An Early Poetic Influence

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

One of nine children, Owen Dodson was born on November 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, to Nathaniel Barnett Dodson, a freelance journalist, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Goode Dodson. Owen grew up proud of his identity and of his lineage. He early knew of the social contributions of such black luminaries as Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Fate conspired to turn the young Owen Dodson into the writer he became. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School; the school’s principal, Elias Lieberman, was a poet. Lieberman encouraged the boy to enter contests that resulted in his winning medals for public recitations of verse. Owen was at this time also active in the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, where he imbibed the cadences of black spirituals with which he was later to infuse his verse.

Upon graduation from high school, Dodson received a scholarship to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he enrolled in a freshman course that John Berkelman taught. Dodson brashly told Berkelman that he had the capability to write sonnets as good as those of John Keats. Berkelman thereupon told Dodson to write a sonnet a week until graduation. Carrying out this assignment helped Dodson to perfect his craft and resulted in his publishing pieces in the New York Herald Tribune, in Opportunity, and in Phylon before he left Bates in 1936 to continue his studies at Yale University, where he received an M.F.A. degree in 1939.

Although Dodson was diverted from writing poetry first by the demands of his program in drama at Yale and later by his service in the United States Navy, where he was assigned to write dramas to boost the morale of black servicemen, a number of his poems appeared in such publications as Common Ground, New Currents, Theatre Arts, and Harlem Quarterly between 1942 and the publication of his first volume of verse, Powerful Long Ladder, in 1946. The poems Dodson published in these periodicals were incorporated into this first volume. During his time at Yale, Dodson also produced his verse play, Divine Comedy (pr. 1938), a portion of which appears in Powerful Long Ladder and which was awarded the Maxwell Anderson prize for verse drama. Although Dodson felt that his greatest poetic achievement was The Confession Stone: Song Cycles, which he first published in 1970, most critics have turned to the earlier work as best representing Dodson’s poetry.

Powerful Long Ladder

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Powerful Long Ladder is concerned with human struggle, particularly with the struggle of black people in a society that first enslaved and then simultaneously exploited and ignored them. At the time the book was published, segregation was widespread. Dodson had recently been discharged from the Navy, where he belonged to a segregated company at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago.

The book, divided into five sections, takes its title from the Dodson poem “Someday We’re Gonna Tear Them Pillars Down,” a seven-page verse drama that uses dramatic technique to the utmost. The pillars are symbolically akin to the wall in Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall”; they are barriers that serve as points of demarcation between people—in the Dodson poem, between African Americans and the dominant society.

Dodson has often been compared to Frost. In a sense, however, this comparison may be misleading because of Dodson’s deep personal involvement on a daily basis with the inequities of segregation and discrimination, which continually devoured his spirit. Robert Frost could afford a philosophical detachment that no black of Owen Dodson’s period could reasonably enjoy.

The first section of Powerful Long Ladder contains a dozen poems of from two to six pages each. The range of these poems is remarkable. Some focus on individuals; others deal broadly with topics ranging from racial tension to death to the accomplishments of African Americans. Many of them are dialect poems. The first poem, “Lament,” which is not in dialect, is exceptionally interesting, beginning with an imperative to a dead boy to wake and tell how he died. What the poem essentially conveys is the hopelessness of trying fully to understand life’s common abstractions—love, freedom, terror, death.

A more complicated view of human existence emanates from “Guitar,” a ballad about a black jailed for hitting a white person. Society decrees that, without solid evidence, the black should be adjudged guilty. This poem has strong metrical overtones from “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. The tone of the poem is one of despair tempered by resignation. The black man has no recourse as society is constituted.

Among the best-known Dodson poems is “Black Mother Praying,” a war poem about a mother whose sons have left to defend their country. She compares her sacrifice to Christ’s crucifixion, her sons to the son of Mary. The rub is that when her sons come home—if they come home—the freedom they fought to ensure will, because of their color, extend neither to her nor to them. This poem is a precursor of Dodson’s The Confession Stone, in which Dodson makes the Virgin Mary and her son quite ordinary people dealing with the details of daily life. Mary admonishes the young Jesus not to play with Judas when he goes out.

The second section of Powerful Long Ladder contains a substantial excerpt from Dodson’s verse play, Divine Comedy, which is an ironic presentation of the kind of hope that the evangelist...

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Dodson and African American Identity

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dodson resisted being identified with African Americans who were grouped merely by their color. Invited to join Bates College’s black alumni association, he declined, asking, “Did I learn black Latin?” His poems continually reflect a similar attitude. He suggests that if African Americans are to become a part of mainstream American life, such organizations as black alumni associations must go.

In his poems, Dodson exudes energy. He does not shrink from the struggle in which his race, in his eyes, must participate actively—and he suggests that white people can help in this struggle. In “Miss Packard and Miss Giles,” Dodson celebrates the two white women who founded Spelman College for Negro Women in Atlanta, where he taught from 1938 until 1941. He commends their stalwartness, their refusal to return to their native New England when things were not going well.

Similarly, in poems such as “Epitaph for a Negro Woman” and “Black Mother Praying,” the suggestion is that people must keep moving forward, struggling hand over hand up the ladder that provides the title for Dodson’s first volume of poetry. In small details of his later life, Dodson followed his own advice.

When, severely crippled by arthritis, Dodson went to an experimental theatrical production with James Hatch, he had to climb a long flight of stairs to reach the auditorium. Giving Hatch his canes, he grasped the railing and, quite painfully, pulled...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Hardy, Sallee W., ed. Remembering Owen Dodson. New York: Hatch-Billops Collection, 1984. This is a collection of reminiscences, poems, and other materials about Owen Dodson presented at his funeral. Among the contributors are Margaret Walker, David Abram, Amiri Baraka, and Joe Weixlmann.

Hatch, James V. “Remembering Owen Dodson.” In Artist and Influence, 1985. New York: Hatch-Billops Collection, 1985. Hatch, who first met Dodson when he participated in a playwriting workshop at the University of Iowa while Hatch was a student there, provides warm reminiscences about an evening when he and Dodson, then badly crippled and barely mobile, went to see a new play written by one of Hatch’s students.

O’Brien, John. “Owen Dodson.” In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. O’Brien conducted this hourlong interview in 1971. Dodson later supplemented it with written responses. It is revealing in that Dodson comments on other black writers and clearly distances himself from some who wrote in the turbulent 1960’s. Dodson discusses the themes of religion and history in his work.

Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. “The Legendary Owen Dodson of Howard University.” Crisis 86 (November, 1979): 373-374. Peterson, although not the most disinterested critic of Dodson, has, nevertheless, a good feeling for his writing and for its place in and relationship to black writing in the United States generally.

Schraufnagel, Noel. From Apology to Protest: The Black American Novel. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards Press, 1973. Schraufnagel devotes only two pages to Dodson and concentrates essentially on his novels. Nevertheless, his comments help to place Dodson in a useful literary context.