John Beecher Essay - Critical Essays

Beecher, John

Beecher, John 1904–

Beecher, an American "workers' poet," has drawn upon his own varied background for his writings about social injustice: educated at Virginia Military Institute, Harvard, and Cornell, he worked as a rancher, steelworker, merchant seaman, journalist, and professor of sociology. He was also an editor of Ramparts. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

It is ironical but in a sense logical that an authentic "proletarian" poet today—one who writes directly from the experience of the people, from the depths of poor people's lives, and mainly poor black people; a poet who speaks their language, and whose poetry in turn can be understood by these people—should be the descendant of a famous old New England family of dissenters, iconoclasts, atheists and freethinkers (among the clergymen members), ardent abolitionists, native non-conformists.

It is ironical, logical, and yet perhaps unexpected and doubly refreshing that John Beecher should fill all these requirements as a rebellious talent bringing to modern times the spirit of his famous ancestors. I might also add he is a very fine poet who speaks directly to my soul (and to yours, I am sure) after a long period when poetry was no longer trying to speak to anybody except the poetic elite—or shall we say clique?…

It is Eliot's ["Prufrockian"] spirit … which has dominated modern poetry down to the elegaic, self-centered, and to me rather weary "confessions" of Robert Lowell. John Beecher's poetry, so much to the contrary, so proud, angry, rebellious; so full of moral dignity and so rocklike—and, believe me, written out of an equal but radical erudition and scholarship—has been one of the very few dissenting voices during this period. Most of the books from which this volume of collected poems [Hear the Wind Blow!] has been made were either printed privately or by small radical presses and magazines. (p. 6)

To achieve the limpid, lucid simplicity of most of these poems, in a poetic style that, even with some Whitmanesque references, is completely fresh and original, an artist must obviously know how to handle the most difficult modes of prosody—must have spent his lifetime, as I suspect John Beecher has, in perfecting the exact kind of "simplicity" he wants to achieve. What he does is to give to the various dialects of our country, south, midwest, west and north, a kind of added height and dignity, while preserving all of the folk knowledge, humor and earthiness. What he does is to embed these folk tongues into the matrix of our literature….

And what makes this national chronicle so rare is simply that it is viewed constantly, as in the opening verse of Thoreau, "Homage to a Subversive," from the underside of things, the radical and ironically "subversive" side, the side that has been so consistently blocked out and covered over during these years…. It is not history we lack in our period, but the courage of men like John Beecher to see history whole, and to record it so beautifully in these verse chronicles and narratives. (p. 7)

[The poems are] narrative in essence and contain dramatic movement…. What a relief—after decades of cryptic, convoluted modern verse about remote and obscure states of human subjectivity, and "alienation." One might say again that nothing human is alien to John Beecher, and what he sees is not at all a mysterious contemporary disease (such as the death of God), but a corrupt social system that all too often not merely alienates its second-class citizens, as based on wealth and skin color, but destroys them, and not merely theoretically but actually through the process of armed violence. (p. 8)

Beecher's sense of the contemporary scene is … unique just because he understands the whole revolutionary core of the American past. In appearance and posture, as well as in his poetry, John Beecher reminds me of nothing so much as the Last of the Abolitionists. This collection of his poetry is so good that I feel honored and privileged to pay homage to it. (p. 9)

Maxwell Geismar, "Introduction" to Hear the Wind Sing!, by John Beecher (copyright © 1968 by International Publishers Co. Inc.), 1968, pp. 6-9.

Beecher … seems less a poet than a one-man recorder of American experience.

Beecher writes work songs about mill hands who get a "shoeful of steel" when a ladle burns through, and ballads about a "Frankie and Johnny" rodeo team who almost (but not quite) kill each other. He composes a jazzy lyric for "Kid Punch" Miller, who played trumpet with Jelly Roll Morton, and a kind of epitaph for a Pueblo Indian grave robber beset by legal problems and liquor….

His civil rights poems of the '60s, bloody as a bashed head, have the angry surge of an Abolitionist sermon by his great-great-uncle Henry Ward Beecher….

Beecher is nearly prose-flat, simplistic, partial to Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp" and defiant about it: "Must I be schooled,/veil plain speech in symbolic fog, costume/polemics for a merry morris dance,/practice new types of ambiguity …?" He can be perversely unsophisticated, monotonously on the side of the "little guy."…

Beecher has worked furiously to turn himself into a self-made common man. "Bard of the people" might be the title he has aspired to for 50 years, like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg before him. But Beecher is no folk charlatan….

[His] poems may lack finish; they do not lack authority. "Strength," as Beecher himself points out, "is a matter of the made-up mind."

Melvin Maddocks, "Vox Pop," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 22, 1974, p. 80.

Beecher is a sort of proletarian poet coming from the old New England aristocracy of preachers and teachers. In his poem "And I Will Be Heard" he traces his family back to Massachusetts Bay in the 1660s, and includes in it Lyman Beecher, who organized the "Underground Railroad," Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Nathan Hale and Edward Everett Hale. As a young man Beecher moved to Alabama and has been associated with the South ever since (probably his best known book is To Live and Die in Dixie, 1966). Unable to find mainstream acceptance he turned printer and published many of his books himself….

He is a "public" poet, a poet of causes, particularly of the steelworkers and blacks of the South. There is not much soul-searching, not much mystery in either his language or his subject matter. What holds one's interest is the plain facts of the stories he tells: the horror of being poor and/or black at the mercy of the rich and/or white. These are familiar tales—the Ku Klux Klan, the murders, beatings, the incredible callousness of the bosses—but infused with the obvious genuineness of Beecher's sympathy and anger … [and they] still pack an emotional wallop. Most of these were written before Americans had even heard or thought of the civil rights movment, but, in the absence of other qualities, truth and sincerity do not a good poem make.

There are many irritants: perhaps like most prophets, Beecher often lapses into self-praising righteousness (e.g., he quotes someone as telling him "you're too creative for government"); when he tries satire, it is too heavy and simplistic….

Beecher himself is a fascinating character, a brave and direct man … who fought various establishments, poetic and otherwise, and has come out as his own man. (p. 29)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

Unlike [Henry] Miller,… who turned away from the American social experience to a kind of inspired self-scape, Beecher continued to believe in the perfectibility of the country. Throughout his work he attends to America's need to become American, to allow each of its people a real stake in the land. He thinks change is possible if the nation awakens to its inequities and adheres to the principles on which it was founded. And he takes it upon himself to help awake the nation.

Beecher's poetry is his recurrent act of telling stories and talking common sense about things that have happened and are happening—his life and his ancestors' lives, the history of the nation and the news. He often reminisces through ironic anecdotes, forked with his sympathy for the disenfranchised and their champions and with his distaste for the boss-sanctioned injustices that hem in men's lives. Others have compared his more austere narratives to Masters' Spoon River Anthology, and works like To Live and Die in Dixie and Phantom City: A Ghost Town Gallery, both included in Collected Poems, bear out this resemblance. Some of Beecher's poems are expressly hortatory, in a way his cautionary State of the Union addresses. One of these, "Think It Over, America" ("Americans, you have got to forget all this abracadabra/about what we can afford and can't afford"), sounds in part like a forefather of Allen Ginsberg's "America." And Beecher invites comparison with poets like Ginsberg and Carl Sandburg, who have offered incantations of various kinds over the nation. When Beecher pulls away from anecdote and exhortation to generalize ("Beaufort Tides"), or when he strikes a more formal rhetorical pose ("The Camaldolese Come to Big Sur"), his poems seem less successful, perhaps because we lose the ease of his voice talking to us plain, we miss that sense of rage he pens in the bitter ironies of his tales, or at times makes patent.

There isn't much development in method or theme through Beecher's poetry; he appears more concerned with the replication of themes that have mattered to him all along, voiced in the natural rhythms of everyday speech. He counts on the moral force of his voice, rather than its music, and on his evocation of real scenes to move us. As much as he risks those plain-speaking pitfalls of sentimentality and banal rhetoric, I think his poems usually work well within the limits he sets for them. And I like his way of writing about things—migrant camps, loyalty oaths, Kittredge's classroom—from the inside looking out….

I can't say I wholly share his faith in those "great hearts" or in America's coming of age. But, after all, Nixon's out, and this could be the best time for poets who talk plain and tote fair, like Beecher, to speak up and speak louder. Seldom before in America had public language been more distanced from reality than it was under our last regime. Beecher's poetry, addressed as it is to a grassroots audience, might be just what we need to bring poetry closer to the public arena, to get people speaking the truth to each other, to begin putting people back in touch with themselves. (p. 88)

John Druska, in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 25, 1975.