Weakness stalks in pride (PoemTalk #98)

James Weldon Johnson, 'O Southland!'


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 sound of the recording was imprinted on an aluminum platter, dubbed to a reel-to-reel tape in the 1970s by the Library of Congress, and recently rediscovered by Chris Mustazza during investigations on behalf of PennSound. The James Weldon Johnson author page was added to PennSound and announced in Jacket2 in November 2014.

“O Southland!” was published in The Independent in 1907 and again in W. E. B. DuBois’s Horizon in 1908, and was probably first encountered by most of Johnson’s contemporary readers in his book Fifty years & other poems (1917) or in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which Johnson himself edited. 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 upon close listening; those “feet” are civic marchers and metapoetic notes toward the inexorable work of the poem as poem. The formal poem is not at all itself the “musty page” to which so many southerners “cling,” but stands as its new, adamant contradiction. Pictured above, left to right: Chris Mustazza, Salamishah Tillet, Herman Beavers.

PoemTalk episode #98 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner and Ari Lewis (Ari has been on the Wexler Studio team but this was her first PoemTalk — we welcome Ari) and edited by Zach Carduner. Next time on PoemTalk Al will be joined by Joseph Massey, Michelle Gil Montero, and Julia Bloch to discuss four short poems by William Bronk. PoemTalk is cosponsored by PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. You can subscribe to PoemTalk through iTunes.