Last Saturday the best poet you've never read, and possibly never heard of, passed away.
James A. Emanuel died in Paris on Sept. 28 at age 92, but there's been no coverage of his passing in the English-language press (aside from an essay by poet Dan Schneider, who has long been a fan of Emanuel's writing). This is a shame but, considering how Emanuel has long been overlooked by the literati of this world, not a surprise.
It's impossible—or perhaps only unjustly difficult—to sum up Emanuel's life in a few words. Still, for those unfamiliar with him here is my attempt: Born in Nebraska in 1921, Emanuel attended Howard University and served as personal assistant to famed general Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. during World War II. He published hundreds of poems, many of which are collected in Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958–1989 (you can also find a number of his poems online). Emanuel also edited the influential 1968 anthology Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, which was one of the first major collections of African American writings. During the last few decades Emanuel lived in Paris, where he continued to write and was an active member of that city's African-America expatriate community.
Of course, those few sentences don't even begin to do justice to his life. If you'd like to learn more about him, I suggest you download this PDF of his obituary. While most of the obit in in French, several of his poems are printed in English.
Jean Migrenne, who has translated some of my stories into French, worked closely with Emanual over the last few decades. According to him, Emanuel's funeral was attended by a small gathering of 23 people, about one third French and the rest members of the African-American community in Paris. His two widows were also there. He was buried in a simple pinewood coffin, with each of his widows placing a red rose on it in turn.
As Migrenne told me, a dozen news photographers were present in the cemetery during the service, but they were there for someone else's funeral, a famous journalist who often wrote about media and rock and roll stars.
I think it's safe to say only one of these writers will be remembered a hundred years from now, and that writer will be the quiet poet now resting in a pinewood coffin.
Here's one of this poems, which seems like the perfect way to honor the memory of this great poet.
Sonnet For A Writer
Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art's control.
To stray across my own mind's half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame's recline.