Margaret Walker Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036

As the title For My People suggests, Margaret Walker always thought of herself as the voice of those who did not have a voice of their own. In Jubilee , she told the stories of her own forebears; in her poetry, however, Walker spoke for all African Americans, the real...

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As the title For My People suggests, Margaret Walker always thought of herself as the voice of those who did not have a voice of their own. In Jubilee, she told the stories of her own forebears; in her poetry, however, Walker spoke for all African Americans, the real heroes and the legendary ones, winners and losers, men and women, adults and children. As a poet, Walker cast herself as a prophet or an oracle, connecting with her audience not by logic but through their emotions. She often relied on the techniques used so effectively by African American preachers, including ritualistic repetition or the call-and-response format. Sometimes she used the kind of elevated language one would expect to hear in a sermon; at other times, however, she adopted the slangy, succinct vernacular. Walker exhibited the same versatility in her use of poetic forms. Often she wrote in verse paragraphs or in free verse loosely tied together by rhythm or repetition. For a folk story or folk characters, however, she would select a ballad form, and for formal expressions of sentiment, Walker turned to the traditional sonnet.

Though as a member of her generation, it was inevitable that much of her poetry would be cast as a protest against racism, Walker also crusaded against two other kinds of evil. One of them was fascism, the political impulse that she believed leads to war and economic ruin, and the other was sexism, the contempt for women that results in their being denied freedom and fulfillment. However, like the biblical prophets to whom she often refers, Walker had faith in the power of good to overcome evil. In the beauty of nature, especially as represented in the landscape of her native South, she saw the possibility of a new Eden, cleansed of evil, where people would live in peace and freedom.

For My People

In her first book-length collection of poems, For My People, Walker displayed the command of language and of poetic forms that would make her one of the most admired poets of her time. Her versatility is evident in the marked differences between the three sections of the book. The book begins with the title poem, written in verse paragraphs that roll along majestically, in a manner reminiscent of the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Walker is both a realist and an optimist. Though in “For My People” she catalogues the miseries of her race, she concludes the poem by calling for her people to rise up and fight for freedom. In the five poems that follow, Walker uses the same poetic form and the same high level of language. In “We Have Been Believers,” she lashes out against the gods on whom her people have too long depended, and again she calls for an uprising. “Dark Blood,” “Southern Song,” “Sorrow Home,” and “Delta” share a theme to which Walker would return throughout her life: her love for the South and her longing for it to be redeemed. After three short free-verse poems, all written in formal language, Walker concludes the section with “Today,” which is meant as a wake-up call for white northerners, unaware of the struggles of her people.

The second section of For My People is different from the first in almost every respect. It consists of ten ballads, all written with the economy of language one expects from that form, and all loaded with colloquialisms, dialectical misspellings, and sly, folk humor. Each of the poems is a character sketch. Big John Henry and Bad-Man Stagolee are both legendary characters. However, Big John Henry was admired as the Delta equivalent of Samson, while Stagolee was a fabled cop-killer whose claim to fame was that he never got caught. There is abundant vigor but not much virtue in most of Walker’s other characters. Molly Means is a witch, Poppa Chicken, a pimp, and though Walker explains sympathetically why Kissie Lee turned bad, she is still a girl that everyone fears. Three of the characters, Yalluh Hammuh, Two-Gun Buster, and Teacher, get just what they deserve, and so does Long John, for after her death, Long John regrets being unfaithful to his Sweetie Pie. Though Gus, the lineman, broke no laws, folk wisdom always points out that it is dangerous to boast about being immune to death.

The final section of the book consists of six fourteen-line poems that are sonnetlike in structure, though they veer away from a conventional rhyme scheme and sometimes avoid rhyme altogether. As in the first section, the language is formal, but the tone of the poems is contemplative.

Prophets for a New Day

When For My People was written, the battle for civil rights was still in its infancy. By the time Prophets for a New Day appeared twenty-eight years later, victory was in sight. Therefore this slim volume can be read as a history of the Civil Rights movement; in fact, only two poems, “Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad” and “Elegy” do not deal with that subject. Most of the poems are written in free verse. Though they do not have the sweeping rhythms of the poems in the first section of “For My People,” they are just as powerful. One reason they are so effective is that they deal with real events and real heroes and heroines. Some of them are nameless, for example, the young girl so eager to participate in “Street Demonstration” and the one in “Girl Held Without Bail,” who is so proud of being imprisoned for her convictions. Many of the poems, however, pay tribute to real heroes, such as the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi, memorialized in the poem “For Andy Goodman—Michael Schwerner—and James Chaney.” The fact that over the years Walker abandoned her Marxist loathing of religion and became committed to Christianity is evident in her equating civil rights leaders with biblical prophets, for example, casting Benjamin Mays as Jeremiah, Martin Luther King, Jr., as Amos, Whitney Young as Isaiah, and Medgar Evers as Micah. Though Walker herself would continue to voice her convictions with prophetic fury, she now could draw strength from her belief that God favored the cause of freedom.

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