poem index

About this poet

On December 26, 1894, Jean Toomer was born in Washington, D.C, the son of a Georgian farmer. Though he passed for white during certain periods of his life, he was raised in a predominantly black community and attended black high schools. In 1914, he began college at the University of Wisconsin 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 others. 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 four months; the trip represented his journey back to his Southern roots. His experience inspired his book Cane, a book of prose poetry describing the Georgian people and landscape.

In the early twenties, 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, a light-skinned black man preoccupied with establishing an identity in a society of rigid race distinctions. He began to preach the teachings of Gurdjieff in Harlem and later moved downtown into the white community. From there, he moved to Chicago to create a new branch of followers.

Toomer was married twice to wives who were white, and was criticized by the black community for leaving Harlem and rejecting his roots for a life in the white world; however, he saw himself as an individual living above the boundaries of race. His meditations center around his longing for racial unity, as illustrated by his long poem "Blue Meridian." He died on March 30, 1967.

A 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)

Reapers

Jean Toomer, 1894 - 1967
Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes.  I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds.
His belly close to ground.  I see the blade.
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

From Cane by Jean Toomer. Copyright © 1923 Boni and Liveright, renewed 1951 by Jean Toomer. Used with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer

Born in 1894, Jean Toomer is the author of Cane, a book of prose poetry describing the people and landscape of Georgia

by this poet

poem
Hair--braided chestnut,
     coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Eyes--fagots,
Lips--old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath--the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
     of black flesh after flame.
poem
     Pour O pour that parting soul in song,
     O pour it in the sawdust glow of night,
     Into the velvet pine-smoke air to-night,
     And let the valley carry it along.
     And let the valley carry it along.

O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum tree,
So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,
Now just
poem
Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears . . .
Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.