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1934: the date is an approximation, but the poem, "Beaufort Tides," is a depression era poem by John Beecher (1904-1980), who became a poet and a rebel while working twelve-hour shifts at an open hearth steel furnace in Birmingham, Alabama. His fellow workers include both whites and blacks, and he writes poems about their lives and about the historical and economic determination of their suffering from the mid-1920s until the end of his life. It is first the steel workers themselves he focuses on, both in a neutral language of flat description ("a ladle burned through / and he got a shoeful of steel") and in dialect ("Henry Matthews was a blas furnace man / He slung a sledge an he shovel san"). Then the depression broadens his focus to all the southern poor. Finally, in poems like "Beaufort Tides," Beecher takes up the layering and mutual implication of past and present in race relations in the American South. It is as if the material ruin of the depression becomes a figure for a violent, oppressive, and still powerfully determining history that is never far from consciousness. From the slave trade through emancipation and beyond, whites and blacks were bound together. Now neither has much ground for hope; a history that might free them of their past is almost beyond imagination . . . It is the nation as a whole, of course, that is invoked in the poem's final lines. To read the poem now is once again, to realize how current many supposedly "topical" political poems remain. The sense of a contemporaneity layered with history is achieved partly with a deliberately mixed Anglo-Saxon vernacular and latinate diction. "Blood," "fear," "hope," and "shout" coexist and clash with "scavenging," "colonnaded," "destiny," and "jubilee." Despite the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we cannot predict what tide might remove the burden of our history.

Beecher's poem, notably, reflects not only his Southern upbringing but also a general movement among white poets during the 1930s. Responding both to the inspiration provided by African American poets in the previous decade and to the Communist Party's insistent emphasis on race and attacks on racial injustice, white poets by the end of the 1920s were beginning to write not only about black history but also about the problematics of whiteness. 


From Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, Copyright © Routledge 2001.