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Jean Toomer

1894–1967

On December 26, 1894, Jean Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Nathan Toomer, a Georgian farmer, and Nina Pinchback. His grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, was the first African American governor in the United States, serving in Louisiana during Reconstuction from 1872 to 1873. Toomer began college at the University of Wisconsin in 1914 but transferred to the College of the City of New York and studied there until 1917.

Toomer spent the next four years writing and published poetry and prose in Broom, The Liberator, The Little Review, and other journals. He actively participated in literary society and was acquainted with such prominent figures as the critic Kenneth Burke, the photographer Alfred Steiglitz, and the poet Hart Crane.

In 1921, Toomer took a teaching job in Georgia and remained there for four months; the trip represented his journey back to his Southern roots. His experience inspired his book Cane, which describes the Georgian people and landscape and is regarded as an influential work in modernist literature. About the book Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote, "Cane, a compelling, haunting amalgam of fiction, poetry, and drama unified formally and thematically and replete with leitmotifs, would elevate Toomer, virtually overnight, to the status of a canonical writer in two branches of American modernism: the writers and critics who compose the New Critics and the 'Lost Generation' and those who compose the New Negro movement or the Harlem Renaissance."

In the early 1920s, Toomer became interested in Unitism, a religion founded by the Armenian George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The doctrine taught unity, transcendence, and mastery of self through yoga, all of which appealed to Toomer. After studying with Gurdjieff in France, Toomer began to preach his teachings in Harlem and offer workshops in other parts of the country. In 1936, Toomer moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and eventually distanced himself from Gurdjieff and took up a new interest in Quakerism. 

Toomer, devoted to seeking spiritual enlightment, also questioned the boundaries of race. His longing for a national identity free from divisions by race or class is illustrated by his Whitmanesque long poem "Blue Meridian." About his quest, Elizabeth Alexander wrote in her poem "Toomer," "I did not wish to 'rise above' / or 'move beyond' my race. I wished / to contemplate who I was beyond / my body, this container of flesh."

He died after numerous ailments in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on March 30, 1967.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Cane (1923)
The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (1980)

Prose
Essentials (1931)
The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (1980)

Jean Toomer

By This Poet

16

Prayer

My body is opaque to the soul.
Driven of the spirit, long have I sought to temper it unto the
        spirit’s longing, 
But my mind, too, is opaque to the soul. 
A closed lid is my soul’s flesh-eye. 
O Spirits of whom my soul is but a little finger,
Direct it to the lid of its flesh-eye.
I am weak with much giving. 
I am weak with the desire to give more. 
(How strong a thing is the little finger!)
So weak that I have confused the body with the soul, 
And the body with the little finger. 
(How frail is the little finger.)
My voice could not carry to you did you dwell in stars, 
O Spirits of whom my soul is but a little finger . . . 
 

Her Lips Are Copper Wire

whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog
 
and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes
 
telephone the power-house
that the main wires are insulate
 
(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)
 
then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

Beehive

Within this black hive to-night
There swarm a million bees; 
Bees passing in and out the moon, 
Bees escaping out the moon, 
Bees returning through the moon, 
Silver bees intently buzzing, 
Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb, 
And I, a drone, 
Lying on my back, 
Lipping honey, 
Getting drunk with silver honey, 
Wish that I might fly out past the moon
And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower. 

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