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Stephen Vincent Ben?t, Editor

Excerpt from the Foreword to For My People

Straightforwardness,

directness, reality are good things to find in a young poet. It is rarer to find them combined with a

controlled intensity of emotion and a language that, at times, even when it is most

modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry.

And it is obvious that Miss Walker uses that language because it comes

naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A

contemporary writer, living in a contemporary world, when she speaks of and for her people

older voices are mixed with hers–the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who

preached the Word, the anonymous voices of many who lived and were forgotten and yet out

of bondage and hope made a lasting music. Miss

Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices–I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving

poetry because it was written by a Negro. It

is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage–and poetry must exist in

its own right. These poems keep on talking to

you after the book is shut because, out of deep feeling, Miss Walker has made living and

passionate speech.

"We

Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For My

People"–they are full of the rain and the sun that fall upon the faces and shoulders

of her people, full of the bitter questioning and the answers not yet found, the pride and the disillusion and

the reality. It is difficult for me to read

these poems unmoved–I think it will be difficult for others. Yet it is not only the larger problems of her

"playmates in the clay and dust" that interest Margaret Walker–she is

interested in people wherever they are. In

the second section of her book you will find ballads and portraits–figures of legend,

like John Henry and Stagolee and the uncanny Molly Means–figures of realism like Poppa

Chicken and Teacher and Gus, the Lineman, who couldn’t die–figures of "old Man

River, round New Orleans, with her gumbo, rice, and good red beans." They are set for voice and the blues, they could

be sung as easily as spoken. And, first and

last, they are a part of our earth.

Miss Walker

can write formal verse as well; she can write her own kind of sonnet. But, in whatever medium she is working, the note

is true and unforced. There is a deep

sincerity in all these poems–a sincerity at times disquieting. For this is what one American has found and

seen–this is the song of her people, of her part of America. You cannot deny its honesty, you cannot deny its

candor. And this is not far away or long

ago–this is part of our nation, speaking.

From

Stephen Vincent Ben?t, foreword, For My People, by Margaret Walker, Yale Series of

Younger Poets. 41. ed. Stephen Vincent Ben?t

(New Haven: Yale UP, 1942) 5-6.

Elizabeth Drew

Excerpt from "The Atlantic Bookshelf"

It

is often argued that the critic’s business is to judge poetry entirely as poetry; but

poetry cannot exist apart from its subject matter, and most of the subject matter of this

volume has a specific interest. It evokes

immediately in the reader the whole social and human situation in America between the

colored and the white peoples.

Miss Walker

speaks in a variety of verse forms. The poem

which gives its name to the volume uses a chanting rhythm, Biblical in pattern but

entirely modern in vocabulary; there is a section of rhyming ballads, creating character

sketches of figures of legend or reality; and there are original experiments in the sonnet

form. All have a peculiar genuineness of tone

quality–the quality of the speaking voice, not of literary artifice.

From

Elizabeth Drew, "The Atlantic Bookshelf," rev. of For My People, by

Margaret Walker, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1942: 166.

Leon Whipple

Excerpts from "Songs for a Journey"

[Whipple

reviews Edna St. Vincent Millay's The Murder of Lidice, Margaret Walker's For My

People, Franklin P. Adams' Innocent Merriment, and Alfred Noyes' The Edge of

the Abyss.]

Chant and

ballad, ode and elegy and hymn–we stand in need of such communal poetry, of songs that

will release our emotions and voice our hope for the union of peoples, after war. We do not mean battle-songs or paeans of victory,

but the poems that become our common prayer. The

poetry we seek–and know not where to find–is that of the true maker who can, by the power of his feeling and the

glory of his word, sum up the national ethos,

and the national suffering, and bestow upon the heroic event a universal and timeless

meaning. The communal poets of the Bible

created a people and a faith. Whittier and

Walt Whitman and Lincoln, the poet, spoke a vision for America. Today, the occasions for poetry are supreme and

worldwide, not in the deeds, but in the spirit of men: in the men of Dunkirk and the

people of Russia, in all the Expendables, in the tragedy of refugee and guerilla. Is not the dream of the four freedoms worth

celebration? Do not the very words, United

Nations, challenge an ode of a poet of the inter-nation, from China, or India?

Prose will

not do–even though Mr. Churchill, not as war-leader, but as voice of the British people

in peril, spoke with magnificent eloquence, and Vice-President Wallace proclaimed the

noble creed within many hearts. The

journalist has recorded better than ever before the courage and sacrifice of plain men,

but his words fade with the day. The

advertiser, publicity man, and propagandist, rouse our emotions, but for small or

ephemeral ends. We distrust them, and the

politician, even when they speak truth.

The people

now discipline themselves to endure in silence, with the stoic courage that is ever their

glory. Men go to war, into silence, and

silence fills their homes. What man or woman

can say what each suffers? The poet can, and

can offer catharsis for the emotions that endanger the spirit. We need the comfort of sharing in communal hymns

that may soften loss and endow senseless death with meaning. The poet can restore our faith and vision. Poets are the final creators of morale.

. . .

The poems

of Margaret Walker of Alabama are communal singing, distilled from the long suffering of

her race, that holds in memory the bitter past–and questions today. This is American poetry for Americans, and beyond,

for all races that suffer in bonds, the disinherited of the earth who seek now their

heritage. What modern lines hold deeper

meaning than these?

The struggle staggers us

for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.

And this is more than fighting to exist;

more than revolt and war and human odds.

There is a journey from the me to you.

There is the a journey from the you to me.

A union of the two strange worlds must be.

That

is universal poetry–Asia and Africa echo this plea.

What a proof of the miraculous power of impassioned language! What a mystery of Providence that this young girl

can speak for millions! Because she does not

speak for herself.

This

wisdom has deep roots, deeper in southern life than the roots of its people, she declares,

because of her communion through blood and bone with sun and earth. From the Delta the blood-line runs back "to

the tropical lands of my birth that, on return to Mobile, may reconcile the pride and pain

in me." With this emotion she composed

the title poem, "For My People," an epitome of Negro sufferings and weakness,

both a history, and an indictment. Again she

speaks for many Peoples: "trying to fashion a world that will hold all people, all

the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations."

The

verse form is compressed, yet free. This poet

returns to the Bible. "The controlled

intensity of emotion and the language have something of the surge of biblical

poetry," says Stephen Vincent Ben?t, in his fine introduction to this volume in the

Yale Series of Younger Poets. The spirituals,

too, have lessoned her tongue, and the personal ballad and work song to which she gives a

sardonic moral twist in the odd characters of Molly Means or Bad-Man Stagolee. She has confronted life in streets and fields, and

by her genius enlarges experience into universal symbols that arouse emotion. Such poems can help save the future from the past.

From

Leon Whipple, "Songs for a Journey," rev. of For My People, by Margaret

Walker, Survey Graphic, Dec. 1942: 599.

Arna Bontemps

Excerpts from "Let My People Grow!"

Margaret Walker, the young colored woman whose poems are the latest to be

included in the series [Yale Series of Younger Poets], comes forth, however, with the

anachronous assumption that poets are entitled to be heard on the problems of living in a

real, hard-time world of depression and war. She speaks for a minority group, the one to

which she belongs, to the majority; and it would be interesting, if one had the leisure

and inclination, to compare her findings–arrived at intuitively–with those of the

surveys.

Miss Walker, for example, looks forward to the evolution of "The Great

Society" in a "world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams

and Eves and their countless generations." She sees her people rebelling against

hypocrisy–meaning, presumably, against the dissimulation by which the bitter, offended

black man is often forced to live in some sections. She marks a struggle between pride and

pain, the near-hopeless task of trying to maintain dignity under indignities. And she pins

the blame for all the distress on the "money-hungry, glory-craving leeches."

Simply put, her complaint is that her people are deceived and cheated.

The Negro’s progress, so called, his quick achievement, his contribution to music, and

all of that, leave Miss Walker quite cold.

[. . . .]

Yet there is anything but despair in "For My People":

Now the needy no longer weep

and pray; the long-suffering arise,

and our fists bleed against the bars

with a strange insistency.

[. . . .]

The ballads and sonnets of the second and third sections of this book are interesting

for other reasons. They show that preoccupation with the greater problems of her

"playmates in the clay and dust" have in no wise detracted from Margaret

Walker’s understanding of their folk ways. She has a genuine sympathy for low-down folks

like "Molly Means," "Poppa Chicken," and "Kissie Lee."

From Arna Bontemps, "Let My People Grow!," rev. of For My People, by

Margaret Walker, The New York Herald Tribune Books 3 Jan. 1943: 3.

Louis Untermeyer

Excerpt from "Cream of the Verse"

[For

my People was one of eleven books reviewed by Louis Untermeyer in the following

article.]

Margaret

Walker’s "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year’s selection

in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the

competitive honor. The title is not only apt

but more than ordinarily expressive. These

are poems which reflect the individual and a race, poems in which the body and spirit of a

great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity. The book is by no means flawless. The sonnets in the third section are loosely

rhetorical and, for the most part, commonplace. The

dialect verses which compose the second section are faltering imitations of gutter blues,

swaggering ballads, and hearty folk-stuff; they read like nothing so much as Langston

Hughes turned soft or Paul Laurence Dunbar turned sour.

The

first section of Miss Walker’s first book is verse of quite another genre. It is emotional but seldom hysterical,

disillusioned but not easily despondent; it is sharply contemporary and grimly

unflinching. Its occasional crudities, its

over-ready reliance on clich?s are more than balanced by the firm candor and the

intensity–an intensity so racially deep and so personally affecting that it must move any

but a determinedly careless, or callous, reader.

From

Louis Untermeyer, "Cream of the Verse," rev. of For My People, by

Margaret Walker, The Yale Review 32 (1943): 370-71.

George Zabriskie

Excerpts from "The Poetry of Margaret Walker"

Simply

and directly, she [Walker] speaks for the Negro, North and South, . . .

. .

.

–It

is her acceptance of difference, and her ability to put it in its proper place, without

posing, without forcing a role of Negro poet in distinction to any other kind of poet

which gives her freshness of content, and the promise of becoming an important voice in

American poetry. This first section shows

rather well that she has comprehended and accepted her role as artist and artisan, and met

the challenge of her specific situation in an adequate fashion.

The

second section of the book, composed of ballads, is less fortunate. The ballads are, as academic artifacts, rather



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