Volume 15:4, Fall 2014
A Splendid Wake Issue
Samuel Allen (who also published under the name Paul Vesey) said once that an entire generation of poets had been passed over in terms of public recognition largely because it had come into its own before the Civil Rights movement had gathered sufficient momentum. Publishing was essentially closed to the African American poet in the late 50’s. Somelike Gwendolyn Brookswho were able to publish with the white literary establishment, turned away from that marketplace and supported the Black publishing scene by working with Dudley Randall‘s Broadside Press or before that was a possibility, by publishing themselves. Percy Johnston put it this way: “After all, the publisher was the one who paid the printer and we figured we could do that ourselves.”
So Dasein, a handsome national quarterly of the arts, came into being in 1961 at Howard University. Dasein was a magazine dedicated to publishing poetry, fiction and drama of established as well as unknown writers “who maintain highest literary standards.” Percy Johnston was the publisher; Walter DeLegall, the editor; Michael Winston the executive editor; William White, the art editor; Sterling Brown, Arthur P. Davis, Owen Dodson and Eugene Holmes, members of the advisory board; and the contributing editors were Al Fraser, Oswald Govan, Lance Jeffers, Leroy Stone and Joseph White. Glancing through nearly any anthology of contemporary poetry it is not likely you will find the names of Oswald Govan or Lance Jeffers or LeRoy Stone. You might find Sterling Brown and then, taking a broad skip, the works of Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker and those of a younger generation.
In 1963 an anthology containing the works of the Howard Poets was published called Burning Spear and included poems by Walt DeLegall, Alfred Fraser, Oswald Govan, Lance Jeffers, Percy Johnston, Nathan Richards, LeRoy Stone and Joseph White.
It is widely accepted that in the early 50’s and 60’s there were two significant gatherings of African American writers. One, the Umbra group in New York City which included Ishmael Reed; the other in Washington. The Howard Poets did not constitute a school or specific movement; their writings differed greatly. That there was a special kind of vitality to the literary scene then, that men and women from various disciplines were active writers and served to stimulate one another and those around them, I doubt any of the group would deny. Perhaps one way to characterize this group, and only loosely at that, is by something Percy Johnston said. He noted that his generation of poets was more closely attached, more conversant with the generation preceding his own than the younger poets are to the Howard poets. This fact is too important and too complex to conjecture about here, but in a study of more depth should be addressed.
In 1925 a Dutch woman named Rosey Pool discovered Countee Cullen while working on a paper on contemporary American poetry. This began her lifelong interest in the poetry of African Americans. . Percy Johnston and Walter DeLegall told that Rosey Pool sang Negro spirituals during her imprisonment by the Nazis for her work in the Underground during the Second World War. She had been Anne Frank‘s teacher. She came to this country in 1959 on a Fulbright and lectured in some 27 Black colleges and in churches throughout the South, reading the poetry of Blacks. Beyond the Blues, an anthology of African American poetry, resulted and was published in England in 1962 and translated into Dutch. I am reminded here of the particular irony: Samuel Allen‘s first published works appearing in Presence Africaine published by Richard Wright in Paris and the next works appearing in Heidelberg in 1956. Beyond the Blues contains works by some of the Howard Poets.
Though not an exhaustive list of the Howard Poets, I attempted to locate Lance Jeffers, Walter DeLegall, LeRoy Stone, Al Fraser, Clyde Taylor, David Dorsey, Joe White, Laura Watkins, Dolores Kendrick and Oswald Govan. Edward Watson has come along, thanks to Percy, to join the group.
There were other writers here in Washington in the late 50’s. May Miller speaks of the groups which met in a workshop which included Charles Sebrey the artist, Texeira Nash, Percy Johnston, Owen Dodson, Lance Jeffers, Toni Morrison, Charles Wilder and Claude Brown. Brown was at work at that time on Manchild in the Promised Land.
And there was still another group called the Washington Poets which gave readings frequently at a place called Coffee ‘n’ Confusion which opened on April Fool’s Day in 1959 around Washington Circle. It was closed after ten days and in June of the same year moved to 10th and K, N.W. This group included Bill Walker, Dick Dabney, Percy Johnston, Bill Jackson and Lester Blackiston.
Sterling Brown was then and continues to be a critically important influence for all writers through his writings, essays and poetry, and through his fifty years of teaching as a primary intellectual and moral force.
Stephen Henderson in Understanding the New Black Poetry says of the Dasein poets:
“Their sense of history, their precise knowledge of the importance of Black culture, their absorption of modern scientific thought into the fabric of their poetry stands in contrast to the parochialism of some more recent writers. Although the influence of the Beat movement upon them is obvious, what is less obvious in the case of Percy Johnston, for example, is the way the Dasein poets embody and amplify the Black influence upon the Beat movement itself.”
And Dolores Kendrick says:
“The Movement you mentioned was, as I remember, the Dasein Groupa group of poets and prose writers assembled by Percy Johnston, who edited the magazine Dasein from Howard University. The group was unique in that the people involved were concerned about the skill and permanence of their art. Percy once explained to me, concerning this new Black image, that it, too, would pass and that when it did, the Black writers of substance and integrity would still be writing and celebrating their craft. I believe he was right.”
Eugene Redmond, in his anthology Drumvoices: A Critical History, comes as close as anything I’ve read in accurately characterizing the Howard poets:
As a group the Howard Poets represent one of the toughest intellectual strains in contemporary Black poetry. Maybe the fact of their having such diverse interests, backgrounds and training aided in their vitality, virtuosity and power. To be sure, these are conscious poets, but–avoiding slogans and sentimental hero worship–they present precise analysis and interpretation of their world. Most of them grew up in the bebop era and so their subjects quite naturally include Miles Davis, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and other makers and contributors of that period. A concern for civil rights and Black struggle merges with an awareness of “the bomb,” of middle class pretensions, history, mythology, religion, and the various trends in poetry: modernity, Beat poetry, jazz and folk lyrics.
Reprinted from Over the Rooftops of Time, SUNY Press, 2003, with permission of the author. To read more about the Howard Poets, see also Winston Napier’s essay, “The Howard Poets,” from the Poetic Ancestors Issue, Fall 2012.
Myra Sklarew was educated at Tufts University and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She studied at Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory with Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck and conducted research in frontal lobe function of Rhesus monkeys at Yale University School of Medicine. She is the author of 17 collections of poetry, fiction and essays including Invitation to a Country Called Aging (co-written with Patricia Garfinkel, Politics & Prose Books, 2018), Harmless (Mayapple Press, 2010), The Witness Trees (Cornwall Books U.S./London/Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture, 2000, reprinted 2007), Lithuania: New & Selected Poems (Azul Editions, 1995), and the forthcoming A Survivor Named Trauma: Holocaust Memory in Lithuania (SUNY University Press). Awards include the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award and the National Jewish Book Council Award in Poetry for From the Backyard of the Diaspora (Dryad Press, 1981). She is the former president of the Yaddo Artist Community and professor emerita in the Department of Literature, American University. To read more by this author: Five poems, Winter 2004, Whitman Issue, Myra Sklarew on May Miller: Memorial Issue, and Myra Sklarew on Leon-Gontran Damas: Forebears Issue