As the end of National Poetry Month approaches, I want to introduce to John Henry Newman Beecher.
John Beecher has been called a political poet, the everyman’s scribe. Frank Adams, in the magazine “Southern Exposure,” once wrote:
“John Beecher was a radical poet, perhaps America’s most persistent
for 50 years,The heir of an Abolitionist tradition and proponent of the
dispossessed seizing of power. His most enduring lyrics are about the
downtrodden’s fight for economic justice, human dignity and political
freedom. He heard the music in their voices with uncanny accuracy.”
Born in New York City on January 22, 1904, Beecher was three when his father, who was an executive for U.S. Steel, was transferred to Birmingham. When Beecher graduated from high school (at age 14), the elder Beecher put him to work in one of the steel mills until he became old enough to enter the military.
Beecher finally enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in 1919, but that experience did not last. He soon found his way back to Birmingham and its mills. During this second stint in the mills, Beecher worked 12-hour shifts.
Later Beecher left for Cornell to study engineering. While there, an English instructor, William Strunk, Jr. (Yes, that William Strunk, Jr.) took interest in Beecher’s poetry. Adams wrote, “He quit Cornell to return to the steel mills and writing. Eventually, he finished college at the University of Alabama in 1925, and that summer went to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, where he studied with Robert Frost.”
Beecher later returned to the mill but was severely injured. Beecher had probably already known that working in a mill could be hazardous to his health, but after his injury he penned poetry that spoke of the dangers and management’s overall dubious behavior. His “Report to the Stockbrokers” illustrated these points:
he fell off his crane
and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
he lied a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
and then he died
and the safety clerk made a report saying
it was carelessness
and the crane man should have known better
than not to watch his step
and slip in some grease on top of his crane
and then the safety clerk told the superintendent
he’d ought to fix the guardrail
out at the open hearth
they all went to see the picture
called Men of Steel
about a third-helper who
worked up to the top
and married the president’s daughter
and they liked the picture
because it was different
a ladle burned through
and he got a shoeful of steel
so they took up a collection through the mill
and some gave two bits
some gave four
because there’s no telling when
puts a brick sleeve on an iron rod
and then a dab of mortar
and then another sleeve brick
and another dab of mortar
and when has put fourteen sleeve bricks on
and fourteen dabs of mortar
and fitted on the head
he picks up another rod
and makes another stopper
a hot metal car ran over the Negro switchman’s leg
and nobody expected to see him around here again
except maybe on the street with a tin cup
but the superintendent saw what an ad
the Negro would make with his peg leg
so he hung a sandwich on him
with safety slogans
and he told the Negro boy just to keep walking
all day up and down the plant
and be an example
he didn’t understand why he was laid off
when he’d been doing his work
on the pouring tables OK
and when with less age than he had
weren’t laid off
and he wanted to know why
but the superintendent told him to get the hell out
so he swung on the superintendent’s jaw
and the cops came and took him away
he’s been working around here since there was a plant
he started off carrying tests when he was fourteen
and then he third-helped
and then he second-helped
and then he first-helped
and when he got to be almost sixty years old
and was almost blind from looking into the furnaces
the bosses let him
carry tests again
he shouldn’t have loaded and wheeled
a thousand pounds of manganese
before the cut in the belly was healed
but he had to pay his hospital bill
and he had to eat
he thought he had to eat
but he found out
he was wrong
in the company quarters
you’ve got a steel plant in your backyard
gongs bells whistles mudguns steamhammers and slag-pots blowing up
you get so you sleep through it
but when your plant shuts down
you can’t sleep for the quiet
Beecher’s poetry also pointed to discrimination outside the mill. Beecher wrote about the hypocrisy of the city’s racially-motivated bombings in “If I Forget Thee, O Birmingham!”
Like Florence from your mountain.
Both cast your poets out
for speaking plain.
You bowl your bombs down aisles
where black folk kneel
to pray for your blacker souls.
Dog-town children bled
A, B, O, AB as you.
Christ’s blood is not more red.
Burning my house to keep
them out, you sowed wind. Hear it blow!
Soon you reap.
Beecher attended Harvard from 1926-1927. He also attended the Sorbonne, University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina.
A quest for fairness for all people drove Beecher’s actions and art, said Foster Dickson during a telephone interview. Dickson is a Montgomery educator who has written a book on John Beecher’s legacy. “John Beecher came from a long line of people who strove to do the right thing – Lyman Ward Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He had a passion for protesting unfairness,” he said.
In addition to using poetry as a weapon of protest, Beecher also wrote prose and worked on FDR’s Fair Employment Practice Committee to investigate discrimination. Beecher worked as a journalist and anthropologist, too.
He suffered consequences, as “If I Forget Thee, O Birmingham!” alludes to. He was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in 1950, Beecher refused to sign California’s state loyalty oath and was fired from his position as a sociology assistant professor at San Francisco State College.
Beecher briefly returned to Birmingham in 1967 as Miles College’s visiting professor of creative writing.
Foster Dickson is disappointed that Beecher’s work, especially his poems, has been essentially forgotten. In fact, Dickson’s book, “The Life and Poetry of John Beecher (1904-1980),” criticizes keepers of the “canon” for ignoring Beecher. But as Frank Adams wrote in “Southern Exposure” magazine, Beecher did not write to be praised by his literary peers. “Like Isaiah, or Bunyun, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day, not to flatter but to survive…The poet’s task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry.”
On May 11, 1980, Beecher died of lung disease in San Francisco.
Want to know more about John Beecher? Click this link.
Have you already heard of Beecher before reading this piece? If so, what’s your favorite Beecher poem? Leave a comment, please.