Friday, February 1, 2013
Margaret Walker and The Line
In our class discussion of Margaret Walker’s 1937 poem “For My People” we focused almost exclusively on the poem’s final stanza, in which the speaker opens the poem up with a collective address and focuses on unifying the commands and wishes of a people (in this case, Black Americans). This stanza, heavily utilizing both anaphora and the subjunctive mood, has a prayer-like quality and reverence about it; it is intent upon an uprising. Though this stanza presents a strong and moving turn within the poem, I would like to focus a little on the narrative and poetic techniques Walker employs in the poem’s previous stanzas, because, on the level of craft, I feel like it is easy to gloss over some of the finer points within this poem. Specifically, I would like to call attention to the ways in which Walker employs the line as a meaningful and expressive unit.
After reading “For My People” through subsequent times, I was struck by Walker’s ability to play upon our expectations within the line. There is a long tradition stemming back to Greek and Latin poetry (particularly, though not exclusively, in languages in which sentence structure is not rigid) of emphasizing key words and ideas by setting them at either the beginning or end of a line. Though this seems a concept almost too simple to be worthy of pointing out, readers of poetry may recognize that the importance of line initial and line final position has not faded over time; if anything, given the inclination of many modern and contemporary poets to employ enjambment, it is of even more consequence. It is rare to see much quality poetry rife with lines ending with an article or a conjunction. Walker, though, does this throughout “For My People.” In considering why she might have chosen to write her poem this way – I could not assume this was for want of poetic intuition, knowledge or craft, because I believe Walker’s poem demonstrates a mastery of these – I looked to the first words on the following lines: “unknown god,” “unseen power,” “gone years,” “memory,” “land,” and “false prophet” are just some examples of the sweeping, existential dilemmas being grappled with. Walker’s enjambment of lines at their point of greatest weakness (“an,” “by,” “and,” etc.) emphasizes the powerful conditions that follow.
Given the poem’s final call for a righteous rebellion and strength and healing and love, I believe Margaret Walker used the line throughout the poem as a unit, which emphasized present weakness and coming strength. Though many of the words and phrases following these awkward breaks are grim, they are strong. The “gone years,” “memory,” and “false prophet” are acknowledged bravely at the beginning of the next line. This tension builds throughout the poem, highlighting the ways in which the poem’s hopeful conclusion must be struggled for before it can be won.