The Great Poem Series: Kwame Dawes’s “Vagrants and Loiterers”

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. Dawes is described as a poet, actor, editor, and former Louis Frye Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of South Carolina. Growing up in Jamaica, Dawes attended Jamaica College and the University of the West Indies where he received his BA degree in 1983. Years later in 1992, Dawes earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of New Brunswick. In 1994, Dawes won the Forward Poetry Prize, Best First Collection for “Progeny of Air,” one of his first poems. In 2009, Dawes won an Emmy award for New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming: Arts, Lifestyle & Culture. His project focused on informing viewers about HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. In 2014, arose with the Poetry Book Fund as the funding editor. In January of 2017, Dawes’ poetry collection City of Bones: A Testament was released from Northwestern University Press. In 2018, Dawes was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poet. Currently, Dawes is an English Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and holds the editor-in-chief position of Prairie Schooner magazine. I was drawn to Kwame Dawes because of his poem “News From Harlem.” Immediately I was able to relate to this poem because the setting is close to where I was born and raised. I also admired Dawes strong authentic voice talking about the strength of the black male. This topic always intrigues me and Dawes definitely had a way with his words that brought me in.

In doing more research on Dawes, I came across one of his poem called “Vagrants and Loiterers” which takes place in South Carolina in 1950, before Dawes was born. In this poem Dawes describes the “boys of the goodly South.” Through the description of luxurious clothing and items Dawes begins the poem creating an image of wealth and the good life. For example, Dawes states “You got that clean waistcoat… well tailored shirt… loose-as-sacks slacks and some spit-polished shoes… tilt that hat like you own the world; yeah, smoke your pipe, roll your tobacco.” By describing the sophisticated clothing that the person posses along with the sarcastic southern tone, Dawes gives the reader the impression that this Southern person is better off than most people living in South Carolina at the time. His tone almost suggests that this person should not be this high up in society. However, Dawes then states, “and every so often, when / you feel the urge, you reach into the waist / pocket and pull out that watch on its / chain, then look in the sky and say / Gonna be a cold one when it come, /  like God gave you that fancy clock / to tell the future. These are the easy / boys of the goodly South; waiting for / what is out of frame to happen: / the sheriff with his questions, the / paddy wagon, the chain gang, the weight / of the world. Waiting, with such delicate / dignity, fickle as the seasonal sky.” This second part of the poem shift the attention of the reader. Dawes communicates that for “boys of the goodly South” life is only good for a short period of time before bad things start to happen. Through the use of the clock and through the use of the phrase “Gonna be a cold one when it come,” Dawes creates the sense that bad things (and very bad things too) are bound to happen and the good life will soon be over for this person. I get the sense that this person is a target perhaps because of his race or appearance since the poem says that it is not long before the sheriff begins to question him and he begins to feel the weight or pressure from people all over the world.

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