for Karintha) evoke the sense of poetry, as does the second half of the paragraph, which, through indirection, reveals Karintha’s murder of her infant. The birth is presented as a kind of emotionless miracle unconnected with Karintha herself, while the scene is given sensory richness. Juxtaposed, after ellipses, is the description of a nearby sawmill, its smoldering sawdust pile, and the heaviness of the smoke after Karintha’s return. Ending this paragraph is a short song that someone makes up about smoke rising to “take my soul to Jesus,” an unconsciously appropriate elegy for the unwanted baby.

The final paragraph begins as the third did, “Karintha is a woman,” and then echoes the last sentence of the first paragraph: “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” Toomer then suggests her unbreachable remoteness from men; the last sentence recalls the first in this sketch, describing her at twenty in the phrases used to describe her as a child. After a last repetition of her name, followed by ellipses, comes a repetition of the epigraph, followed by an ominous repetition of its last two words, “Goes down,” and then more ellipses, hinting at the inevitable descent and defeat of this beautiful, vital creature, brought to maturity too soon through misuse by men.

Though printed as prose, this piece is essentially poetic; the outer details of Karintha’s life are merely hinted, but Toomer’s poetic prose gives a full sense of Karintha’s person and appeal through the precise sensory details of the second paragraph, the recurring patterns of the old and young men’s responses to her, and the use of songs as commentary. The echoes and repetitions of images and phrases act as leitmotifs, and Toomer’s careful arrangement of them gives the piece a satisfying structure and a strong sense of Karintha’s doom, trapped in an unchanging pattern.

Form, style, and tone

Such leitmotifs, along with vivid imagery and sentence patterns that are short, repeated, and often fragmentary, are used throughout the prose pieces of Cane in place of rhyme and meter and line division to produce the quality of poetry. Indeed, many of these pieces (including “Rhobert,” “Calling Jesus,” “Seventh Street”) must be read, like “Karintha,” more as poetry than as fiction.

In the pieces clearly printed as poetry, Toomer is less experimental. Many of his poems use orthodox rhyme schemes and meters that a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or James Russell Lowell would approve. However, scarce as the poems in Cane are, they cover a variety of forms that few single books of poetry display. “Song of the Son,” for example, is skillfully rhymed, beautifully evoking in five stanzas of flowing iambic pentameter the southern music that the poet is trying to capture in literature—as he says in this poem, before it vanishes. There are poems of rhymed couplets and brief pieces such as the Imagists might produce. There is a “Cotton Song,” such as the work songs that slaves or free but poor farmhands might sing. There is much free verse, notably in “Harvest Song.” Toomer’s choices are not arbitrary; they suit the moods and subjects of their respective poems, conveying the spectrum of feelings that the writer wishes to present, from joy and exaltation to bitterness and despair.

Toomer also varies style and tone, as well as form, to suit theme and mood. Grim and laconic irony flavors “Conversion,” as the African succumbs to “a white-faced sardonic god.” “Georgia Dusk” offers lush images both of southern life and of the African past (a recurring motif throughout the book). “Portrait in Georgia,” with its short free-verse lines, reads like a catalog of bodily parts, such as an auctioneer would have prepared. Each is described through images of southern white violence: “lyncher’s rope,” “fagots,” “scars,” “blisters,” “the ash of black flesh after flame.” This poem makes no explicit statement, but the juxtaposition of human parts with these images, presented so simply and concisely, evokes a subtle sense of horror and sets up an appropriately ominous mood for the following story, “Blood-Burning Moon,” which ends with an actual lynching. However attractive may be the Georgia of pines, red soil, sweet-smelling cane, and beauteous dusks, Toomer insists on reminding his reader of the dangers there as well, even without explicit condemnation of the bigoted whites or the oppressive social system. Toomer works by indirection, but without diminished effect.

“Harvest Song”

A similarly strong but quite different effect is achieved in “Harvest Song,” which presents a field worker suffering at the end of a long day from chill, hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Each poetic “line” is made up of one or more sentences and takes up between one and five lines of print on the page. These sentences are generally short, simple statements that the speaker can barely utter, and they are often repeated, emphasizing his basic human needs, which remain unsatisfied. Toomer’s words may not be those that the worker would actually use, but they mirror his thoughts closely, just as the prose pieces of Cane give a clear sense of their characters’ minds and lives without using their actual language. The simple sentences and their repetition give an accurate sense of the worker’s numbness. The poem’s last long line (five sentences) is a more exalted outburst, though still despairing: The harvester beats his soft palms against the stubble in his field, causing himself pain that takes away his awareness of hunger, as the last sentence makes shockingly clear. “Harvest Song” indeed! The speaker hardly feels like singing with his throat parched from thirst; and what he harvests for himself means only more pain. Through the use of first-person narration and a simple style, Toomer evokes not pity for the poor worker, not an external look as in Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” but rather an empathy from within, allowing the reader to participate fully in the experience.

Spiritual and philosophical beliefs

Too often, unfortunately, Toomer’s later poetry drops the effective devices used in Cane and becomes didactic, explicitly philosophical, lacking Cane’s brilliantly realized images of concrete reality or its sharp, often startling metaphors. Toomer was mightily inspired by his few months in Georgia, and his sojourn even affected his interpretations of his own more familiar Washington and New York life; but after he had said what he had to say about the South, and the North in relation to the South, he seems to have exhausted his inspiration, except for his more “universal” themes, with only a little sense of poetry left, to be used in “Blue Meridian” and his stories “Winter on Earth” and “Withered Skin of Berries.” The latter story returned Toomer to the lyrical style and poetic sense of structure of the Cane stories, but for the most part, Toomer preferred to ignore stylistic and literary matters and chose to express his spiritual and philosophical beliefs, largely influenced by Gurdjieff’s teachings, urging a regeneration of humanity that would eliminate the differences imposed by racial and other categories and bring people closer to God, one another, and the natural world.

“Blue Meridian”

This is the point that Toomer makes explicitly in his last major work, the long poem “Blue Meridian,” first published in full in New American Caravan (1936) after a selection from an earlier version had appeared in Adelphi and Pagany. A further revised version is printed in Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps’s anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 (1949), which places more emphasis on God and more clearly reveals Toomer’s notion of the transformed America. A few of the more minor revisions are for the better. This is the version published in The Wayward and the Seeking, with some incidental changes.

“Blue Meridian” follows a structure much like that of Walt Whitman’s longer poems, such as “Passage to India” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” with recurring phrases or stanzas, often significantly altered. While it is not divided into individual sections, as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930) are—nor does it use the range of poetic forms of which Eliot and Crane availed themselves—it nevertheless follows those poems in being an examination and criticism of the twentieth century world, achieving a multifaceted view by varying tone and form.

Written largely in a hortatory, exalted style in an effort to invoke Toomer’s higher spiritual goals for a better world and unified humankind, “Blue Meridian” explores the past and current conditions of America. The European, African, and “red” races are presented in appropriate images—even stereotypes—each being shown as incomplete. Toomer’s goal, as in much of his prose, is to achieve a new race beyond individual racial identities, a “universal human being” to be called the “blue meridian,” the highest stage of development beyond white and black, beyond divisions of East and West, of religion, race, class, sex, and occupational classification, and transcending the materialism of a commercial culture and the private concerns of individuals. The message is not so different from Whitman’s, except for greater criticism of modern business and the insistence on the mingling of the races.

Detractions of later work

Racial themes and the black experience are missing from Toomer’s later poems—and even some of his earlier ones, such as “Banking Coal” (Crisis, 1922). He was living with a white wife, quite isolated from the African American literary world, or from any literary world at all. Certainly one should not say that a black writer (even one with so little black ancestry as Toomer) should write only on black themes, but any writer should write out of direct experience; too much of Toomer’s poetry aside from Cane is vague and didactic, too intentionally “universal,” too generally spiritualized, and essentially prosaic, like his aphorisms, which lack the bite of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s.

Unfortunately, Toomer’s vocabulary in this later poetry—including “Blue Meridian”—too often emulates that of Whitman at his most inflated moments, even when Toomer has a true poetic idea, as in “The Lost Dancer,” which opens: “Spatial depths of being survive/ The birth to death recurrences. . . .” It is not so much the Latinate vocabulary, which Toomer’s great contemporaries Crane and Wallace Stevens also used, but rather that, while they made much of the orotund, sensual sounds and suggestiveness of Latinate words, Toomer’s word choices are flat and vague, words made familiar through bombastic social-science jargon. Whereas the Cane poems stand out particularly for the vitality of their imagery, the apt metaphors and similes in “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia,” the richness of language and sensory detail in “Song of the Son” and “Georgia Dusk,” and the harshness of the concrete nouns, verbs, and adjectives in “Harvest Song,” images in the later poetry are greatly minimized. Here Toomer abandons the exalted Romantic eloquence of “Song of the Son” and the verbal and emotional starkness of “Harvest Song” in favor of making philosophical statements.

At his best, Toomer was a brilliant artist in words, a sensitive portrayer of the life he lived and observed, as well as a sincere and concerned member of the human race. Cane will forever keep his name alive and arouse an interest in his other work, however inferior most of it has turned out to be. The musical quality of his best poetry and prose will be admired, not for its mere beauty but for its aptness to its subjects: the beauty and appeal as well as the tragedy of the life of the South.

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