Sam Allen’s A Moment, Please

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Sam Allen (1917-2015) first studied with the magnificent James Weldon Johnson at Fiske, a black university in Nashville. Allen’s bachelor’s degree was in sociology. Then in 1941 he received a law degree from Harvard. He taught both law and literature on the college level.

After serving in WWII, then briefly in New York’s D.A. office, Allen moved to Paris, where he became immersed in the expatriate literary scene. Allen became friendly with people like James Baldwin, (both men were the sons of pastors), Richard Wright, Leopold Senghor, and Aime Cesaire. And through Wright he began to publish in the black literary journal, Presence Africaine. Mr. Allen also attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill.

Sam Allen began publishing poetry and translations and writing essays under the name Paul Vesey. Here is one of his most deft and delicate pieces of his I’ve seen: A Moment, Please. This poem interests me especially because of the interplay between the two strings of speech. The one in caps at the margin works as an independent meditation, while the indented lines give a narrative. In experimental poetry magazines today, (really this is a centuries old practice at least), poets will sometimes give a poem that runs across rows that is also divided into two or more columns. However, usually the relevance of the phrases is much looser than in Allen’s A Moment, Please; and I appreciate the way that he chooses to build meaning through actual coherent syntactical structures.

In fact, the tension of the meditative column, which is vast in time and space, and naturally inclines the soul to a perspective of freedom and detachment, is caught and caught again by the needling humiliation at the hands of a few impudent teenage girls. The experience of being worn down by something constantly, unfairly, nagging away at one’s vision is thereby well captured. The technique of having two columns, to communicate two things in this struggle is thereby not at all arbitrary.

Old Testament Biblical poetry commonly uses paired expressions, in lines A and B, where B is often a recasting of the sense of A, but with greater specificity and intensity. Much of the time these parallel lines are contraries, however, or are very distantly or obliquely related. Poetry is captured here in some cases when the reader’s mind is not merely called to process the line’s assertion in terms of truth value, but expression A is pitched against expression B, and the contemplation mounts up, even makes us gape in awe, or stuns us, as we consider the relations of the terrain of the entire “burden”, that is, flow of prophetic speech. Parallelism is a technique which tends to provide depth to thought.

There is an incredible ability of the human mind to appreciate a vast number of things that may seem meaningless at other times, like one’s kitchen backsplash, or the West Texas plains, or the mole on a face. We can appreciate flat lines, even fall into them. But this poem contains a great height, (in the lines in caps), still almost undiscernible in a quick read, (as though the TV were on), such is the attractive force of the little pathos laden narrative. In poetry with paired lines and contrasting juxtaposition, as in Biblical parallelism, there is given a fair freedom to compare the meaningful values of the things represented. And so as Allen says, “a moment, please”.

The video below shows Allen in a short reading. Highly recommended.

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