February 20, 2013

John Beecher

John Beecher [USA]

John Beecher, generally described as an activist poet, was born in New York City on January 22, 1904. His father, a steel industry executive, was from a long line of New England abolitionists, including the novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

     In 1907, Beecher, Sr. was transferred to a Birmingham, Alabama plant of United States Steel Corporation, where the young poet grew up. The family intended that their son would also become an executive in the company and, accordingly, Beecher went to work in the mills as a teenager. But the labor abuses he witnessed there, including his being injured himself at the Fairfield Sheet Mill, led him to embrace the radical activism later expressed in his poems.

     After his recuperation, Beecher entered Harvard Graduate School, after which he moved on to Alexander Meiklejohn’s Experimental College in Wisconsin, earning a master’s degree in English. He later continued in graduate studies in sociology at the University of South Carolina, where he also worked as an assistant on Howard Washington Odum’s immense study of Southern Regions of United States, published in 1936. From 1934-1941, Beecher was employed by the Emergency Relief Administration in various Southern states. Joining the war effort of World II, he became a commissioned office of the interracial crew of the troop transport Booker T. Washington, later writing of those experiences in All Brave Soldiers.

     Soon after, Beecher was asked to write a book on the history of populism in Minnesota, which was published as Tomorrow Is a Day.

     During the McCarthy era, he was fired from a teaching position at San Francisco State University for refusing to sign the Levering Loyalty Oath, and black-listed. Becoming throughout the 1950s a rancher and printer, Beecher worked against the evils of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.

     His first book of poetry, In Egypt Land, was published in 1960, followed the next year by Phantom City. A year later he produced one of his stronger collections of poetry, Report to the Stockholders and Other Poems. Applying the methods of folk-singers and politically-based writers such as Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, Becker published two other collections, including To Live and Die in Dixie & Other Poems, Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy before MacMillan published his collected poems in 1974.

     Beecher died on May 11, 1980.

In Egypt Land (Rampart Press, 1960); Phantom City (Rampart Press, 1961); Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems, 1962); To Live & Die in Dixie & Other Poems (Monthly Review Press, 1966); Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy (International Publishers, 1968); Collected Poems, 1924-1974 (New York: Macmillan, 1974); One More River to Cross, ed. by Steven Ford Brown (Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books, 2003).

Appalachian Landscape

Sick and scrawny lies the land, denuded
Of forest, sapped of fertility,
Gutted of coal, the integument of life
Flayed utterly from it and bleeding
Its last weak pulse away down washes and gullies.

Scrawny and sick on the stoops of their shacks,
Idle, dejected are the folk of this land.
One sometimes observes them crawling
About their irremediable fields or plodding
Unwashed homewards from their failing mines.

Bodega Head
                      for Barbara
On these miles of sand the cold sea beats
watched only by me as I walk
Wheeling around me the gulls
lustfully shriek over corpses of fish
washed up by the poisonous waters
Ship’s timbers all shivered and wan
lie about on the beach and stir into mind
the death of a schooner on the offshore reef
Borne here across infinite ocean
the jade-green float of a Japanese fishnet
gleams in a tangle of seaweed
The tide withdraws and on the dampened sand
I see dim tracks of a girl’s bare feet
curving and weaving awhile with the wave-line
then vanishing over the dunes
Dare I follow and come on her there
in some deep cleft of the dunes
nested down warm out of the sea wind
and the fog’s raw breath?

Copyright ©2003 by Barbara Beecher. Reprinted from Steven Ford Brown, ed. One More River to Cross: The Selected Poetry of John Beecher (Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books, 2003).

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