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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

TESTAMENT FOR MY STUDENTS, 1968 - 1969, by                    
First Line: Each year you came jogging or loping down that hall
Last Line: Their young arms cradling your bones.
Subject(s): Literature; Oppression; Revolutions; Schools; Social Problems; Students

Each year you came jogging or loping down that hall
Bearded or not, sweet emissaries from Arizona
Montana, Illinois, Mass., beneath the light silk hair
Or the dark, or the natural crown, skulls crushable, ribs breakable
This year and last wearing sandals in order to run fast
At your temples pools of blood always trembled
And I would see them spill.

Lodged in the red partitions of your hearts
(Where your fathers reigned for a brief time)
On the palpitating thrones of auricle left or ventricle right
Legs crossed, fluently at ease, sat such brothers as Baudelaire
Melville, Poe, sometimes Shakespeare, Genet, Rimbaud; or sisters
Like Dickinson, Brontë, Austin, needlepoint set aside for that afternoon
Or Gertrude Stein telling you over and over how Americans were doggedly made
Your fingers, even though broken, crazily beckoned
These brothers and sisters and others to you, in your lungs
Enough breath remained to summon them all by name.
These lines are set down for a reason that's suddenly gone out the window
For I can recall now only your faces: Woodie Haut, Shawn Wong, Rebhun, Turks,
And how many more. Or I catch now and then the sound of a voice
From a long way away, saying something like: "Poetry is for the people
And it should represent the people." (You can say that again, Woodie)
Or saying: "If the academic poets want to keep poetry for themselves, then
They're no different from the administration of this college
Which wants to keep education for the select few. I am inclined
To agree with Eldridge Cleaver and the BSU that you are part of the problem
Or else you are part of the solution." Or maybe Alvarado's voice can be heard
Barely whispering under the campus trees: "Don't make too much noise
You might wake up the middle class."

Once I read in a book that the ear of the Oriental records sound so swiftly
So sharply, that the falling of a rose petal from a vase will rouse him
From his sleep. That spring, Shawn Wong awoke to see the mounted police charge,
It was "the small white flowers trampled in the grass, and the blood
Of poets lying near the broken stems" that stirred his gentle dreams
Or Rebhun will flip aside the armor of arrogance he wears to type on the
required paper
"If you wish to see mankind, look into the glass. If you look long enough
One man will become ten men, and then a hundred men, and then a thousand
We saw the police striking out in a sadly strange fury. Each time
The baton fell on bone, the pain was felt by all of us. For
Behind the physical manifestations of our fervor we are one man
Asking for another world, a world in which we are less tools
Of an impersonal power, and ten or a hundred or a thousand men of flesh and


Well, the incident I want to tell you about came to pass in a college small
enough to put in your pocket. In the northern sticks of California it was, where
a middle-aged white professor got up on the auditorium stage to introduce a
black psychiatrist to what was left of a student body scattered in the seats on
a rainy afternoon. The two principal characters had beards, but no two beards
could have been more different one from the other. The black man's was a
handsome addition to his face. The professor's was thin and ailing, but still he
had managed to train it to do his bidding. Whenever he turned his shrunken head,
the point of his beard jerked accusingly in still another direction, indicating
with severity that education lay, if you were only able to see it, in that dusty
corner right over there.

"Dr. Parnassus is not just a psychiatrist who is black," the professor began
this memorable introduction. "He is a black psychiatrist. I hope you can all
grasp that distinction." For some reason nobody in the audience said: "Right on,
brother" as he stood looking out over the auditorium, his beard pointing this
way and then that. The black psychiatrist himself had instantly become
expendable as he sat on the stage fingering his yellow silky tie. "There are not
many around," continued the professor, and this was certainly the truest thing
that had been said that afternoon, for the psychiatrist was the only black face
within a mile or two.

And then the professor turned to the exciting subject of himself. For a number
of years, he said, he had been interested in the problems of minority groups,
and in particular in the black man in the black ghetto. "I say, that's awfully
good of you, old crutch," said somebody out of the top drawer of my English
mementos.) And now the professor charmed everyone there with the avowal that he
was about to lay the foundation for, or to initiate, or else to inaugurate, a
course at this up and coming institution for the study of a Black Studies
Program, and his beard waved sparsely in the direction of the psychiatrist. "I
hope to have many eminent black scholars come to talk here on the subject of a
study for the development of what may eventually become, we hope," he said.

"Those who have been closely involved in educational procedures," the professor
proceeded, excluding the audience from that happy experience, "have established
beyond question that there is no possibility of successfully inaugurating –
or initiating, if you prefer – or, indeed, laying the foundations for, any
course unless that inauguration or initiation has been preceded by a long term
study in depth of what it may be advisable to undertake at some future time."
There was a perceptible movement of restlessness among the seated, including the
psychiatrist, and the professor's beard jerked toward the door marked "Exit,"
but no one rose to go. It could have been that no one in the history of the
college had ever got up and walked out in distaste for what was being said.

The students in this place wore marvelously clean tan Levis, and navy blue
windbreakers. The young men's hair was splendidly trimmed, and the girls' hair
was anything but long and untamed. They all had regular shoes on their feet. It
was another era entirely, and the things the professor was saying kept carrying
us even farther back on the assembly line of his eager self-esteem. "This is
somewhat of a pilot course I am initiating," were his words. "I might say it
took a good deal of personal ingenuity to get it started, for it has a touch of
revolutionary daring about it." (Oh, how dreary, dreary, can the purveyors of
education be if you let them get out of hand for even two minutes, and this is
what had taken place. That's what rock and roll is for; I knew it with sweet
exhilaration then. It's the only thing loud enough to drown out the voices of
the cautious of our day.) "A pre-study of a Black Studies Program could scarcely
be considered anarchistic in concept," the professor hastened to add, his beard
ready to do battle for him if it came to that. "Wisdom and reason are not the
most popular words in our current vocabulary, but I still find them useful. This
semester will be devoted to studying with patience and wisdom what reasonable
procedure we can develop which will lead..."

There are times when there is nothing left to do but take a decision, and now
that moment had come. It would have been taken even had the psychiatrist, after
glancing at his wristwatch, not risen to the occasion and made one step in the
direction of the lectern. The professor turned his head in irritation, and the
words died in his mouth. His beard pointed directly to the chair that the
psychiatrist had vacated, but the black man had no intention of sitting down
again. He tapped the crystal of his watch with his long forefinger. "I have a
plane to catch in about three-quarters of an hour. I have to get back to Watts,"
he said, and so he was allowed to laugh out loud.

Each year their eyes, midwestern gray or cattle-range blue
Or jet like the ghetto, held visions of what might be achieved
They wrote of the river bank that colonized men slide down
In Fanon's prose, to cleanse themselves of the violence of the dance
Or wrote: "We all sense the pressure of black passion
We lose balance in the presence of the black man's frenzied
Momentum toward autonomy. The urgent tempo with which
He hurls himself at life dazzles us." When I see Victor Turks
Again I'll ask him if he was listening when Sartre spoke
For the dead Fanon, saying that all the inexcusable, the uncondonable acts
Of violence on the part of those at bay are neither sound nor fury
Nor the resurrection of savage instincts, but are part of
The anguished process of man as he re-creates his lost identity
"We should accept the black man's advances toward self-possession,"
Victor kept writing
Looking up for a moment from Les Fleurs du Mal, Le Diable au Corps
"As the means of his salvation. Let him, for once, not the white man
Not the European, not Western civilization, but him set the example
For us all to follow." It might be in this way, the trembling wind
And the young midwestern voices whistled softly, that we could regain
Our lost humanity. There were many more. There was Father Jim Hietter
Muted laughter, muted grief, melodious student, saying to me
That Christian hate had masqueraded for so long as Christian love
The time had come to call it by its rightful name. "Stuff your holiday
He wrote at Christmas. "Paint your world with colored lights
And sleep sleep sleep
There is Police on Earth, and Eichmann carols the countdown
To the Christ child's birth."

There were others, among them Chris Miller who bought ankle-high sneakers
With air vents, like portholes, near the soles. He loved them so
That he walked with his dark head lowered to watch the pure white
Canvas keeping pace with his thoughts, his talk. "A self
Which does not transcend itself is dead," he said. I see the sideways
Shy, dark smile and the pointed chin. "So let me rise into life
And die naked like an animal, which I am," he wrote, "and be buried
In my mother's earthy body, to rot, and to fertilize the soil. Thus
Death will be my final offering to God."

You were not afraid of death, sweet emissaries from Arizona
Montana, Mass., and Illinois; or of mace, or of handcuffs or clubs
And there's one thing more: you bore the terrible knowledge
That colonized men and poets wear their sharpest pain on the surface
Of their flesh, like an open sore
But this year the writers you honored were, with the crack of a baton
Turned suddenly to stone. Their tongues were hacked from their throats
By bayonets, and the blows came steadily, savagely, on the exquisite
Brittleness of bone. What good were the poets to you then, Baudelaire, Whitman
Rimbaud, Poe? "All the good in the world!" you shouted out
Through the blood in your mouths. They were there beside you on
The campus grass, Shakespeare, Rilke, Brontë, Radiguet
Yeats, Apollinaire, their fingers on the pulse in your wrists
Their young arms cradling your bones.

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