Sometime in the mid-1930s, Sterling Brown submitted his second collection of poems, "No Hiding Place," to Harcourt Brace, which had published his first volume, "Southern Road," in 1932 amid widespread critical acclaim. The manuscript was rejected, for reasons never made entirely clear, and the book remained unpublished until its appearance in this new collected edition. When the first edition of "Southern Road" went out of print, a second printing was suggested to the Harcourt Brace management; they consulted their sales manager, and the decisive reply was, "It wouldn't pay us."
Those four words, and whatever thought processes they may have concealed, have postponed proper recognition of one of the most significant poets of 20th-century American for nearly half a century. With his first volume out of print and his second unpublished, Brown became known almost entirely through a few poems which were routinely printed in anthologies. Not all anthologies, either -- he is missing, for example, from "The New Oxford Book of American Verse," which presumably couldn't be bothered with a poet who had been published only in one printing of one book.
The new volume is a "collected" rather than a "complete" edition, and the name of Michael Harper on the title page hints that the selection was not necessarily the poet's choice. But whatever may be left out, there is more than enough poetry to give readers an idea of what they have been missing all these years.
It is not a complete idea, however, because nobody -- not even Sterling Brown -- can say what poems might have been written if his early efforts had received a bare minimum of the encouragement they clearly deserved. After the rejection of his second volume, Brown gradually directed his energies away from poetry to other kinds of writing, teaching and scholarship in a variety of fields. New poems appeared occasionally in magazines, and he gave readings and made recordings, but all the evidence indicates that he stopped writing poetry almost entirely in the 1940s at an age when many poets are just coming into their best years.
Now vigorously approaching his 80th birthday (he was born in Washington in 1901 and has been at Howard University since 1929), Sterling Brown the poet must be judged forever as a young man who died, in terms of his poetic output, nearly half a century ago. On the basis of this collection of his poems, one can venture to say that given happier circumstances, he could have become a poet as widely loved and respected as Robert Frost.
"Southern Road" is considerably better than Frost's first book, and equal to his second, "North of Boston," which contains most of Frost's best work. While the two poets differ sharply in style and subject matter, they share many virtues: a naturalness in the use of colloquial language (spoken black English in Brown's case) that makes them accessible to a readership far wider than the usual audience for poetry; a special talent for narrative verse (a form that has sadly declined in our time, and a serious loss); the ability to portray living human beings unforgettably in a few telling strokes; a grace in the use of traditional forms, and an underlying vision that is deeply moral without ever being rigid or shrill.
Brown's poems are full of pain and sorrow -- as they would have to be, since their chief subject is the life of black Americans -- but the overall feeling that emerges is one of joy: joy first of all in people's resilience, their ability to endure and presevere and wait for better times. But even more than that, Brown takes joy in the sheer diversity of humankind -- a diversity more striking because those who populate his poems are almost all black and Southern and poor.
He speaks with many voices. Pure, stinging rhetoric in "Strong Men": They broke you in like oxen, They scourged you, They branded you, They made your women breeders, They swelled your numbers with bastards . . . They taught you the religion they disgraced.
Hilarious absurdity in "Slim in Atlanta": Down in Atlanta, De whitefolks got laws For to keep all de niggers From laughin' outdoors. Hope to Gawd I may die If I ain't speakin' truth Make de niggers do deir laughin' In a telefoam booth.
Wide-screen, technicolor description in his portrayal of "Sporting Beasley," who forgets routine troubles in his fine new clothes: Tophat cocked one side his bulldog head, Striped four-in-hand, and in his buttonhole A red carnation; Prince Albert coat Form-fitting, corset like; vest snugly filled, Gray morning trousers, spotless and full-flowing White spats and a cane. Step it, Mr. Beasley, oh step it till the sun goes down.
Gnomic and folksy in "The Ballad of Joe Meek": So you cain't never tell How fas' a dog can run When you see him a-sleeping, In the sun.
But Brown is a poet to be read in long stretches, not short snippets. His poems are organic wholes, and when you cut them up, they bleed. They are not so much structures of words, but people in the flesh: Slim Greer, who nearly passed for white until he began to play the piano; Uncle Dan, shaking his fist at the river that's flooding his farm; Ma Rainey singing about hard luck; Mandy Jane, who steals food from the big house where she works; a Louisiana doctor who has to advertise his knowledge of conjure-medicine as well as what he learned in medical school; a man on a chain gang, people in church, gamblers and singers and worn-out farmers; the men who go down fighting, and the ones who try to stay out of trouble but can't. They speak, through these poems, in their own words -- and usually you can hear music in the background, blues and spirituals and work songs whose cadences the poet has incorporated flawlessly into his own style.
Sterling Brown, more than half his lifetime ago, was not the "promising young poet" one expects to find in such early publications, talented but derivative, learning his trade in the footsteps of older masters; he was fully formed, completely self-assured, using his medium with the easy grace of a master, bending words and images and verse forms precisely to his will. The promising young poet can be found in the final section of "Southern Road," which is called "Vestiges" and contains what must be his oldest surviving poems. They are exquisitely wrought, mainstream, post-Victorian work, with a high proportion of sonnets that show finely honed craftsmanship, precise discipline and a superb mastery of standard English. There is hardly a hint that the writer is black, and for all their perfection it is difficult to remember them 10 minutes later.
The shift from "Vestiges" to the mature style, after Brown had found his true voice and his true subject, is amazing -- the transition from a gifted apprentice to a full-formed master. One cannot help wondering whether, given proper encouragement, Brown might not have gone on to even greater achievements in the long decades since "No Hiding Place" was rejected. But such conjectures are ultimately empty. What we have is all we are likely to have, and it is enough to establish this poet as one of our best. a