The artist and the moment

The artist and the moment

However great a work of art is, it initially comes to the artist at a particular moment in his life and is inspired or triggered by something.
Every painting, poem, novel, song, drawing etc is a product of that special initial moment of inspiration in the life of an artist.
I agree with Wayne Shumaker who said, “In the lives of some poets, however simple or various, the works grow naturally out of the recorded events, or are in themselves simple events…”

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by famous African American poet Langston Hughes is a case in point. It is considered to be one of the most amazing poems from the black world which was instigated by one identifiable moment in the life of the poet.
It is said that Hughes wrote this brief poem in just about fifteen minutes, with a shivering hand in July, 1920 when he was aged 17. He had just graduated from high school, and was on a train heading to Mexico City where he would spend just over a year with his father, a man he barely knew.

Hughes says that he was crossing the Mississippi just outside of St. Louis when inspiration struck. The poem came to his mind and heart after looking down into the muddy water of the Mississippi which was turning golden in the sunset. The poet suddenly turned the memory of the history and survival of his people into brilliant lines.
In that breathless poem, Hughes traces the critical historical moments in the lives of the black people. He indicates that black people have always been around and they are, in fact, as ancient as all the major rivers of the world.

Hughes shows that the Negro has always been around the great rivers like the Euphrates and the Congo. The Negro participated in the construction of the pyramids of Egypt along the Nile. The Negro was involved in both the founding of the US and the American Civil war:

“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi
when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn
all golden in the sunset.”

In that poem, Langston Hughes finds the black man rooted and original as he continues to write:

“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Hughes honours the wisdom and strength which allowed African-Americans to survive and flourish in the face of all adversity, most particularly the last few centuries of slavery. This poem was first published in June 1921 in a magazine.

Langston Hughes is a famous African American author and poet, who lived from 1902 to 1967. He wrote in a modernist style during the time he was an author, which was from the 1920s to the 1960s. The Harlem Renaissance inspired him a lot and he became one of the key voices of this movement.

Jorge Rebelo, is the great Mozambican poet who participated in the war of the liberation of Mozambique in the 1970’s. He and others wrote poems during that war. Rebelo will most likely be remembered for his poem titled “Poem.” A work of genius, “Poem” is important for arguing on why and how revolutionary poetry should be simple and useful. Jorge Rebelo said he would “forge simple words” that “even children can understand and:

“Come, tell me all this, my brother.
And later I will forge simple words
Words which will enter every house
like the wind
and fall like red-hot embers
on our people’s souls.
For in our land
bullets are beginning to flower.”

In the poem, Rebelo was responding to why his poetry seemed simple and rather pointed. He said it was the war itself that gave birth to such a literary tradition.
Written on the move or at the spur of the moment and between battles, there was the pressure to record a thought, a philosophy about the struggle. Yet the seeming simplicity and innocence of Rebelo’s poems were the diamond-hardness of his poetic vision.

When Rebelo says “in our land, bullets have beginning to flower,” he probably means that the revolution is now beginning to bear fruit and that victory was certain. He also means that the war is now all over Mozambique.

Talking to a journalist in 2007, decades after the war that inspired that poem, Rebelo said he wrote the poem when he was still an activist and leader in the information, policy and propaganda unit of the liberation movement called Frelimo. Through Frelimo, the guerrilla fighters managed to push the Portugues to grant self rule to Mozambique.

Rebelo’s actual words were “We used to have a tradition, to send end of the year messages, and this year we sent cards where I penned this poem. I reflected on the struggles of the past year and this was the outcome. Later some comrades translated it into English. In the recent past, I have published other poems of mine in Portuguese, called appropriately, Messages.”

Considered as one of the greatest novels to come out of Zimbabwe, Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain, published in 1975, is a book that was saved by a moment in the life of the writer. This novel is a story about Lucifer Mandengu who has been to mission school and is now considered elite and very educated. He has just been offered a scholarship to go abroad and train as an artist. Before he leaves, he boards a rural bus towards home to bid his people farewell.

Mungoshi says when he began writing Waiting for the Rain, he actually had a short story in mind “about Betty and her unwanted pregnancy and her understanding brother, Garabha. It was all in a once upon a time tense. When I brought in the other characters, the story kept on expanding and before I knew I had over 100 pages of script on A4 on my hands.” And yet, at some point, Mungoshi felt the short story was dull and he actually abandoned it for some time until one crucial moment that pushed him back to the story.

Mungoshi says: “Then one day I went to my local beer hall and there I watched that Jerusalem drum expert and the people. Looking at them, I was suddenly touched by – the sense, their feeling of being family, and seeing each of them with his or her problems and the drummer trying to assuage these with his unifying drum… Anyway, through them at that moment, I had found out that this story was as urgent as the message of the drum…”
Mungoshi continues about the moment of inspiration: “The landscape, the physical life of the book became much more alive, much more present because I was living it as I was writing it and I have never felt as blessed as I felt writing (or re-writing)Waiting for the Rain.(I do not think I revised –not much, any way – this second version.)”

The essence of this prize winning novel is about grappling with the issues of home, identity and belonging in the changing times. Through it, Mungoshi is constantly asking key questions: Do we truly belong to this land? Is it possible to belong here and elsewhere? What must we change and what exactly must continue and why? Is there any space for the individual in our quest for collective glory? Are we right? Are we wrong?

Then there are also two interesting cases of inspiring moments and situations between two black American writers; Lawrence Dunbar and Maya Angelou. This is a story about how one’s moments of anguish as a writer could cause another writer to respond to the first work, lighting a fire downstream!
‘Sympathy’ is an 1899 poem written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. He was one of the most prominent African-American writers of his time. He wrote the poem while he was working under unpleasant conditions at the Library of Congress.

Dealing with the dust and must of books in a hot, closed space was unpleasant for the tubercular Dunbar and that strained his health. This may be reflected in an October 26, 1898, letter to Young, in which Dunbar notes an ongoing illness that kept him from the Library for two weeks and requests a leave of absence.

As a result of reflecting on this, Dunbar wrote the poem that is often considered to be about the struggle of African-Americans. The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. During such a moment he wrote

‘Sympathy’. Parts of the poem go like this:
“I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats its wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!”

On the other hand, Maya Angelou’s poem entitled “Caged Bird” was inspired by Paul Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” The major theme of both poems is freedom.
Just like Dunbar’s, Angelo’s poem is famous for its intimate description of freedom, and for the role of personal voice as a true element of it. In the ‘caged bird’ Maya Angelou talks about how a free bird wastes her time and wallow in her freedom.

She says a free bird flies everywhere daring both the wind and the sun in its flight. But she writes that a caged bird can seldom see through the cage because its wings are clipped and its feet are tied and all the caged bird can do is sing while in the cage.
That kind of a bird sings about its desires for freedom. Meanwhile the free bird gazes at the lawn and the trees where she can go at will. The caged bird’s voice goes across the hills and plains because she wants to be free:

“A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing…”

Maya Angelou, born in April 4, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, was raised in segregated rural Arkansas. She was a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director.
The cases above demonstrate that some artists actually seize the unusual moment in real life and transpose it into art.

Memory Chirere

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