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James Weldon Johnson's "A Poet to His Baby Son"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "A Poet to His Baby Son"

James Weldon Johnson’s speaker in "A Poet to His Baby Son" offers a tongue-in-cheek complaint that his baby son might be contemplating becoming, like his father, a poet.

A Poet to His Baby Son

Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,
And cursed with your father’s mind.

I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?

Why don’t you kick and howl,
And make the neighbors talk about
"That damned baby next door,"
And make up your mind forthwith
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter
Or—?—whatever you decide upon,
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts
About being a poet.

For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

Take the advice of a father who knows:
You cannot begin too young
Not to be a poet.

Commentary

The poet's baby son gets a wild-eyed stare that can look "through the ceiling of the room, and beyond," leading the father to suspect that he might have a budding poet to contend with.

First Stanza: A Distressing Possibility

Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,
And cursed with your father’s mind.

In the opening three-line stanza, the speaker is having a little talk with his infant son. He calls the baby boy a "[t]iny bit of humanity" and describes him as looking like his mother but thinking like his father. The speaker is happy with the first quality but distressed over the second.

Second Stanza: Poetry as a Curse

I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?

The speaker is so distressed over the fact that the baby has his "father’s mind" that he calls the child "cursed" with that quality, repeating that lined in both the opening stanza and the second.

The speaker then begins his exposition of the reason for thinking the baby cursed. Before dropping the bombshell though, he relates that the baby can do baby things like lying "so long and so quietly on [his] back, / Playing with the dimpled big toe of [his] left foot"—a little-baby activity that the speaker finds charming.

But the speaker also senses a musing quality in the baby’s stare, "looking away, / Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond." This searching stare suggest to the poet that his baby is contemplating becoming a poet when he grows up.

Third Stanza: Anything but Poetry!

Why don’t you kick and howl,
And make the neighbors talk about
"That damned baby next door,"
And make up your mind forthwith
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter
Or—?—whatever you decide upon,
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts
About being a poet.

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The speaker then rhetorically queries his son, suggesting that he "kick and howl" and annoy the neighbors to get them to exclaim, "That damned baby next door." Such behavior he suggests would ensure that his son might decide to be a "go-getter" like "a banker / Or a politician."

The speaker insists that no matter what the kid does, he should "[r]id [himself] of these incipient thoughts / About being a poet."

Fourth Stanza: The Modernist Bent

For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.

In the longest stanza, the speaker details his reason for dissuading his son from becoming a poet. The poet/speaker decries the modernist bent of poets. They "no longer are makers of songs, / Chanters of the gold and purple harvest, / Sayers of the glories of earth and sky." The modernist poets are no longer interested in exploring and dramatizing "the sweet pain of love" or "the keen joy of living." They have ceased to dream "essential dreams," and they do not interpret "eternal truth / Through the eternal beauty."

Instead of all these endearing qualities that have infused and sustained poetry and poetry lovers for centuries, these new poets have become "unfortunate fellows." They have become "[b]affled in trying to say old things in a new way / Or new things in an old language." The poet describes the claptrap of modernist poetry: "The talk abracadabra / In an unknown tongue." Individualism has become an affliction instead of an article of authenticity. The modernists are fabricating a "wordy world of shadow problems." They are like "a self-imagined Atlas" "with puny legs and arms." They bitch and moan about their victimhood.

Fifth Stanza: Not a Good Place for Poets

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

It is then for the reason spelled out in stanza four that the poet proclaims that now "is not time nor place for a poet." He suggests to the infant that he "join the big, busy crowd / That scrambles for what it thinks it wants." This world will always be this same old world, and this poet/speaker’s experience tells him that it is not a place for poet.

Sixth Stanza: The Voice of Experience

Take the advice of a father who knows:
You cannot begin too young
Not to be a poet.

Finally, the poet/father/speaker admonishes the baby son to follow his warning because it is coming from "a father who knows": "You cannot begin too young / Not to be a poet."

Commentary on Trend in Victimology Poetry

This poem is playful, yet serious. The speaker is only musing on the possibility that his son is contemplating becoming a poet, but he uses the poem as a forum to express his dismay at the way poetry was becoming a cesspool of victimology and self-aggrandizement at the expense of truth and beauty.

James Weldon Johnson - Commemorative Stamp

Questions & Answers

Question: What is Johnson's "A Poet to His Baby Son" about?

Answer: James Weldon Johnson’s speaker in "A Poet to His Baby Son" offers a tongue-in-cheek complaint that his baby son might be contemplating becoming, like his father, a poet.

Question: Does the poem have a rime scheme?

Answer: Johnson’s “A Poet to His Baby Son” does not have a rime scheme.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 12, 2019:

Along with Emily Dickinson, James Weldon Johnson remains a very favorite poet of mine. He is certainly one of the finest poets American has produced. Engaging themes that possess universal appeal, his works are always relevant, well-crafted, profound, and inspirational.

I'm glad you enjoyed and benefited from this article, PoetikalyAnointed. Thank you for responding. Have a blessed day!

PoetikalyAnointed on February 12, 2019:

Wow, very powerful Poem, Poet and Hub!

I'm glad that I found this because I found your research commendable, informative and empowering!

I truly appreciated and enjoyed Mr. Johnson's poem to his son. I understand where he was coming from-very poignant writing.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 17, 2017:

You're welcome, Krakye, and thank you for the same. Have a blessed day.

Krakye Omane Poku from Ghana on December 17, 2017:

thank you very much for your honesty and kind words of encouragement

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 17, 2017:

Krakye, thank you for your response. I'll address each issue as follows:

"You really do give an in-depth commentary on this piece."

Yes, that's what I do; I offer in-depth commentaries about poems—some more in-depth than others.

***

"The writer in his '.. poem is playful, yet serious' does entertain as well as catch the eye of a reader as i continued to read through the start to end with the truth and counsel being told for a poetry lover and writer myself respectively."

James Weldon Johnson would be useful role model for any writer. He is one of my favorites. Readers can always rely on his works to be genuine, meaningful, humble, and insightful.

***

" '…the way poetry was becoming a cesspool of victimology and self-aggrandizement at the expense of truth and beauty', guilty as charged but don't we all at times?"

I have perused some of your writings, Krakye, and I have not seen that you are guilty of wallowing in the "cesspool of victimology and self-aggrandizement at the expense of truth and beauty"—quite the opposite; you seem to be addressing your own person interests in an honest and truthful way. I wish you all the best of luck with your writing; I am sure it will mature as you continue to pursue your interests.

***

"And funny how a poem written so long ago can still mean much in an age as now."

Well, it doesn't seem that long ago to me!

Krakye Omane Poku from Ghana on December 17, 2017:

Quite hilarious how you put this line, "They bitch and moan about their victimhood."

You really do give an in-depth commentary on this piece.

The writer in his "... poem is playful, yet serious" does entertain as well as catch the eye of a reader as i continued to read through the start to end with the truth and counsel being told for a poetry lover and writer myself respectively.

"...the way poetry was becoming a cesspool of victimology and self-aggrandizement at the expense of truth and beauty", guilty as charged but don't we all at times? And funny how a poem written so long ago can still mean much in an age as now

Great job Linda.

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