The Birth of Poetry
But first some background.
Islay Walden was born into slavery in Randolph County, North Carolina; emancipated at age 22 at the end of the Civil War.
Critics have linked Walden to George Moses Horton (about whom I wrote briefly here), not only because both were born into slavery — in the same state — but also because both became poets before gaining literacy. Horton’s story is the more striking. He published his work in the South while still a slave — hoping, in fact, to earn enough money to buy his freedom — but Walden’s career is a worthy sequel. Unlettered at the time of Emancipation, he worked his way North, performing manual labor, lecturing, and selling poems. He had been a prodigy with numbers as a child, performing feats of calculation in public, and this must have made him an effective speaker. In Washington, he helped to organize Sabbath Schools, and later attended Howard University, his tuition paid by a church in New Jersey. Walden’s Miscellaneous Poems appeared while he was still a student.
The book is very evocative of Reconstruction, especially in its framing details. Dedicated “to the cause of education and humanity,” it begins with a letter from the War Department (commending Walden for his work on the Sabbath Schools), and follows this with a brief endorsement from Howard. Books in the slavery era used documents in the same way, but there the aim was abolition, hence the emphasis fell on the bare fact of a slave’s humanity. Here, humanity is taken for granted; the aim is improving conditions of life.
Apart from the poems, the book includes letters by Walden himself, especially in the second, enlarged edition of 1873 (text here). There is also a brief introduction (signed “C. C. H.”), which tells the story of how Walden became a poet. The story must come from the poet himself, and it makes me long for a full autobiography:
When about eighteen years old he was engaged at a gold mine in driving oxen. The owner was a very passionate man, and was so angry one day that he was about to strike an ox to the ground with a mattock. Walden remonstrated, saying, “The ox will die.” It fell dead in a few moments. They threw its body into a pit where a shaft had been sunk, and while they were standing over it Walden made and recited impromptu his first verses–
“Poor Old Dick,
He died quick!
He died all in a minute.
Here is a shaft thirty feet,
And we have thrown him in it.
He was red,
And he is dead!
The buzzards may forsake him;
For he is buried thirty feet,
Where they can never get him.”
After he had repeated this the man says, “Walden, you are a poet.” Walden asked, “What is a poet?” He replied, “One who writes poetry.” “What is poetry?” asked Walden. The man explained by asking him if he did not know what hymns are? &c.
From this time he was running over rhymes in his head, and longing to learn.
Isn’t poetry wonderful that way? Humble in origin, even doggerel can be its true spark.
After finishing his studies, Walden succeeded in bringing out a second collection, but critics have dismissed it out of hand. Joan R. Sherman calls it “uninspired and repetitious,” and Loggins goes further, saying “[it] proves that education had spoiled whatever poet there had been in Walden.” I haven’t seen this book, but I don’t doubt the judgments are correct. The thing is, Walden didn’t want to remain unlettered, and didn’t live at a time when he might have been both sophisticated and folk. Not in the manner of Langston Hughes, who managed to synthesize the two (and Hughes came from the middle class, a very different vantage on the problem). Absent that possibility, Walden’s only option was to be a different kind of poet after Howard than before. In effect, he had to start over.
Of course, it’s hard in any era to be two kinds of poet, one on each side of a threshold. But Walden at least had the chance. Horton didn’t.
1 [Back to text] I discount here the later example of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote genteel verses and dialect at the same time, as this way of being “both” would have still required Walden to be genteel. In effect, his output was very much like Dunbar’s, with the two aspects coming sequentially, however, instead of at the same time. And only one of the, apparently, successful.