Una Marson

Selected Poems

“I am black
And so I must be
More clever than white folk,
More wise than white folk,
More discreet than white folk
More courageous than white folk.”

The abundance of arrows that pierce and meet in the heart of Una Marson could inspire dozens of thoughts of who she is without a single one landing close to the mark.

So I won’t attempt to define her.

Una Marson (February 6, 1905 – May 6, 1965) was born in Jamaica where she practiced both journalism and poetry at a young age and even edited a nation-wide publication. She moved to Great Britain in 1932 (until 1936) where she continued to write poetry and feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial essays.

18th c. map Jamaica, featured in Una Marson's "Selected Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
18th-century map of the colonisation of Jamaica and the Caribbean, using coloured lines to highlight the areas controlled by Spain, England, France and Holland. The British Library

After two additional years in Kingston, Marson settled in London permanently and launched the career of many Caribbean writers with her BBC Radio Programme Caribbean Voices.

Marson also continued to publish poetry that was, as Alison Donnell articulates in her Introduction to Selected Poems, abundantly varied.

This collection of Marson’s poems consciously rejects the categorization of her work according to oppositional poetic and political modes: either sentimental or polemical, feminine or feminist, resistant or complicit. Rather, the poems selected here aim to set these seemingly competing archives of her work alongside each other in order to foreground and invest positively in what might be seen as Marson’s poetic unevenness.

If any selection of Marson’s poems suggests unevenness, than my ‘selection of selection’ is even more so. But let’s not trouble ourselves with that, we’re not trying to define her.

We celebrate complexity at The Examined Life, not answers. To understand a person is a life-long (longer if they reach immortality) journey of discovery, just as it is a life-long journey to be a person. Marson is worthy of our attention because she contains multitudes and shoves them all in her verse.

Photograph of Una Marson featured in Marson's "Selected Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph of Una Marson, taken from her first collection of poems Tropic Reveries in 1930. The British Library

Like the following self-examination which contains a deep awareness of race coupled with a bright competence of being;1

I am black
And so I must be
More clever than white folk,
More wise than white folk,
More discreet than white folk,
More courageous than white folk.
I am black,
And I have got to travel
Even farther than white folk,
For time moves on –
I must not laugh too much,
They say black folk can only laugh,
I must not weep too much,
They say black folk weep always
I must not pray too much
They say black folk can only pray.

From “Black Burden” published in 1937

Cover of "The Keys" published by the League of Coloured People in 1935
When she first arrived to London, Marson stayed with the founder of League of Coloured Peoples, Dr Ronald Moody, and edited the League’s journal The Keys. The British Library

“The Black female” wrote Maya Angelou in her debut memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, fixing on the same metaphor Marson mentions above, “Is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power.”

Although Angelou directed her gaze at American Black females, the pain and injustice need not be geographically exclusive as Marson’s experience in a colonial power, such as Britain clearly demonstrated.

Marson’s “There Will Come a Time” spoke to the hypocrisy and tyranny of a prejudiced, colonial society.

Each race that breathes the air of God’s fair world
Is so bound up within its little self,
So jealous for material wealth and power
That it forgets to look outside itself
Save when there is some prospect of rich gain;
Forgetful yet that each and every race
Is brother unto his, and in the heart
Of every human being excepting none,
There lies the selfsame love, the selfsame fear,
The selfsame craving for the best that is,
False pride and petty prejudice prevail
Where love and brotherhood should have full sway.

When shall this cease? ‘Tis God alone who knows;
But we who see through this hypocrisy
And feel the blood of black and white alike
Course through our veins as our strong heritage
Must range ourselves to build the younger race.
What matter that we be as cagéd birds
Who beat their breasts against the iron bars
Till blood-drops fall, and in heartbreaking songs
Our souls pass out to God? These very words,
In anguish sung, will mightily prevail.
We will not be among the happy heirs
Of this grand heritage – but unto us
Will come their gratitude and praise,
And children yet unborn will reap in joy
What we have sown in tears.

From “There Will Come a Day” published in 1931

In 1935 Marson wrote an essay in The Keys publication of League of Coloured People, arguing that advancement of individual “Negroes” did little to reset a racist society.

We fool ourselves into believing that a handful of Negroes who have attained can be turned into a race. Individual Negroes attain, they become world famous in medicine or music, literature or law and they feel that they have done all that there is to be done.

They expect the white world to believe that the Negro race has “got there.” They live up to a standard warranted by their position and the white world looks on in wonder and admiration at the miracle that has made it possible for a Negro – a member of a servile and dull race to excel.

From “The Keys” published in 1935.

See full edition here.

We should not be astounded that such an intelligent voice existed in a Black female in the 1930s (this was barely the same decade that brought us Virginia Woolf’s conditions for the creation of art), but we can be in awe that such a voice was exercised through radio, stage, poetry, publications, and even autobiography.

Marson, as you can see, wrote brilliantly on race, feminism, colonialism and nature2 and I’ve only done this unworthy edit.

Within and among all the things that met in this beautiful woman’s fierce mind and tender heart, it is her words on poetry, on the nature of the poet rather, that shout the loudest on who she is.3

It is in the poetry that the poet is most bare, most visible, most found:

Think not that those who spend their time
In building up the lofty rhyme
Are often of another clime
Than those who pass them by.
They differ not, but in degree:-
More deeply feel all that they see.
They hold to nature the great key,
And ope’ the portals wide.
What some will pass and scarce admire
Just sets the poet’s soul afire;
In praise of it he ne’er can tire,
In rapture he is lost.
He knows that many hearts are sad
That need someone to make them glad;
They would be happy if they had
A sympathising friend.
His poet’s heart goes out to these,
Their sorrows and their woes he sees
By words of comfort oft he frees
The weary burdened heart.

From “The Poet’s Heart”

“What some will pass and scarce admire/Just sets the poet’s soul afire.” I mentioned autobiography; in 1937 Marson indicated that she wrote an autobiography but sadly, it no longer exists.4 What could be gleaned about this woman that cannot be wrought from her poetry, I wonder.

Accompany Marson’s abundance of energy and mission, in Selected Poems, with the contemporary essays of James Baldwin who, although never used poetry as a medium for expression, wrote similarly to Marson on the plight of being Black. You’ll find Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time and Dark Days in the Library, imagine them dog-eared.