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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).