Eli Siegel on Sterling Brown’s Southern Road, 1932

Part 2   •   Click here to read Part 1

(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.)

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
Bloomin’ everlastin’.

An’ dat will be yours
Fo’ keeps.

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.

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