Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Chris Mustazza joined Al Filreis to discuss James Weldon Johnson’s “O Southland!” Johnson made a recording of this and a few other poems late in his life in December 1935 at Columbia University, as part of a project led by George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects. The PoemTalk conversation here speaks to the depth of Johnson’s rhetorical, idiomatic, metrical, and strategic influence on civil rights in later decades. The extent of this influence — and the centrality of Johnson’s “call” for us to hear “The mighty beat of onward feet” — seems to be disclosed fully only on close listening, for those “feet” are metapoetic notes toward the inexorable work of the poem as poem.
Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Kathy Lou Schultz joined PoemTalk producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Claude McKay’s widely anthologized sonnet, “If We Must Die” (1919). Its content advocates counterviolence in response to racist violence; its form is the exquisitely constrained Shakespearean sonnet, aligned with English poetic mastery. Does pushing through this formal constraint bring McKay’s speaker toward freedom or fatedness? Does the sonnet as a formal choice befit a cultural inside or an outside?