An Early Poetic Influence
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
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,...
(The entire section is 2,519 words.)