Like fellow black writers of the “post-renaissance” school that followed the Harlem Renaissance, Dudley Randall embraces not only the concerns of modernism in discovering new modes of expression and technique but also the increasing awareness of a black literary heritage that begins in slave songs and spirituals. Although much of his earlier work experiments with classical forms, primarily the rhymed lyric and the sonnet, Randall also works in free verse and with the terseness of folk expression. He cherishes the freedom of the individual poet to explore ideas and forms central in his poetry. Although he is primarily lyrical in his tone, his work demonstrates sensitivity to the ordinary experiences of the working class, the political struggles of black Americans, and the sanctity of personal relationships. Cognizant of new developments and “trendy” fashions in poetry, Randall never allows himself the comforting isolation of an art-for-art’s-sake poetics; instead, he insists on the integrity of the fundamental values of joy, music, and craft in his poetry while lyrically rendering common experiences in the form of new insights that are comprehensible for the majority of readers. He embodies, in short, that sometimes too-often-neglected maxim of Sir Philip Sidney’s in Defence of Poesie (1595) that poetry ought “to teach and delight.” That Randall achieves both while using an essentially modern black idiom ensures him of a significant place among his generation of poets.
The polarities of tension in Randall’s poetry seem to be the necessity of personal love and social change. These themes underlie most of his poems, which sometimes focus on the one value while faintly suggesting the other but more often than not are characteristic of a tension between the two. In one early poem from his first book, Poem Counterpoem, Randall reflects on his youthful experience as a foundry worker while he visits an ailing coworker many years later in a hospital. In “George,” the speaker recalls “the monstrous, lumpish cylinder blocks” that too often “clotted the line and plunged to the floor/ With force enough to tear your foot in two.” George’s response to the industrial hazards of the assembly line was to step calmly aside; working side by side with the older man in his younger days, the speaker looked to George as an example of quiet endurance, even though George, “goggled, with mask on [his] mouth and shoulders bright with sweat,” was not particularly articulate in his guidance of the young Randall. George’s “highest accolade,” in fact, following the cleanup of “blocks clogged up” which came “thundering down like an avalanche,” was the gnomic folk expression: “’You’re not afraid of sweat. You’re strong as a mule.’” As the speaker visits George in a “ward where old men wait to die,” he realizes that George “cannot read the books” brought to him while he sits “among the senile wrecks,/ The psychopaths, the incontinent.” In the transition from the first stanza (set in the past) to the second (set in the present), the long lines of the first (which suggest the rhythm of the assembly line) give way to a shorter line that underscores George’s confinement. When George falls from his chair in the course of the visit, his visitor lifts him back into it “like a cylinder block” and assures him: “’You’ll be here/ A long time yet, because you’re strong as a mule.’”
Although the poem relates little more than the memory of assembly-line comradeship and the subsequent visit many years later, it suggests a great deal more than that. The sheer physical drudgery of the foundry site is apparent in both imagery and rhythm; George’s quiet but resolute determination to survive the toll of accidents is also implicit, but he survives only to find himself relegated to little more than a warehouse for the aged. Juxtaposed, however, with the dismal irony of George’s fate is Randall’s emphasis on the personal bond of mutual respect between the two men. Just as George encouraged him, the younger man now offers the aging George the same encouragement that he once offered the young worker. George’s persistence in overcoming his fear of death, however, is not enough to restore his dignity. The social conditions must change as well, and that will necessitate formal education; this, too, as Randall’s own biography might suggest, has been an inadvertent gift from the older man. In stressing the personal bond between them and yet not losing sight of their common experience in the workplace, Randall celebrates the endurance of friendship while condemning the dehumanizing factors of the assembly line and the hospital. That all of this is expressed in one brief mirrored, metaphorical aphorism suggests that the simple eloquence of the poem itself is, like George, rich beneath its surface.
Randall’s second book, Cities Burning, focuses on the disintegrating cities during the urban riots and civil struggles of the 1960’s. His observations on social change are not, however, solely the result of the 1960’s, for several of these poems were written much earlier. “Roses and Revolution,” for example, was written in 1948 and attests to Randall’s exploration of the dual themes of personal love and social change long before that tumultuous...
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