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Pinkie Gordon Lane

(1923—2008)


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(1923–2008), poet.

The first African American to be named Louisiana's poet laureate, the unmistakably southern writer Pinkie Gordon Lane was raised in Philadelphia, where she was born in 1923, the only child of William and Inez Gordon. The death of her father led to five years of work in a sewing factory; she subsequently left for Atlanta, where she earned her BA at Spelman College, and married Ulysses Lane. After teaching high school from 1949 to 1954, she earned an MA from Atlanta University. The Lanes subsequently moved to Baton Rouge, where Pinkie soon developed a lyrical, soaring, poetic gift that took much of its ambiance from her new surroundings.

The poetry in her first collection, Wind Thoughts, bespoke a mature imagination, as it was published when she was forty-nine, shortly after her husband's early death. It offers ample display of a unique voice, but also demonstrates her admiration for the Black Aesthetic of that time in her inscriptions from LeRoi Jones, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez, and in poems directly addressed to fellow black poets. On the other hand, while earning the first PhD degree ever granted to a black woman by Louisiana State University, she acquired an equally important classical sense, which produced an unusually formal tone quite different from those of the Black Arts movement poets, along with references to John Milton, John Keats, William Butler Yeats, and E. E. Cummings. Her later poems range even further for antecedents; the title poem of The Mystic Female cites Lao Tzu. Lane claimed the most important influences on her work were Gwendolyn Brooks, for inspiration, and Anne Sexton, for style.

Lane studed poems with unexpected, arresting images, but also with reassuring visions of nature, sometimes deceptively simple as in “Roasting Grasshoppers”, or ominously foreboding as in “Opossom”. Her musings about quotidian details can yield sudden insight, as in “On Being Head of the English Department,” a cynical yet loving appraisal of duty; so can poems based on shocking incidents, such as “Sexual Privacy of Women on Welfare” or “Flight”, which transmogrifies the discovery of a newborn baby in an airplane's toilet. The moods of love and its torments inform many poems, and white-hot heat flares in “Three Love Poems” and “St. Valentine's Eve Poem”. But Lane was mainly an autobiographical poet, so her most successful works pay tribute to friends and family members who are mourned and remembered, even for sour moods and evil deeds, as in “Children”, and in what may be her most powerful work, “Poems to My Father”. She made art out of the agony of her husband's fatal illness in “Songs to the Dialysis Machine”, while the complex fate of her mother emerges in “Prose Poem: Portrait”.

More often than not, her poems offer solitary meditations on quiet interstices of existence; the persona may be listening to the furnace crackle on a winter's evening, as in “Breathing,” or reacting to music, as in several poems devoted to her drummer son, Gordon. She felt she ran against the grain with reflective poems and suggests in “A Quiet Poem” that African Americans are expected to write from anger.

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Subjects: Literature.


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