DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
April may be National Poetry Month, but for some people, poetry is an everyday affair. For nearly 20 years, Henry Lyman hosted a radio program called "Poems to a Listener" out of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. He interviewed leading contemporary poets of the day, as well as poets were also soldiers or prize fighters or preachers' sons. We're airing excerpts of "Poems to a Listener" throughout the month of April. There is language in today's segment that some may find offensive. We'll hear about a slight young man from the streets of Harlem who grew into a lion of American literature.
Here's Henry Lyman to introduce him.
HENRY LYMAN: One day in 1986, I sat down at the kitchen table of a Massachusetts farmhouse to talk with James Baldwin. I'd been reading him since the mid-'60s. His novels and essays such as "The Fire Next Time," which helped energize the civil rights movement. And I'd recently discovered his one book of poems, "Jimmy's Blues."
Baldwin, as he bent toward me and spoke, was absolutely electric, as dynamic as his writing. His voice had all the power of the preacher in him, but he didn't preach to me. He had a way of speaking that included me, though I was a lot younger. And he drew me in as he talked about racism and what racism does to the racist.
Mr. JAMES BALDWIN (Poet): If I do that to you, I debase you, then I have to find a way to live with it and to find a way to justify it.
Mr. BALDWIN: Now, in order to do that, I got to blind myself to you, to you as a human being. And once I've done that, I'm blinding myself to myself, my own potential as a human being.
LYMAN: Which left James Baldwin with a question. I asked him to read a passage from his major poem, "Staggerlee Wonders," in which the legendary black folk hero, Staggerlee, takes a long, hard look at history and how we blind ourselves.
Mr. BALDWIN: (Reading) And so, I always wonder, can blindness be desired? And what must the blinded eyes have seen to wish to see no more? For I have seen in the eyes regarding me or regarding my brother, have seen deep in the farthest valley of the eye. Have seen a flame leap up then flicker and go out. And soon they'll come down, leaving myself and the other alone in that cave, which every soul remembers. And out of which, desperately afraid, I turn, turn, stagger, stumble out into the healing air, fall flat on the healing ground, singing praises, counseling my heart, my soul to praise.
LYMAN: Staggerlee has looked into the eyes, very deeply, into the eyes of white power, the eyes that almost see him for an instant there.
Mr. BALDWIN: Mm-hmm. It's - it does come out of the - a certain language when you watch what another human being is doing to himself or herself, under the impression that they're doing it to you. They just slapped you with something. They cursed you or they called you nigger. And sometimes, you see it in the eyes. You see something - you see a kind of anguish, a terrible awareness into in the person's heart of something he or see can't quite confront.
Or, for example - I remember once in Montgomery, Alabama, in the courthouse. The situation was a voting registration drive. We had to get the people in. And the sheriff and his men were there to keep us out. And I do remember - I'll remember until I die - the face of the youngest deputy, one of the youngest deputies. I caught his eye for a moment. He was there with his peers and his elders, with their clubs and their guns, helmets. And we had to somehow get into the courthouse and he had to keep us out. And I could see him pleading with us. I could see it behind his eyes. Begging us not to make him do what he's going to have to do if we insisted. If we insisted, he's going to - have to beat our brains out. He didn't want to do it. But five years later, he'd have gotten used to it. He'd have forced himself to get used to it. And the incipient person, the was in at that moment, before he raised his billy club...
LYMAN: Didn't want to.
Mr. BALDWIN: Didn't want to.
LYMAN: When I left the farmhouse later that afternoon, James Baldwin said stay in touch. I regret that I didn't. He was due to come back to Massachusetts the following year, but then he was stricken with cancer and died December 1, 1987.
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ELLIOTT: To hear Henry Lyman's full interview with James Baldwin, visit our Web site, npr.org.
Next week, Gwendolyn Brooks and her poem on the funeral of her cousin, Vick(ph), a woman so full of life, no casket could contain her.
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ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.