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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).