Stephen Vincent Ben?t, Editor
Excerpt from the Foreword to For My People
naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A
older voices are mixed with hers–the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who
Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices–I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving
is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage–and poetry must exist in
its own right. These poems keep on talking to
Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For My
the reality. It is difficult for me to read
these poems unmoved–I think it will be difficult for others. Yet it is not only the larger problems of her
"playmates in the clay and dust" that interest Margaret Walker–she is
interested in people wherever they are. In
the second section of her book you will find ballads and portraits–figures of legend,
Chicken and Teacher and Gus, the Lineman, who couldn’t die–figures of "old Man
be sung as easily as spoken. And, first and
last, they are a part of our earth.
is true and unforced. There is a deep
candor. And this is not far away or long
ago–this is part of our nation, speaking.
Stephen Vincent Ben?t, foreword, For My People, by Margaret Walker, Yale Series of
Younger Poets. 41. ed. Stephen Vincent Ben?t
(New Haven: Yale UP, 1942) 5-6.
Excerpt from "The Atlantic Bookshelf"
is often argued that the critic’s business is to judge poetry entirely as poetry; but
poetry cannot exist apart from its subject matter, and most of the subject matter of this
volume has a specific interest. It evokes
speaks in a variety of verse forms. The poem
which gives its name to the volume uses a chanting rhythm, Biblical in pattern but
entirely modern in vocabulary; there is a section of rhyming ballads, creating character
form. All have a peculiar genuineness of tone
Elizabeth Drew, "The Atlantic Bookshelf," rev. of For My People, by
Margaret Walker, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1942: 166.
Excerpts from "Songs for a Journey"
People, Franklin P. Adams' Innocent Merriment, and Alfred Noyes' The Edge of
ballad, ode and elegy and hymn–we stand in need of such communal poetry, of songs that
but the poems that become our common prayer. The
glory of his word, sum up the national ethos,
meaning. The communal poets of the Bible
worldwide, not in the deeds, but in the spirit of men: in the men of Dunkirk and the
celebration? Do not the very words, United
not do–even though Mr. Churchill, not as war-leader, but as voice of the British people
in peril, spoke with magnificent eloquence, and Vice-President Wallace proclaimed the
noble creed within many hearts. The
but his words fade with the day. The
advertiser, publicity man, and propagandist, rouse our emotions, but for small or
ephemeral ends. We distrust them, and the
politician, even when they speak truth.
glory. Men go to war, into silence, and
silence fills their homes. What man or woman
can say what each suffers? The poet can, and
can offer catharsis for the emotions that endanger the spirit. We need the comfort of sharing in communal hymns
. . .
of Margaret Walker of Alabama are communal singing, distilled from the long suffering of
heritage. What modern lines hold deeper
meaning than these?
The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist;
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There is a journey from the me to you.
There is the a journey from the you to me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.
What a proof of the miraculous power of impassioned language! What a mystery of Providence that this young girl
speak for herself.
because of her communion through blood and bone with sun and earth. From the Delta the blood-line runs back "to
the tropical lands of my birth that, on return to Mobile, may reconcile the pride and pain
in me." With this emotion she composed
both a history, and an indictment. Again she
the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations."
verse form is compressed, yet free. This poet
returns to the Bible. "The controlled
intensity of emotion and the language have something of the surge of biblical
poetry," says Stephen Vincent Ben?t, in his fine introduction to this volume in the
Yale Series of Younger Poets. The spirituals,
Leon Whipple, "Songs for a Journey," rev. of For My People, by Margaret
Walker, Survey Graphic, Dec. 1942: 599.
Excerpts from "Let My People Grow!"
Margaret Walker, the young colored woman whose poems are the latest to be
included in the series [Yale Series of Younger Poets], comes forth, however, with the
anachronous assumption that poets are entitled to be heard on the problems of living in a
which she belongs, to the majority; and it would be interesting, if one had the leisure
and inclination, to compare her findings–arrived at intuitively–with those of the
Society" in a "world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams
and Eves and their countless generations." She sees her people rebelling against
hypocrisy–meaning, presumably, against the dissimulation by which the bitter, offended
pain, the near-hopeless task of trying to maintain dignity under indignities. And she pins
the blame for all the distress on the "money-hungry, glory-craving leeches."
Simply put, her complaint is that her people are deceived and cheated.
The Negro’s progress, so called, his quick achievement, his contribution to music, and
all of that, leave Miss Walker quite cold.
[. . . .]
Yet there is anything but despair in "For My People":
Now the needy no longer weep
and pray; the long-suffering arise,
and our fists bleed against the bars
with a strange insistency.
[. . . .]
The ballads and sonnets of the second and third sections of this book are interesting
"playmates in the clay and dust" have in no wise detracted from Margaret
like "Molly Means," "Poppa Chicken," and "Kissie Lee."
From Arna Bontemps, "Let My People Grow!," rev. of For My People, by
Excerpt from "Cream of the Verse"
Walker’s "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year’s selection
in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the
competitive honor. The title is not only apt
but more than ordinarily expressive. These
great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity. The book is by no means flawless. The sonnets in the third section are loosely
rhetorical and, for the most part, commonplace. The
dialect verses which compose the second section are faltering imitations of gutter blues,
swaggering ballads, and hearty folk-stuff; they read like nothing so much as Langston
first section of Miss Walker’s first book is verse of quite another genre. It is emotional but seldom hysterical,
disillusioned but not easily despondent; it is sharply contemporary and grimly
unflinching. Its occasional crudities, its
intensity–an intensity so racially deep and so personally affecting that it must move any
but a determinedly careless, or callous, reader.
Louis Untermeyer, "Cream of the Verse," rev. of For My People, by
Margaret Walker, The Yale Review 32 (1943): 370-71.
Excerpts from "The Poetry of Margaret Walker"
and directly, she [Walker] speaks for the Negro, North and South, . . .
is her acceptance of difference, and her ability to put it in its proper place, without
posing, without forcing a role of Negro poet in distinction to any other kind of poet
which gives her freshness of content, and the promise of becoming an important voice in
American poetry. This first section shows
rather well that she has comprehended and accepted her role as artist and artisan, and met
the challenge of her specific situation in an adequate fashion.
second section of the book, composed of ballads, is less fortunate. The ballads are, as academic artifacts, rather
remarkable. They are part of the equipment of
the technical virtuoso, proof that Miss Walker can write ballads as well as her own forms. But the writer who attempts the imitation of
traditional, popular forms is perilously close to the writer who does an imitation of
Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is possible for the
replica to be excellent, qua replica, but the division between artistic
[. . . .]
six sonnets which conclude the volume are additional evidence of the writer’s ability. Better than the ballads, they convey the strength
of the first part of the volume. One wonders,
considering her use of these three different forms, if Miss Walker is trying to
demonstrate a facility with verse-forms, or is a bit unsure of herself. The latter ought not to be true: she has written a
distinguished first volume, which is at once a promise of things to come, and an
achievement in itself.
George Zabriskie, "The Poetry of Margaret Walker," rev. of For My People,
Richard K. Barksdale
Excerpts from "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy"
Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the
shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa–the
master’s degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1966–were granted because of her achievements in
creative writing. Her first volume of poems, For My People (1942), won the Yale
Series of Younger Poets Award and helped her to gain the master’s degree; her prize-
winning novel, Jubilee, fulfilled the central requirement for the doctorate. But
Margaret Walker’s poetry is quite different from that written by Hayden or Tolson. Many of
Hayden’s poems are full of intellectual subtleties and elusive symbols that often baffle
and bewilder the reader. Harlem Gallery, by Tolson, is often intellectually complex
and obscure in meaning. Margaret Walker’s poetry, on the other hand, is clear and lucid
throughout, with sharply etched images and symbols presented in well-formed ballads and
academic poets of the 1930s and 1940s–Ciardi, Tate, Lowell, Wilbur, Auden, Dickey. Their
suburbs of learning. Only rarely do they seem sensitized to problems and dilemmas
confounding an unintellectualized, urbanized, and racially pluralistic America, a concern
which dominates Margaret Walker’s poetry.
Although Walker, too, spent all of her days in academia, she was never as a writer held
captive by it. An analysis of her poetry reveals that in subject, tone, and esthetic
texture, it is remarkably free of intellectual pretense and stylized posturing. One finds
[ . . . . ]
The title poem [of For My People] is itself a singular and unique literary
achievement. First, it is magnificently wrought oral poetry. It must be read aloud; and,
preacher-style. One must be able to sense the ebb and flow of the intonations. One must be
able to hear the words sing, when the poet spins off parallel clusters like
. . . the gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing
plowing digging planting pruning patching dragging along.
This is the kind of verbal music found in a well-delivered down-home folk sermon, and,
fuse the written word with the spoken word. In this sense the reader is imaginatively set
free to explore what Shelley called the beautiful "unheard melody" of a genuine
poetic experience. The passage is also significant in its emphasis on repetitive
"work" words describing the age-old labors of Black people. The activities are
as old as slavery–slavery in the "big house" or slavery in the fields. Adding
"ing" to these monosyllabic word-verbs suggests the dreary monotony of Black
labor in slave times and in free times. Without the "ing," they remain command
words–enforcing words, backed up by a white enforcing power structure. And behind the
command has always lurked the whip or the gun or the overseer or the Captain or the boss
capitalism, were forced to work without zeal or zest–just "Dragging along."
Somehow they remained outside the system of profit and gain; no profits accrued to them
for their labor; thus, they dragged along, "never gaining never reaping never knowing
and never understanding." In just these few lines, Margaret Walker performs a premier
Not only does For My People have word power, but it is a poem filled with subtle
juxtapositions of thought and idea. When the scene shifts from the rural South to the
urban North– to "thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New
York"–the poet describes her people as "lost disinherited dispossessed and
happy people." At another point, they are depicted as "walking blindly spreading
joy." This Donnesque yoking of opposites linking happiness with dispossession and
blind purposelessness with joy reveals the depth of Margaret Walker’s understanding of the
of the Black peoples’ blues, for out of their troubled past and turbulent present came the
Black peoples’ song–a music and a song that guarantee that happiness and joy will somehow
quarters or in some sharecropper’s windowless cabin in the flood-drenched lowlands. For
or someone with the gift of song will step forward to sing it away. . . .
[ . . . . ]
Although one cannot say that the rest of the poems in Margaret Walker’s initial volume
meets the same criteria for high poetic quality, they reflect the young poet’s sense of
"word power" and her sharp awareness of the importance of Black orature. The
poems in Part II contain a series of Black folk portraits–Poppa Chicken, Kissee Lee,
volume of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, which contained many verses portraying
Black folk and celebrating the Black urban life style. Indeed both Poppa Chicken and
Teacher remind one of Hughes’ "Sweet Papa Vester" in that poet’s
"Sylvester’s Dying Bed." All three are sweet men–men who pimp for a living and
generally walk on the shady side of the street. There are differences, however, between
any good comic routine, is grossly exaggerated. As he lies dying, "Sweet Papa
Vester" is surrounded by "all the wimmens in town"–"a hundred pretty
meter, lack the broad comic touch one sees in the Hughes poem. In fact, the protagonist is
a "bad dude" and not to be taken lightly . . .
[ . . . . ]
Three other poems in Part II of For My People, "Kissee Lee,"
"Long John and Sweetie Pie," and "Yallah Hummuh" reflect a Hughesian
influence. Although all three are written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter that Hughes
well-disciplined narrative technique. There is just enough compression of incident and
repetitive emphasis to provoke and sustain the reader’s interest. And all of the
characters–Long John, Sweetie Pie, Kissee Lee, and Yalluh Hamma–come from the
"low-down" social stratum where, Hughes believed, Black men and women lived in
night liquor fights, and the magnificent turbulence of a blues-filled weekend of pleasure
and joy. . . .
[ . . . . ]
The ballad "Long John Nelson and Sweetie Pie" presents another story which
has been repeated many times in Black folklore–the story of a very stressful romantic
relationship that ends in disappointment, separation, grief, and death. There is the
inevitable triangle involving Long John, who is ever a lover, but never a laborer; Sweetie
Pie, who cooks real good and eats far too well; and a "yellow girl," who has
"coal black hair" and "took Long John clean away / From Sweetie Pie one
awful day." The brief story ends when Sweetie Pie, her lover gone, wastes away and
insignificance; but to a Black folk poet interested in the rich orature of her people,
[ . . . . ]
One other poem in this section of For My People merits some comment. "Molly
was written in the mid-1930s, shortly after the period known as the Harlem Renaissance had
drawn to a Depression-induced end, but in no way does the poem reflect, in theme or in
style, the poetry of that period. Like the title poem of the award-winning volume,
"Molly Means" speaks with a new voice in Black American poetry. It is not a poem
it is a poem that probes the imaginative vistas where witches and elfins dwell–a poem
that demands "a willing suspension of disbelief." And, as indicated above,
"Molly Means," in its balladic simplicity, is a far cry from the carefully
cerebrated poetical statements coming from poets of the academy during the mid-1930s.
From Richard K. Barksdale, "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical
R. Baxter Miller
Excerpts from "The ‘Intricate Design’ of Margaret Walker:
Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History"
which she was born. As the daughter of a religious scholar, she came of age in the
and Gwendolyn Brooks, has spanned three or four decades. Much of her important work, like
American, list only one article on Margaret Walker from 1971 through 1981.1
Walker knew the important figures of an older generation, including James Weldon
sing, and she numbered among her acquaintances Zora Neale Hurston, George Washington
Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois. What does the richness of the culture give her? She finds the
solemn nobility of religious utterance, the appreciation for the heroic spirit of Black
folk, and the deep respect for craft.2
. . . She knew, too, Willard Motley, Fenton Johnson, and Arna Bontemps. Walker’s lifetime
her forerunners, the intellect and the flowing phrase, but she still belongs most with the
Black poets whose careers span the last forty years. Her strengths are not the same as
introspection. No one else shows her delicacy of alliteration and her carefully framed
patterns. Dudley Randall’s success comes from the ballad, whose alternating lines of short
voice. Purity for him, too, marks an eternal type.
In For My People Walker develops this and other paradigms in three sections . .
. . The reader experiences initially the tension and potential of the Black South; then
the folk tale of both tragic possibility and comic relief involving the curiosity,
spiritual love in reclaiming the Southern land. Walker writes careful antinomies into the
opposes quest to denial, historical circumstances to imaginative will, and earthly
suffering to heavenly bliss. Her poetry purges the Southern ground of animosity and
speakers often underlies heroism, which is often more imagined than real.
against the fatalistic past, and illustrates, through physical love, the promise of both
personal and racial reunification. The achievement is syntactic. Parallelism, elevated
rhetoric, simile, and figure of speech abound, but more deeply the serenity of nature
creates solemnity. Walker depicts sun, splashing brook, pond, duck, frog, and stream, as
the pastoral world as, by African conjure, the moral "we" attempts to reconcile
the two. As both the participant and observer, Walker creates an ironic distance between
history and eternity. The Southern experience in the first section and the reclamation in
Yallah Hammer, and Gus. The book becomes a literary artifact, a "clean house"
that imaginatively restructures the Southland.
But if Dudley Randall has written "The Ballad of Birmingham" and Gwendolyn
Brooks "The Children of the Poor," Walker succeeds with the visionary poem.4 She does not portray the gray-haired
old women who nod and sing out of despair and hope on Sunday morning, but she captures the
South. The prophecy contributes to Walker’s rhythmical balance and vision, but she
down at a lunch counter in the sixties, Black students illustrated some divinity and
confronted death, just as Jesus faced his cross. Walker deepens the portraits by using
biblical typology, by discovering historical antitypes, and by creating an apocalyptic
fusion.5 Through the suffering in the
Old and New Testaments, the title poem of For My People expresses Black American
victory over deprivation and hatred. The ten stanzas celebrate the endurance of
juxtaposition of the present with the past. Black Americans are "never gaining, never
reaping, never knowing and never understanding."6
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to be
drink their wine and religion and success, to marry their play-
Through biblical balance, "For My People" sets the white oppressor against
the Black narrator. Social circumstance opposes racial and imaginative will, and
disillusion opposes happiness. Blacks fashion a new world that encompasses many faces and
people, "all the adams and eves and their countless generations." From the
opening dedication (Stanza 1) to the final evocation (Stanza 10) the prophet-narrator
descendants of Noah it signified His promise that the world would never again end in
flood. Human violence undermines biblical calm, as the first word repeats itself:
"Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody-peace be written in
the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth."
[ . . . . ]
The religious types in the second and third sections of For My People rival
ballads frequently become average, if not monotonous. In "Yalluh Hammer," a folk
poem about the "Bad Man," she manages sentimentality, impractical concern, and
trickery, as a Black woman outsmarts the protagonist and steals his money.
Poetry of Margaret Walker," Black World (Dec. 1971), 20-34. Although it fails
to emphasize the importance of literary form, the essay gives a general impression of
historical background and literary tradition. (back to text)
2. See Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni, A Poetic Equation:
4. Poems mentioned, other than those by Walker, are available in
Dudley Randall, The Black Poets (New York: Bantam, 1971). (back to
5. See Joseph Greenborg, Language Typology (The Hague:
1650-1820," in Literary Uses of Typology, ed. Earl Miner (Princeton: Princeton
Univ. Press, 1977); Mason I. Lawrance, "Introduction," The Figures or Types
Negro Spirituals," in ibid.; Sacvan Bercovitch, Typology and American Literature
(Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972); Emory Elliott, "From Father to
Son," in Literary Uses, ed. Miner; Theodore Ziolkowski, "Some Features of
Religious Figuralism in Twentieth Century Literature," in Literary Uses, ed.
Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970). (back to text)
6. Primary texts used are Margaret Walker, For My People
(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977) and Margaret Walker, Prophets for a New Day
(Detroit: Broadside, 1970). (back to text)
7. See Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry
(New York: William Morrow, 1973), 62-66. (back to text)
From R. Baxter Miller, "The ‘Intricate Design’ of Margaret Walker: Literary
and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History." Black American Poets Between
Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30.
Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 118-35.
Excerpt from the "Introduction" to The Yale Younger Poets Anthology
in October 1942, the forty-first book in the [Yale Younger Poets] series, Walker’s For My People went through six cloth editions with
Yale and has been in print elsewhere ever since. Like
[Muriel] Rukeyser’s volume, For My People, has
had an impact on a wide spectrum of writers. Readers
often react to Walker’s book as they do to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
(a book that strongly influenced her), feeling that if it speaks for one people, yet it speaks to people
everywhere, engaging each of us on grounds at once aesthetic and moral. For My
social change in all areas have taken it to heart. Walker’s
book is expressly concerned with racial constraint, but it has traveled beyond ethnic
George Bradley, introduction, The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, ed. George Bradley
(New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) l.
Margaret Walker’s signature poem is "For My People." Widely anthologized in
associated with her name. Some years ago, when I was involved in compiling an anthology of
this poem. It was too militant, he said. The man was unutterably wise: the poem thrusts to
the heart of Black experience and suggests a solution that would topple him and the
culture he represents from its position of power. White response to African American
literature is often, and for obvious reasons, diametric to Black response; this poem is
indeed a case in point.
"For My People" exemplifies Walker’s use of Black myth and ritual. The poem
first evokes the two mechanisms which have never been a source of strength to Black folk:
music and religion. But even in the first stanza is implied a need to move beyond
historical roles, for the "slave songs" are sung "repeatedly," the god
(lower case) to whom the people pray is "unknown," and the people humble
themselves to "an unseen power." Then the poem catalogues the rituals of the
toil which consumes the life of the people, hopeless toil which never enables one to get
ahead and never yields any answers. The stanza jams the heavy tasks together without
commas to separate them, making them all into one conglomerate burden: "washing,
ironing, cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting . . . . "
The poem rushes by, as indeed life rushes by when one must labor "never gaining never
reaping never knowing and never understanding. . . ."
by extension, all Black children playing the games which teach them their
bewilders rather than teaches them, until they discover the overwhelming and bitter truth
that they are "black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody
wondered and nobody understood . . . ." The children grow, however, to manhood and
womanhood; they live out their lives until they "die of consumption and anemia and
The poem then returns to the wide angle of "my people" and continues its
sweep of Black experience, cataloguing the troubled times wrought by racism.
The form of the first nine stanzas supports their message. Rather than neat little
poetic lines, they consist of long, heavily weighted paragraphs inversely indented. The
words and phrases cataloguing the rituals of trouble are separated by "and . . . and
. . . and." There is little punctuation. Each stanza begins with a "for"
phrase followed by a series of modifiers. Finally the long sentence, with its burden of
actions and conditions, ends with one short, simple clause which leaves the listener
gasping: "Let a new earth rise." Five words. Strong words, each one accented.
Five words, bearing the burden of nine heavy stanzas, just as Black people have long borne
the burden of oppression.
The final stanza is a reverberating cry for redress. It demands a new beginning. Our
music then will be martial music; our peace will be hard-won, but it will be "written
in the sky." And after the agony, the people whose misery spawned strength will
control our world.
This poem is the hallmark of Margaret Walker’s works. It echoes in her subsequent
poetry and even in her monumental novel Jubilee. It speaks to us, in our words and
rhythms, of our history, and it radiates the promise of our future. It is the
quintessential example of myth and ritual shaped by artistic genius.
From "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret
Return to Margaret Walker