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.
“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.
The history of the world was in Mr. Siegel’s mind as he asked, “Just what is the Negro woman, what has she been? It is not easy to say, because she did know how to be silent.” He continued, “We do know there have been Negro women lovely as anything. That is represented by a woman with a lovely name, Sojourner Truth. She ought to be known by everybody.” Mr. Siegel then read a poem which made me feel joyful and tearful at once. “Sister Lou” begins:
When de man
Calls out de las’ train
You’re gonna ride,
Tell him howdy.
Gather up yo’ basket
An’ yo’ knittin’ an’ yo’ things,
An’ go on up an’ visit
Wid frien’ Jesus fo’ a spell.
“Well, this is good,” commented Mr. Siegel. “It shows the desire of the human being to be folksy, personal, chatty with the great forces. This desire to make the unknown forces of the world comfortable for oneself is a large thing. It comes from mind and therefore says something about mind.” We could hear, in his poems, how kind the mind of Sterling Brown was, how much he wanted people to be seen with dignity. It is in this stanza:
Don’t be feared of them pearly gates,
Don’t go ’round to de back,
No mo’ dataway
Not evah no mo’.
It is difficult to describe in words the beauty with which Eli Siegel read these lines. Because of his great respect for the music of poetry and for people, he had a profound sweetness and love in his voice as he took on the black dialect; it had such ease and quiet grandeur. This is the final section of “Sister Lou,” and it is beautiful:
Jesus will lead you
To a room wid windows
Openin’ on cherry trees an’ plum trees
An’ dat will be yours
Den take yo’ time….
Honey, take yo’ bressed time.
Mr. Siegel looked next at Brown’s poem “Riverbank Blues.” “That poetry should have in it the blues and the Spenserian stanza,” he commented, “and the more complex verse as in Rimbaud and Hart Crane, say, is something to see. This is poetic, whatever else.”
A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood
No need for hopin’, no need for doin’,
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.
“Mud is a very big thing in America,” noted Mr. Siegel. “It’s been said that the purpose of a flood is to show the mighty power that lies in mud.” Of the first line of the poem, “A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,” Mr. Siegel said, “This line has stoppage in it, congestion,” and said it was like the sound in lines of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, but slower. “The word ‘get’ is used to express a fear of another power and has in it something sinister. As a person will say, ‘it’s got me.’” He read these lines:
“Better be movin’ . . . better be travellin’. . .
Riverbank’ll git you ef you stay. . . .”
Mr. Siegel mentioned that black persons have been given to religion. “The meaning of gaiety has some relation to religion,” he stated, and this can be seen in jazz. “Jazz is largely Negro,” he said. “Louis Armstrong at his truest, or Baby Dodds. . .did find the gaiety of the world become orderly and mighty sound.” Mr. Siegel then read a poem about “Sporting Beasley,” a man with gaiety and style. These are some of the lines I care for:
Oh, Jesus, when this brother’s bill falls due,
When he steps off the chariot
And flicks the dust from his patent leathers with his silk handkerchief
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Don’t make him dress up in no night gown, Lord.
Don’t put no fuss and feathers on his shoulders, Lord.
Let him know it’s heaven.
Let him keep his hat, his vest, his elkstooth, and everything.
Let him have his spats and cane.
Let him have his spats and cane.
“Well, this has some of the best sounds in American poetry,” said Mr. Siegel. “That style, that flash, that ease is just divine and should be honored in heaven. That line, ‘Let him have his spats and cane’ shows poetry has occurred in America.”
Mr. Siegel then read Brown’s sonnet, “Salutamus” (We Salute), about how black persons have been seen, and how they hope to be seen. “Since 1932,” said Mr. Siegel, “the meaning of ‘onward’ for the Negro has not been clearly seen. Every people is divided, but the Negroes are divided now, have differing points of view, different factions.” And he continued, “The Negro today is more cultured and also fiercer than ever, also more intellectual. In 1932,” when Southern Road was written, “things were bitter.” “Salutamus” begins:
The bitterness of days like these we know;
Much, much we know, yet cannot understand
What was our crime that such a searing brand
Not of our choosing, keeps us hated so.
“The Negro movement existed then,” Mr. Siegel explained. “It’s gone from Booker T. Washington to Stokely Carmichael and began, in ambiguity, perhaps, with Frederick Douglass. The Negro as such hasn’t been fully presented yet,” he continued. “There’s a feeling James Baldwin didn’t present everything.”
He then turned to Brown’s sonnet “Challenge,” which he said shows that black persons “go through the complexity [about love] we find in F. Scott Fitzgerald, or George Meredith. This is a good sonnet.” It begins:
I said, in drunken pride of youth and you,
That mischief-making Time would never dare
Play his ill-humored tricks upon us two,
Strange and defiant lovers that we were. . .
“There is a feeling among persons that what defeated others would not defeat them,” commented Mr. Siegel. He read these final lines:
We loved each other so.
And thus, with you believing me, I made
My prophecies, rebellious, unafraid. . .
And that was foolish, wasn’t it my dear?
“White and black have both had a hard time capturing happiness, and then having it stay captured,” said Mr. Siegel.
“So,” Mr. Siegel said, as he concluded this tremendously beautiful lecture, “I have read two kinds of poems that are in this book. In both instances we have goodness. The dialect poetry is generally more important.” And reading again the last stanza of the first poem, “Odyssey of Big Boy” and the lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” with which he began, he said,
In both instances there’s a going for something good, powerful, kind about existence as such, through a person. . . .In the lines of Sterling Brown and Tennyson, there is a looking for some conclusion that can satisfy honestly in this world. Tennyson talks about it perhaps in a greater way, but the way Sterling Brown talks about it is poetic, and I won’t say that greatness is absent.
And he said,
Poetry shows the mind of man. . . and consequently, I think this book is worth knowing. It shows a Negro writing in unquestionable poetry in two modes, primitive and cultured as anything, and also it shows that mind includes the Negro and the Negro includes mind, and when we know that, there won’t be any folk we’ll be unfair to.
I believe Eli Siegel saw and understood the undeniable universality of all people more truly, and honored their difference more deeply, than any person had before. It is this way of seeing, kind and true, that the world has been waiting for.
*Note: When this lecture was given in 1966, African-Americans used the term “Negro” to identify themselves. That is why Mr. Siegel uses this term in the lecture.