Poems by Gwendolyn B. Bennett, Harlem Renaissance Poet

Gwendolyn B. Bennett

Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902 – 1981) was a multitalented American poet, artist, columnist, educator, and arts administrator associated with the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s. 

Equally dedicated to visual and literary arts, her first published poem, “Heritage,” was published in the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis, in 1923. Her most productive period as a poet was from 1926 and 1927, producing poems that explored themes of racial pride and reflected African motifs. “Fantasy” spoke to the aspirations of African-American women. “Dark Girl” encouraged black women to love themselves and aspire to the nobility of African queens. 

Though Gwendolyn Bennett’s body of poetry wasn’t large, with around thirty of them published in The Crisis, Opportunity, and a few anthologies, they were impactful and earned her great respect from her peers. Here’s a selection for you to enjoy, from the pen of a creative woman who lived her life well and shouldn’t be forgotten.


Nocturne

This cool night is strange
Among midsummer days…
Far frosts are caught
In the moon’s pale light,
And sounds are distant laughter
Chilled to crystal tears.

(1923)


Heritage

I want to see the slim palm-trees,
Pulling at the clouds
With little pointed fingers …
I want to see lithe Negro girls,
Etched dark against the sky
While sunset lingers.
I want to hear the silent sands,
Singing to the moon
Before the Sphinx-still face …
I want to hear the chanting
Around a heathen fire
Of a strange black race.
I want to breathe the Lotus flow’r,
Sighing to the stars
With tendrils drinking at the Nile …
I want to feel the surging
Of my sad people’s soul
Hidden by a minstrel-smile.

(1923)
See a commentary on “Heritage”


To Usward

Let us be still
As ginger jars are still
Upon a Chinese shelf.
And let us be contained
By entities of Self …
Not still with lethargy and sloth,
But quiet with the pushing of our growth.
Not self-contained with smug identity
But conscious of the strength in entity.
If any have a song to sing
That’s different from the rest,
Oh let them sing
Before the urgency of Youth’s behest!
For some of us have songs to sing
Of jungle heat and fires,
And some of us are solemn grown
With pitiful desires,
And there are those who feel the pull
Of seas beneath the skies,
And some there be who want to croon
Of Negro lullabies.
We claim no part with racial dearth;
We want to sing the songs of birth!
And so we stand like ginger jars
Like ginger jars bound round
With dust and age;
Like jars of ginger we are sealed
By nature’s heritage.
But let us break the seal of years
With pungent thrusts of song,
For there is joy in long-dried tears
For whetted passions of a throng!

(1924)
See a commentary on “To Usward”


Gwendolyn B. Bennett

See also: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to Rediscover and Read


Epitaph

When I am dead, carve this upon my stone:
Here lies a woman, fit root for flower and tree,
Whose living flesh, now mouldering round the bone,
Wants nothing more than this for immortality,
That in her heart, where love so long unfruited lay
A seed for grass or weed shall grow,
And push to light and air its heedless way;
That she who lies here dead may know
Through all the putrid marrow of her bones
The searing pangs of birth,
While none may know the pains nor hear the groans
Of she who lived with barrenness upon the earth.

(1924)


Hatred

I shall hate you
Like a dart of singing steel
Shot through still air
At even-tide,
Or solemnly
As pines are sober
When they stand etched
Against the sky.
Hating you shall be a game
Played with cool hands
And slim fingers.
Your heart will yearn
For the lonely splendor
Of the pine tree
While rekindled fires
In my eyes
Shall wound you like swift arrows.
Memory will lay its hands
Upon your breast
And you will understand
My hatred.

(1926)


Lines Written at the Grave of Alexandre Dumas

Cemeteries are places for departed souls
And bones interred,
Or hearts with shattered loves.
A woman with lips made warm for laughter
Would find grey stones and roving spirits
Too chill for living, moving pulses . . .
And thou, great spirit, wouldst shiver in thy granite shroud
Should idle mirth or empty talk
Disturb thy tranquil sleeping.

A cemetery is a place for shattered loves
And broken hearts …
Bowed before the crystal chalice of thy soul,
I find the multi-colored fragrance of thy mind
Has lost itself in Death’s transparency.
Oh, stir the lucid waters of thy sleep
And coin for me a tale
Of happy loves and gems and joyous limbs
And hearts where love is sweet!

A cemetery is a place for broken hearts
And silent thought …
And silence never moves,
Nor speaks nor sings.

(1926)
See a commentary on Lines Written at the Grave of Alexander Dumas


Song

I am weaving a song of waters,
Shaken from firm, brown limbs,
Or heads thrown back in irreverent mirth.
My song has the lush sweetness
Of moist, dark lips
Where hymns keep company
With old forgotten banjo songs.
Abandon tells you
That I sing the heart of race
While sadness whispers
That I am the cry of a soul …

A-shoutin’ in de ole camp-meeting-place,
A-strummin’ o’ de ole banjo.
Singin’ in de moonlight,
Sobbin’ in de dark.
Singin’, sobbin’, strummin’ slow …
Singin’ slow, sobbin’ low.
Strummin’, strummin’, strummin’ slow …
Words are bright bugles
That make the shining for my song,
And mothers hold down babies
To dark, warm breasts
To make my singing sad.

A dancing girl with swaying hips
Sets mad the queen in the harlot’s eye.
Praying slave
Jazz-band after
Breaking heart
To the time of laughter …
Clinking chains and minstrelsy
Are wedged fast with melody.
A praying slave
With a jazz-band after …
Singin’ slow, sobbin’ low.
Sun-baked lips will kiss the earth.
Throats of bronze will burst with mirth.
Sing a little faster,
Sing a little faster,
Sing!

(1926)


Women writers of the Harlem Renaissance

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Street Lamps in Early Spring

Night wears a garment
All velvet soft, all violet blue …
And over her face she draws a veil
As shimmering fine as floating dew …
And here and there
In the black of her hair
The subtle hands of Night
Move slowly with their gem-starred light.

(1926)


To a Dark Girl

I love you for your brownness,
And the rounded darkness of your breast,
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.
Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!

(1927)

See a commentary on “To a Dark Girl”


Quatrains

1

Brushes and paints are all I have
To speak the music in my soul—
While silently there laughs at me
A copper jar beside a pale green bowl.

2

How strange that grass should sing—
Grass is so still a thing …
And strange the swift surprise of snow
So soft it falls and slow.

(1927)


Fantasy

I sailed in my dreams to the Land of Night
Where you were the dusk-eyed Queen,
And there in the pallor of moon-veiled light
The loveliest things were seen …
A slim-necked peacock sauntered there
In a garden of lavender hues,
And you were strange with your purple hair
As you sat in your amethyst chair
With your feet in your hyacinth shoes.
Oh, the moon gave a bluish light
Through the trees in the land of dreams and night.
I stood behind a bush of yellow-green
And whistled a song to the dark-haired Queen …

(1927)

See a commentary on “Fantasy”


Secret

I shall make a song like you hair …
Gold-woven with shadows green-tinged,
And I shall play with my song
As my fingers might play with your hair.
Deep in my heart
I shall play with my song of you,

Gently …

I shall laugh
At its sensitive lustre …
I shall wrap my song in a blanket,
Blue like your eyes are blue
With tiny shots of silver.
I shall wrap it caressingly,

Tenderly …

I shall sing a lullaby
To the song I have made
Of your hair and eyes …
And you will never know
That deep in my heart
I shelter a song for you

Secretly …

(1927)


Sonnets

1.
He came in silvern armour, trimmed with black—
A lover come from legends long ago—
With silver spurs and silken plumes a-blow,
And flashing sword caught fast and buckled back
In a carven sheath of Tamarack.
He came with footsteps beautifully slow,
And spoke in voice meticulously low.
He came and Romance followed in his track …

I did not ask his name—I thought him Love;
I did not care to see his hidden face.
All life seemed born in my intaken breath;
All thought seemed flown like some forgotten dove.
He bent to kiss and raised his visor’s lace …
All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death.

2.

Some things are very dear to me—
Such things as flowers bathed by rain
Or patterns traced upon the sea
Or crocuses where snow has lain …
The iridescence of a gem,
The moon’s cool opalescent light,
Azaleas and the scent of them,
And honeysuckles in the night.
And many sounds are also dear —
Like winds that sing among the trees
Or crickets calling from the weir
Or Negroes humming melodies.
But dearer far than all surmise
Are sudden tear-drops in your eyes.

(1927)


Gwendolyn B. Bennett

Learn more about Gwendolyn B. Bennett


Anthologies

Gwendolyn B. Bennett’s poetry was never collected into a single volume, though it appeared in many anthologies, especially during the 1920s. These included:


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