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Sterling A(llen) Brown 1901–
Black American poet, essayist, and critic.
Brown is an important figure of the Black Renaissance. His poetic reputation rests largely on two collections, Southern Road and The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, published in 1932 and 1980, respectively. For his themes and style, Brown draws upon the black folk tradition: he weaves elements of ballads, folk songs, spirituals, work songs, and the blues into narrative poems which relate the black man's struggle to endure with humor and grace. A member of the English faculty at Howard University since 1929, Brown has played a significant role in black literary criticism as a teacher, editor, and reviewer.
(See also CLC, Vol. 1 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
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[Sterling A. Brown] has been instrumental in bringing about the more propitious era in which the Negro artist now finds himself, and in doing that he has achieved a place in the list of young American poets. Mr. Brown's work is not only fine, it is also unique. He began writing just after the Negro poets had generally discarded conventionalized dialect, with its minstrel traditions of Negro life (traditions that had but slight relation, often no relation at all, to actual Negro life) with its artificial and false sentiment, its exaggerated geniality and optimism. He infused his poetry with genuine characteristic flavor by adopting as his medium the common, racy, living speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life. For his raw material he dug down into the deep mine of Negro folk poetry. He found the unfailing sources from which sprang the Negro folk epics and ballads such as "Stagolee," "John Henry," "Casey Jones," "Long Gone John" and others. (p. xxxvi)
[But he] has made more than mere transcriptions of folk poetry, and he has done more than bring to it mere artistry; he has deepened its meanings and multiplied its implications. He has actually absorbed the spirit of his material, made it his own; and without diluting its primitive frankness and raciness, truly re-expressed it with artistry and magnified power. In a word, he has taken this raw material and worked it into original and authentic poetry. In such poems as "Odyssey of Big Boy" and "Long Gone" he makes us feel the urge that drives the Negro wandering worker from place to place, from job to job, from woman to woman. There is that not much known characteristic, Negro stoicism, in "Memphis Blues" and there is Negro stoicism and black tragedy, too, in "Southern Road." Through the "Slim Greer" series he gives free play to a delicious ironical humor that is genuinely Negro. Many of these poems admit of no classification or brand, as, for example, the gorgeous "Sporting Beasley." True, this poem is Negro, but, intrinsically, it is Sterling-Brownian. In such poems as "Slim Greer," "Mr. Samuel and Sam" and "Sporting Beasley" Mr. Brown discloses the possession of a quality that could to advantage be more common among Negro poets—the ability to laugh, to laugh at white folks as well as at black folks.
Mr. Brown has included in ["Southern Road"] some excellent poems written in literary English and form. I feel, however, it is in his poems whose sources are the folk life that he makes, beyond question, a distinctive contribution to American Poetry. (pp. xxxvi-xxxvii)
James Weldon Johnson, in his introduction to Southern Road: Poems by Sterling A. Brown (copyright 1932 by Harcourt, Brace and Company; reprinted by permission of the author), Harcourt, 1932 (and reprinted by Beacon Press, 1974, pp. xxxv-xxxvii).
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WILLIAM ROSE BENÉT
Brown is of the "Younger Group" of negro writers. I myself think his work [in Southern Road] has distinctly more originality and power than that of Countée Cullen, and more range than that of Langston Hughes….
The fact that Brown is so good a narrative poet has inclined me toward him because of my particular interest in narrative verse. When he handles dialect he does so with precision and great effectiveness. A prime example of this is the colloquy between "Old Man Buzzard" and young Fred. Brown can also command real pathos and grimness. His Sam Smiley, the buck dancer, was taught by the whites in the Great War to rip up bellies with a bayonet. When he came back from the war and found that a rich white man had ruined his girl, he retaliated by killing him. But the poem ends in no breakdown into sentimentality….
"Strong Men," with its text from a poem of Carl Sandburg's, is powerfully racial; "Memphis Blues," on the second section, with its vision of Memphis on fire, has a stirring rhythm; "Children of the Mississippi" holds all the menace of the river floods. The poet can strike out original simile, as in "Tornado Blues,"… and the three poems about Slim Greer relate humorous negro fables with inimitable unction….
Of the younger negro poets, I consider Sterling A. Brown to be the most versatile and the least derivative.
William Rose Benét, "Round about Parnassus," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1932 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VIII, No. 43, May 14, 1932, p. 732.∗
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On every page [of Sterling Brown's "Southern Road"] there is "race," but it is "race" neither arrogant nor servile. There is pathos, infinite pathos; but everywhere there is dignity that respects itself. There is neither moaning nor sentimentalizing, but a frank facing of reality. Moreover, there is everywhere art; such a firm touch of artistry as is only seldom found among poets of whatever descent. Bitterness is not lacking; but it is the bitterness of all men, not merely of the Negro people, such bitterness as one will find voiced again and again from the earliest poetry of the Hebrews down to the present day….
Not a few of the many poems in this interesting and impressive collection are in dialect, but it is a carefully studied euphonic reproduction of pronunciations—there is no taint of music-hall convention. And there is also gayety here and there in the pages, albeit on the whole gayety restrained. Altogether, "Southern Road" is a book the importance of which is considerable. It not only indicates how far the Negro artist has progressed since the years when he began to find his voice, but it proves that the Negro artist is abundantly capable of making an original and genuine contribution to American literature. And that the poems are well worth reading for their own sake, without ulterior considerations, goes without saying. We sincerely hope that "Southern Road" receives wide welcome.
"A Notable New Book of Negro Poetry," in The New York Times (© 1932 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1932, p. 13.
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Sterling Brown is the latest addition to a small group of authentic Negro poets. His best work [in Southern Road] is based upon whatever tradition the Negro folk song and the spiritual have to offer: vigorous, well defined rhythms that are most effective when read aloud. His "Odyssey of Big Boy," "Memphis Blues" and "Tin Roof Blues" are all good examples of his skill in reproducing the essential qualities of American Negro folk music—and, what is more, he has handled the usual Negro themes with honest originality. His work, however, suffers one serious handicap which arises from a liberal use of dialect spelling. This device, though it may be employed with the greatest sincerity and with an accurate ear, always seems artificial and "literary"; no doubt Mr. Brown has made his choice deliberately and is well aware of the limitations imposed by his medium. His lack of pretension and forthright use of realistic Negro material are admirable characteristics which will serve as a solid foundation for his future poetry and the work of others who follow him.
"Book Notes: 'Southern Road'," in The New Republic (© 1932 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXXI, No. 921, July 27, 1932, p. 297.
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In a time when many Black people were equating a superficial respectability with real dignity, [Sterling Brown]—scholar, teacher, and poet—was demonstrating in his life and his work the profound dignity which the common man embodied in his everyday life—in his work, his struggles, his tragedies and his joys. He did it by making that life his own—by making his identification with the roots of the Black Experience in his deep and sensitive knowledge of Black folklore,—the proverbs, the dozens, the tales, the sermons, the spirituals and the blues. (p. 5)
It is this reordering of the Soul Experience of Black folks which is especially appealing about the work of Sterling Brown. It is this which makes him vital not only to this present time but to Black generations yet unborn…. (p. 6)
It is to Sterling Brown's eternal credit that he, with a handful of others, remained true to the Soul Wisdom of the race and transmitted it to generations of the young, as poet, as scholar, as consummate teacher. For those of us who were not privileged to study directly under him, there are his brilliant articles, his books, the reminiscences of his students and colleagues; but, above all, the archetypical figures of manhood with which he peopled his poems. (pp. 6-7)
[What] we call Soul is caught up and focused in [Brown]—in his robust humor, his sheer joy in living, his fair-mindedness. All of us can learn from him—especially the young who are to lead us. But his influence has already been great, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect and subtle, yet altogether pervasive enough to defy definition. He is, in a word, a Strong Man, who has enlarged our vision of ourselves. (p. 10)
Stephen E. Henderson, "A Strong Man Named Sterling Brown" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1970 by Stephen E. Henderson), in Black World, Vol. XIX, No. 11, September, 1970, pp. 5-12.
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[Sterling A. Brown] realized that to express the souls of black folk, the artist has to divest himself of preconceived and false notions about black people, and create an art whose foundation is the ethos from which spring black life, history, culture and traditions. (p. 131)
[In an effort to build a self-conscious art upon folk-art, Brown] brought to Afro-American literature a quality that became one of its main currents: the ethos of black folk. (p. 132)
Early in his career as litterateur, he discovered that the representations of black peasants in most books were very different from the black peasants he had known and seen in Washington. Realizing that the images of black people in existing literature were largely false, Brown set out to correct what he saw. (pp. 132-33)
[Early] in his teaching career Brown "read the new realistic poetry in American life"—that of Frost, Sandburg, Masters, Lindsay and Robinson, for example. In their "democratic approach to the people," Brown saw much that reflected his own thoughts about ordinary people. Brown recalls: "when Carl Sandburg said 'yes' to the American people, I wanted to say 'yes' to my people." Brown's "yes" was to give us carefully wrought poems portraying "common" black folk "in a manner constant with them." His "yes" to black people was also to give us a series of critical works which attempted to counter "the proliferating distortions" of black folk life and character. As early as the Twenties, Brown began writing a series of critical studies and reviews on the portrayal of blacks in American literature…. Like other New Negro writers, Brown knew that such portrayals were neither accurate characterizations nor true expressions of the souls of black folk. (p. 133)
[When] Brown taught and traveled in the South, he became an insider to the multifarious traditions and verbal art forms indigenous to black folk, and through his adaptations of their verbal art forms and spirit he, as poet, became an instrument for their myriad voices. Hence Southern Road.
When Southern Road appeared, [reviewers] … were quick to recognize Brown's absorption of the spirit and the verbal art of black folk. Critics realized that Brown had tapped the black folk ethos which later Afro-American poets would draw from; that he had captured the essence of black folk life and culture, without the distortion and sentimentality of earlier American writers. In form and content, most of Brown's poems reflect some aspect of the life and oral traditions of black people. And it is through his folk oriented poems that he makes his most significant contribution to the corpus of Afro-American poetry. (p. 134)
To give voice to the common black man in poetry, Brown drew heavily on forms that grew directly out of the black American experience; he made use of Afro-American folksongs—their techniques, idiom and spirit. Brown knew that the ideas and art of the folksongs were expressive of the people who created them…. What, then, could be more appropriate modes for poetic reinterpretations of black life in America than the worksong, the blues, the spiritual, and the ballad?
In "Southern Road," the title poem of his first collection, Brown draws upon the forms and spirit of the worksong and the blues. To express the tragic voice of despondency of black chain gangs so often seen on Southern roads, Brown fuses adapted techniques of the worksong and the blues. But the aesthetic and ideational result is something more than the blues or the worksong. (p. 135)
"Southern Road" is a lyrical expression of powerlessness and despondency—one picture of "the tragedy of the southern Negro." It is, then, important to remember that the speaker of the poem is a convict, not a Black Everyman; that his despondency is that of his people; but that other poems in Brown's first collection and elsewhere are needed to round out his picture of the tragic condition of Southern black folk. It is important to remember, too, that in the world of Sterling Brown the black man's response to the inhumanities of his white oppressors is not always acceptance. His response, however futile it may prove to be, is sometimes … revolt in the face of inevitable destruction. (p. 138)
[In] spite of the white man's dehumanization of him from the Middle Passage through the twentieth century, the black man has endured; he has never been completely broken, as it were, for "The strong men keep a-comin' on." In fact, "Gittin' stronger…." To develop the idea of black stoicism, Brown juxtaposes his catalogue of inhumanities against black people to passages from spirituals and secular songs. The songs Brown quotes bespeak the black man's hope, strength and endurance—his dogged will to survive—born out of the suffering, profitless labor, racial segregation, etc., described in the poem. For centuries these songs and others have served as a solace and a source of strength for black people. (p. 142)
The dialect of the black folk figures in Brown's poetry is constant with their character. Honed in black folk life, the dialect he employs has none of the "humor and pathos" of the contrived speech used by "black" characters in the literature of the plantation tradition. Neither is the dialect in his poetry a transcription of how blacks supposedly spoke. Although he retains some of the pronunciations common to black speech, Brown does not arbitrarily mutilate the spellings of words to suggest the unlettered character of his folk…. Brown, with a good ear and a sensibility attuned to the folk, selects … varied rhythms, idioms, metaphors and images, and transforms them into conscious art.
Like Euro-American and other Afro-American poets of the twentieth century, Brown has also employed the traditions of the folk ballad in his poetry. Influencing more than fifteen poems in Southern Road, the ballad, along with the blues mode, is the most frequently used form in the collection. At times, he adopts the ballad form; at others, he combines the narrative techniques of the ballad with artistic techniques of other forms. (pp. 147-48)
Brown's literary ballads, while sometimes adhering closely to the folk ballad form, cover numerous subjects from black folk life. Racial injustice, exploits of folk heroes, tragic love affairs, religion, suffering in poverty, freedom, the need for travel—all of these and many others constitute the subjects of Brown's ballads. His poems in the ballad form alone, more than his poems employing other forms of Afro-American music, give us a broad slice of black life in America. (p. 148)
In addition to the ballad tradition, it is the black tradition of storytelling and folk humor that inform these ballads. Implied in them is the black man's ability to see not only the tragic aspects of his life, but those comic elements also—even in the absurdity of white racism.
The poetry of Sterling A. Brown gives a kaleidoscopic picture of black folk character and life in America—a picture that is constant with the folk themselves. In the main, Brown's are a Black South folk, who, through song, dogged will, ironic laughter, wisdom, "strange legacies," and faith, confront and survive a hostile universe, in spite of the dehumanization they encounter perpetually. "Illiterate, and somehow very wise," Brown's black folk are strong men who "keep-a-comin' on / Gittin' stronger…." Although he concentrates on the folk of the rural South, he gives us a brief picture of the black folk of the urban North in Part Three, "Tin Roof Blues," of Southern Road. Like their Southern brothers, they, too, face a hostile universe, but, cut off from their Black South ancestral roots, Brown's Northern black folk act out their illusions of joy and "arrival" in what they thought would be a Promised Land. In his varied portrayals of black folk, Brown makes no apology for them or their life styles. Neither does he present distorted pictures of them. To counter the propagandistic images proliferated in American literature, he, with the integrity of the true artist, represents black folk realistically through forms created by them and a spirit that emanates from their lives. In short, his poems eloquently fulfill James Weldon Johnson's request that the black American Poet turn inward for an aesthetic that bespeaks the souls of black folk. (p. 152)
Charles H. Rowell, "Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-American Folk Tradition," in Studies in the Literary Imagination (copyright 1974 Department of English, Georgia State University), Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall, 1974, pp. 131-52.
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Brown's literary kingdom of Southern Road is real on two scores. It is real as art. Big Boy, the guitarist of the "saints," Frankie and Johnny, and a small host of others not named here, are vital creatures. They exist pleasurably and profitably merely as specters of the mind. But they exist also as significant and creditable transcriptions of historic reality. Thus Brown's Southern Road is real also as a repository of fact. His characters are real as America's folk Negroes were real, in the real times to which Sterling Brown attributed them; and hence they are real both as representatives of a valid New Negro-ness and as a criticism of American life. It is true, as noted earlier, that Brown began to piece together his Southern Road in the twenties, during what still Renaissance years. But the impact of the volume Southern Road must probably be defined as post-Renaissance. Moreover, some of the features of the literary kingdom, especially the figure and the legend of Slim Greer, Brown continued to expand and enrich even after the publication of Southern Road.
Brown did, upon occasion, resort to traditional white ways of writing poetry. Like McKay and Cullen, for example, he tried his hand at sonneteering. But, whereas in McKay's and Cullen's sonneteering one may find suggestions of non-Negro influences too binding upon them for the good of the New Negro cause, in Brown the sonnets constitute a conscious holiday from his major interest. Culturally Brown's poetry is poetry of and for the New Negro. It is a New Negro, too, coming, surely, a little more of age than he was during the Renaissance—one considerably less a propagandist's antistereotype and less a literary fallacy than he had been. Brown notably deals with Negroes engaged in the rites of subsistence, in working, rearing families, and trying to make their compelled accommodations to inescapable social pressures. His selection of his subject matter accords with his eye for scene and his ear for Negro speech. His Southern Road goes deep into the common life of a very Negro experience of America's dream and opportunity. It is virtually an anthology of the Negro folk, almost as if Brown had acted merely as a stenographer for a text dictated to him by his own creations. It is, thus, a true anthology of the New Negro—black in a way which yields nothing to espousals of blackness that antedate it, and representing a development, not a subsidence, of the ideals of the Renaissance. (pp. 61-2)
Blyden Jackson, "From One 'New Negro' to Another, 1923–1972," in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation by Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press; copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 37-98.∗
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As remarkable as many of the poems in [Southern Road] are, they can, like arresting but isolated portions of a vast canvas, be done full justice only when seen within the framework of the overall artistic conception. This is so because Sterling Brown, despite the impressive range of characterization and technique revealed in this volume, builds from a unified, integrated conception of reality. The happy effect of such architecture is that individual poems, however much they dazzle when read apart from others, gain new and deeper meaning, and a new resonance, when the entire volume is read.
Given the experiences of his people in America, it is especially worth noting that Brown has been able to take attributes that appear greatly susceptible to stereotypical treatment—cheating, flight, laughing, dancing, singing—and, never losing control of them, in fact utilizing them repeatedly, to establish the irreducible dignity of a people. So powerful is his vision of their humanity, so persuasive his powers of poetic transmutation, that his utilization of the most distinctly Negroid accents serves to enlarge, rather than diminish, that humanity. In a word, Brown makes no concessions to white prejudice or to Negro pretense.
If Sterling Brown speaks of tragedy, he also holds out the ultimate hope of triumph, the possibility of which, paradoxically, is heightened, not lessened, by the tough-minded quality of his way of reckoning events and determining what is important in life. His disclosures of largely unappreciated qualities, though they range over myriad concerns, are on balance values, sacred and secular, hidden in the hearts of a people. "Strong Men" gives us a better sense of what the long haul has meant, of how a people has not merely survived but projected its sense of what is meaningful than any other poem in Afro-American literature. The vision which informs this poem is essentially the same which courses through a volume offering no easy optimism and no quick victories but all the determination in the world. And so there is a promise of eventual relief. The poet's vision is, in the end, tragic—triumphant. (pp. xxviii-xxx)
As Sterling Brown reveals the world of Southern Road, he leads us ultimately, through the Negro, to a conception of the nature of man. There is a noticeable absence of the questionable poetic ideal of being "difficult," which too frequently has come to mean, in our time, impenetrability. Yet Brown's genius is such that as he sculpts simple, plain speech into poetry, as he unveils the value ensemble of a people, the reader will discover, almost in a flash, that he has entered a world as wondrously complex as life itself. (p. xxx)
Sterling Stuckey, "Introduction" (copyright © 1974 by Sterling Stuckey), in Southern Road: Poems by Sterling A. Brown, Beacon Press, 1974, pp. Xiii-xxxiv.
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[As a college teacher, Sterling Brown] recalls that he learned as much about language from his students as they learned from him. He was fascinated by the talk and the songs of his students and their parents; they were intrigued by this lanky, athletic professor who took seriously the local lore. The students brought to class local champion singers and talkers…. Another brought Brown the first blues records he had ever heard.
Thus Brown began his collection of black folk songs and sayings. He realized that worksongs, ballads, blues, and spirituals were, at their best, poetical expressions of Afro-American life. And he became increasingly aware of black language as often ironic, understated and double-edged. Obviously, more than pathos and humor was expressed in the stinging couplet from the spirituals: "I don't know what my mother wants to stay here fuh, / This ole worl' ain't been no friend to huh." Where in American writing about Afro-American life was this compressed, direct eloquence being equalled? And no one seemed to be writing about the man who might sing these blues lines: "I hear my woman calling some other man's name, / I know she don't want me, but I answers jus' de same." Early on, Brown knew that he would try to render black experience as he knew it, using the speech of the people. He would not, because of white stereotyping, avoid phonetical spellings (although as the years passed, these "dialect" spellings seemed less and less necessary). His goal was not to run from the stereotype, but to celebrate the human complexity behind the now grinning, now teary-eyed mask.
Brown's poetry comprises a portrait gallery of Afro-Americans. The few whites who appear are seen in relation to their darker brethren. For the blacks there are certain joys and satisfactions. There is laughter—not just the grim "laughing to keep from crying"—but belly laughter which may have nothing to do with social ills and frustrations. But in Brown's poetry the scene from which comedy or tragedy must be squeezed is an absurd and gloomy one. (p. 34)
Perhaps Brown's greatest strength lies not in his grim surveying of the American scene, but in his portraits of the people who persevere in spite of everything….
For Brown, folklore serves the function classically attributed to literature; it is functional, instructive, saving…. Blacks survived slavery, segregation, and prejudice by clinging to the hopeful, rugged values expressed in the songs of their fathers. (p. 35)
Brown's poetic vision is riotously funny, hopeful, meditative—and ultimately dubious, tragical. (p. 36)
Robert G. O'Meally, "Reconsideration: Sterling A. Brown," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 6, February 11, 1978, pp. 33-6.
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Sterling Brown's poetry may profitably be studied, and his achievement precisely assessed, by implicating his work in the stylistics of the Afro-American culture in which it is saturated. There are, of course, aspects of the poetry which can properly be studied within other parameters…. But it is within the dimensions of Afro-American expressive culture that one may perceive most clearly the originality and subtlety of Brown's work.
Of the varied forms of Black expressive culture, music is indisputably the most dramatic, moving, and pervasive; and of the many forms which the music takes, the most typical, the most potently charged is the blues. At one end of the spectrum the blues are sensual ditties of lost love and hard times. At the other end they resonate on the same frequency with the spirituals, but in a somewhat different space, where the burden of salvation is equally weighty but the hope comes chiefly from self. The blues, then, are a music and a poetry of confrontation—with the self, with the family and loved ones, with the oppressive forces of society, with nature, and, on the heaviest level, with fate and the universe itself. And in the confrontation a man finds out who he is, a woman discovers her strengths….
The hallmark of Sterling Brown's poetry is its exploration of the bitter dimension of the blues, which he links with a view of humankind that he shares with writers like Sandburg, Frost, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Their influence helps to catalyze the poet's work without diluting it, and he extends the literary range of the blues without losing their authenticity. When he employs other folk forms such as the ballad, the "folk epic," the "lie," and the song-sermon, he does so with complete confidence, not only in his skill but in his models, both the literary and the folk. The literary models merely confirm what he already knows from the folk: that these forms embody a way of life that is valid and valuable.
Although most of the poems in Southern Road are not blues as such, they are suffused with the blues tradition. Indeed, one can make the case that the entire volume is an extended treatment of the blues mood and spirit, that each of the sections of the book presents facets of the Black experience which evoke the world view and feel of the blues. Even the last section of the book, "Vestiges," so named because it contains poems written in the poet's earlier manner, in the formal measures of the English poets, is caught up in this spirit by virtue of its placement and its elegiac tone. Earlier in the book, however, there are a number of poems which suggest a significant range of the blues spectrum, although they are not written in blues form. (p. 32)
[Brown's view of life] is expressed in terms which grow naturally out of the blues perspective, and, at times, the blues form in its many permutations. Brown's achievement, like that of the blues themselves, is a special kind of synthesis. Brown is not a folk poet, but a poet in the folk manner, who cunningly conceals his craft in the stylistics of the tradition itself. He not only mastered the academic studies and sources of his people's lore but the principles undergirding the lore itself. Thus his remarkable ability to render the sounds of speech, its nuances of rhythm and texture and meaning, was nourished not so much by his thorough knowledge of the literature written in dialect as by his immersion in the actual flow of the oral tradition, in the country homes of his students, in the barbershops and cafés of the South—Lynchburg, Atlanta, New Orleans—in all the varied places where Black folks gathered and talked and told lies, screamed at children, and sang the blues, or moaned the spirituals. He understood the contradictions in the people and in himself, and he did not sentimentalize them. He treated them roughly in his analysis … but no rougher really than they treated themselves, not only in the dozens but in the whole range of the tradition, because survival and affirmation were their implicit objectives. If he is cynical at times and despairing, so are they. But the cynicism of the blues is ultimately cleansing. It sets limits and reinforces them—the blues allow for hope, for endurance, and, above all, for [moral control]…. Memphis singer Furry Lewis, still alive at this writing, once sang about his misfortune: "My shoes done got thin. / I'm back on my feet again." So much for progress. And even before the Depression, long before then, someone sang, "I been down so long it seems like up to me." And we link up the insights with Sterling Brown's poetry, in which the heavy water blues absorb the "chilling" social analysis and transmute the elegiac vestiges of his youth into a unique testament of the human will to endure. (p. 43)
Stephen E. Henderson, "Heavy Blues of Sterling Brown: A Study of Craft and Tradition" (© Indiana State University 1980; reprinted with the permission of the author and Indiana State University), in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 32-44.
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The practical lessons of poetic composition are widely displayed in [The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown], and though the content is moving, often focusing on characters locked in mortal struggle of life and limb in the name of those heroic values, dignity and equality and great sacrifice, Brown's consciousness and conscientiousness of craft and technique are experimental, innovative, and deepened in a wide body of formal undertakings in the nature and balance of the artistic act. His poems are made, born of vision and revision, as a sculptor chisels, and Brown does, or a painter paints; biography is not poetry, but poetry demands a life fully lived—the poem is the performance. Sterling Brown's sense of design, of composition as a rigorous discipline, instructs and informs and extends a continuous consciousness of history and literary form. His own heroic ideal—been down so long that down don't worry me—is an abiding commitment to the word made flesh. His poetry teaches in the sense that it illustrates a clarity and precision of form as the skeletal structure of the expressive designs of language, and that language has a purity of diction because the poet's selectivity is the voice of authority—he controls the atmosphere, cadence, and pace of utterance, activating the landscape and voicings of the poem, while disarming his reader, his hearer. Brown's poems are deceptively literate; they move as images created and controlled as activation, as an agency of contact; in this sense he is a great poet of community. Brown's world is grounded in his perceptual faith in the long haul, and in the spirit which needs no hiding. (p. xi)
Michael S. Harper, in his preface to The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper (copyright © 1980 by Sterling A. Brown; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers), Harper & Row, 1980, pp. xi-xii.
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[The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown] reveals Brown as a master and a presence indeed. Although he is not a lyricist of any distinction, and although his effective range is narrow, he is a first-rate narrative poet, an eloquent prophet of the folk, and certainly our finest author of Afro-American dialect. His bindlestiffs, criminals, ramblers, gamblers, and "bad niggers" grow out of an unself-consciously revolutionist folklore, which he is determined to make both explicit and heroic, and his characteristic note of protest may remind us that the bulk of his verse was composed during the 1930's. His anger, however, does not censor his ear, which is sensitive and hospitable, and he makes use of many other voices as well. He elicits a generous comedy from the Anglified inflections of West Indian speech, and one of his most successful poems celebrates the triumphant piety of rural women. He turns even the grunts and pauses of the work-song to the uses of a good poem. No one who is interested in American poetry can afford to ignore this delightful collection.
"Notes on Current Books, Poetry: 'The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1981, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), p. 26.
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[Most of the poems in Sterling Brown's "The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown" were composed in dialect and] had as their subjects distinctively black archetypal mythic characters as well as the black common man whose roots were rural and Southern. Mr. Brown called his poems "portraitures," close and vivid studies of a carefully delineated subject that suggested a strong sense of place.
These portraitures the poet renders in a style that emerged from several forms of folk discourse, a black vernacular that includes the blues and ballads, spirituals and worksongs. Indeed, Mr. Brown's ultimate referents are black music and mythology. His language, densely symbolic, ironical and naturally indirect, draws upon the idioms, figures and tones of both the sacred and the profane vernacular traditions, mediating between these in a manner unmatched before or since.
But it is not merely the translation of the vernacular that makes his work so major, informed by these forms though his best work is; it is rather the deft manner in which he created his own poetic diction by fusing several black traditions with various models provided by Anglo-American poets to form a unified and complex structure of feeling, a sort of song of a racial self. Above all else, Mr. Brown is a regionalist whose poems embody William Carlos Williams's notion that the classic is the local, fully realized…. Mr. Brown boldly merged the Afro-American vernacular traditions of dialect and myth with the Anglo-American poetic tradition and … introduced the Afro-American modernist lyrical mode into black literature. (pp. 11, 16)
Reading this comprehensive edition, I was struck by how consistently [Mr. Brown] shapes the tone of his poems by the meticulous selection of the right word to suggest succinctly complex images and feelings "stripped to form," in Frost's phrase. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Mr. Brown never lapses into bathos or sentimentality. His characters confront catastrophe with all of the irony and stoicism of the blues and of black folklore. What's more, he is able to realize such splendid results in a variety of forms, including the classic and standard blues, the ballad, the sonnet and free verse. For the first time, we can appreciate Mr. Brown's full range, his mastery of so many traditions. (p. 16)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Songs of a Racial Self," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1981, pp. 11, 16.
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Brown is a master humorist, balladeer, storyteller, sonneteer, folklorist, mythmaker, historian, dialectician, tragedian, satirist, sentimentalist, blues hound, caricaturist, and cartographer of cultural geography. His work is informed by great characters (in both senses of that term,) and it's his faith in the common man and woman, and not just in heroic figures like Nat Turner and John Henry and Ma Rainey, that comprises the heart of Brown's art. Indeed, it's his knack for fleshing out the extraordinary anecdote in the ordinary life, the brutally graceful phrase found in the most common vernacular, and the potential for artistic elegance inherent in folk forms that distinguishes Brown as a central American poet of this century….
[The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown] is remarkable not only for its content … but also for its very presence. Thematically, the collection reveals the length of Brown's reach as he spars with America, jabbing at the differences between, and oft-hidden congruities, of black and white, rich and poor, public and private, tragic and comic; the landscape is rich with dramatic portraits of lynchers, lovers, numbers runners, the cotton-mouthed in cotton fields, the poor knee-deep in backwater blues, fed-up workers, unfed children, rail yard creepers, and Black & Tan cabaret leapers. Oh yes, he rhymes. He rhymes and swings. His use of the forms and feeling of spirituals, work songs, blues and jazz—fresh in the early '30s—has weathered extremely well. At a time when so much modern poetry seeks to be "difficult," it's invigorating to read some that seeks only to be deep—in images, rhythms, meanings. And Brown's is.
David Breskin, "Short Circuits: 'The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown'" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, January 14-20, 1981, p. 38.
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The verse of Sterling Brown does not stand up to comparison with the best of contemporary writing, including the best of contemporary Afro-American writing. The student of ethnic culture will, however, enjoy [The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown]. Brown is adept in his use of conventional verse forms, often drawing on the traditions of the blues, spirituals, and black folk-ballads. He displays an excellent ear for dialect, and unlike most literature in dialect, these poems are not written with the stereotypical attitudes about black people that one often finds. Brown used poetry not as an end in itself but as a vehicle for perpetuating the stories, legends, and songs of the Afro-American oral tradition. (p. 269)
Richard Tillinghast, "Arts and Letters: The First National Poetry Series," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1981 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 265-70.∗
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Brown will not, in the long run, be forgotten, I believe. And this recognition of him, though coming late, is a good thing. What we have in [The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown] … is about 220 pages taken from books Brown published regularly during his long career. And the most striking attribute of almost all of this poetry is its evident derivation from a profound knowledge of Blues, Jazz, and Spirituals…. Black Artists have been listening and recreating their art out of this enormously powerful legacy of music and poetry through this whole century, long before it became fashionable to look for what are called "roots," as though so much of the history of families in this country were not one of uprootedness or of being cut down again and again to the very roots.
Sterling A. Brown's distillation of Blues, Jazz and Spirituals is a lifetime's work of great poetic discipline and skill. One realizes this because it's almost impossible to imagine that he is the author, he himself, of these poems, and not just merely the collector of anonymously-created folk works…. [The combination of Blues and Work Song, with the poet's admixture of Social Protest, is] the essence of most of Brown's poetry, which from the beginning was strongly infused with anger at the illimitable and abominable injustice inflicted on his race after the Civil War which freed Black people from slavery. And being a true poet, he extends his words mercilessly through humor and satire, as well as deep fondness and affection for his people. In other words, he sees his people in the round, and not in the one-dimensionality of much of the Black poetry that came out of the 60's….
[Sterling Brown's poetry tells us all, Black and white,] that there never was any reason to wonder about what and who Black people are. Brown's work is all testimony, all bearing witness. He is one American poet who has fulfilled his life's work admirably. And there is never a weak, dull or dreary page in all his work. Brown has borne witness to the soul of the Black people in the 20th Century, and The Collected Poems bears witness to his fine understanding of the poet's mission in life. He surely deserves the widest recognition today.
Jascha Kessler, "'Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown'," in his radio broadcast on KUSC-FM—Los Angeles, CA, August 8, 1981.