Jelani Penny-Johnson

2023-24 Youth Poet Laureate of St. Louis

About me



Jelani Penny – Johnson is a 17 year-old poet who tries to tell stories through his works. His poems carry a musicality of language that has its roots in hip-hop. And a variety of topics from racial inequality to renewed optimism to the beauty of the night can be seen throughout his writing. Jelani hopes to make the reader feel something when they read his poems. If even one person is affected by his poetry, he considers it to be a success. 


Jelani draws most of his inspiration not from poets, but from rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Black Thought, Nas, and more. And thus, many of his poems contain wordplay, extended metaphors, and inner rhyme schemes. Jelani believes that poems are not what they are about, but how they are about it. So, he uses a stylistic approach when writing. 


Jelani’s dream is to be a novelist. He plans to go to college and major in cognitive science to help facilitate his goal. He hopes that as his poetry develops, his prose will also improve, and one day, he’ll have a career that he can fondly look back on.


All You Had Was Me

It’s my fault that you were born broken.
Tokens of my scorn trickled and formed a sickle.
I veiled my ails in soft porn and fickle tales.
The firstborn of the grim reaper,
I saw you die again and again.
Supplied you with sin and chagrin,
the scars of my scarcity.
I made our house a prison
with bars of barbiturates.
Chaining us in a nightmare.
Every time I went to sleep I hoped I didn’t wake.
Thanatos, consumed biers.
Inhumed fears in pills,
made holes to fill my grave.
It never worked.
The dirt was merely thrown on your name.
Weeds grew from the letters and ensnared me.
Making me spell love with derision.
Fragile emotions that turned to shards in my diction,
and you swallowed them whole.
I was worse than nothing.

The December of each dog day derived from our discussions.
My dictionary formed a dagger and splintered your soul.
Cutting you, cracking you, caulking you with my faults.
Fault lines on your flesh from my food of thought.
Each plate was tectonic.
Our lowest points, I saw your bed rock.
While my bed was slick inside.
Security, I knew naught.
Insecurities from my noose formed new knots around your head.
I was Icarus to my son,
burning when I got close.
Stepping into my mother’s tracks,
walking inside her ghost.
My hands resembled hers.
Your palms, the same as mine.
Holding women like me,
wounding them out of spite.
Oedipus in our Erebus.
Forced to be our own heroes,
we couldn’t save each other.

I had to be the way I was.
A veer you lent to my venom,
moving from this vile creature.
But it was too late.
My vitriol dropped,
each droplet becoming you.
And I poured you into my glass.
Spilt bottles became our earth.
You didn’t revere your worth,
and left me.
I got older,
each year lessened my daze.
You can only stay high for so long.
Never received a call.
I soon believed in tears.
A silent demise.
You didn’t mourn me.
You didn’t visit.
You didn’t love me.
You’ll never love me.
You’ll never forgive me.
I’m sorry.
You were never at fault for being born.
I’m sorry it took my death to realize.
I was born broken and broke you for solace.
Never meant to be a parent,
it was apparent I hated myself.
I should have been better.
You needed me to be better.
All you had was me.


I heard the walls cry as I called out for help
I sought sanctity in bottles
and found fellowship with veins
I saw the art of my arteries
Composed paint with my pain
Became Edgar Degas,
the absinthe drinker
I formed rain from my brain
The sky transposed to the ceiling,
exposed the blue in my humble
until I could only say “hm”
All demiurge became dirge
and legumes became umes
I had no legs to stand on
so I designed stilts out of tears
It didn’t work
So I just made frames from my fears
I was Edgar Degas
Raged, egads in my dosages
Looking back on everything I was
and still am