Poet #5: Sterling Brown

Sterling Brown

“[T]he sincere, sensitive artist, willing to go beneath the cliches of popular belief to get at an underlying reality, will be wary of confining a race’s entire characters to a half-dozen narrow grooves.”
— Sterling Brown


(© unknown)

The African American poetic tradition spans over 200 years and features many celebrated artists, such as Phillis Wheatley – a slave at seven-years-old and the first published African American poet; Robert HaydenUS Poet Laureate and one of the genre’s great scholars; Gwendolyn Brooks – another US Poet Laureate and advocate for public readings; and Derek Walcott – winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for literature, just to name a few. In their collection, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton assembled the works of 50 essential contributors. What may surprise many readers is how much attention is paid to a poet too often overlooked, a man whose whose efforts birthed the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movements. I refer to Mr. Sterling Brown.

“From the ‘adopt’ and ‘adapt’ phases of African American poetry – its adoption of rhetoric and form from English poetry in Wheatley and others and its adaptation of these forms to distinctly black subjects in the Harlem Renaissance – this tradition could be said to have come into its own with Brown’s ‘adept’ creation of an entirely new prosody. Though often confused with the work of ‘dialect poets,’ poets who simply forced black speech into English forms in some of their poems (Dunbar and Hughes among them), Brown’s poetic project was in fact quite different. His life’s work was to foreground the ‘folk.’ He strove to show that rural southern blacks in particular, while generally dismissed by white Americans, even those who worked for social reform, as passive sufferers, had in fact developed a system of active strategies for encompassing the harsh economic and social situations in which they foun themselves. Brown’s poetry does not ennoble his subjects but serves to underscore their preexisting nobility.”
— Harper/Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

Brown’s goal detailed by Harper and Walton comes across immediately in most of his work, including the poem “Southern Road”:

Southern Road

Swing dat hammer–hunh–
Steady, bo’;
Swing dat hammer–hunh–
Steady, bo’;
Ain’t no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Burner tore his–hunh–
Black heart away;
Burner tore his–hunh–
Black heart away;
Got me life, bebby,
An’ a day.

Gal’s on Fifth Street–hunh–
Son done gone;
Gal’s on Fifth Street–hunh–
Son done gone;
Wife’s in de ward, bebby,
Babe’s not bo’n.

My ole man died–hunh–
Cussin’ me;
My ole man died–hunh–
Cussin’ me;
Ole lady rocks, bebby,
Huh misery.

Doubleshackled–hunh–
Guard behin’;
Doubleshackled–hunh–
Guard behin’;
Ball an’ chain, bebby,
On my min’.

White man tells me–hunh–
Damn yo’ soul;
White man tells me–hunh–
Damn yo’ soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Chain gang nevah–hunh–
Let me go;
Chain gang nevah–hunh–
Let me go;
Po’ los’ boy, bebby,
Evahmo’ . . .

****

“In ‘Southern Road,’ Brown abstracts the rhythms of a work song to make it slightly more regular and so to emphasize the grinding, repetitive nature of the chain gang.”
— Harper/Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

Born on the campus of Howard University in 1901, Brown’s aptitude and scholarly instincts brought him through Dunbar High School, Williams College, and Harvard University. After his formal education – and prior to his appointment as Professor of English at Howard – Brown spent three years in Lynchburg, Virginia, teaching at the Virginia Seminary and College. “It was within this intimate, rural niche of African American culture,” write Harper and Walton, “that his talents as a teacher and a folksayer without peer blossomed.”

“I learned the arts and sciences at Williams, I learned the humanities in Lynchburg, Virgina.”
— Sterling Brown


(photo © Roy Lewis)

Perhaps Brown’s greatest gift as a poet was his ear, which helped him merge “common, racy, living speech” with the traditions of A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy. “Brown’s poetic goals were communal,” explain Harper and Walton. “His hope was to create a community of voices and readers in antiphony.” Brown also found inspiration from W. B. Yeats’s Irish Renessaince.

Slim Greer in Hell

Slim Greer went to heaven;
St. Peter said, “Slim,
You been a right good boy.”
An’ he winked at him.

“You been travelin’ rascal
In yo’day.
You kin roam once mo’;
Den you come to stay.

“Put dese wings on yo’ shoulders,
An’ save yo’ feet.”
Slim grin, and he speak up,
“Thankye, Pete.”

Den Peter say, “Go
To Hell an’ see,
All dat is doing, and
Report to me.

“Be sure to remember
How everything go.”
Slim say, “I be seein’ yuh
On de late watch, bo.”

Slim got to cavortin’
Swell as you choose,
Like Lindy in de Spirit
Of St. Louis Blues.

He flew an’ he flew,
Till at last he hit
A hangar wid de sign readin’
DIS IS IT.

Den he parked his wings,
An’ strolled aroun’,
Gittin’ used to his feet
On de solid ground.

It’s a crime that Brown continues to be overlooked, but there is no shortage of theories about why this is so. Perhaps the most logical comes from Harper and Walton in African American Poetry‘s introduction:

“Brown’s life’s work was to hold up the face of [the southern, rural man] and make us look behind it. He aimed to take his reader through the looking glass in a sense – into that part of society that “society” has defined itself against. His work was dismissed because the face he held up is in fact a looking glass: to see that face accurately we would first have to see ourselves, to see those things about ourselves and the country we have made that we still, even at this late date, do not like to see.”
— Harper/Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

Sterling Brown was a native of Washington, D.C. After attending Williams College and Harvard University, he taught poetry at Howard University for forty years. His students included Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks among many others. Brown died in 1989.


(© unknown)

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One Response to “Poet #5: Sterling Brown”

  1. […] Poet’s Guide to Poetry this morning. (The book is part of Professor Michael S. Harper’s recommended reading). The first assignment in the book is a 20-line blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter with […]

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