You know him for his classic novels and searching essays, but Nikky Finney argues that poetry – which Baldwin wrote “throughout his life” – was at the heart of his self-understanding:
Baldwin wrote poetry because he felt close to this particular form and this particular way of saying. Poetry helped thread his ideas from the essays, to the novels, to the love letters, to the book reviews, stitching images and feeling into music, back to his imagination. From the beginning of his life to the very end, I believe Baldwin saw himself more poet than anything else: The way he cared about language. The way he believed language should work. The way he understood what his friend and mentor, the great American painter Beauford Delaney, had taught him — to look close, not just at the water but at the oil sitting there on top of the water. This reliable witnessing eye was the true value of seeing the world for what it really was and not for what someone reported, from afar, that it was.
When Baldwin took off for Switzerland in 1951, he carried recordings by Bessie Smith, and he would often fall asleep listening to them, taking her in like the sweet black poetry she sang. It must have been her Baby don’t worry, I got you voice and their shared blues that pushed him through to finish Go Tell It on the Mountain in three months, after struggling with the story for ten years. Whenever Baldwin abandoned the music of who he was and how that sound was made, he momentarily lost his way. When he lost his way, I believe it was poetry that often brought him back. I believe he wrote poetry throughout his life because poetry brought him back to the music, back to the rain. The looking close. The understanding and presence of the oil on top of the water. Compression. Precision. The metaphor. The riff and shout. The figurative. The high notes. The blues. The reds. The whites. This soaking up. That treble clef. Bass. Baldwin could access it all — and did — with poetry.
(Photo of Baldwin in 1971 via Wikimedia Commons)