Criticism On For My People
Stephen Vincent Benét, Editor
Excerpt from the Foreword to For My People
Straightforwardness, directness, reality are good things to find in a young poet. It is rarer to find them combined with a controlled intensity of emotion and a language that, at times, even when it is most modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry. And it is obvious that Miss Walker uses that language because it comes naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A contemporary writer, living in a contemporary world, when she speaks of and for her people older voices are mixed with hers--the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who preached the Word, the anonymous voices of many who lived and were forgotten and yet out of bondage and hope made a lasting music. Miss Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices--I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving poetry because it was written by a Negro. It is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage--and poetry must exist in its own right. These poems keep on talking to you after the book is shut because, out of deep feeling, Miss Walker has made living and passionate speech.
"We Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For My People"--they are full of the rain and the sun that fall upon the faces and shoulders of her people, full of the bitter questioning and the answers not yet found, the pride and the disillusion and the reality. It is difficult for me to read these poems unmoved--I think it will be difficult for others. Yet it is not only the larger problems of her "playmates in the clay and dust" that interest Margaret Walker--she is interested in people wherever they are. In the second section of her book you will find ballads and portraits--figures of legend, like John Henry and Stagolee and the uncanny Molly Means--figures of realism like Poppa Chicken and Teacher and Gus, the Lineman, who couldn't die--figures of "old Man River, round New Orleans, with her gumbo, rice, and good red beans." They are set for voice and the blues, they could be sung as easily as spoken. And, first and last, they are a part of our earth.
Miss Walker can write formal verse as well; she can write her own kind of sonnet. But, in whatever medium she is working, the note is true and unforced. There is a deep sincerity in all these poems--a sincerity at times disquieting. For this is what one American has found and seen--this is the song of her people, of her part of America. You cannot deny its honesty, you cannot deny its candor. And this is not far away or long ago--this is part of our nation, speaking.
From Stephen Vincent Benét, foreword, For My People, by Margaret Walker, Yale Series of Younger Poets. 41. ed. Stephen Vincent Benét (New Haven: Yale UP, 1942) 5-6.
Excerpt from "The Atlantic Bookshelf"
It is often argued that the critic's business is to judge poetry entirely as poetry; but poetry cannot exist apart from its subject matter, and most of the subject matter of this volume has a specific interest. It evokes immediately in the reader the whole social and human situation in America between the colored and the white peoples.
Miss Walker speaks in a variety of verse forms. The poem which gives its name to the volume uses a chanting rhythm, Biblical in pattern but entirely modern in vocabulary; there is a section of rhyming ballads, creating character sketches of figures of legend or reality; and there are original experiments in the sonnet form. All have a peculiar genuineness of tone quality--the quality of the speaking voice, not of literary artifice.
From Elizabeth Drew, "The Atlantic Bookshelf," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1942: 166.
Excerpts from "Songs for a Journey"
[Whipple reviews Edna St. Vincent Millay's The Murder of Lidice, Margaret Walker's For My People, Franklin P. Adams' Innocent Merriment, and Alfred Noyes' The Edge of the Abyss.]
Chant and ballad, ode and elegy and hymn--we stand in need of such communal poetry, of songs that will release our emotions and voice our hope for the union of peoples, after war. We do not mean battle-songs or paeans of victory, but the poems that become our common prayer. The poetry we seek--and know not where to find--is that of the true maker who can, by the power of his feeling and the glory of his word, sum up the national ethos, and the national suffering, and bestow upon the heroic event a universal and timeless meaning. The communal poets of the Bible created a people and a faith. Whittier and Walt Whitman and Lincoln, the poet, spoke a vision for America. Today, the occasions for poetry are supreme and worldwide, not in the deeds, but in the spirit of men: in the men of Dunkirk and the people of Russia, in all the Expendables, in the tragedy of refugee and guerilla. Is not the dream of the four freedoms worth celebration? Do not the very words, United Nations, challenge an ode of a poet of the inter-nation, from China, or India?
Prose will not do--even though Mr. Churchill, not as war-leader, but as voice of the British people in peril, spoke with magnificent eloquence, and Vice-President Wallace proclaimed the noble creed within many hearts. The journalist has recorded better than ever before the courage and sacrifice of plain men, but his words fade with the day. The advertiser, publicity man, and propagandist, rouse our emotions, but for small or ephemeral ends. We distrust them, and the politician, even when they speak truth.
The people now discipline themselves to endure in silence, with the stoic courage that is ever their glory. Men go to war, into silence, and silence fills their homes. What man or woman can say what each suffers? The poet can, and can offer catharsis for the emotions that endanger the spirit. We need the comfort of sharing in communal hymns that may soften loss and endow senseless death with meaning. The poet can restore our faith and vision. Poets are the final creators of morale.
. . .
The poems of Margaret Walker of Alabama are communal singing, distilled from the long suffering of her race, that holds in memory the bitter past--and questions today. This is American poetry for Americans, and beyond, for all races that suffer in bonds, the disinherited of the earth who seek now their heritage. What modern lines hold deeper meaning than these?
The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist;
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There is a journey from the me to you.
There is the a journey from the you to me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.
That is universal poetry--Asia and Africa echo this plea. What a proof of the miraculous power of impassioned language! What a mystery of Providence that this young girl can speak for millions! Because she does not speak for herself.
This wisdom has deep roots, deeper in southern life than the roots of its people, she declares, because of her communion through blood and bone with sun and earth. From the Delta the blood-line runs back "to the tropical lands of my birth that, on return to Mobile, may reconcile the pride and pain in me." With this emotion she composed the title poem, "For My People," an epitome of Negro sufferings and weakness, both a history, and an indictment. Again she speaks for many Peoples: "trying to fashion a world that will hold all people, all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations."
The verse form is compressed, yet free. This poet returns to the Bible. "The controlled intensity of emotion and the language have something of the surge of biblical poetry," says Stephen Vincent Benét, in his fine introduction to this volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The spirituals, too, have lessoned her tongue, and the personal ballad and work song to which she gives a sardonic moral twist in the odd characters of Molly Means or Bad-Man Stagolee. She has confronted life in streets and fields, and by her genius enlarges experience into universal symbols that arouse emotion. Such poems can help save the future from the past.
From Leon Whipple, "Songs for a Journey," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, Survey Graphic, Dec. 1942: 599.
Excerpts from "Let My People Grow!"
Margaret Walker, the young colored woman whose poems are the latest to be included in the series [Yale Series of Younger Poets], comes forth, however, with the anachronous assumption that poets are entitled to be heard on the problems of living in a real, hard-time world of depression and war. She speaks for a minority group, the one to which she belongs, to the majority; and it would be interesting, if one had the leisure and inclination, to compare her findings--arrived at intuitively--with those of the surveys.
Miss Walker, for example, looks forward to the evolution of "The Great Society" in a "world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams and Eves and their countless generations." She sees her people rebelling against hypocrisy--meaning, presumably, against the dissimulation by which the bitter, offended black man is often forced to live in some sections. She marks a struggle between pride and pain, the near-hopeless task of trying to maintain dignity under indignities. And she pins the blame for all the distress on the "money-hungry, glory-craving leeches." Simply put, her complaint is that her people are deceived and cheated.
The Negro's progress, so called, his quick achievement, his contribution to music, and all of that, leave Miss Walker quite cold.
[. . . .]
Yet there is anything but despair in "For My People":
Now the needy no longer weep
and pray; the long-suffering arise,
and our fists bleed against the bars
with a strange insistency.
[. . . .]
The ballads and sonnets of the second and third sections of this book are interesting for other reasons. They show that preoccupation with the greater problems of her "playmates in the clay and dust" have in no wise detracted from Margaret Walker's understanding of their folk ways. She has a genuine sympathy for low-down folks like "Molly Means," "Poppa Chicken," and "Kissie Lee."
From Arna Bontemps, "Let My People Grow!," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, The New York Herald Tribune Books 3 Jan. 1943: 3.
Excerpt from "Cream of the Verse"
[For my People was one of eleven books reviewed by Louis Untermeyer in the following article.]
Margaret Walker's "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year's selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the competitive honor. The title is not only apt but more than ordinarily expressive. These are poems which reflect the individual and a race, poems in which the body and spirit of a great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity. The book is by no means flawless. The sonnets in the third section are loosely rhetorical and, for the most part, commonplace. The dialect verses which compose the second section are faltering imitations of gutter blues, swaggering ballads, and hearty folk-stuff; they read like nothing so much as Langston Hughes turned soft or Paul Laurence Dunbar turned sour.
The first section of Miss Walker's first book is verse of quite another genre. It is emotional but seldom hysterical, disillusioned but not easily despondent; it is sharply contemporary and grimly unflinching. Its occasional crudities, its over-ready reliance on clichés are more than balanced by the firm candor and the intensity--an intensity so racially deep and so personally affecting that it must move any but a determinedly careless, or callous, reader.
From Louis Untermeyer, "Cream of the Verse," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, The Yale Review 32 (1943): 370-71.
Excerpts from "The Poetry of Margaret Walker"
Simply and directly, she [Walker] speaks for the Negro, North and South, . . .
. . .
--It is her acceptance of difference, and her ability to put it in its proper place, without posing, without forcing a role of Negro poet in distinction to any other kind of poet which gives her freshness of content, and the promise of becoming an important voice in American poetry. This first section shows rather well that she has comprehended and accepted her role as artist and artisan, and met the challenge of her specific situation in an adequate fashion.
The second section of the book, composed of ballads, is less fortunate. The ballads are, as academic artifacts, rather remarkable. They are part of the equipment of the technical virtuoso, proof that Miss Walker can write ballads as well as her own forms. But the writer who attempts the imitation of traditional, popular forms is perilously close to the writer who does an imitation of Shakespeare's sonnets. It is possible for the replica to be excellent, qua replica, but the division between artistic creation and the fashioning of reproductions is a rather classic one.
[. . . .]
The six sonnets which conclude the volume are additional evidence of the writer's ability. Better than the ballads, they convey the strength of the first part of the volume. One wonders, considering her use of these three different forms, if Miss Walker is trying to demonstrate a facility with verse-forms, or is a bit unsure of herself. The latter ought not to be true: she has written a distinguished first volume, which is at once a promise of things to come, and an achievement in itself.
From George Zabriskie, "The Poetry of Margaret Walker," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, The Saturday Review of Literature, 11 Sept. 1943: 19.
Richard K. Barksdale
Excerpts from "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy"
Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa--the master's degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1966--were granted because of her achievements in creative writing. Her first volume of poems, For My People (1942), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and helped her to gain the master's degree; her prize- winning novel, Jubilee, fulfilled the central requirement for the doctorate. But Margaret Walker's poetry is quite different from that written by Hayden or Tolson. Many of Hayden's poems are full of intellectual subtleties and elusive symbols that often baffle and bewilder the reader. Harlem Gallery, by Tolson, is often intellectually complex and obscure in meaning. Margaret Walker's poetry, on the other hand, is clear and lucid throughout, with sharply etched images and symbols presented in well-formed ballads and sonnets. It is now clear in retrospect that Hayden and Tolson were influenced by the academic poets of the 1930s and 1940s--Ciardi, Tate, Lowell, Wilbur, Auden, Dickey. Their poetry has an academic gloss, suggesting richly endowed libraries in the sophisticated suburbs of learning. Only rarely do they seem sensitized to problems and dilemmas confounding an unintellectualized, urbanized, and racially pluralistic America, a concern which dominates Margaret Walker's poetry.
Although Walker, too, spent all of her days in academia, she was never as a writer held captive by it. An analysis of her poetry reveals that in subject, tone, and esthetic texture, it is remarkably free of intellectual pretense and stylized posturing. One finds instead the roots of the Black experience in language simple, passionate, and direct. . . .
[ . . . . ]
The title poem [of For My People] is itself a singular and unique literary achievement. First, it is magnificently wrought oral poetry. It must be read aloud; and, in reading it aloud, one must be able to breathe and pause, pause and breathe preacher-style. One must be able to sense the ebb and flow of the intonations. One must be able to hear the words sing, when the poet spins off parallel clusters like
. . . the gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing
plowing digging planting pruning patching dragging along.
This is the kind of verbal music found in a well-delivered down-home folk sermon, and, as such, the poem achieves what James Weldon Johnson attempted to do in God's Trombones: fuse the written word with the spoken word. In this sense the reader is imaginatively set free to explore what Shelley called the beautiful "unheard melody" of a genuine poetic experience. The passage is also significant in its emphasis on repetitive "work" words describing the age-old labors of Black people. The activities are as old as slavery--slavery in the "big house" or slavery in the fields. Adding "ing" to these monosyllabic word-verbs suggests the dreary monotony of Black labor in slave times and in free times. Without the "ing," they remain command words--enforcing words, backed up by a white enforcing power structure. And behind the command has always lurked the whip or the gun or the overseer or the Captain or the boss or Mr. Charlie or Miss Ann. Indeed, Black laborers, long held captive by Western capitalism, were forced to work without zeal or zest--just "Dragging along." Somehow they remained outside the system of profit and gain; no profits accrued to them for their labor; thus, they dragged along, "never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding." In just these few lines, Margaret Walker performs a premier poetic function: she presents a succinct historical summary of how the Black man slipped into an economic and social quagmire when, first as a slave and then as a quasi-free man, he was forced to cope with the monster of European capitalistic enterprise.
Not only does For My People have word power, but it is a poem filled with subtle juxtapositions of thought and idea. When the scene shifts from the rural South to the urban North-- to "thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New York"--the poet describes her people as "lost disinherited dispossessed and happy people." At another point, they are depicted as "walking blindly spreading joy." This Donnesque yoking of opposites linking happiness with dispossession and blind purposelessness with joy reveals the depth of Margaret Walker's understanding of the complexities of the Black experience. In fact, the poet here is writing about the source of the Black peoples' blues, for out of their troubled past and turbulent present came the Black peoples' song--a music and a song that guarantee that happiness and joy will somehow always be found lurking behind the squalor of the ghetto or behind the misery of the quarters or in some sharecropper's windowless cabin in the flood-drenched lowlands. For whenever there is trouble, a Bessie Smith or a Ma Rainey or a Bill Broonzy or a B.B. King or someone with the gift of song will step forward to sing it away. . . .
[ . . . . ]
Although one cannot say that the rest of the poems in Margaret Walker's initial volume meets the same criteria for high poetic quality, they reflect the young poet's sense of "word power" and her sharp awareness of the importance of Black orature. The poems in Part II contain a series of Black folk portraits--Poppa Chicken, Kissee Lee, Yallah Hammuh. In many of these, one can trace the influence of Langston Hughes' 1927 volume of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, which contained many verses portraying Black folk and celebrating the Black urban life style. Indeed both Poppa Chicken and Teacher remind one of Hughes' "Sweet Papa Vester" in that poet's "Sylvester's Dying Bed." All three are sweet men--men who pimp for a living and generally walk on the shady side of the street. There are differences, however, between the Hughes portrait and those by Margaret Walker. Hughes' version is comically objective. Nowhere does the author obtrude an opinion in the brief story line, and everything, as in any good comic routine, is grossly exaggerated. As he lies dying, "Sweet Papa Vester" is surrounded by "all the wimmens in town"--"a hundred pretty mamas"--Blacks and 'brown-skins" all moaning and crying. On the other hand, both "Poppa Chicken" and "Teacher," written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter, lack the broad comic touch one sees in the Hughes poem. In fact, the protagonist is a "bad dude" and not to be taken lightly . . .
[ . . . . ]
Three other poems in Part II of For My People, "Kissee Lee," "Long John and Sweetie Pie," and "Yallah Hummuh" reflect a Hughesian influence. Although all three are written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter that Hughes never used in his Black folk portraits, they all reveal a finely controlled and well-disciplined narrative technique. There is just enough compression of incident and repetitive emphasis to provoke and sustain the reader's interest. And all of the characters--Long John, Sweetie Pie, Kissee Lee, and Yalluh Hamma--come from the "low-down" social stratum where, Hughes believed, Black men and women lived in accordance with a life style that was to be treasured simply because it was distinctively Black. Theirs is an environment filled with heroic violence, flashing knives, Saturday night liquor fights, and the magnificent turbulence of a blues-filled weekend of pleasure and joy. . . .
[ . . . . ]
The ballad "Long John Nelson and Sweetie Pie" presents another story which has been repeated many times in Black folklore--the story of a very stressful romantic relationship that ends in disappointment, separation, grief, and death. There is the inevitable triangle involving Long John, who is ever a lover, but never a laborer; Sweetie Pie, who cooks real good and eats far too well; and a "yellow girl," who has "coal black hair" and "took Long John clean away / From Sweetie Pie one awful day." The brief story ends when Sweetie Pie, her lover gone, wastes away and dies. To historians and literary scholars, it is a story of small, almost mean, insignificance; but to a Black folk poet interested in the rich orature of her people, this little story opened another window on the world of the Black experience.
[ . . . . ]
One other poem in this section of For My People merits some comment. "Molly Means" is a well-crafted poetical description of a "hag and a witch; Chile of the devil, the dark, and sitch." . . . What is interesting about this poem is that it was written in the mid-1930s, shortly after the period known as the Harlem Renaissance had drawn to a Depression-induced end, but in no way does the poem reflect, in theme or in style, the poetry of that period. Like the title poem of the award-winning volume, "Molly Means" speaks with a new voice in Black American poetry. It is not a poem of racial or romantic protest, nor does it ring with social or political rhetoric. Rather it is a poem that probes the imaginative vistas where witches and elfins dwell--a poem that demands "a willing suspension of disbelief." And, as indicated above, "Molly Means," in its balladic simplicity, is a far cry from the carefully cerebrated poetical statements coming from poets of the academy during the mid-1930s.
From Richard K. Barksdale, "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 104-17.
R. Baxter Miller
Excerpts from "The 'Intricate Design' of Margaret Walker:
Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History"
Margaret Walker learned about Moses and Aaron from the Black American culture into which she was born. As the daughter of a religious scholar, she came of age in the Depression of the thirties, and her career, like those of Margaret Danner, Dudley Randall, and Gwendolyn Brooks, has spanned three or four decades. Much of her important work, like theirs, has been neglected, coming as it does between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Most indices to literature, Black American and American, list only one article on Margaret Walker from 1971 through 1981.1
Walker knew the important figures of an older generation, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. She heard Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes sing, and she numbered among her acquaintances Zora Neale Hurston, George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois. What does the richness of the culture give her? She finds the solemn nobility of religious utterance, the appreciation for the heroic spirit of Black folk, and the deep respect for craft.2 . . . She knew, too, Willard Motley, Fenton Johnson, and Arna Bontemps. Walker's lifetime represents continuity. From a youthful researcher for [Richard] Wright, she matured into an inspirational teacher at Jackson State University, where she preserved the spirit of her forerunners, the intellect and the flowing phrase, but she still belongs most with the Black poets whose careers span the last forty years. Her strengths are not the same as theirs. Margaret Danner's poetry has a quiet lyricism of peace, a deeply controlled introspection. No one else shows her delicacy of alliteration and her carefully framed patterns. Dudley Randall's success comes from the ballad, whose alternating lines of short and longer rhythms communicate the racial turmoil of the sixties. He profits from a touching and light innocence as well as a plea and longing for the child's inquiring voice. Purity for him, too, marks an eternal type.
In For My People Walker develops this and other paradigms in three sections . . . . The reader experiences initially the tension and potential of the Black South; then the folk tale of both tragic possibility and comic relief involving the curiosity, trickery, and deceit of men and women alike; finally, the significance of physical and spiritual love in reclaiming the Southern land. Walker writes careful antinomies into the visionary poem, the folk secular, and the Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets. She opposes quest to denial, historical circumstances to imaginative will, and earthly suffering to heavenly bliss. Her poetry purges the Southern ground of animosity and injustice that separate Black misery from Southern song. Her themes are time, infinite human potential, racial equality, vision, blindness, love, and escape, as well as worldly death, drunkenness, gambling, rottenness, and freedom. She pictures the motifs within the frames of toughness and abuse, of fright and gothic terror. Wild arrogance for her speakers often underlies heroism, which is often more imagined than real.
The myth of human immortality expressed in oral tale and in literary artifact transcends death. The imagination evokes atemporal memory, asserts the humanistic self against the fatalistic past, and illustrates, through physical love, the promise of both personal and racial reunification. The achievement is syntactic. Parallelism, elevated rhetoric, simile, and figure of speech abound, but more deeply the serenity of nature creates solemnity. Walker depicts sun, splashing brook, pond, duck, frog, and stream, as well as flock, seed, wood, bark, cotton field, and cane. Still, the knife and gun threaten the pastoral world as, by African conjure, the moral "we" attempts to reconcile the two. As both the participant and observer, Walker creates an ironic distance between history and eternity. The Southern experience in the first section and the reclamation in the second part frame the humanity of folk personae Stagolee, John Henry, Kissee Lee, Yallah Hammer, and Gus. The book becomes a literary artifact, a "clean house" that imaginatively restructures the Southland.
But if Dudley Randall has written "The Ballad of Birmingham" and Gwendolyn Brooks "The Children of the Poor," Walker succeeds with the visionary poem.4 She does not portray the gray-haired old women who nod and sing out of despair and hope on Sunday morning, but she captures the depths of their suffering. She recreates their belief that someday Black Americans will triumph over fire hoses and biting dogs, once the brutal signs of white oppression in the South. The prophecy contributes to Walker's rhythmical balance and vision, but she controls the emotions. How does one change brutality into social equality? Through sitting down at a lunch counter in the sixties, Black students illustrated some divinity and confronted death, just as Jesus faced his cross. Walker deepens the portraits by using biblical typology, by discovering historical antitypes, and by creating an apocalyptic fusion.5 Through the suffering in the Old and New Testaments, the title poem of For My People expresses Black American victory over deprivation and hatred. The ten stanzas celebrate the endurance of tribulations such as dark murders in Virginia and Mississippi as well as Jim Crowism, ignorance, and poverty. The free form includes the parallelism of verbs and the juxtaposition of the present with the past. Black Americans are "never gaining, never reaping, never knowing and never understanding."6 When religion faces reality, the contrast creates powerful reversal:
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to be
man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and play and
drink their wine and religion and success, to marry their play-
mates and bear children and then die of consumption and anemia
Through biblical balance, "For My People" sets the white oppressor against the Black narrator. Social circumstance opposes racial and imaginative will, and disillusion opposes happiness. Blacks fashion a new world that encompasses many faces and people, "all the adams and eves and their countless generations." From the opening dedication (Stanza 1) to the final evocation (Stanza 10) the prophet-narrator speaks both as Christ and God. Ages ago, the Lord put His rainbow in the clouds. To the descendants of Noah it signified His promise that the world would never again end in flood. Human violence undermines biblical calm, as the first word repeats itself: "Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody-peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth."
[ . . . . ]
The religious types in the second and third sections of For My People rival neither those in the first section nor those in Prophets for a New Day. When Walker ignores biblical sources, often she vainly attempts to achieve cultural saturation.7 Without biblical cadences her ballads frequently become average, if not monotonous. In "Yalluh Hammer," a folk poem about the "Bad Man," she manages sentimentality, impractical concern, and trickery, as a Black woman outsmarts the protagonist and steals his money.
1. See Paula Giddings, "Some Themes in the Poetry of Margaret Walker," Black World (Dec. 1971), 20-34. Although it fails to emphasize the importance of literary form, the essay gives a general impression of historical background and literary tradition. (back to text)
2. See Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni, A Poetic Equation: Conversations (Washington, D.C.: Howard Univ. Press, 1974), 56. Through logic Walker has the better of the friendly argument. (back to text)
4. Poems mentioned, other than those by Walker, are available in Dudley Randall, The Black Poets (New York: Bantam, 1971). (back to text)
5. See Joseph Greenborg, Language Typology (The Hague: Mouton, 1974); Paul J. Korshin, "The Development of Abstracted Typology in England, 1650-1820," in Literary Uses of Typology, ed. Earl Miner (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977); Mason I. Lawrance, "Introduction," The Figures or Types of the Old Testament (New York: Johnson, 1969); Roland Bartel, "The Bible in Negro Spirituals," in ibid.; Sacvan Bercovitch, Typology and American Literature (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972); Emory Elliott, "From Father to Son," in Literary Uses, ed. Miner; Theodore Ziolkowski, "Some Features of Religious Figuralism in Twentieth Century Literature," in Literary Uses, ed. Miner; Ursula Brumm, American Thought and Religious Typology (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970). (back to text)
6. Primary texts used are Margaret Walker, For My People (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977) and Margaret Walker, Prophets for a New Day (Detroit: Broadside, 1970). (back to text)
7. See Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: William Morrow, 1973), 62-66. (back to text)
From R. Baxter Miller, "The 'Intricate Design' of Margaret Walker: Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 118-35.
Excerpt from the "Introduction" to The Yale Younger Poets Anthology
Published in October 1942, the forty-first book in the [Yale Younger Poets] series, Walker's For My People went through six cloth editions with Yale and has been in print elsewhere ever since. Like [Muriel] Rukeyser's volume, For My People, has had an impact on a wide spectrum of writers. Readers often react to Walker's book as they do to Whitman's Leaves of Grass (a book that strongly influenced her), feeling that if it speaks for one people, yet it speaks to people everywhere, engaging each of us on grounds at once aesthetic and moral. For My People is standard in black studies curricula, but writers involved in the agon of social change in all areas have taken it to heart. Walker's book is expressly concerned with racial constraint, but it has traveled beyond ethnic barriers.
From George Bradley, introduction, The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, ed. George Bradley (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) l.
Margaret Walker's signature poem is "For My People." Widely anthologized in Black collections and often read at dramatic presentations, it is the work most closely associated with her name. Some years ago, when I was involved in compiling an anthology of ethnic literature for high schools, the editor (white) refused to permit us to include this poem. It was too militant, he said. The man was unutterably wise: the poem thrusts to the heart of Black experience and suggests a solution that would topple him and the culture he represents from its position of power. White response to African American literature is often, and for obvious reasons, diametric to Black response; this poem is indeed a case in point.
"For My People" exemplifies Walker's use of Black myth and ritual. The poem first evokes the two mechanisms which have never been a source of strength to Black folk: music and religion. But even in the first stanza is implied a need to move beyond historical roles, for the "slave songs" are sung "repeatedly," the god (lower case) to whom the people pray is "unknown," and the people humble themselves to "an unseen power." Then the poem catalogues the rituals of the toil which consumes the life of the people, hopeless toil which never enables one to get ahead and never yields any answers. The stanza jams the heavy tasks together without commas to separate them, making them all into one conglomerate burden: "washing, ironing, cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting . . . . " The poem rushes by, as indeed life rushes by when one must labor "never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding. . . ."
Walker now changes focus from the general to the specific--to her playmates, who are, by extension, all Black children playing the games which teach them their reality--"baptizing and preaching and doctor and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking and playhouse and concert and store and hair and Miss Choomby and company . . . . " She shows us the children growing up to a woeful miseducation in school, which bewilders rather than teaches them, until they discover the overwhelming and bitter truth that they are "black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood . . . ." The children grow, however, to manhood and womanhood; they live out their lives until they "die of consumption and anemia and lynching.
The poem then returns to the wide angle of "my people" and continues its sweep of Black experience, cataloguing the troubled times wrought by racism.
The form of the first nine stanzas supports their message. Rather than neat little poetic lines, they consist of long, heavily weighted paragraphs inversely indented. The words and phrases cataloguing the rituals of trouble are separated by "and . . . and . . . and." There is little punctuation. Each stanza begins with a "for" phrase followed by a series of modifiers. Finally the long sentence, with its burden of actions and conditions, ends with one short, simple clause which leaves the listener gasping: "Let a new earth rise." Five words. Strong words, each one accented. Five words, bearing the burden of nine heavy stanzas, just as Black people have long borne the burden of oppression.
The final stanza is a reverberating cry for redress. It demands a new beginning. Our music then will be martial music; our peace will be hard-won, but it will be "written in the sky." And after the agony, the people whose misery spawned strength will control our world.
This poem is the hallmark of Margaret Walker's works. It echoes in her subsequent poetry and even in her monumental novel Jubilee. It speaks to us, in our words and rhythms, of our history, and it radiates the promise of our future. It is the quintessential example of myth and ritual shaped by artistic genius.
From "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evan. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Anchor Press.
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