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Modernity and Tradition in Sterling Brown’s Poetry: Intertextual Suggestions

p. 109-120

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1In a long interview I had the privilege to have with Sterling Brown during the summer of 1975, at his home in Washington, D. C., he revived for me some of his personal memories on the Harlem Renaissance and the early thirties, when Southern Road (his first and for a long time only book of poetry) was originally published. With his extremely gentle manners, his deep, intense, and truly fascinating talk, he managed to make very clear, among other things, that in his opinion the term “Harlem Renaissance” was in itself an ill-used definition for a relatively short literary and artistic flowering in which most of the African American individuals involved were not from Harlem, did not write about Harlem, didn’t show any collective consciousness of the place. Brown’s serene but firm position on this point (which he had convincingly and repeatedly been making throughout the years in a series of well-known essays and documents of various kinds1) seemed to reinforce that sense of intellectual autonomy one couldn’t help catching as a distinctive feature of his writings. He stressed that his aesthetic choices had come “naturally” to him, that they were part of his cultural background, consistent with his intellectual interests, in perfect key with his inner disposition. In other words, he tended to represent himself as a young artist engaged in pursuing his own goals with a frankness that set him somehow apart from the social and ideological implications of the debate of the time, which he of course knew very well, though he didn’t feel particularly eager to be part of it.

2Much the same attitude he showed concerning the situation of the mid-seventies, when, some forty years later, his strong sense of cultural identity, his apparently non-partisan and controlled position on the overheated, current debate again seemed to single him out from the majority of African American intellectuals, at the time deeply engaged in voicing their aesthetic and political beliefs. The blatant paradox of the entire situation being that a number of the artists then emerging, particularly among the “New Black Poets”, as at that time they were often called, seemed to refer (either implicitly or in very explicit terms) to Brown’s own poetry and to his literary work in general as to an example to be well kept in mind, and followed. The conversation that ensued on this subject well clarified in the end that that paradox was largely only apparent, and that in fact Brown’s younger fellow poets shared with him a significant series of convictions and ideals; on the other hand, it certainly served to confirm that his life-long, consistent choice to move along individually, as a man, scholar and artist who does not pay too much attention to vogues and fads, literary or otherwise, was a thing still very much cherished.

3The following comments take the lead from this very point, in an attempt to analyze the nature of Sterling Brown’s solitary march, mostly outside the ranks of groups or schools, in terms of a prerequisite for that creative independence that critics have often acknowledged as the basis of his literary accomplishments. This is where I find the germ of his modernity as a poet whose “individual talent” has never shunned away from an intense dialogue with tradition, at the same time avoiding to be burdened by it. Even though often subdued, partially hidden behind well-known cadences, Brown’s use of language shows a strong creative tension that makes it immune from dealing in stereotypes. This feature I would like to assess, by relating his work both to that of fellow poets of the Harlem Renaissance and to that of some of the Modernists. My concluding remarks will deal with the other side of Brown’s “modernity”, that is with his influence on African American poets of later generations, whom I see as the closest followers of his artistic signature and aesthetic teachings.

A matter of independence

4Sterling Brown’s artistic independence relies heavily upon an early recognition of Southern life as the core of the African American experience, as well as upon a wondrous linguistic versatility, a refined and cultivated sensibility, and an uncommon poetic ear. As Jean Wagner put it in his historical essay on Brown’s poetry that concludes his 1962 crucial work Les poètes Nègres des Etats-Unis:

... Sterling Brown s’est d’instinct tourné vers le Sud.... Par opposition à Langston Hughes, le poète de la ville, Sterling Brown est par excellence le poète du terroir.... C’est là que son nés les blues et les ballades dont il affectionne la forme pour y couler sa poésie... c’est là enfin que survit encore dans toute sa pureté native et dans toute sa richesse le langage savoureux et imagé qui est depuis toujours celui du peuple. (Wagner, 1962, 537.)

5Brown’s choice to turn to the South not simply as to an inspiring source for his work, but rather as to a cultural and historical reservoir to be carefully examined and thoroughly assimilated, undoubtedly bears a strong resemblance to Jean Toomer’s own resolve out of which Cane was conceived and composed. As Brown himself put it, in 1973, summing up his apprenticeship in Southern areas, while juxtaposing his field training to his formal education:

I taught at Virginia Seminary, where I learned a great deal that I could not learn at Williams (College; Mass.), I learned the strength of my people, I learned the fortitude. I learned the humor. I learned the tragedy. I learned from a wandering guitar player about John Henry, about Stagolee, about ‘The Ballad of the Bollweevil.’ I learned folktales. I learned folk stuff. (Harper and Stepto, 1979, 17.)

6If placed against the artistic background and the overall policy of the African American cultural élite in the second part of the twenties, however, Brown’s “realistic” touch, his non-episodic attachment to the folk and peasant roots of the South, his insistence on traditional figures of outcasts and outlaws can hardly be taken as a non intentional way of signaling his own distance from the urban-centered movement of the Harlemites. While the highly-suggestive and condensed imagistic prose and verse of Cane betrayed a deep absorption of modernistic techniques, Southern Roads seemed to move along a totally different path, as a self-conscious statement of poetic independence, deeply rooted in an African American folkloric grain, far apart from the experimental climate of the time.

7Brown’s aesthetic choices were indeed bold and somehow provocative: his language persistently revived a tradition of dialect poetry that the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the popular success of minstrelsy had contributed to render manneristic and ambiguous; diving right into a quagmire objectively perilous for a young emerging poet, his verse seemed to play directly in the hands of the party who maintained that the use of vernacular could seriously endanger the welfare of the newly-discovered African American literature. If placed within the broader socio-political context, Brown’s position moved in a direction that was openly at odds with the philosophy of urbanization and social uplift that was then sustaining the Great Migration of black masses Northward. And it is a well-known fact that among the advocates of that philosophy there were influent members of the black cultural élite who, like Alain Locke, had repeatedly and successfully championed the self-complacent view of Harlem as a lively, prosperous, and tumultuous Black Mecca. In their subdued and indirect way, Brown’s early poems, that Opportunity had started publishing in 1927, joined in stirring an atmosphere that Langston Hughes’s manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” had already agitated the year before, and that Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem would further upset the following year.2

8In spite of all this, however, Brown’s Southern Road won wide appraisal among some of the leading figures of the “New Negro Movement”, including James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke himself, neither of whom in previous years had shown great appreciation for dialect poetry. In writing the introduction to the book when it appeared in 1932, Johnson, eminent scholar and expert in black music and folklore as he was, emphasized the “uniqueness” of the author’s handling of his folk life “sources” as the major achievement of his work. In an article for Nancy Cunard’s Negro Anthology, entitled “Sterling Brown: The New Negro Folk Poet”, Alain Locke, on the other hand, went as far as writing, among other praises, that with Brown’s book black poetry had for the first time attained a “much desired and long-awaited acme” (Cunard, 1934, 111). It is perhaps worth noting that out of the 32 poems by young African American authors he had selected for his 1925 anthology The New Negro, none was in Black English, which implies that in the years between 1925 and 1934, when Cunard’s anthology was published, his outlook had somehow undergone considerable change. Tellingly enough, Locke’s appreciation for Southern Road lay to a great extent in what he saw as Brown’s ability in providing a significant link between the essence of the African American past and its language of the present, thus revealing an inner unity between the experience of the old and that of the new Negro.

9Finally, as an example of the rather widespread consensus by fellow poets and critics, white and black3, that Southern Road was able to command, Louis Untermeyer’s comments on Brown’s “detached” attitude (an aspect Locke himself had hinted at) seem to be particularly revealing in terms of the author’s deep sense of “independence” that has been so far discussed. Alluding to the uncommon strength of the poet’s language, to its apparently subdued, familiar ring, Untermeyer identifies Brown’s ability in never “raising his voice” as the hidden key to the penetrating power of its utterance —a comment that in itself seems well to sum up the unwavering, steady direction Brown’s work would always follow. That in spite of all the generous tokens of appreciation and admiration, Southern Road should remain for over forty years as the only book of poetry Brown was to publish, may still be puzzling. Undoubtedly, though highly praised, his unconventional treatment of stereotyped folk materials as well as his use of contemporary black speech (both relevant features of his modern notion of “individuality”) were not enough to bail him out of the circle of the “black and unknown bards” of old. Brown himself, after all, tended to dismiss the hypothesis that his long public silence as a poet could have been due to reasons other than the objective difficulty to be published during the Depression and the 1940s, and to his academic duties at Howard University.4 Fittingly enough, his rediscovery as a prominent modern poet would have to wait until the mid-seventies, when the second edition of Southern Road finally appeared.

Modernistic intersections

10Brown, of course, was not only very well acquainted with modernist poetry since the time of his studies at Williams College, but as a poet, scholar and professor of literature knew in depth the complexities of contemporary poetry as well as the intellectual subtleties of the so-called high modernist mode. Conversant with the technical experiments and innovations of Pound’s Cantos (which he candidly admitted not to have “dug completely”) he was familiar with the intricately allusive method of Eliot’s Waste Land he had studied at Harvard, and of which (again in his own words) he “worked out at that time a good exegesis”, getting to know the poem “almost by heart” (Brown, 1974, 20-22). Neither Eliot nor Pound, however, seem to have significantly influenced his work, whose own subtleties, if compared to those of the two encyclopedic expatriates, appear to be of an entirely different nature. A more intense proximity, on the other hand, seems to exist between Brown’s artistic outlook and that of other modern poets such as Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, and most of all Robert Frost, whose unadorned style and direct use of the rural “yankee” language Brown repeatedly emphasized as a major achievement of modern American poetry. With Frost, he shared that substantial modernity of vision that effaces from both of them deceptive “simplicity”; but, unlike Frost whose technique occasionally appears rather conservative and predictable, Brown never tired of experimenting with traditional forms. As Stephen Henderson has effectively put it, “... Brown combines the blues form and feeling with the ballad and, in effect, he ‘invents’ the blues-ballad which, as a literary phenomenon, is as distinctive as Wordsworth’s ‘lyrical ballad.’” (Henderson, 1973, 51.)

11In this line, however, Brown’s artistic relationship with the two “Midwestern Poets”, Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg, appears to be particularly interesting, though largely for opposite reasons. Lindsay, whose superficial, controversial acquaintance with African American music and folklore Brown never entirely forgave, is the direct target of sharp critical judgements in which he manages to partially lose his proverbial aplomb. Calling Lindsay’s celebrated poem “The Congo” a downright “monstrosity” (Brown, 1974, 20), Brown implicitly draws a clear dividing line between himself and Langston Hughes, whose appreciation for Lindsay’s poem, still in the years of his literary apprenticeship, is well-known and documented.5 Far from suggesting an animosity towards Hughes that to my knowledge Brown never really expressed, I’d like nevertheless to call attention to what seems to be a significant difference in the poetic stance of the two major poets of the so-called black “folk tradition”. Particularly evident during the period of the Harlem Renaissance proper, that difference shows, among other things, in the divergent attitudes the two poets show toward white patronage—a subject that Sterling Brown openly addresses in his famous 1927 piece entitled “Cabaret”, later included in Southern Road. In his piece, Brown seems engaged in a dialogical countering of the view of Harlem’s night life, that Hughes had expressed in his poem “Jazzonia” (incidentally, one of the three pieces he had originally given Lindsay to read) which had been reprinted, the previous year, in Hughes’s first collection, The Weary Blues. In his poem, Brown seems intent in showing the hidden face of cabaret life, concentrating, much like Hughes himself had done, on the figure of the black jazz player, only to convey an opposite view: that of an exploited performer, exposed to an eager, naive, heavily paternalistic, all-white audience. His bitterness contrasts sharply with Hughes’s energetic, passionate, rather emotional portrayal offered in “Jazzonia”, as it clearly shows from the following excerpt:

Rich, flashy, puffy-faced,
Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon,
The overlords sprawl here with their glittering darlings,
The smoke curls thick, in the dimmed light
Surreptitiously, deaf-mute waiters
Flatter the grandees

The jazz band unleashes its frenzy.

Now, now,
To it, Roger; that’s a nice doggie,
Show your tricks to the gentlemen.
The trombone belches, and the saxophone
Wails curdingly, the cymbals clash,
The drummer twitches in epileptic fit....(Brown, 1974, 115)

12It is only fair to add, to conclude, that in re-working the same subject some twenty years later6 (once Lindsay’s influence had obviously entirely subsided) Hughes himself would in turn propose a view of the black jazz musician much closer to that Brown had originally offered in his poem, all centered on the performer’s conscious role as an interpreter of his people’s endless exploitation and suffering.

13Of a totally different nature is Brown’s relation to Carl Sandburg’s poetry, whose notable collection, Chicago Poems (1916), seems to anticipate both a number of motives and technical solutions that, due differences being made, Southern Road would eventually display. Though Sandburg’s book, as the title indicates, is mainly concerned with the various, contradictory facets of a burgeoning urban context, his constant focus on single representatives of the working class, his closing in on their capacity to endure exploitation and reaffirm their aspirations and rights, do bear a substantial similarity with Brown’s analogous concerns, as they are expressed in his poems. Similarly, their frequent use of striking juxtapositions of contrasting moods, settings and situations7, as well as the abrupt, bitter ironic turns their poems not infrequently take provide further evidence of a common way of condensing the most striking contradictions of everyday life in clashing, concentrated images.

14Brown’s hectic line, characteristic of his compelling narrative poems, moreover, seems to serve to a large extent the same purpose as Sandburg’s powerful, if occasionally unruly free verse —that is conveying and amplifying the overall realistic impact of the poem, sustaining it with the flexibility of a rhythmic structure for the most part unadorned and unconstricted. Among the many possible examples, these lines from his famous piece “Strong Men”, may serve to illustrate this aspect:

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,
They ride in comfort over the roads you laid for them.
They put hammers in your hands

And said — Drive so much before sundown.

You sang:
Ain’t no hammah
In dis lan’,
Strikes lak mine, bebby,
Strikes lak mine. (Brown, 1974, 52.)

15Thus, Brown’s “connection” with Sandburg is particularly relevant not only in terms of an aesthetic contiguity between two prominent artists, but also as a case in point of a more general direction that African American poetry starts taking during the Depression years. As Stephen Henderson suggested, it is during that time that:

A step toward objectification and distancing of personal involvement occurs when the poet depicts either real or imaginary Black figures. Here the technique, of course, merges with that of other literary traditions, at times rather obviously so, as in the case of the realistic writers of the thirties being under the influence of Carl Sandburg, E. A. Robinson, and other American whites. (Henderson, 1973, 23.)

From Modernism to Modernity

16Brown’s experiments with modernistic techniques, his involvement with subjects, scenes and language taken from every-day life, and most of all his consistent use of blues and ballad forms since the mid-twenties, are relevant reasons for his enduring success among artists and intellectuals of later generations. The “modernity” of his aesthetic vision (not unlike that of Langston Hughes) has had a major impact on a number of African American poets,8 writers and critics who have been repeatedly paying homage to his personality, acknowledging the vital role he has played both as a creative interpreter of the folk tradition, and as the enlightening, influential observer of the black literary and cultural experience for the better part of the 20th Century. Indeed, Sterling Brown has gradually become something of a cultural hero, a historical figure whose presence in and positive influence on the black community has been often celebrated, particularly in the works of fellow poets who have drawn from his example. The extremely wide diffusion of blues poetry since the late Sixties would by itself testify to Brown’s poetry’s influence in the recent past—an aspect that becomes even more central if one considers the increasing relevance that the performance of the text has gained as “final” stage of the artistic communication between the poet and his/her audience. Also from this perspective, Sterling Brown’s well-known ability as reader and performer of his own, as well as of traditional texts should be seen as the touch of a gifted precursor whose lesson has fortunately been picked up by many others. Because of this, I would like to conclude with a few remarks on two contemporary poets like Etheridge Knight and Michael Harper, who, perhaps more effectively than other artists, seem to have turned Sterling Brown’s “teachings” into a vital asset of their own work.

17One of the most striking aspects of Etheridge Knight’s personality is that he was able to bail himself out of his life as an outcast and a convict thanks to his somehow late, but truly intense encounter with poetry. As a drop-out first, and later as an inmate, he had learned from scratch the difficult art of oral self-defense, assimilating the technicalities of toasts and dozens as part of his resource supply for daily survival, well before turning that same reservoir of first-hand knowledge into material for his writing. He had worked hard both to survive as a man and to emerge as a poet, and, as a memorable line of one his best-known poems goes, “he had the scars to prove it” (Knight, 1968, 11). From this standpoint, his closeness to Brown’s world seems to extend beyond the limits of a mere coincidence in literary interests and taste, since Knight’s own experience closely resembles that of many a bad-man that populates the older poet’s work: his familiarity with the raw materials of that popular tradition, with its different genres, characters and situations going back to his origins.

18Knight’s frequent use of Southern landscapes, of rural Mississippi settings in particular, is also reminiscent of Brown’s favorite scenarios; a harsh background, made of “brown hills and red gullies”, that binds his stray wanderers to the “black earth” of their native environment, while at the same time affecting what often appears an unexpected upsurge of their worn-out sense of belonging. Poems like “One Day We Shall All Go Back”, “The Bones of My Father”, “A Poem for Myself” (all of them published in Belly Song and Other Poems) are telling examples of the insistence with which this particular motive keeps reappearing in Knight’s poetry. As it is often the case with Brown’s low-down heroes, the call of the rural roots in the South is what triggers an intimate revelation (sometimes rather evident, other times a barely perceptible one) that heightens the characters’ sense of identification with the land that was abandoned, its people and its warm, familiar atmosphere. Interestingly enough, Knight’s handling of the “Down South” theme (a characteristic motive of the blues tradition) is far from being romantic or self-indulgent, but rather shows a distinctive turn towards self consciousness and affirmative action:

One day we shall go back —
we shall all go back down home
to the brown hills and red gullies down home
where the blood of our fathers
has fed the black earth down home

We shall all go back down home
to avenge Medgar, and Martin, and lil Emmettt Till,
and all the others who died the good death down home —
back—back to avenge our fathers and mothers killed and raped....
(Knight, 1973,48.)

19Knight’s Southern characters, as these lines clearly show, have come of age. Granted, their “marching home” may not properly be that of “De Saints” of old; their maturity and determination, however, is an ascertained fact, much like that of Sterling Brown’s “Strong Men”, who “keep a-coming on/Gittin’stronger.” (Brown, 1974, 53.) That Sterling Brown has been a vital presence in Michael Harper’s development as an artist since the years of his apprenticeship is a well-known fact that the younger poet has often acknowledged in his critical work and in his poems, as well as in public statements, interviews, and perhaps most of all through his editorship of The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, originally published in 1980, and since then repeatedly reprinted. Their common concern with tradition is certainly a significant part of an aesthetic vision that calls for a heightened sense of responsibility towards their audience, for a clear understanding of their role as cultural mediators in a given historical time. From this standpoint, Harper’s poetry can indeed be interpreted as an articulated extension of the main lines of Brown’s creative and scholarly efforts, a suggestive and varied body of work that coherently moves towards a bold, creative fusion between subjects like racial memory, endurance, personal and collective responsibility, and a constant attention to verbal play, rhythm and jazz-like improvisations. To stretch it a bit for clarity’s sake, one could say that John Coltrane is to Harper what Ma’ Rainey is to Brown —not merely a folk hero to be celebrated and passed on to posterity as a cultural duty, but rather an individual voice whose vital témoignage has to be revived, made clear and effective in the present because of its inner, powerful significance to daily experience.

20The strong sense of kinship and solidarity with one’s own subjects that this operation implies seems to be yet another trait that both Harper and Brown share, their language being able to convey with heightened intensity the inner meaning of those voices, to reproduce, as it were, the full impact of that communication. Fittingly enough, the relationship between the two is said to have started upon a revealing hearing of Brown’s recordings by a still young Harper9; to have grown out of the common interest for orality that they have always shared, and that has led them, consequently, to view the performance of the text as the logical outcome of their own activity as poets. The “audibility” of the text works for both as a synonym of its social impact —what makes it bite, move, impress; in the final analysis, what makes it worth to be a poem at all. Like Brown’s, Harper’s texts insistently draw from the blues tradition, eventually moving on up to elaborate poetic schemes that, in jazz-like fashion, rely heavily upon improvisation —on irregular rhythmical punctuation, on alternated sound explosions and “circular” repetitions, on a synthesis of technical devices that, like jazz signatures, are never “accidental”10. Like Brown’s, Harper’s overriding concern (hence his occasional comments on some critics’ partial misreadings of his own pieces) is that a poem should speak by itself, be perfectly audible by audiences who have an ear. Moving in the tradition, constantly reviving it through a consistent work of innovation, finding new meaningful connections between past and present in an endlessly rocking, sharply dialectic (and dialogic) process is Harper’s updated version of Sterling Brown’s own credo. It is that very symbiosis, that mutual correspondence of intents that one hears speak loud in Harper’s powerful poetic portrait of his mentor, entitled “Br’er Sterling and the Rocker”:

Any fool knows a Br’er in a rocker
is a boomerang incarnate; look at the blade
of the rocker, that wondrous crescent
rockin’ in arness as poem.

To speak of poetry is the curled line straightened;
to speak of doubletalk, the tongue
gone pure, the stoic line a trestle
whistlin’, a man a train comin’ on:

Listen Br’er Sterling
steel-drivin’ man, folk-said, folk sayin’,
that chair’s a blues-harness star
turnin’ on its earthly axis;

Miss Daisy, latch on that star’s arc,
Hold on sweet mama; Br’er Sterling’s rocker glows.
(Harper, 1985, 58.)


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Works cited

10.1353/cal.1998.0207 :

Brown, Sterling, 1974. Southern Road. Boston: Beacon.

Cunard, Nancy, Ed., 1934. Negro Anthology. Wishart C°.

Harper, Michael, 1985. Healing Song for the Inner Ear: Poems. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Harper, M. S. and R. B. Stepto, Eds., 1979. Chant of Saints. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Henderson, Stephen, 1973. Understanding the New Black Poetry. New York: William Morrow.

Knight, Etheridge, 1968. Poems from Prison. Detroit: Broadside Press.

----, 1973. Belly Song and other Poems. Detroit: Broadside Press.

Wagner, Jean, 1962. Les Poètes nègres des Etats-Unis. Paris: Istra.

Notes de bas de page

1 I allude, for example, to Sterling Brown’s Negro Poetry and Drama, Washington, D. C., The Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1937, to his editorship, with A. P. Davis and U. Lee, of The Negro Caravan, New York, Dryden Press, 1941, and to his essay, “The New Negro in Literature”, in R. Logan et al. (eds.). The New Negro Thirty Years Afterwards, Washington, D. C., Howard U. P., 1955.

2 Langston Hughes’s article, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, was published in The Nation (June 23, 1926); on Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, see W. E. B. Du Bois’s bitter review, entitled “Two Novels”, in The Crisis (June 1928), Vol. 35, No. 5, 202.

3 On the reception to the publication of Southern Road, see Sterling Stuckey’s “Introduction” to the reprint of Brown’s book (Brown, 1974, xvi-xxiii.)

4 I derived this impression directly from the interview Sterling Brown gave me in July 1975, in Washington, D. C.

5 On L. Hughes’s first meeting with Vachel Lindsay, see his autobiography, The Big Sea, New York: Hill & Wang, 1963 (-1940),. 212. Hughes in fact admits of being partially indebted to Lindsay for what he calls “my first publicity break”.

6 I allude to “Trumpet Player: 52nd Street”, a poem originally published in his 1947 collection Fields of Wonder, and later included in Hughes’s exhaustive 1959 Selected Poems.

7 A marked similarity on these levels seems to link several of Brown’s poems to Sandburg’s; see, for example, “Strong Men” and “Child of the Romans”.

8 It would be too long to enumerate even only the names of African American poets and artists who have openly paid homage to Brown; let it suffice to recall here Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Sonia Sanchez, Michael Harper, and Rita Dove, just to emphasize his enduring impact on poets belonging to different generations.

9 See Clark, Norris B. “Michael S. Harper”, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41, 163-164.

10 Martin, Reginald, 1990. “An Interview with Michael Harper”. Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3, 442.

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