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On John Beecher's Poetry

Maxwell Geismar

It is ironical but in a sense logical that an authentic "proletarian" poet today--one who writes directly from the experience of the people, from the depths of poor people's lives, and mainly poor black people; a poet who speaks their language, and whose poetry in turn can be understood by these people--should be the descendant of a famous old New England family of dissenters, iconoclasts, atheists and freethinkers (among the clergymen members), ardent abolitionists, native non-conformists.

It is ironical, logical, and yet perhaps unexpected and doubly refreshing that John Beecher should fill all these requirements as a rebellious talent bringing to modern times the spirit of his famous ancestors. I might also add he is a very fine poet who speaks directly to my soul (and to yours, I am sure) after a long period when poetry was no longer trying to speak to anybody except the poetic elite--or shall we say clique? In Robert McAlmon's fine book on the 1920s, Being Geniuses Together, just lately revived along with Kay Boyle's Memoirs, he speaks of T.S. Eliot not altogether reverently. "I decided to get in touch with T. S. Eliot," he wrote, "although his cautious articles on criticism did not impress me, nor did his erudition, scholarship, or his lack of a sense of either life or literature. His moldy poetry struck me as the perfect expression of a clerkly and liverish man's apprehension of life, and to me he was Prufrock."

It is Eliot's spirit, however, which has dominated modern poetry down to the elegaic, self-centered, and to me rather weary "confessions" of Robert Lowell. John Beecher's poetry, so much to the contrary, so proud, angry, rebellious; so full of moral dignity and so rocklike--and, believe me, written out of an equal but radical erudition and scholarship --has been one of the very few dissenting voices during this period. Most of the books from which this volume of collected poems has been made were either printed privately or by small radical presses and magazines. It was only indeed in the early '60s, when the oppressive and intimidating atmosphere of the Cold War period had lifted, more than momentarily, as we hope, and the lethargic spell over the national consciousness had been broken by the civil-rights campaign in the South, white and black alike, that Beecher's poetry suddenly came into prominence.

I frankly don't know, nor too much care, how John Beecher gets his marvelous effects in those poetic lines which are carved out from the common speech of the people, or from the beautiful black southern dialects. There are, on the other hand, very subtle, complex, almost metaphysical poems in this collection where Beecher shows what he can do when he wants to work with a more "literary," or perhaps just a more Latinic and polysyllabic mode of language. To achieve the limpid, lucid simplicity of most of these poems, in a poetic style that, even with some Whitmanesque references, is completely fresh and original, an artist must obviously know how to handle the most difficult modes of prosody--must have spent his lifetime, as I suspect John Beecher has, in perfecting the exact kind of "simplicity" he wants to achieve. What he does is to give to the various dialects of our country, south, midwest, west and north, a kind of added height and dignity, while preserving all of the folk knowledge, humor and earthiness. What he does is to embed these folk tongues into the matrix of our literature.

We get in these poems also a kind of informal yet permanent chronicle of the "American century," from the depression years in the steel towns and southern farms to the epoch of Black Power and Vietnam. And what makes this national chronicle so rare is simply that it is viewed constantly, as in the opening verse of Thoreau, "Homage to a Subversive," from the underside of things, the radical and ironically "subversive" side, the side that has been so consistently blocked out and covered over during these years. We have had a plethora of Cold War accounts which have distorted the whole meaning of our national history from the Civil War to our "containment" of Russia and our even more fatal "containment" of China; from John Brown, who was suddenly declared "insane" in the modern period, to the "mad and aggressive" Chairman Mao who has not yet invaded a single foreign country. It is not history we lack in our period, but the courage of men like John Beecher to see history whole, and to record it so beautifully in these verse chronicles and narratives.

In any event, another point of these poems is that they are narrative in essence and contain dramatic movement. Most of the longer ones are based on historical episodes as recreated in Beecher's vision of them; the shorter ones contain the essence of a man or woman's being, often in ten lines, the essence of a human life, or a place, or an event. What a relief--after decades of cryptic, convoluted modern verse about remote and obscure states of human subjectivity, and "alienation." One might say again that nothing human is alien to John Beecher, and what he sees is not at all a mysterious contemporary disease (such as the death of God), but a corrupt social system that all too often not merely alienates its second-class citizens, as based on wealth and skin color, but destroys them, and not merely theoretically but actually through the process of armed violence.

Thus the poetry in this volume starts with the industrial conflict of the 1930s in the southern steel towns: what violence, but what hope in that perhaps last peak of our society! (This whole vision of the South which Beecher conveys is an antidote to both Faulkner's later romanticism -- and race reversion -- and to Richard Wright's magnificent black nightmares.) There is the poem called "The Odyssey of Thomas Benjamin Harrison Higgenbottom," which conveys in brief, but how eloquently, the whole story of the small farmer's obliteration on the national scene.

There is (to mention only a very few highlights of a book which is altogether comprised of good poetry) the epical verse, "In Egypt Land." This is the story of the first farmers' union, organized by the blacks who had nothing more to lose, joined by the whites, and its bloody extermination by the "laws,"--told here with so much compassion and human feeling, dramatic power and lyrical grief, as to make you feel you have participated in the tragedy which is so classical and yet so homespun. "Here I Stand," written in the 1940s is another poem of both classical and epic stature that, though an intensely personal chronicle, is one of the best accounts of the darkening Cold War atmosphere, so oppressive and so fatal to all creative thought and work--an officially created cultural climate that still haunts us, that distorts all our historical perspective even through the '60s, and has run the United States off the time-track of contemporary society. That is the reason we are always so wrong, and so dangerous in our foreign policy, working always from one disaster to another; and I see no remedy for this until our surviving Cold War figures, politicians, educators, journalists, artists, die off or are put away in the national interest.

There is indeed a whole chorus of poems here which describe and record the effects of "the air that kills." Perhaps I value this poetry so much just because I came to the same conclusions before I had read John Beecher's verse; namely, that the whole literary establishment in the 1940s and '50s was a complete fraud, working, whether consciously or not, whether paid-off or voluntarily, to further the interests of the "Free World" and a now-discredited American foreign policy.

Now I have only just begun to describe this book of John Beecher's poems; I would only add that Beecher's sense of the contemporary scene is so unique just because he understands the whole revolutionary core of the American past. In appearance and posture, as well as in his poetry, John Beecher reminds me of nothing so much as the Last of the Abolitionists. This collection of his poetry is so good that I feel honored and privileged to pay homage to it.

Harrison, New York
June 1968

"Introduction" to Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy. By John Beecher. Copyright 1968 by International Publishers.

Marjorie Perloff

John Beecher's first poems, like those of Van Doren, appeared in the year 1924, but Beecher's tradition is that of Sandburg, Lindsay, and the Edgar Lee Masters of Spoon River Anthology. Beecher’s verse is, however, not poetry at all. Whatever our definition of poetry—as language inherently different from ordinary speech, as fictive discourse, as the phenomenological embodiment of the writer’s unique consciousness, or as the displacement of myth--Beecher cannot properly be called a "poet." Here, for example, is a passage from "News Item," which complains of the brutal and unwarranted beating the Alabama police gave to a union leader for Goodyear Rubber named John House:

The Government of the United States
should know about John House
but maybe they won't notice the little item
on the back pages of the Birmingham paper
because the front pages are all filled up with Hitler
and how he is threatening democracy
so I am asking
the Government of the United States
to pay a little attention to this. [Poems 1941-1944]

If these sentences were not broken up into line units, no one could distinguish this passage from a Letter To the Editor. There is no structuring of any sort here, whether imagistic, prosodic, syntactic, or verbal, no process of selection from the welter of words which constitutes ordinary speech. Or again, if poetry is defined as fictive discourse, this passage looks much more like actual discourse: Beecher is clearly trying to tell the United States Government something about injustice. Fictionality is not involved.

Beecher's characters are generally sentimental cardboard figures, and his solutions to America’s problems are touchingly simplistic. Even as rhetoric, these poem’s fail. In 1940, he writes that the way to stop Hitler is to build up "American unity" by helping the "ill-housed/ ill-clothed/ill-fed," by making sure everyone has "a fair wage" and "a decent place to live in," by remembering that "all men are created equal" and that Whites must stop mistreating Blacks. One cannot quarrel with such lofty sentiments, but one never feels that Beecher has grounded these sentiments in real situations or that he understands the complexities of history, politics, or social change. Accordingly, this is verse which has not stood the test of time.

Beecher's best poem is, I think, Here I Stand, written in 1941. This long narrative records the poet's odyssey from Alabama to Washington and then on to New York in search of life and work. Perhaps because it is more personal than most of Beecher's poems, Here I Stand is an authentic and moving record of one man's struggle to get on. In conveying the contradictions that characterize our capital—and indeed our way of life--the poem looks ahead to Ginsberg's Howl or to the city poem’s of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. But the poem ends on a histrionic note ("Here I Stand/John Beecher on the block.... Do I hear any bids?"), and some of his descriptive detail is merely flat. William Carlos Williams could juxtapose the most banal objects, creating surfaces of great subtlety and tension, and Stevens' "Man on the Dump" learns how to see the moon come up in an empty sky and can accordingly "reject the trash." Beecher can do neither.

From "Tradition and the Individual Talent—A Review Essay." In Southern Humanities Review (1976).

Robert Medredith

Beecher lays bare the class a caste system of the South with delicate inside knowledge, as in the images of "Fire By Night":

When the burnt black bodies of the homeless
Were found in the embers of the Negro church
Into which they had crept to sleep on the floor
The wails of the people traveled down the cold wind
And reached the ears of the rich on the mountain
Like the distant whistle of a fast train coming

These are wonderful lines, echoing Jeffeerson's phrase about slavery in the title, working with the doubleness of "burnt black bodies," suggesting by the diction of "homeless" and "crept" and even "embers" the suffering of the southern black poor, making contrasts by means of "wails" and "the cold wind," and in the last two lines moving with a sure control of the rhythm of the line to a "fast train coming." Not only does Beecher write as a prophetic and outraged advocate of Black humanity but as an apocalyptic critic of the everyday inhumanity of southern Whites, as did some of his ancestors. He specifically identifies himself with the Blacks as workers in the mills and mines of the South, and if the earliest poem in his Collected Poems is a clue ("Big Boy," 1924), he was writing proletarian poetry before proletarian poetry was born in the United States. This section of a nine part sequence called "Report to the Stockholders" will show the mode:

He fell off his crane
And his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
He lived a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
And then he died
And the safety clerk made out a report saying
It was carelessness
And the craneman should have known better
From twenty years experience
Than not to watch his step
And slip in some grease on top of his crane
And then the safety clerk told the superintendent
He’d ought to fix that guardrail

As much as one-fourth of Beecher’s poetry is in this mode which, with its invariable ironic structure showing the discrepancy between the official report and actual happening, is not my favorite Beecher. All the same, especially taken as a whole, it is a powerful, highly controlled writing which reveals and identifies with a class and a world unfamiliar to most readers of contemporary poetry.

From "Homage to a Subversive: Notes Toward Explaining John Beecher." In The American Poetry Review (1976).

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