by Maxwell Wheat

"You took my rock and you rolled/but you didn't get the half of it"


(Editor's Note: Ray Patterson was a well-known figure on the Long Island poetry landscape, an accomplished and dignified voice for poetry who served for many years on the board of directors of the Walt Whitman Birthplace, and a mentor to many individual writers regionally through his death. Less well known locally was Ray's profound impact on wider arenas of writing and academic communities. A funeral service held for Ray, held Thursday, Apr 12, at the Benta Funeral Home, 141st St, NYC, revealed a little of that. The funeral home was packed with friends and colleagues of Ray's from as far and wide as CCNY, and institutions in the Midwestern US. Ray Patterson (Dec 14, 1929-Apr 5, 2001) was a poet, writer and professor of English at CCNY ("Ray WAS the Langston Hughes Festival," declared one man in eulogizing Patterson at the funeral), born in Harlem NY and a graduate of the NY Public School System. He received his BA in Political Science from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he was class poet, and won the Boretone Mountain Poetry Award for best poem written by an undergraduate. He received his MA in English from NYU. A prolific poet whose work was widely anthologized, Patterson was author of 26 Ways of Looking at a Black Man and Other Poems (Award Books, 1969), and Elemental Blues (Cross Cultural Communications, 1983). He also wrote an unpublished book length poem on the life of Phillis Wheatley; and two opera librettos. He read his works widely, from local venues to the Library of Congress in Washington DC and at the 60th Birthday Celebration of Chinua Achebe at the University of Nigeria. He collaborated with his wife in the creation of Black Poets Reading, a non-profit speakers' bureau; represented the US at the Struga Festival in Macedonia. He was an Umbra Poet, served on the executive boards of the Poetry Society of America, the PEN American Center, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace.)

"Serious" is the word I associate with Raymond R. Patterson, who died April 5. I teach my workshop writers how he uses this work-a-day adjective in a way that illuminates his whole poem, "Long Island," a short, comic tribute to our Paumanok home. He tells about a confused convention delegate who arrives on Montauk Point surrounded by water that he could have described as "vast," an expected adjective, or "endless," an absolute cliche. But attentive to the precise and differently nuanced use of words, characteristic of modern American poets, Raymond wrote "our little lighthouse and all that serious water." Because of that adjective, "serious," he had a poem that whips up a friendly summer storm of fun.

Long Island
The people here are all pioneers
who went east. Weekdays
the sons go west, returning each night
with unconvinced faces. Some days
they think this place is Eldorado.

A conventioneer from Peoria
looking for Times Square
once went too far
and ended up in Babylon.
"Not so bad as I thought," he allowed,
"--but where's the Empire State Building?"

So we showed him Montauk Point
our little lighthouse and all that serious
What could he say?
It's hard not to admire a place
that would stick its neck out
into an ocean like that.

Look for Raymond's attentive language in his books: "26 Ways of Looking at a Black Man" (Award Books, New York, N. Y. 1969) and "Elemental Blues" (Cross-Cultural Communications, Merrick, N. Y. 1983/1989). I have successfully used Raymond's blues poems in junior high school classes, these poems being a musical kind of poetic outlet for the teenagers' often seething emotions.

As Raymond says in "A note on the Blues" in the book, "The language of the blues is, by tradition, the language of the folk. It is direct, concrete, vivid, terse, 'unlettered,' rich in figures of speech, imagery, allusion, symbolism, irony, and double meaning. It addresses the difficult problems of everyday life as well as the problems of the human condition."

Jelly Jam Blues

Mama, I want some jelly. Mama,
I want some jelly for my bread.
Jelly, mama,
I want some jelly for my bread.
If you ain't got no more jelly,
'I'll take a little jam instead.

I know just how to jam, mama,
When all the jelly's gone.
I say I know how to jam
When all the jelly's gone.
If there's no more jelly,
Mama, we can jam right on.

Jelly Blues
Will make the hard times taste so sweet.
Oh yes, the jelly blues
Will make the hard times taste so sweet.
A little jam, mama, will make the miseries
Good enough to eat.

Raymond's affection for the language emulates that of the poet whom he revered, Walt Whitman. For many years he served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, this during the decision throes for the Interpretive Center. With the Center, Raymond had a vision of the Birthplace being a hub of poetic activity, often with nationally known poets participating.

As a member of the Poetry and Education Committee, he offered many suggestions: A "Long Island Poetry Series" to support and showcase local poets and poetry organizations." A "Long Island Poetry Teacher of the Year Award" with honorable mention given to others. He suggested that the contest be modeled on the New York City Board of Education Poetry Teacher of the Year Award.

A "Monthly Conversation With a Poet," with the guest artist reading and discussing her/his work or addressing some "aspect of poetry that is of special interest." A book signing would follow. An annual "David Ignatow Lecture and Reading" memorializing the eminent poet whom Raymond admired and with whom he worked as a trustee and as a member of the committee. The program would involve a lecture about David's work or about an aspect of poetry and would conclude with a reading of the East End poet's work.

An eight-session workshop of two hours each once a year. In addition to this learning opportunity, he advocated eight "Master Classes" a year like that offered by the Poet-in-Residence at the Whitman Birthday celebration. "Such a program," Raymond said, "would give our audience more opportunity for contact with prominent poets."
He called for performance poetry, an evening of poetry and music. He suggested holding a Poetry Slam conducted by a well-known poet.

These ideas came from his experience organizing and promoting the annual Langston Hughes Festival at City College where Raymond was professor (eventually emeritus) of English. The Festival, which Raymond directed from 1973 to 1993, honors writers and dramatists of the African diaspora who follow the tradition of Langston Hughes. Raymond was influenced by Hughes. Like Raymond, Hughes was a Whitman devotee and wrote a poem, "Old Walt." Raymond said that "Many see his poem to Whitman, 'Old Walt,' as a striking self-portrait." He said this in remarks, April 2, 1997, at the dedication of the Langston Hughes plaque in the Poet's Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The remarks were printed in the Winter, 1997, issue of "Starting from Paumanok," newsletter of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association.

"Old Walt" reveals Hughes' affection and originality with the language as seen in its playfulness, such as that displayed in Raymond's "Long Island" and other poems.

Old Walt

Old Walt Whitman
Went finding and seeking,
Finding less than he sought
Seeking more than found,
Every detail minding
Of the seeking or the finding.

Pleasured equally
In seeking as in finding,
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
And finding.

Add to Langston Hughes and David Ignatow, another favorite of Raymond's, the late William Stafford. Raymond and his late wife, Boydie, were hosts to Stafford in their Merrick home when the well-known Northwestern poet spent a weekend as Poet-in-Residence at the Birthplace. People were intrigued by the resemblance in gracious manners of the two men - a 19th century gentlemaness about them. Also, like Raymond, Stafford could make a single word charge a poem with meaning and effect. That is evident in his great environmental poem, "Discovery" about plowing a field with nesting larks. Instead of ending the poem with a line about destroying a nests of eggs, Stafford concludes with "men had walked,/ on many a nest of song." Magnificent use of a single word - "song" with Stafford, "serious" with Raymond.

The poets mentioned in this remembrance of Raymond were, with him, wordsmiths of a distinctive powerful vintage. I think of them walking together in American poetry: Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, David Ignatow, William Stafford, Raymond R. Patterson.



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