A Poet to His Baby Son

By James Weldon Johnson 1871–1938
Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,   
And cursed with your father’s mind.

I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,   
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,   
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?

Why don’t you kick and howl,   
And make the neighbors talk about   
“That damned baby next door,”   
And make up your mind forthwith   
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter   
Or—?—whatever you decide upon,   
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts   
About being a poet.

For poets no longer are makers of songs,   
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,   
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,   
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,   
And interpreters of the eternal truth,   
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.   
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way   
Or new things in an old language,   
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,   
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;   
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd   
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants   
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

Take the advice of a father who knows:   
You cannot begin too young   
Not to be a poet.

James Weldon Johnson, “A Poet to His Baby Son” from James Weldon Johnson: Complete Poems, edited by Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Copyright © 2000 by Sondra Kathryn Wilson, Literary Executor of the Estate of James Weldon Johnson. Used by permission of Penguin Books. an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Source: Complete Poems (2000)

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Poet James Weldon Johnson 1871–1938

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Parenthood, Jobs & Working, Living, Arts & Sciences, Activities, Poetry & Poets

Poetic Terms Ars Poetica

 James Weldon Johnson


James Weldon Johnson distinguished himself equally as a man of letters and as a civil rights leader in the early decades of the twentieth century. A talented poet and novelist, Johnson is credited with bringing a new standard of artistry and realism to black literature in such works as The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and God's Trombones. His pioneering studies of black poetry, music, and theater in the 1920s also helped . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Parenthood, Jobs & Working, Living, Arts & Sciences, Activities, Poetry & Poets

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Ars Poetica

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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