Here’s a second poem by Afro-American Modernist poet Fenton Johnson. Like the first piece of Johnson’s that I presented earlier this week, there’s a religious element, but it’s handled this time with a remarkable framing device.
As published in 1921, “A Dream” is the longer of two pieces which are grouped together as “Two Negro Spirituals.” What strikes me about them is the extraordinary knife-edge irony held in them between spirituality and reality. If the Language Poets descended from the Modernists will not find in “A Dream” the novel uses of language and syntax they look for, perhaps the Post-Modernists will appreciate Johnson’s conveying a vivid religious vision framed in a way that causes a reassessment of the foreground material.
That’s more critical theory and bin-labeling that I usually engage in, so let’s move away from that to the piece itself.
Is this texturally a “Negro spiritual?” Not really, though Johnson significantly chooses to call it that. The vision he presents, after a brief “Oh, my honey” aside would not seem out of place in William Blake or any of a number of 18th to 20th Century Christian revivalists. The “spirituals” of the title were largely folk hymns, and the language here is more literary. Johnson wants us to know it’s an Afro-American who’s speaking, yes; but also, a man who could read and know these non-folklore sources. Yet, the recounting of the titular dream is not a scholastic catalog of mystical religious elements, it’s a deeply felt vision of a glorious reward. One does not need to be a Christian to feel the ecstasy of this vision, any more than one needs to fully understand Blake’s idiosyncratic religious precepts to sense their “thereness.”
Johnson concludes the poem with a single line of a contrasting vision that recasts all that has come before it. Listen to the piece with the player below to hear it as it occurs.
Musically, this piece caused me all kinds of trouble, and, to be frank, I don’t think I got all the way to what I wanted to achieve. The difficulties of being my own composer, arranger, reader, ensemble of musicians and recording engineer should cause this kind of trouble more often than it does. However, I did so want to continue to present the things that this to-little-known poet Fenton Johnson did, that I have “called time” on this piece, and present it here now for you to listen to.