The Irony of John Beecher

In an interview with Y.T. Wong in the August 2002 issue of Jacket magazine, Steven Ford Brown, editor of One More River To Cross: The Selected Poems of John Beecher, said, “John Beecher is an American hero. He challenged the system. He said, Listen here America, live up to the promises you made to your people.” John Beecher “challenged the system” indeed. After building a characterization of Beecher’s desire to get to the “damn truth” of who killed Viola Liuzzo, a woman murdered in Civil Rights-era Alabama, Studs Terkel wrote in his foreward to One More River To Cross:

    In these poems, you will find Beecher’s damn truth and, I’ve a hunch, ours, as well. I’m not certain how to describe his style. At one moment, he’s Huck Finn, grown-up, and long after having lit out for the territories, telling us like it is. At another moment, he has the fire of an old-time preacher lining a hymn. Always, it’s hot with passion and a belief, that this world can be a better place for all those anonymous millions who make the wheels go round. And that’s the damn truth.

Beecher wrote verse that slammed the foundations of the American consciousness about our own society, and as a result suffered strong social consequences personally, like being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and losing various teaching jobs on various occasions. His poems, and also his prose writings, illustrate, according to Brown, in his editor’s Introduction, “the idea of America as the great experiment in democracy gone awry:. As well, Frank Adams wrote of Beecher in a 1981 article in Southern Exposure magazine: “Like Isaiah, or Bunyan, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for the critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day not to flatter but to survive, to express the uncommon or mysterious in their own, often tragic, lives. The poet’s task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry”.

Beecher’s Report to the Stockholders (published in 1925) is a nine-part poem that carries a double meaning in each anecdotal section, while piling on examples of unfairness in the work environment. Robert Meredith, in his article Homage to a Subversive : Notes Toward Explaining John Beecher, from the American Poetry Review, writes, “As much as one-fourth of Beecher’s poetry is in this mode which, with its invariable ironic structure showing the discrepancy between the official report and actual happening, is not my favorite Beecher. All the same, especially taken as a whole, it is a powerful, highly controlled writing which reveals and identifies with a class and a world unfamiliar to most readers of contemporary poetry”. Regardless of whether it is Meredith’s favorite or not, the powerful irony is there. The title indicates that the poem is a fictitious account of life in the company for those whose money represents the capital, but who are not involved in the daily operations inside the company’s walls. The poem is certainly drawn from Beecher’s own experiences as a worker in steel mills, as the son of an executive for U.S. Steel, and as a government social worker helping poor farmers. Adams’s biographical comments relay : “For the next six years [1919-1925], his life was a mixture of academic vagabondage punctuated with sweat-streaked stints at the faces of open hearth furnaces in the Birmingham mills”.

His poems are the culmination of his sympathies with the working man and his rejection of his father’s lifestyle, relying on the reader to take the irony like bait. There are no overt statements, and no crashing indictments. The accusations against corporations, against the wealthy business owners, and against the system are heavy and subtle. To a certain extent, a knowledge of Beecher’s overall biography and agenda help in the reading, but are not necessary. The statements tend to speak for themselves as he presents us with a new view of our fellow man. Other prime examples are In Egypt Land, a long poem about an episode in Notasulga, Alabama, when white landowners began harassing and even attacking local sharecroppers because blacks and whites were forming a union together to improve their conditions, and Peanuts, another long poem about a commune in Americus, Georgia, that was attacked by locals for treating blacks equally.

Beecher’s writings won him few popularity contests. He is enigmatic in many ways: a social rebel from a wealthy family, a post-Eliot poet whose work is for common people, and a man who faced threw himself head-long into difficult situations seemingly on purpose. He also, perhaps, wrote poetry for people who didn’t read poetry. Maxwell Geismar, in his Introduction to 1968’s Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy by Beecher, called him, “a poet who speaks [common people’s] language, and whose poetry in turn can be understood by these people”. He also called his work, “so proud, angry, rebellious; so full of moral dignity and so rocklike”. However, others, like Marjorie Perloff, were not so keen on his work; in her article Tradition and the Individual Talent: A Review, published in 1976 in the Southern Humanities Review, she wrote: “Beecher’s verse is, however, not poetry at all,” and in the same article, “Beecher’s characters are generally sentimental cardboard figures, and his solutions to America’s problems are touchingly simplistic”. Her words are a stark contrast to Meredith’s assessments in the same year: “powerful, highly controlled writing” or Adams’ words five years later: “His most enduring lyrics are about the downtrodden’s fight for economic justice, human dignity and political fre’dom”. Not everyone took Beecher’s bait. There is a lot of debate over whether or not Beecher is a viable 20th century poet. Perloff seems to say no; Adams, Marsh, and Meredith seem to say yes. I side with the latter to say that no one doubts his volatility, nor his ability to cut deep down to the “damn truth” as he saw it.

2 Responses

  1. I had the good fortune of
    I had the good fortune of meeting John Beecher and having him as my professor for a creative writing class at San Francisco State University. If I remember correctly it was the spring semester of 1979. I had discovered him through some of his work, the summer of 1974 at a bookstore in Alabama, Birmingham’s, Southside. Southside was mine, my older sister and much later my older daughter’s birthplace. I returned to San Francisco, CA after that summer semester at the University of Alabama, Birmingham(UAB) and four and a half years later John Beecher would give me a C grade in creative writing for encouragement instead of an incomplete. I will always be eternally grateful for his inspiration, guidance and friendship. To me our relationship seemed to be one of synchronicity. writ

  2. I was a small boy when I
    I was a small boy when I first heard of John Beecher. The house he purchased in Newburyport Ma, was my grandfathers. I remeber the autographed copy of To Live and Die in Dixie rthat he gave my grandfather. I also remeber an article in an issue of Yankee Magazine concerning the redevelopment of Newburyport and a Mr. Beecher was interviewed for the article.

    Jim Bedrosian 12/7/07

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