The Howard Poets
by Winston Napier
The prevailing omission of the Howard
Poets from general surveys of American poetry has been unfortunate.
Not only have they achieved an intellectual vigor and a literary standard
which easily competes with many more celebrated movements, but in many
ways they aesthetically predate and qualitatively surpass the more popular
writers of the Black Arts Movement. Of this group which flourishes between
1958 and 1961, Eugene Redmond writes in Drumvoices:
...the Howard Poets represent one
of the toughest intellectual strains in contemporary Black poetry.
Maybe the fact of their such diverse interests, background and training
aided in their vitality, virtuosity and power. To be sure, these are
conscious poets; but—avoiding slogans and sentimental hero worship—they
represent precise analysis and interpretation of their world...A concern
for civil rights and Black struggle merges with an awareness of "the
bomb," middle class pretensions, history, mythology, religion...jazz
The effort towards an accurate determination
of the individuals who comprise the Howard Poets has not been easy.
The primary cause of this is the tendency on the part of most critics
to consider the Howard Poets as synonymous with a hybrid group known
as the Dasein poets. This scholastic lapse is easily explained
by the fact that the Dasein movement emerged from a journal
of the same name, itself originated and published solely under the control
of the Howard Poets, but both reflect two different movements, two different
periods, with one necessarily growing out of the other. Accordingly,
to speak of the Howard Poets is to speak only of those writers who read
their works as a joint community of young intellectuals enrolled at
Howard University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They include the
following six: Walter De Legall, Alfred Fraser,
Oswald Govan, Percy Johnston, Leroy
Stone and Joseph White.
The Dasein movement, it is
important to restate, derives from the publishing efforts of the Howard
Poets, a venture through which the latter expanded their audience beyond
that of the oral readings to a much larger one afforded by the printed
page. Hence, the Dasein poets existed only as a community in
print. In fact, any poet whose works were published in Dasein
and who was not part of the original six-man reading ensemble is strictly
a member of the Dasein grouping (this would include Richard
Eberhart, Lance Jeffers and Owen
Dodson). The insistence on this separation is more easily
understood when one realizes that the Dasein poets as a rule
never had much if any social contact with each other, and it is precisely
this form of contact, this proximity, which fueled the vibrancy and
established the groundwork that defines the Howard Poets.
As a group, the Howard Poets, in the
wake of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education,
were self-consciously serious about their roles as the symbols of black
America's academic and cultural growth. Under the lessened but by no
means obliterated stain of de facto racism, they actively sought to
demonstrate that the black man was a serious intellectual contender
who in greater numbers and with increased confidence was ready to challenge
anyone who hoped to claim otherwise. It is significant that in 1959,
the November 2 issue of The Hilltop, Howard's student newspaper
(at that time under the editorial leadership of Leroy Stone),
was dedicated to the spirit of intellectual leadership and responsibility
in black American culture. "We are," wrote Stone, "particularly
interested in the student culture on our campus; [sic] specifically,
in the status of a tradition of love for scholarship and learning..."
And while he maintained that he would prefer to see a more powerful
and comprehensive commitment to this status, Stone also stated that
"presently scholarship and learning as a cultural value has substantial
force in our community."
That Howard University was their arena
has much to do with the racial and intellectual pride which describes
the Howard Poets. The university exposed them to the best of America's
minds, affording them such teachers and advisors as Winston
MacAllister, William Banner, Sterling
Brown, Ralph Bunch, Mercer Cook,
Arthur P. Davis, Owen
Dodson, John Hope Franklin, E.
Franklin Frazier, Eugene Holmes, Mordecai
Johnson and James Nabrit. "Howard,"
says Percy Johnston, "was great because we could
see E. Franklin Frazier going across campus and talk
to him. We could see Brown and Holmes and the others who were writing
all the books to begin with. The basis of so many of the things which
had started Black Studies these men had created, and we had them for
Brown, in particular, remains perhaps the most influential
teacher the Howard Poets studied under. All had at least taken his famous
Introduction to World Literature or his pioneer courses in Afro-American
Literature and in some way all were inspired by him. As Owald
We were conscious of being Black.
We were conscious that our experiences were unique and that our uniqueness
was something valuable. We were conscious that our art could provide
a different perspective, that we were a resource, and I think Sterling
Brown influenced us more in that regard than anybody else. Sterling
Brown made no attempt in his poetry to be white, to mimic the white
poets. He was not self-conscious about being overtly Black, and that
In general, the students at Howard had
a great deal of regard for Brown as both cultural anthropologist and
poet. Walter De Legall describes him as a "contemporary
hero of ours," and adds that he remembers Brown as "the kind
who was very supportive of the students. He reached out and was very
accessible, and he opened him home to us. We could visit him and listen
to his records and talk."
Another figure who was at Howard at
the time and who provided moral support which helped nurture the development
of the Howard Poets was Antonia Wofford, a young instructor in the English
department who was later to publish under the name Toni Morrison.
She promoted the group, and as Govan says, "She took a tremendous
shine to us." He adds:
She had just come down from Cornell,
had not published anything, and no one took her seriously as a writer.
But she took us seriously. She spent a great deal of time with us.
She was one of the few faculty members...who would attend parties
that we had, and she heard a great deal of our poetry.
In addition to the immediate influence
of Howard's intelligentsia, the poets were also influenced by the study
of philosophy. In fact philosophy was the only subject they shared with
any decided concentration; it was Johnston's graduating major and others',
except for White who dropped out of school in his junior year, graduating
minor. They were therefore well versed in the principles and histories
of various schools of philosophy and were attuned to the philosophical
movements which were in vogue at the time: French Existentialism, Logical
Positivism, Marxism and Phenomenology. Consequently, it is not uncommon
to find in some of their works allusions to philosophical events, issues,
or personages. Johnston in particular often displays in his earlier
period a familiarity with Western philosophy, so much so that he would,
says De Legall, often achieve a conceptual density which would sometimes
alienate his audience. The following, from "Lines Written After
a Tour of Library Stacks," offers a probable example of this:
Schiller and Goethe could advise but
Saporlite covers their Wissenschaft, while yellowing
Leaves of New Masses mourn for the poppies in Granada.
They're dying in Iberia! We're informed by
Musty newsprint from New Deal days...I am
Docile. Have I accepted David Hume's design
For aid stations?
But Johnston could also be irreverent
towards philosophy; inasmuch as he often appealed to its seriousness,
he could on occasion lampoon its posture as in a work titled "Lines
of the Practical and Theoretical/Results of the Impact of Urban Industrial/Conditioned
Social Philosophy on Aesthetic/Delight and/or Psychological Well Being,/With
Special Reference to the Deterioration of/Beneficial Hedonism."
The complete poem reads:
They don't get high for joy
In America no more!
The Howard Poets' connection with philosophy
was not limited to the European strain and, accordingly, was not restricted
to the materialism and anti-metaphysical legacies of British empiricism.
Oswald Govan, a mathematician by major, was, like his
fellow poets, attracted by the spiritual issues of Eastern philosophy.
When he arrived at Howard in the Fall of 1957, there was, he says, a
growing feeling among the young that the country's problems could not
be corrected by withdrawing into a conformist materialistic society
driven by hedonism. "If we were going to form a new society, we'd
have to recognize all the dimensions of what it meant to be human. This
showed in the Howard Poets through a lot of us being interested in Eastern
philosophy." They were attentive to what the Hindus and the Buddhists
had to say, and in a work like "The Return," one finds Govan's
poetic attempt to represent the gyana swaroopa, the yogic state
of perfect consciousness, then return to the kraal of true being. Here
the universal mantra leads the way:
Ommm m m m...
Silent the breaths,
renowned these depths.
Jeweled each eternal shocking instant
While for De Legall in his "Psalm
for Sonny Rollins," it is jazz which will "Lead us to truth/To
order, to Zen./Lead us to Poetry,/To love, to God."
Jazz, like philosophy, was an important
source of themes and allusions for the Howard Poets. Even their poetic
structures and rhythms were more often than not based on cadential patterns
they could abstract from its sounds. Culturally, they all had well established
roots in jazz and were celebrating its music well before the Beats,
en masse, adopted it as their euphony. Al Fraser, for
example, was already closely associated with Dizzy Gillespie
when he came to Howard in 1958, having toured with the impresario's
band in various adjunct roles. He was later to author Gillespie's biography.
Additionally, Johnston's father had been a drummer with Duke Ellington's
orchestra, exposing his son to jazz as a way of life.
The Howard Poets saw jazz as a means
by which to liberate poetry from the traditional forms of meter, and
through it they sought to actualize the aesthetic gesture of exploring,
taming and distilling their poetry. They work graphically symbolized
the tonal lines of various jazz greats, so that the poems varied from
the syntactic sparsity of a Monk or Davis-inspired opus, as in the case
of Stone's "Comments on Snow," to the more dense, longer lines
inspired by Coltrane or Mingus, as in the case of De Legall's "Psalm
for Sonny Rollins." These works reflect what Steven Henderson
correctly identifies as a "tonal memory" through which "sound,
in effect, becomes the persona." Consequently, the poem becomes
both score and chart, as in "Number Five Cooper Square," where
Percy Johnston unites syntax with the onomatopoeic
blasts of percussion sounds to produce a structure of interrupted measure
and fused balance: "A/Memphis boy is cooking Blakey style—/Wham!
Scit! Wham! Scit!" This demonstrates clearly the aesthetic principle
of which the Howard Poets were most uniformly conscious, namely, that
poetry was a marriage of music and meaning. As Walter De Legall says,
"We had jazz in us as much as we had blood in our veins."
The Howard Poets began forming as a
body in the Fall of 1958. Percy Johnston and Oswald
Govan decided to establish a more active spirit for poetry
on Howard's campus at a time when the predominance of coffee shop recitals
had placed the genre in a light of popularity it had never before experienced
among America's young. With Johnston and Govan as the primary movers,
the rest, through a combination of talent and association, eventually
completed the community. Alfred Fraser, who was Govan's
roommate in Howard's Cook Hall, was the third member to join the group,
with Joseph White (who also lived in Cook Hall) and
Leroy Stone (who was Johnston's colleague on The
Hilltop) following suit. The final member was Walter De
Legall who arrived at Howard in the Spring semester of 1959,
almost seven months after the first meeting between Govan and Johnston.
De Legall, who had already been reading his poetry in the coffee houses
of Philadelphia, his home town, met the rest of the Howard Poets through
White, with whom he had grown up. By February of 1959 the group was
In May of 1959, Leroy Stone
was writing in The Hilltop that Howard had its own poetry revival,
and with the first public reference to the group as the Howard Poets,
he stated the following: "There have always been poets on campus;
but last year some students after watching the rise of young poets throughout
the country, decided that a school of poets existed at Howard and they
might be called 'Howard Poets.'" In the short period between February
1959 and May 1960, their popularity as campus poets was meteoric. They
were constantly in demand to read at various social functions on and
off campus. They were invited to other universities in the Washington
area, and poets like Allen Ginsberg and Le Roi Jones
(Amiri Baraka) came to know their works, having at
one time or another heard them read. They were invited as a group from
Howard to read their poetry at the Library of Congress (Eberhart was
then Consultant in Poetry), and were celebrated by the noted Dutch anthologist
of Black American poetry and former teacher of Anne Frank,
Rosey Poole, who would later publish some of their
works in the seminal anthology, Beyond the Blues (1962). (She
was the first person to introduce the Howard Poets to an international
audience.) In the meantime the Howard community had come to recognize
these young poets as a functioning creative unit of the university,
and, says De Legall, "we felt our importance."
At the height of their public acceptance
internal problems began to creep in. At this time both Johnston and
Stone were graduating seniors and felt it was time to break out of their
molds as campus poets. Govan recollects:
They were conscious that they were
facing career choices of what to do with their lives. Percy and Leroy
agreed that it was time to try for a national break. They wanted me
to join them. We would make a break just for ourselves, publish just
for ourselves and read as a three man group. I disagreed, and we had
a very serious falling out. I don't think we spoke to each other for
about six months. Percy and Leroy stated their position by publicly
excluding everybody else.
The following event, documented in The
Hilltop, strongly supports Govan's comments. The article, ironically
written by De Legall, reports that on April 11, 1960, the Alpha Kappa
Alpha sorority hosted "a highly successful evening of poetry...featuring
campus poets Leroy Stone and Percy Johnson in what may be considered
their professional debut." As De Legall recalls today, none of
the ther poets was informed of this reading, and all felt they had been
slighted by Johnston and Stone. This careless gesture would signal the
end of the Howard Poets as a poetic orchestra. (Any future reuinion
would occur only in print.)
Given the tensions and submerged feelings
at the AKA reading, De Legall did not use his authority as review critic
to engage himself totally in polemics. He described Johnston's "Audata"
as a "poignant description of youth's intuitive insight into the
nature of things." He found Stone's "Ode to a Little Boy"
a penentrating picture of youth and innocence set against a philosophical
vista." But he also found Johnston's works "metaphorically
burdened," adding that the poet "seemingly recognizes no discipline,
not even that which is self-imposed." Stone's poetry, he concluded,
is, by the poet's own admission, "rarely stimulated by that which
is not protest or jazz in nature." Stone was significantly disconcerted
by this comment, and, to De Legall's annoyance, took full advantage
of his powers as editor-in-chief to respond on the same page of the
review. The following is part of what Stone had to say in an obviously
anguished defense of his poetry:
I want to point out that the statement...that...the
content of my poetry is confined to jazz or protest is false. I stated
that jazz inspired me to write, and its rhythms influenced my poetic
style, and that emotional problems motivated me to seek poetry where
prose in unfitted for the job of dramatization. This by no means implies
that the contents of my poetry are limited to jazz and protest. They
This public quarrel only succeeded in
exacerbating the schism in the Howard Poets, and by May of that year,
both Stone and White had left the university, never to return (the former
having graduated, the latter dropping out following the death of his
In the Fall of 1960 Johnston, then a
graduate student in Howard's Department of English, was still earnestly
trying to get his works published by the major houses. It was his lack
of success which led to the creation of Dasein. "I remember,"
says De Legall, "Percy saying, 'We don't have to beg anybody to
publish us. What is a publisher anyway?'—And with that Dasein
came into existence." On March 1, 1961, Dasein made its
literary debut. By then the remaining Howard Poets had resolved their
differences and joined Johnston in this landmark project. In fact, it
was Govan who selected the title for the journal, abstracting it from
his readings in German Phenomenology (the literal translation is "being
Dasein was celebrated as the
nation's newest journal of the arts in The Hilltop and was
the first of its kind to be published at Howard. Quoted in The Hilltop,
Johnston stated that the journal was being published to "provide
an exhibition place for contemporary art in all the media that can be
reduced to the printed page." The first issue contained more than
twenty-five works, including a memorial for Richard Wright
by Professor Eugene Holmes and poems by Professor Owen
Dodson, Lance Jeffers, Delores
Kendrick and five of the Howard Poets. Although Joseph
White did not publish in this issue, he nevertheless was listed,
along with Fraser, Govan, and Stone, as a contributing editor. De Legall
was editor and Johnston, paying for production costs with money out
of his own pocket and from subscriptions and small donations, was publisher.
The advisory board was comprised of Sterling
Brown, Arthur P. Davis, Owen
Dodson and Eugene Holmes. Murray Brothers,
a black-owned company, did the printing.
Symbolically, Dasein was significant
in that it offered a forum for the first reunion of the Howard Poets
since the rupture in 1960. And although Stone and White were no longer
on campus, the medium allowed them to join the rest in spirit and in
print to recreate for a while the powerful society their talents had
given rise to in the years before. In the second issue, all six poets
would publish works, with White contributing a short story and three
haikus. By the time the third issue of Dasein was published,
only De Legall was still at Howard. Johnston was publishing out of New
York through his own Jupiter Hammon Press, and when the seventh and
last issue was printed in 1973 the only member from the original Dasein
society to contribute any works was Lance Jeffers with his "Black
Girl" and "Then Love Will Turn."
The final chapter of the Howard Poets
as a creative union came in 1963 with the publishing of the anthology,
Burning Spear. It was the last time all six came together for
a publication. The importance of Burning Spear is assured if
only for the fact that it contains the first and only printing of some
of the group's finest works. At last Govan's "The Lynching"
and Fraser's "The Blast" could be read by the public. Displaying
a more controlled pen, Johnston was able to offer variations on previous
works as well as new pieces. White's "Black is a Soul" and
"Love Letter to a Dead Girl," published for the first time,
are perhaps the purest moments of poetry in the collection and demonstrate
why this poet deserves more attention as a thematic precursor to the
Black Arts Movement. Stone is represented by works previously published,
a probable indication that he had produced few if any new works. The
anthology is complete with seven poems by De Legall, the best of which
are "On Her Senility" and "My Brownskin Business."
It is unfortunate that his magnum opus, "Elegy for a Lady,"
is not included.
Like the previous publications by Johnston,
Burning Spear was not a commercial success, a factor which,
fortunately, is no indication of the works' artistic quality. The text
remains the definitive anthology of poetry by the Howard Poets.
Aesthetically, the Howard Poets cannot
be reduced to any one school or canon of literary theories, a point
about which Stone was well aware when he showed some apprehension about
the appellation. He was worried the name "Howard Poets" would
allow for too facile an erasure of their individuality. Consequently,
no studyon this group is complete until their voices are analyzed individually.
Walter De Legall
One is never in doubt about the seriousness
De Legall brings to his works. He clearly writes what he feels, and
his poetry is both an outlet for his emotions and a sculpture of his
moods. He is at his best in this regard when moved to express his feelings
about the death or degeneration of those dear to him; his "Elegy
for a Lady" ranks with the best produced by the Howard Poets. Inspired
by the tragic demise of Billie Holiday, it begins:
Bare and bow your Christian
Heads in sixteen blue bars of
Silence, a Lady's
Dead, and yet no flags fly
At half mast.
The poem is a litany of lamentation
for an abandoned victim whose killer, writes De Legall, was "A/Gentleman
named morality or/Maybe life." The poem presents in graphic detail
the manner of the crime as symbolized by those moments of Holiday's
life which preambled her death:
Murdered her with judges and
Federal Women's Penitentiaries. He
Battered her with Afro
Headlines in 48 point gothic
Type. He strangled her with
Slander and pointed fingers.
Throughout, the poet succeeds in maintaining
a balance of sorrow and music. The blues is both anodyne and ambience,
a "Sombre sound of an old/Upright piano sighing a/Blue-black dirge
"Elegy for a Lady" is commanding
for its clarity of imagery. Like a documentary it unfolds the events
of life and death without touching the prosaic stiltedness that is prone
to creep into the poetic narrative. The final lines remain etched in
the memory long after reading the work only because De Legall's imagery
makes it easy to envision the all too familiar picture of the "Wilted
white gardenia.../which is all that/Remains of a Lady."
In "On Her Senility," De Legall
again uses the loss of a loved one as his catalyst for creation, only
this time it is the horror of old age, not death, which denies that
which is close to his heart. Stirred by a visit to his favorite aunt,
the poet isleft torn by her failure to recognize him, and he is ultimately
moved to compose a study on the ravages of time eating away at youth,
revealing the dormant child hidden within, waiting for its rebirth:
Her eyes turn on as
The memory sears her raged mind
Tangled sounds on her lips.
Mangled sounds in her ears and
Another season passed the window
Today. And she looks at my
Ghost with dying eyes and
Says, "Now who are you son,
Where are youfrom and
What did you want."
There is in us a universal recognition
of the old woman's state, and it is this which provides the poem its
impact and, for many, its brutal accuracy. Like "Elegy for a Lady"
it appeals to our sense of futility in light of the inevitable and various
forms of decline which signify our mortality. This sensitivity to the
delicacy of humanity brings out the best in De Legall.
Unlike De Legall, there are no prevailing
themes in the published works of Alfred Fraser. In fact his output in
this regard is so sparse thatin toto there are only three of his poems
in Dasein and Burning Spear. Their topics range eclectically
from the hopelessness of nuclear warfare to the valorization of jazz
to the introspective splendor of artistic creativity. Of the three,
the most successful is "The Blast." It, more than any poem
produced by the Howard Poets, captures the magnificent fear of a generation
coming to grips with the possibility that it migth very well be the
last. The work is the actualization of the writer's projected vision
of nuclear doom, and it paints a picture of the world reduced to a "mass
of steaming blood." Fraser amplifies the force of his imagery by
juxtaposing the archetypal power of a parent's torment with the destructive
consequences of an atomic explosion when he writes that
mothers with wombs of the
Unfulfilled writhe in tormented agony
In gutters filled with human decay.
Biting their mouths
Till the blood rushes like a Niagara...
The magnitude of hisnuclear surrealism
is maintained when he compares the symbol of biblical villany to the
apocalyptic results of human endeavor whichare described as "satanic
dreams." Such dreams, implies Fraser, are the counter-theses of
life and reason which, from their "whiplike sting of atomic fires"
lead to an unnatural welcoming of obliteration through which "There
is/We hope, no I, no would, no you."
If there is a predominant weakness in
his published works, it is a tendency toward word lockage. Too often
the words "blue," "green," "red," "scream,"
and "young" reappear, a flaw which is magnified by the paucity
of his collection. The annoyance one experiences here is based less
on their contextual status than on the overlapping of their representational
values. For example, in "To the J.F.K. Quintet" one finds
reference to "nascent little secrets of blue" as well as "screaming
bitter blue boy." While in "Time to Write Poetry" one
reads of "the girl in blue." The result is not unlike a leakage
of one image into another, and mars the impact of poems which are otherwise
Oswald Govan has frequently been described
as the most lyrical member of the Howard Poets, and while this is true,
what seems to stand out with equal conclusiveness is the unmistakable
presence of a storyteller who is obsessed with confronting, revealing
and reproducing in his poetry the violence aimed at man by man. Govan
customarily approaches this human savagery by allowing himself to be
absorbed into the imaginative immediacy afforded by the dramatic monologue.
In poems like "Notes Towards a Confession" or "Hungary,"
the persona may emerge as victimizer and victim (as in the former) or
observer (as in the latter). The narrator in "Notes Toward a Confession"
generates his violent episodes from a festering contempt for the domestic
barrenness of his middle class life in which "a blinf unspeaking
plunge, the germ of a tear/and steel grey words, recoiled me from a
usual bed..." By murdering hiswife he temporarily escapes, albeit
dementedly, the predictable routine of his ennui before committing suicide
himself. Much as Camus does in The Stranger, Govan uses his
protagonist as a symbol for the irrational violence which existential
langor can easily lead to:
And then it was done
her eyes stabbng horribly into mine
the blood heaving hugely
from a carnal rent
the knife swaying in her body.
Unfortunately, Govan uses this gruesome
painting as an excuse to reduce his persona to a maudlin state of remorse,
and it is here that he loses control of his characterization, momentarily
converting the poem's emotional charge to bathos, as the following lines
attest: "I shook and weeped/and cringed behind water-blind eyes/and
the croak of my voice."
His finest work is "The Lynching,"
which remains one of the strongest indictments against the barbaric
practice from which it takes its title. Here Govan's gift for narrative
absorbs the reader into an eerie world where ice rains remorselessly
and where a black man kneeling on "the stones of the year/...burst
his mind/from the tiding of the dark whip crack." The dramatic
force of the poem intensifies through a recounting of the victim's suffering
caused by the "whip and the rope/that gnashed him raw" as
well as through the description of his tormenters who lurch from the
pages like terrestrial abnormalities which Govan pictures as "white
robed monsters" whose "foul jaws" animated by a "degenerate
pride," foam with the word "nigger." The violence reaches
its terrifying climax as the victim, hanging like a strange fruit soaked
in oil, responds to a lighted match by crackling "in his fiery
More than just a depiction of violence,
"The Lynching" emerges ultimately as a tribute to the immortal
endurance of the soul. Govan himself sees the protagonist's suffering
as analogous to that of Christ, and the physical destruction of flesh
is sublimated by the eternal existence of mind,a point which is confirmed
by the inclusion of Christ's words quoted from Matthew. At
the moment preceding the victim's death we read, "Fear not the
evil for though they destroy the body/they have no power over the spirit."
The symbolic complexity of "The Lynching" coupled with its
detailed violence, demonstrates Govan's ability to weave into a whole
such diverse elements without decentralizing the poem's message, and
it is this gift which makes what he calls his "masterwork"
a mirror of human cruelty as well as a hymn to Christian rescue.
The most prolific member of the Howard
Poets, Percy Johnston, more than any of the rest, saw himself as a professional
writer. While the others have ventured into other disciplines (De Legall
is an entrepreneur, Fraser a cultural historian, Govan a statistician,
and Stone a sociologist) Johnston remains a productive writer first
and a professor of philosophy second. He is promethean stylistically
and it is not surprising that his work, even from the limited period
under discussion here, documents moments of his previous formalistic
transitions as a thinker and as a writer. As early as 1961, his tendency
towards semantic density was on the decline. Although it never fully
disappears, one finds a self-conscious regard for this stylistic habit
in his second publication, Concerto for Girl and Convertible.
Herea poem like "Impressions of a Superior Culture" exhibits
a simplicity of imagery that is more a novelty than convention at this
stage of his growth. The poem is a much less emotionally laden recognition
of civilization's destruction than Fraser's "The Blast." Its
controlled humor represents an aloofness which defines many of Johnston's
works and the poem makes its critical point, tongue in cheek, by using
an unlikely product of American culture as the surviving "symmetrical
artifact that testifies to the gradeur that was here": a Coca Cola
In "Verses for My Hometown,"
Johnston is structurally at his most concise. The poem seems to have
beengreatly influenced by the uncluttered form so prevalent in Stone's
work. Most of the sixty-six lines contain fewer than three words, and
the images cascade through the reader's mind like a film operating at
high speed. Conceptually its pace moves in complement with the wind
which triggers the persona's imagination and punctuates the voice critical
of Western civilization, which is a standard for Johnston. Hence, we
read of places were "antennas obscure Morgan Davids, where Jesus
is hemmed between unclean bricks like commuters riding untimed trains
passed untilities furnished flats, while insidious unsmall buildings
challenge unevil tradition..." This same voice is also present
in a poem like "UHF," saying that "no one needs to fast
when frozen manna can be purchased." His "Apology to Leopold
Sedar Senghor" is an expansion of his social criticism, for here
he expresses his resentment of colonialization speaking specifically
as a black man who has been victimized:
But it was my black hand which
Mashed the crimson trigger which
Launched the urban renewal of
Europe, and ultimately assured
The slavery continuum in your
Continent by descendents of caveman.
What is unique about Johnston's voice
in this poem is the racial nationalism which is unmistakeable and acute.
Its rarity was often a source of criticism by other poets from the developing
Black Arts Movement. But what such poets as Baraka would challenge as
assimilation was merely a fraction of Johnston's complex and ever changing
individualism which can never be reduced to one mode. His poetry is
more than a mouthpiece for a trend; it is the documentation of an unfinished
biography in which the poet probes to find the inner problems of society,
problems hidden behind misleading signs.
In his style and his construction, Leroy
Stone is a child of Miles Davis, as short jazz-like bursts of tempo
unite to modify narrative and imagery. In a poem like "Ode to a
Little Boy" his lines are more vertical than horizontal, often
no longer than two words. Each line, like a phrasing from Davis, or
Monk for that matter, provides sharp single images which eventually
blend like a montage to realize an unexpxected sequence of events well-tempered
by his control of cadence:
You are the human race
Playing with time
in dirty sand
Trying to amuse yourself
You are me, my brothers, Mr. Charlie
Grappling with dirt
Trying to make something out of nothing
He is committed to the spontaneity of
his inner voice, a principle which converts his formal elements to poetic
solos. His following description of Davis' style in "Flamenco Sketches"
is as much a description of his poetry, where rhythm and meaning are
emphasized, juxtaposed, and balanced:
uttering in mutes a passion
intoned in fifths
slivered through Davis durations
on many passing notes
of multi-colored n-dimension shadings.
While this devotion to jazz, this touch
of the avante garde, might alienate some, there is nevertheless a certain
adventurism in Stone's works which speaks to the intellectual abstractions
of sustained experimentation and celebrated futurism. He, more so than
the other Howard Poets, was often inclined to reject the traditional
structures of poetry in favor of what he felt to be a more representative
architecture of his desired sound. This is best exemplified in a work
like "Comments on Snow" where dual columns of imagistic stanzas
exist side by side in contrapuntal harmony:
Joseph White, said Percy Johnston, was
"the blackest poet I ever knew." White earned this description
not simply because his poetry is a reaffirmation of his racial consciousness,
but because he was a living symbol, a living expression of the psychological
pain and consequences which come from being black in a racist society.
Raised in the ghettos of Philadelphia, White knew only too well the
horrors of Amerca's urban realism. The drugs and alcohol which are not
an infrequent source of retreat from this world were eventually to creep
into his life. This was later compounded by the crushing effects of
terminal cancer, which led to his suicide in 1985.
The world of Joseph White was one dominated
by blues and suffering, yet while it interfered with his ability to
function as a student, husband and parent, it was at the same time the
source of his cretivity. His "Black is a Soul" captures an
exitential agony, modified by a grace at once touching and unaffected:
Down into the fathomless depths
Down into the abyss beneath the stone
Down still farther, to the very bottom of the infinite
Where black-eyes peas & greens are stored
Where de lawd sits among melon rinds.
White's despair does not overwhelm;
it offers a snapshot of people and processes, of
...black women (buxom & beautiful)
With nappy heads & cocoa filled breasts
nippled with molasses
& their legs sensual & long beneath
short bright dresses
& Of black men greasy from sun-soaked
fields sitting in the shade,
their guitars, the willow & the
squatting sun weeping authentic blues
While he knew that his blackness was
the source of his disorientation, he never lost the love he had for
its intrinsic beauty. White was defiantly black, and Johnston remembers
him prolonging a reading before a racially mixed audience by asserting,
"My name is Joe White and I am a nigger," this at a time when
most blacks would only describe themselves as "Negroes." Joseph
White's poetry survives as the uninhibited voices of "quantums
of pure soul," and his racial nationalism preceded popular trends
of the Black Arts Movement. Long before "Black is Beautiful"
became a socio-aesthetic principle, Joseph White wrote in "Black
as a Soul":
In these moments when the sun is blue
When the rivers flow with wine
Whent the neck bone tress is in blossom
I raise my down bent kinky head to charlie & shout
I'm black. I'm black
& I"m from Look Back
For Further Reading
Percy Johnston, ed., Burning Spear: An Anthology of Afro Saxon Poetry,
Jupiter Hammon Press, 1963.
Rosey Poole, ed., Beyond the Blues:
New Poems by American Negroes, The Hand and Flower Press, 1962.
Eugene Redmond, Drumvoices: The
Mission of Afro-American Poetry, Doubleday, 1976.
The Washington Review,
February 1978. Includes a selection of poems by Howard and Dasein
Poets, edited by Myra Sklarew.
(1953 - 2008) was born in Jamaica, and earned his BA from William Patterson
College in 1974 and his PhD from Howard University in 1991. While at
Howard, he edited the Journal of Philosophy and founded the
Howard Interdisciplinary Research Forum. He went on to teach at several
colleges, including Purdue, Bates, and George Washington University,
before joining the faculty at Clark University in 1995. Napier was Franklin
Frazier Chair and Associate Professor of English at Clark at the time
of his early death at age 55. He specialized in critical theory, twentieth-century
African American literary culture, and African American philosophical
thought. At Clark, he helped organize the African American Intellectual
Culture lecture series, and is remembered as a challenging and inspiring
teacher. He is the author of African American Literary Theory: A
Reader (New York University Press, 2000).
This essay was first published in "Washington
and Washington Writing," Number 12 in the journal GW Washington
Studies, published by the Center for Washington Area Studies at
the George Washington University in July 1986. That volume was edited
by David McAleavey, and we are indebted to him for permission to reprint
in Volume 13:4, Fall 2012.