poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

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)

Portrait in Georgia

Hairbraided chestnut,
     coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Eyesfagots,
Lipsold scars, or the first red blisters,
Breaththe last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
     of black flesh after flame.

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

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 and poetry describing the people and landscape of Georgia.

by this poet

poem
Hair—
silver-gray, 
like streams of stars, 
Brows—
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain, 
Her eyes—
mist of tears
condensing on the flesh below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of
poem

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,

poem
I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are
        cradled. 
But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I
        hunger. 
 
I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it. 
I have been in the fields all day. My throat