by Winston Napier
Poetic Ancestors, Volume 13:4, Fall 2012
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; butavoiding slogans and sentimental hero worshipthey 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 [and philosophy].
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 professors.”
Sterling 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 Govan recalls:
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 touched us.
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 post-glacial
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 completed.
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 other 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 penetrating 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 are not…
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 mother).
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 there”).
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 study on 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 in B-flat.”
“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 that in 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 his nuclear surrealism is maintained when he compares the symbol of biblical villany to the apocalyptic results of human endeavor which are 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 impressive.
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 blind unspeaking plunge, the germ of a tear/and steel grey words, recoiled me from a usual bed…” By murdering his wife 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 langour can easily lead to:
And then it was done
her eyes stabbing 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 inhuman dance.”
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. Here a 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 grandeur that was here”: a Coca Cola bottle.
In “Verses for My Hometown,” Johnston is structurally at his most concise. The poem seems to have been greatly 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 unexpected 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 avant 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:
White sheet…………………….Pure peace…………………No voids
Pure peace……………………..at home……………………..to fill
Clean decision…………………in us………………………….hier,
White sheet…………………….Blue lakes………………….June,
of noon………………………….turn white…………………..demain
Angled droplets……………..clean decision
Complex……………………………………………….No songs unsung
like this…………………………..Intrepid…………….But new tones
clean decision………………….music……………………..wait on us
…………………………………….‘neath lips…………..and this clean
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 America’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 creativity. His “Black is a Soul” captures an existential 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.
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 this essay.
Walter De Legall (1936 - January 1, 2004) is one of the six original members of The Howard Poets. He was born in South Philadelphia, and majored in Philosophy at Howard University. De Legall served as an editor of the journal Dasein. After graduation, he worked as a business entrepreneur.
Alfred Fraser (October 14, 1939 - ) was one of the six original members of the Howard Poets. After graduating from Howard University, he earned an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught until his retirement at Cheney University in PA. Fraser is the author of two books on Dizzy Gillespie, a biography, Dizzy (1980), and memoirs co-edited with Gillespie entitled Swing to Bop (1979). In addition, he wrote Jazzology: A Study of the Tradition in Which Jazz Musicians Learn to Improvise (1983). He published under the names Al Fraser and Wilmot Alfred Fraser.
Oswald Govan (1916 - 1988) was co-founder of the Howard Poets with Percy Johnston. He majored in mathematics at Howard University, and made a living after graduation as a statistician.
Percy Johnston (May 18, 1930 - March 20, 1993) was raised in DC and co-founded the Howard Poets with Oswald Govan, and went on to publish Dasein, a philosophical and literary journal that was an outgrowth and expansion of that original collective. Johnston served in the US Air Force in Japan and Korea, and survived the crash of a C-54 which killed 31 in September 1950. He attended Howard University, where he earned a BA and an MA in English, and lived in the area until 1968. He also attended St. Peters College, Long Island University, Montclair State College, and the New School for Social Research. Johnston founded Jupiter Hammon Press in New York to publish works by authors of African descent. He is the author of three books of poems: Concerto for Girl and Convertible (1960), Sean Pendragon Requiem (1964), and Six Cylinder Olympus (1964) and over ten plays that were produced off-Broadway, including "Dessalines, A Jazz Tragedy." In addition, Johnston edited Afro-American Philosophies: Selected Readings from Jupiter Hammon to Eugene C. Holmes (1970), and wrote the nonfiction books Phenomenology of Space & Time: An Examination of Eugene Clay Holmess Studies in the Philosophy of Time and Space (1976), and William Shakespeare: Pioneer of Modern Free Verse (1977).
Winston Napier (January 26, 1953 - May 18, 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).
Leroy Stone (October 24, 1926 - 2012) is one of the six original members of the Howard Poets. While a student, he also wrote for the campus newspaper, The Hilltop, and published poems in Dasein. He was born in Jamaica. After graduating from Howard, he earned a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and made his living as a sociologist.
Joseph White (? - 1985) is one of the original six members of the Howard Poets. Raised in Philadelphia, he did not complete his degree at Howard University, dropping out in his junior year after the death of his mother. He, too, died young, committing suicide when his cancer was determined to be fatal. White's poems were marked by a strong race consciousness that made him a fore-runner to the poets of the Black Arts Movement.