This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance

Verner Mitchell (Editor) Cheryl Wall (Foreword by)


This volume brings together all of the known poetry and a selection of correspondence by an enormously talented but underappreciated poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Cousin of novelist Dorothy West and friend of Zora Neale Hurston, Helene Johnson (1905-1995) first gained literary prominence when James Weldon Johnson and Robert Frost selected three of her poems for prizes in a 1926 competition. During the late 1920s and early 1930s her poetry appeared in various small magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Quill, Palms, Opportunity, and Harlem. In 1933 Johnson married, and two years later her last published poem, Let Me Sing My Song, appeared in Challenge, the journal West had founded to revive the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. In his well-researched introduction, Verner D. Mitchell reconstructs Johnson's life, the details of which have long been veiled from public view, and places her in the context of a vital literary tradition. In addition to discussing her relationship with West, Hurston, and other black women writers, he explores the distinctive, at times radical, qualities of her work. Ever willing to defy the genteel conventions that governed women's writing, Johnson wrote poems on erotic themes and engaged the aesthetic, gender, and racial politics of her time. Cheryl A. Wall's foreword also celebrates Johnson's talent, particularly the ease with which she moved among various verse forms--from the rigor of the sonnet to the improvisational creativity of free black vernacular. An unexpected and most welcome gift, This Waiting for Love, Wall writes, is an enduring tribute to the vibrant poetry of Helene Johnson.

Product Details

University of Massachusetts Press
Publish Date
September 06, 2006
5.24 X 0.41 X 9.04 inches | 0.52 pounds
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About the Author

Verner D. Mitchell is assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis. Cheryl A. Wall is professor of English at Rutgers University and author of Women of Letters of the Harlem Renaissance.


"Johnson proves herself a lyricist of utmost delicacy yet steely precision; restraint attends her every meditation on love, race and loss."
"The poems are impressive, not only in quality but in variety--ranging in length from four lines to four pages; in form, from sonnet to free verse; in style, from the use of dialect to allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology; in tone, from appreciation, sensuousness, and playfulness to contempt; and, in theme, from nature to love and race."
"Johnson brought wit, skill, and a keen sense of observation to her poetry. Verner Mitchell here collects Johnson's thirty-four previously published pieces along with thirteen more, composed after she retired from public writing. Mitchell rounds off his volume with an introduction positioning the poet within the framework of the Harlem Renaissance, a chronology that unveils elements of a jealously guarded private life, selected letters, and an afterword by Johnson's daughter."
"It is with great pleasure and a true sense of mission that editor Mitchell presents the first complete collection of Johnson's work, an exhilarating interpretive volume put together with the help of Johnson's daughter, screenwriter and playwright Abigail McGrath, who generously contributed her mother's previously unpublished poems and letters as well as family photographs...Johnson wrote boldly sensual and saucy poems in both traditional forms and free verse, wryly intelligent and gleamingly beautiful works in praise of earthiness and freedom from racism, sexism, and Puritanism. As frank, shrewd, fresh, and sexy now as then, Johnson's poems will at last take their proper place in American poetry."

Mitchell has performed a great service for students of the Harlem Renaissance with this thoroughly researched collection of Johnson's poems and correspondence.--Hermine Pinson, College of William and Mary