Jean Toomer: Contribution as American Poet

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      Jean Toomer (1894-1967) is the central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Washington, D.C, he attended the University of Wisconsin and City College, of New York. In 1921 he worked as a superintendent of black rural school in Sparta, Georgia an experience which provided the source material in his most widely read work Cane (1923) which composed of stories and poems. It attracted the attention of number of prominent editors, critics and authors, frank and Braithwaite.

      In 1920s Toomer contributed poetry to the black journals Opportunity and Crisis Like Cullen, African-American fiction writer and poet Jean Toomer envisioned an American identity that would transcend race. Perhaps for this reason, he brilliantly employed poetic traditions of rhyme and meter and did not seek out new “black” forms for his poetry. His major work Cane is ambitious and innovative, however. An innovative hybrid of prose and poetry, the book is divided into three sections - the first section is set in South, in Georgia and it concentrates on women, especially women whose thoughts and behavior set them at odds with the expectations of society. Punctuating their stories are poems, written in a rapt, incantatory style, marked by repetition, and recurrent images of dusk, pines, cane and fire. A similar rich tapestry of different but interconnected themes characterizes the second section. Here the scene drifts to the North, to Washington, DC. It begins with a lyrical account of black settlement in the city, marked by more syncopated rhythms and harsher imagery, ft continues with the surreal portrait of Robert, a man, sinking under the weight of his own poetry.

      There is more brutally material world than the one evoked in the first section, the final section of cane was the first to be written, and it clearly has a more autobiographical base than the others. It describes how an educated African American from the North, called Ralph Kabnis, visits the South. Written partly in the form of a story, partly in dramatic form, it shows him witnessing racial prejudice and violence, measuring the decline of the old ways. Frustrated in his search for a way of life he ends by experiencing a dark night of the soul: a party in a cellar, full of drinking and sex that offers him not even a moment of relief. However, the poet is not content to leave his readers on this dying fall.

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