Report of a lecture by Eli Siegel on the importance of the African-American poet Sterling A. Brown
I tell here about a lecture by Eli Siegel that I believe is one of the important events in the history of justice to humanity and to poetry: Man Is Poetically Shown in Southern Road, 1932, given on November 25, 1966. It is an honor to be able to study and report on this mighty lecture, in which Mr. Siegel spoke about what he said was “the best book of poems by a Negro* in American literature,” Southern Road, by Sterling A. Brown. [*Note: At the time when this lecture was given, this was the term African-American persons used to describe themselves.]
“The question that comes up,” said Mr. Siegel, “is whether this book has some of the poetry of America in it, and some of the poetry that other books by authors more known have not had.” And he continued, placing this book in the field of contemporary poetry, “In the same way that Brown is better than T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Alan Ginsburg, so he’s better than Negroes like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.”
This critical statement is based on the way Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism see poetry, which I am grateful to be studying in the Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry Class, taught by Ellen Reiss. According to Aesthetic Realism, when a poem is authentic, is good, it is because the world’s aesthetic structure—the opposites—has been seen and presented truly by the poet. The great sign that this seeing has occurred, Mr. Siegel has explained, is poetic music. And in this lecture, he showed that Brown’s poems have music.
Commenting on the importance of this book, he said, “This is the one good book I know with a name that matches the quality of Negro work without names—that is, the spirituals.” Mr. Siegel explained that an important question black writers have is whether they should write in dialect. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “the Negro dialect, like the Yiddish dialect, the German dialect, the Irish dialect, adds something to English, and there are certain effects that couldn’t be had without it.”
“Sterling Brown,” said Mr. Siegel, “is unusual insofar as he has an ease with Negro rhythm—that is the best way of putting it—and he is also one of the most cultured Negroes who has ever lived; he went to Harvard and taught at Howard University.” Throughout the lecture, Mr. Siegel showed how these two aspects of Brown were in the poems in Southern Road, some written in black dialect, others in classic English form, and related him in many ways to the history of poetry.
The first poem, said Mr. Siegel, is famous. “Odyssey of Big Boy,” like Homer’s Odyssey, is about the hero’s travels. “There’s a quality in Negro literature of largeness, physical might,” noted Mr. Siegel. “In the same way that Greek literature couldn’t do without Hercules and Ajax, Negro literature has something hearty, broad-chested, gay in its power. The phrase ‘big boy’ in itself is poetry,” said Mr. Siegel. It’s one of the most cheerful phrases.”
In the final stanza of the poem, Brown mentions John Henry of American legend, the black steel driver working on railroads. “He is large,” said Mr. Siegel. “That wouldn’t matter, except that Sterling Brown, as a man of Harvard, has a true rhythm; everyone should hope that if there is such a thing as true rhythm, one gets nearer and nearer to it.” And in the way Eli Siegel read these moving lines, persons in the class could feel this deep, true rhythm:
An’ all that Big Boy axes
When time comes fo’ to go,
Lemme be wid John Henry, steel drivin’ man,
Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo,
Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo.
“This is one of the beautiful stanzas in American poetry,” commented Mr. Siegel. “As I read this, a certain effect that can be called bodily occurs. There’s that mingling of softness and strength that poetry goes after.” Mr. Siegel then showed the relation of this stanza from “Odyssey of Big Boy” to lines great in English poetry, from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which tell of Ulysses or Odysseus—hero of Homer’s Odyssey—wanting to meet Achilles. “Jazzbo here corresponds to Achilles,” explained Mr. Siegel. “These lines have that bodily quality too. The body here has courage.”
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
“These lines are large as John Henry is large,” said Mr. Siegel. “Persons are against smallness. The most outstanding example of mind gone wrong is smallness, cheapness, pettiness. We are for largeness, and Jazzbo and John Henry have largeness.”
He then read sections from Brown’s poem, “When the Saints Go Ma’chin’ Home.” “It means all the good people when they get their reward,” he said, and explained, “Mind would just love to strut and be sure of itself and go marching.” He read:
There’d be—so ran his dream—
“Old Deacon Zachary
With de asthmy in his chest
A puffin’ an’ a wheezin’
Up de golden stair
Wid de badges of his lodges
Strung acrost his heavin’ breast
An’ de hoggrease jest shinin’
In his coal-black hair. . .”
“Well, that’s mighty good,” commented Mr. Siegel. “We have this line so stodgy, so earthy—‘Wid de badges of his lodges’—it’s lovely.” He continued, “This is part of man’s desire to assert himself, which the Negro has. To see that strut,” he said, “—well, that’s poetry. This is some of the best writing in America.”
Mr. Siegel then read a poem, “Mister Samuel and Sam,” which he said “shows you can be in a different economic class from a person and still have the same general problems. There’s discord here, and dissonance, which is very taking,” commented Mr. Siegel. The poem has this stanza:
Mister Samuel drinks his Canadian Rye,
Sam drinks his bootleg gin;
Both gits high as a Georgia pine;
And both calls de doctor in.
He read the final stanza, so deep and so wide, which stirred me very much:
Mister Samuel die, an’ de folks all know,
Sam die widout no noise;
De worl’ go by in de same ol’ way,
And dey’s both of ’em po’ los’ boys. . .
“This kind of sound occurs in primitive poetry,” said Mr. Siegel, “with those 3 long syllables: ‘po’ los’ boys’—it’s in “Casey Jones,” with the phrase, ‘Salt Lake Line’.”
People in the class commented later about how, as Eli Siegel looked closely at many of the poems from this book by Sterling Brown, and was strictly fair to their structure, their meaning, and their poetic value, he was showing a comprehension of black persons in America unparalleled in history. Ellen Reiss commented, “Eli Siegel’s seeing of what a poem is, is the same as his seeing of what humanity is. Any person hearing this would know that they were listening to the one person in history simply devoid of prejudice.” As a teacher of literature, I am very grateful to be learning from Aesthetic Realism how to see both people and poetry in a way that is true and just.