Maxwell Geismar: On John Beecher's Poetry

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Maxwell Geismar: On John Beecher's Poetry Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Maxwell Geismar Criticism Target John Beecher
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Apr 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy
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