J. Chester Johnson will be returning to the site of the 1919 Elaine Race Massacre, one of the deadliest assaults on African-Americans in our country’s history. Mr. Johnson has written articles and other pieces on the event and has presented on the subject in various venues, but this time, he will discuss the event and its ramifications in Phillips County, Arkansas, where the Massacre actually occurred. J. Chester Johnson, whose maternal grandfather participated, will be joined in the presentation by Sheila Walker, whose family members, including her great-grandmother and great uncles, were among the victims. Since Sheila and Chester had antecedents representing the two sides of the conflagration, they have, over the last several years, committed to a reconciliation of the inter-racial and generational trauma that has been associated with the event. Much in the presentations will recite the stories and history in each of their respective families related to the Massacre, but the journey of reconciliation between Sheila and Chester will also be given special relevance. A reception will be held immediately following the presentation at Beth El Heritage Hall, located at the corner of Perry and Pecan, Helena, Arkansas.
Image Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission
This Literary Work Written by J. Chester Johnson.
Performance Was Held At Trinity Church (Wall Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan):
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19TH.
Many consider the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 to be the single most violent attack against African-Americans in our country’s history – certainly over the period from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. The massacre occurred on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta over the course of several days in late September-early October, 1919, when more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of African-Americans were killed by white posses and federal troops in response to an attempt by the local black sharecroppers to unionize. Out of the massacre, a legal case arose, Moore v. Dempsey, involving six sharecroppers convicted of murder in unfair and rapid trials immediately following the massacre; in 1923, the U. S. Supreme Court decided on behalf of the sharecroppers to expand, for the first time, the federal government’s role in equal protection under the law for all citizens of the nation, pursuant to the 14th amendment. This Supreme Court precedent proved monumental for the civil rights movement and for future decisions that relied on the doctrine of equal protection under the law.
The persona voices heard at the performance included, among others, victims of the massacre, members of the Supreme Court, and the genuine American hero, Scipio Africanus Jones, the African-American lawyer from Little Rock who represented the sharecroppers.
Prose, poetry, music, dance, and visual arts were part of the performance, including Broadway performers.
J. Chester Johnson stands beside the all-weather display of his iconic poem, "St. Paul's Chapel," that has been the memento card since 2002 at the Chapel, located in downtown Manhattan; the Chapel miraculously survived the 9/11 attacks and became the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero. This large display of the poem has been placed on the fence directly across the street from the site of the former North Tower, which received the first attack by the terrorists on the morning of September 11, 2001. Johnson's poem has been published around the world and translated into many languages; one literary group in Italy has recognized "St. Paul's Chapel" and Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" as the poems that demonstrate the American spirit.
J. Chester Johnson reads poetry at Deborah Danner's memorial. On November 3rd, 2016 at the memorial service for the poet Deborah Danner, the African-American woman who was shot and killed in her apartment by New York City police on Tuesday, October 18th, J. Chester Johnson recited pieces of Ms. Danner's verse. The violent manner by which Deborah Danner met her death was publicized, both locally and nationally, and has caused an uproar among many New Yorkers, reflected in numerous marches, calls for increased vigilance and more restrained use of force by the New York Police Department, and a myriad of public statements by many elected officials. At the memorial, Johnson read a sampling of Danner's well-structured and melodic lyrical verse.
Photo Credit: Nina Roberts
J. Chester Johnson reads his widely-known and broadly circulated poem, "St. Paul' Chapel," during the Calling of the Names ceremony at St. Paul's Chapel on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Chapel was the 24/7 relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero, and the Calling of the Names ceremony honored those responders and volunteers who came to help following the attacks and who are no longer alive, many of whom died as a result of exposure to the downtown environment at the time. Johnson's poem has been the memento card since 2002 at the Chapel, where he volunteered during the cleanup. Delegations from Oklahoma City and Boston, both of which have experienced their own forms of deathly and violent terrorism, attended the Calling of the Names ceremony and participated (readers from Oklahoma City called out the first names). J. Chester Johnson read his poem next to the Bell of Hope, which was a gift to the Chapel from the City of London, England, given in person by the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury soon after the end of the cleanup at Ground Zero.
J. Chester Johnson is featured in NBC New York article, which discusses Johnson’s participation at St. Paul’s Chapel, the relief center for the recovery workers after the 9/11 attacks, including the Chapel’s memento card that carries Johnson’s poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” that has been distributed around the world. In addition, the article describes the way that the St. Paul’s Chapel experience has inspired Johnson to pursue the creation of a memorial to the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, which occurred close to Johnson’s hometown in Arkansas. To read the full text of the article, click here.
J. Chester Johnson appeared at the Cornelia St. Café, 29 Cornelia Street, West Village, NYC, at 6:00PM, Sunday, June 26th. His presentation was a key part of the evening’s program devoted to the theme, Why Auden Matters, and examined the famous Auden poem, September 1, 1939, particularly the poem’s strong appeal over the internet to a large number of people following the 9/11 terrorists attacks in 2001. J. Chester Johnson will have two books pubished over the next fifteen months: NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS (St. Johann Press) and AUDEN, THE PSALMS AND ME (Church Publishing Incorporated), the story of the retranslation of the Psalms, now contained in THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER of The Episcopal Church; the Auden book will give particular attention to the participation by W. H. Auden for the retranslation project.
J. Chester Johnson contributed two presentations at the event: one on the collaboration he had with W. H. Auden for the retranslation of the Psalms and the other on Auden’s famous poem, "September 1, 1939". See access to written comments on the Auden collaboration by J. Chester Johnson below. His remarks on "September 1, 1939" will be published elsewhere: the date and venue for that publication will become available on this Blog.
If you wish to see remarks by J. Chester Johnson from the event, click here for a PDF.
Press Release by Brooklyn Social Media:
WHY AUDEN MATTERS
With the BBC’s Graham Fawcett and Poet J. Chester Johnson
Joined by Charlotte Maier, Matthew Aughenbaugh, and singer Lindsey Nakatani
Sunday, June 26, at 6PM, Cornelia Street Café
Cornelia Street Café presents an evening contemplating and celebrating WH Auden and why he matters now. Graham Fawcett, an acclaimed and entertaining Auden scholar, poet, translator, and lecturer, will discuss why Auden’s work has such lasting significance. He will be joined by actors Charlotte Maier and Matthew Aughenbaugh who will read a selection of Auden’s poetry. Poet J. Chester Johnson, a collaborator of Auden’s, will discuss the poem September 1, 1939, and why it became the anthem of 9/11. The evening will conclude with a performance by singer Lindsay Nakatani of Benjamin Britten’s: On this Island,” a song cycle based on Auden’s poems.
WH Auden (1907-1973) was a giant among poets of his generation; a master-craftsman of metrical rhythms, and a wonderfully adventurous organist of the English language. Nourished by his native Yorkshire and the treasures of the Anglo- Saxon and Middle English; traveler to Iceland, China, Spain and Berlin; close quarters commentator on politics, religion, philosophy, art and human relations, Auden translated his gifted perceptions into some of the finest and most substantial poems England and the world have ever seen.
Auden’s “September 1, 1939” become an essential—even prophetic—poem after 9/11 when New Yorkers grieved the sudden loss of nearly three thousand citizens. As Adam Gopnick wrote in the New Yorker. “At the beginning of the new century, he is an indispensable poet. Even people who don't read poems often turn to poetry at moments when it matters, and Auden matters now.” This poem and many others will be read and discussed.
Graham Fawcett tours England giving his poetry lecture-performances-with-readings Seven Olympians (including Dickinson) and World Poets on the life and work of individual poets from Homer to Heaney, among them Whitman, Lorca, Auden and Dylan Thomas. He presents illustrated lectures on poetry and art—from Homer to the present day—and on Dante’s Divine Comedy (The Book You Always Meant To Read). BBC Radio Drama commissioned his verse translation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova. He taught the world poetry canon in English and translation for many years for London’s Poetry School and Italian-English translation at Goldsmiths College. He has interviewed poets in the US including Gunn, Rich, Milosz, Kinnell and Hass, for BBC Radio 3, where he has broadcast for 25 years on literature, music and Italy.
J. Chester Johnson is a poet who collaborated with WH Auden on the retranslation of the Psalms for THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER (book of liturgy for The Episcopal Church). The signature poem, ‘St. Paul’s Chapel,’ in Johnson’s book of verse, ST. PAUL’S CHAPEL & SELECTED SHORTER POEMS (now in its second printing), has been used since 2002 as the memento card at St. Paul’s Chapel, which miraculously stood after 9/11, becoming the relief center (where Johnson volunteered during the cleanup period) for the recovery workers at Ground Zero. He has appeared for interviews and readings on the BBC, the History Channel, and NBC; and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Best American Poetry Blog, International Poetry Review, and Green Mountains Review. Johnson has two books being published over the next fifteen months: NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS and AUDEN, THE PSALMS AND ME, the story of the retranslation of the Psalms for The Episcopal Church, including the participation by W. H. Auden.
Charlotte Maier is a stage, film and television actor. Born in Chicago, she lives in New York City. Her work includes the following: BROADWAY: Act One; The Columnist; God of Carnage; Inherit the Wind; Losing Louie; Dinner at Eight; A Delicate Balance; Abe Lincoln in Illinois; Picnic; Arsenic and Old Lace. OFF-BROADWAY: By The Water and The Last Yankee (MTC); Witnessed by the World (59E59); Balm in Gilead (Circle Rep); REGIONAL: Goodman Theater; Westport Country Playhouse; Berkshire Theatre Festival; Spoleto Festival; Merrimack Rep. FILM: Custody; Two Weeks Notice; The Pink Panther; Music and Lyrics. TELEVISION: Elementary; Person of Interest; Boardwalk Empire.
Matthew Aughenbaugh has been acting for over twenty years in performances ranging from Shakespeare to Musical Theater having trained at The Baltimore School for the Arts, The Boston Conservatory and Emerson College where he studied with world-renowned voice teacher Kristin Linkletter. Most recently he was seen as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Snout the Tinker in Midsummer Nights Dream for New Place Players in Brooklyn, New York. Having taken some time away from the stage to help build a school for orphans in Tanzania and teach English in Bangkok, Thailand, he has returned to New York to pursue his first love, the theater.
Soprano Lindsey Nakatani’s lyric quality of tone and natural stage presence has already marked her as a captivating performer. Last summer Ms. Nakatani returned to the Caramoor Summer Music Festival as an Apprentice Artist where she performed in multiple solo concerts and as Sister Alice in the chorus of Dialogues des Carmélites. Ms. Nakatani was most recently seen in the role of Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo with the Princeton Opera Alliance in New Jersey. In recent performances Ms. Nakatani has also been seen as Serpetta in The Juilliard School’s production of La Finta Giardiniera as well as Rosaura in Juilliard’s production of Le Donne Curiose. In past summers Ms. Nakatani has been a participant of such esteemed programs as the International Vocal Artist Institute, The Franz-Schubert Institute, OperaWorks, Opera on the Avalon and the Caramoor Sumer Music Festival. Ms. Nakatani received her Bachelor of Music Degree from the Juilliard School in 2013 and her Master’s Degree at Mannes The New College of Music in 2015. Ms. Nakatani is a student of Ms. Amy Burton.
On Thursday, April 14 at 6:00PM, J. Chester Johnson read his poetry at the main bookstore of New York University, located at 8th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, as part of a program entitled “FOUR WAY BOOKS AND FRIENDS.” As a “friend,” J. Chester Johnson read alongside several poets at the event who are published by FOUR WAY BOOKS. Among other pieces, Johnson read excerpts from his forthcoming new book of poems, NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS, to be published this coming summer by St. Johann Press.
J. Chester Johnson read his published poetry and talked about his life and work, including, among other things, his writings on the American Civil Rights Movement (several of his writings on the subject now appear in the J. Chester Johnson Collection of the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College – NYC) and his work with W. H. Auden as the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Psalms, which version is now contained in the current Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. His presentation took place on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 25th, 2016 at 6:30PM in the Heavenly Rest Episcopal Church, 90th St. and Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, NYC.
A Reading and Conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts author of Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books)
Chester Johnson, Moderator
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Trinity Parish, 2 Rector Street, NYC
"Fierce, lyrical and unsparing, the poems in Reginald Dwayne Betts' new book, Bastards of the Reagan Era, bear witness to the author's difficult journey from prison to law school, and the experiences of the men he got to know in prison..." – Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, October 2015
Click here for a PDF of the commentary on Betts’ poetry by J. Chester Johnson
At the installation into the 9/11 Tribute Center on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 of a pew from St. Paul’s Chapel, which had been the relief center for recovery workers during the cleanup at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, J. Chester Johnson reads his well-known poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” which has been extensively published, both domestically and abroad. The poem, ‘St. Paul’s Chapel,’ has been the Chapel’s memento card since 2002 for its 30,000 visitors and pilgrims who come weekly. Quotes from J. Chester Johnson have also been permanently placed in the 9/11 Tribute Center alongside the pew from the Chapel.
Johnson’s drama in verse, “For Conduct And Innocents,” about the martyr and 20th century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was presented as a multi-media event (drama, music, dance, film) on Oct. 18, 2015 at Trinity Wall Street with nearly 50 performers participating.
“I love the Bonhoeffer play. . .The whole dynamic of moral indignation and spiritual ardor, combining and recombining there in endless variation – a quality the lyrics also possess – made the reading fascinating.” – Vijay Seshadri
“What an amazing undertaking – so impressive in scope, intent and understanding. This must have taken years of energy.”– Molly Peacock
To watch the video of this performance, click here to visit the Live Works page.
To read the full text, click here.
Set forth below is additional information on the event:
“For Conduct and Innocents,” a multimedia performance, based on the drama in verse written by J. Chester Johnson, commemorating the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German cleric, major theologian and staunch opponent of the Third Reich, had been presented on Sunday, October 18 at Trinity Church, Lower Manhattan. Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for taking part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This event represented part of a worldwide commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis.
The performance was adapted for the stage by J. Chester Johnson from a poem written by him and directed by playwright Alan Baxter. Actors – including Robert Scott, Frank Romano, and Emily Kitchens – portrayed significant moments leading up to the martyrdom of Bonhoeffer; the play’s performance contained expressions by the Trinity Movement Choir, serving as a Greek chorus, whose members provided dance-based commentary on the proceedings, choreographed by Marilyn Green. The production included original music by the composer Paul Knopf for a planned film on Bonhoeffer.
In addition, the Trinity Youth Chorus premiered a work for youth choir, composed by Atlanta-based choral director and composer Diane Abdi Robertson. The composition was based on the poignant poem, “Dream,” the work of a teenage Polish Jew, Abraham Koplowicz, who already had a reputation for lyric poetry when he was killed in a concentration camp.
ABOUT DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
Bonhoeffer, an important 20th century theologian, was born in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) into an upper middle class German family in 1906. He received a doctorate from the University of Berlin and served a German parish in Barcelona before attending Union Theological Seminary in New York. During his time at Union, he became especially involved with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, an experience that profoundly impacted his future activism and theology. Bonhoeffer’s writings trace the evolution of his theologically-based resistance to the Third Reich. He was the first theologian to address the role of the Church in Nazi Germany, concluding that the Church was obligated to object to persecution, to help the victims of injustice, and to take all steps necessary to end persecution. By 1940, Bonhoeffer was a member of the resistance, working to build foreign support for a German plot to overthrow Hitler and helping many Jews escape to Switzerland. As a result of these activities, he was arrested in April, 1943 and, in 1944, was implicated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. He was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
ABOUT TRINITY WALL STREET
Chartered in 1697, Trinity Wall Street is an Episcopal parish offering daily worship services and faith formation programs at Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, and online at trinitywallstreet.org. Trinity Wall Street includes Trinity Grants, providing more than $80 million in funding to mission partners around the world since 1972; St. Margaret’s House, providing subsidized housing to the elderly and disabled since 1982; Trinity Preschool; Trinity Institute, an annual theological conference; an extensive arts program presenting more than 100 concerts each year through series such as Concerts at One, and performances by the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Youth Chorus. Trinity Real Estate manages the parish’s six million square feet of commercial real estate in lower Manhattan, providing funding for the parish’s local and global mission outreach. For more information, visit trinitywallstreet.org.
When the Episcopal Church set about updating its Book of Common Prayer nearly 50 years ago, its committee to retranslate the Psalms faced a daunting task. Not only did it have to re-translate the Psalms, considered by many the "poetry" of the Bible, but it was losing its one poet on the committee who was moving back to England. It's hard to imagine anyone filling the shoes of W.H. Auden, but the young poet and translator J. Chester Johnson did just that.
In the current issue of Illuminations, J. Chester Johnson reflects on that experience--how he came to replace Auden, correspond with the great poet, and then set about helping the Episcopal Church refine the Psalms in the light of new scholarship. Poet and translator Ann Cefola interviews Johnson about the influence this experience with Auden and the retranslation of the Psalms had upon Johnson's literary career; she also discusses with Johnson the principles and practices that guided the retranslation process that lasted for nearly a decade. The interview encapsulates a critical period in Episcopal Church history and valuable insight into translating sacred texts.
Illuminations, the literary journal of the College of Charleston, has published poets such as Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender and Carol Anne Duffy, as well as emerging writers, since its inception in 1982. (Click here to read the interview.)
Sanctuary, Trinity Wall Street, Broadway and Wall, NYC, 10:00AM-11:00AM, Sunday, June 14, 2015
J. Chester Johnson presented a lecture at Trinity Wall Street, New York City, on Sunday morning, 10:00AM-11:00AM, June 14, 2015 on the life and beliefs of the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred at the Flossenburg concentration camp by the Nazis two weeks before the liberation of the camp by American forces in April, 1945. Mr. Johnson discussed the way in which Bonhoeffer’s life experiences impacted his views, as reflected in his significant writings, including Sanctorum Communio, The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters & Papers From Prison, among others. Bonhoeffer, as a principal figure in the establishment of spiritual direction for the 20th and 21st centuries through both his life and word, has helped shape the modern and post-modern worlds. (Click here to read written remarks.)
Introduction by Samantha Madway, Editor, Literary Matters
Both J. Chester Johnson and Kasia Buczkowska wrote articles about the third gathering in the series of talks given by Christopher Ricks at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City during October 2014. Each author took such different messages away from the presentation, entitled "Just Like a Woman? Bob Dylan and the Charge of Misogyny," that to have both accounts appear together is a stunning testament to how literature itself, and works of scholarship about literature, can inspire so many unique interpretations and understandings. How could there be room to debate the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics, and room to debate the merits of the debate itself, if we didn’t all consent—whether explicitly, or so innately that it never needed to be considered before moving forward—to the premise that a work of art doesn’t mean only one thing?
That even if we were to ask the poet or the playwright, what is the meaning of this?, that we might not be satisfied with the creator’s own answer. Once a work is released to its audience, its shape and space and substance are different for each person experiencing it, and even for that person, it may transmute further the next time he or she takes it in. All of these encounters between reader and text generate individual — perhaps conflicting at times — accounts, but we need not select only one to serve as the absolute truth, the authoritative analysis.
Ricks On Dylan (Bob, Not Thomas)
By J. Chester Johnson
The third and last of three lectures given by Christopher Ricks and sponsored by the ALSCW was held at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City on the evening of Wednesday, October 22, 2014. The two previous lectures by Ricks had been wide ranging and illuminative, explicating works by T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot, with frequent and satisfying side trips into the literary landscapes of related writers and poets. The final lecture, entitled “Just Like A Woman? Bob Dylan and the Charge of Misogyny,” dealt with one of Ricks’ favorite subjects, Bob Dylan.
I admit I’m a fan of Christopher Ricks; he’s a treasure for the literary arts of the English language—on both sides of the pond. I read his work and listen to him whenever I have a chance. Having acquired and read much of Ricks’ book Dylan’s Visions of Sin (Penguin Group, 2003) in advance of the lecture, I was especially interested to hear his remarks.
Reflective of both Ricks’ writings on Dylan and the lecture’s title, two areas given special consideration at the third lecture were the poetic construction of the poem-songs and the degree to which Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” bears some prejudicial characteristics of misogyny. Once I had listened for a while to Ricks’ exploration of the former area— Dylan’s poetic construction—it became clear that Ricks has, in fact, done a great service to American poetry; I would also guess he has done much the same for English poetry, but I have less experience in the British venue to conclude that is the case. Through his focus on Bob Dylan, Ricks has given us reason to expand, in crucial ways, our view of American poets and poetry.
For years, I listened to and enjoyed Dylan’s music without thinking that a serious poet— maybe even a major poet— stood behind the songs. Though this notion changed over time, Ricks enabled a number of us to shed more thoroughly the limitation of that earlier impression. Of course, Dylan had, many years ago, told music critic Robert Shelton that he considered himself a poet first and a musician second; indeed, Dylan stretched the geography beyond the traditional pools where convention suggests notable American poets may be found.
Regarding the second way Ricks has, through his work on Dylan, affected positively the American perspective on verse, I have feared for a long time now that we Americans were choosing to narrow both our practice and our appreciation of verse into contemporary bastions to an extent that certain traditional techniques, such as rhyme—whether in the form of line endings or internal or elastic structures—couldn’t and wouldn’t be acceptable at all. By stressing the compositional aspects, dramatized on the evening of October 22 through our listening to Dylan recordings, and delving into the seductive force of rhyme, a theme he also underscores in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ricks provides an attraction to rhyme too often eschewed and discarded. Though a few of us may take some issue with Ricks’ apparent sharp preference for line ending rhyme, as opposed to internal or elastic rhyme, he makes his point effectively nonetheless.
In the end, whether “Just Like A Woman” should be deemed misogynistic isn’t easily confirmed one way or the other—I didn’t leave the lecture with a steadfast conviction. Through my own discussions with folks familiar with the poem-song, I’ve come to find that views vary: I’ve heard it’s a sincere love poem with the woman’s shortcomings recognized and with her vulnerabilities (“but she breaks like a little girl”) accepted for what they are—individual, if not peculiar, vulnerabilities that can undo human beings. At the same time, I’ve been told the poem-song definitely displays misogynistic aspects, not toward womankind in general, but toward a specific kind of woman. These subjects of possible or overt prejudice should rightly occupy considerable attention for those who serve to enlighten through the literary world, whether the focus is on this Dylan poem-song or, by way of another example, on poetic works by T. S. Eliot that may mirror anti-Semitism. Similarly, when poems are used as tools in defense of autocratic political regimes, the practice should also be called out; in this respect, I’m reminded of the debate a number of years ago held in the West that surrounded Yevtushenko’s poem “Bratsk Station”—had it been written by the poet to exalt the Soviet system, and was it being employed internally and externally by the USSR to justify the Soviet State? It is not enough to call a poem or poem-song simply good or great from an artistic or structural perspective; rather, even though a fixed conclusion may not necessarily be "Ricks on Dylan (Bob Not Thomas)" apparent, an obligation still exists for the piece also to be judged by its ethical and human messages.
Personally, I regret that the lecture series by Christopher Ricks has now ended. Still, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to attend, especially on a rainy night in New York City with Bob Dylan playing along.
Click to download PDF of entire Literary Matters Publication. This article starts on page 16.
The Senior Committee of the Harvard Business School Club of New York held an event: "Poetry: Uniting Commerce and Verse to Enhance Life and Work" a discussion with a distinguished panel of business people who have included poetry in their lives, discussing how poetry forms the foundation for their success and how it has enhanced their lives and business careers. It took place on March 4, 2015 at Poets House. Speakers included: Lee Briccetti, Kate Cheney Chappell, J. Chester Johnson and Bruce McEver.
Click here for written remarks by J. Chester Johnson.
Or you can listen to an audio recording of the entire event below.
J. Chester Johnson gave the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday sermon at Trinity Wall Street on Sunday, January 18, 2015 at 11:15AM. Previous speakers for this occasion at Trinity Wall Street have included Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Marion Wright Edelman (founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund), Calvin Butts (senior minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem), among many others, who have contributed meaningfully to the American civil rights movement. Trinity Wall Street, founded over three hundred years ago, is the iconic church with the large cemetery surrounding it (where Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, Albert Gallatin, among others, are buried), located at the top of Wall Street on Broadway in lower Manhattan (New York City).
In the late 1960s, after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and near the height of the civil rights movement, J. Chester Johnson left New York City, returning to Monticello, Arkansas in the Mississippi River Delta, where he had grown up before leaving for college, to teach in an all African-American public school in advance of integration of the education system in southeast Arkansas. In 2008, he wrote the litany of offense and apology in prose and poetry for the national Day of Repentance, when the Episcopal Church formally apologized, with the presiding bishop officiating, for its role in transatlantic slavery and related evils. He has also written on the American Civil Rights Movement, several pieces of which are contained in the J. Chester Johnson Collection of the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City), the school Andrew Goodman attended before joining Freedom Summer when he was martyred, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Click here to download a transcript of the sermon.
This article, “Auden: Defender at Dusk,” was originally published in an early 2014 volume on W. H. Auden in Spain as part of the Papers de Versalia project on major poets; the previous three poets included in the series, published by Papers de Versalia, were Rainer Maria Rilke, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Emily Dickinson. Additional American and British writers who contributed to the Papers de Versalia book on W. H. Auden included Edward Mendelson, Jonathan Culler, John Fuller, among others. A reprint of this article by J. Chester Johnson on W. H. Auden was published by Green Mountains Review in late 2014 (Volume XXVII, No II).
Click here to read the full article.
A packed-house symposium on the Elaine Race Massacre, which occurred in the fall of 1919 on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta and in which more than hundred (and possibly hundreds of) African-Americans were killed, was held at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City on September 20, 2014. Subsequently, an article entitled, “After Sins of the Fathers, Steps Toward Reconciliation,” was written by Lynn Goswick, associate editor of Trinity Wall Street, and published in THE EPISCOPAL NEW YORKER, fall 2014; the article describes, among other matters, the reconciliation journey that J. Chester Johnson, whose grandfather, Lonnie, joined in the Massacre, and Sheila Walker, whose great-uncles were victims, have taken together to dispel any remnants of adverse human and spiritual consequences from the racial conflagration.
Click here to read the full article.
The literary journal, Illuminations, will publish a long interview of J. Chester Johnson by Ann Cefola in its upcoming June, 2015 edition. Over the years, the pages of Illuminations have included the works of such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender, Nadine Gordimer, James Merrill, Carol Ann Duffy, Allen Tate – just to name a few. Ann Cefola, an accomplished poet and translator, is author of the poetry volumes, Face Painting in the Dark, St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped and Sugaring, and has translated Helene Sanguinetti’s Hence This Cradle; among other notable achievements, she was awarded the Robert Penn Warren Award, judged by John Ashbery. The interview to appear in Illuminations is wide-ranging and covers Johnson’s own poetry but also focuses significantly on his participation, along with W. H. Auden, as the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the psalms, currently included in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (USA), which version has also been adopted by Lutherans in the United States and Canada and by the Anglican Church of Canada.
LOWER MANHATTAN — Descendants on both sides of one of the country’s deadliest racial conflicts, a massacre that took place nearly a century ago in a little Arkansas town along the Mississippi River, will gather in Lower Manhattan this weekend to discuss the riot and its tangled legacy.
The Elaine Race Massacre, which involved days of murderous riots in September 1919 — and left hundreds of African Americans dead — stirred advocates to fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where they ultimately helped lay the legal groundwork for the civil rights movement.
On Saturday, (September 20th) a descendant of the one of the riot’s victims, as well as relative of the one of the massacre’s perpetrators, will gather for a panel talk at St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway to discuss the mob violence and its implications in the continued fight for racial justice.
The free talk, at 2 p.m., will feature historians and authors, including New York City poet J. Chester Johnson, who’s written about grappling with his own grandfather’s involvement in the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan and his likely role in the killing spree that overtook the town for two days.
"Working through what my grandfather had done was particularly grueling," said Johnson, an Arkansas native who began to research the massacre several years ago, unaware of his grandfather's involvement, or the scope of the riots.
"I adored him, and there was no way, ultimately, to reconcile what he had done with the man I knew — they were just two different Lonnies [Johnson's grandfather's name]."
To read more go to DNAinfo New York
In the fall of 1919, a brutal race massacre occurred on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River delta, constituting perhaps the most deadly race massacre in the nation’s history, but also resulting in a Supreme Court decision in 1923 that provided legal underpinnings for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The symposium examined both the massacre and its aftermath. (see videos for the symposium below)
A special event, sponsored by Trinity’s Task Force Against Racism and described below, was held at St. Paul’s Chapel on Saturday, September 20th, 2014. There were numerous visitors for the occasion, and a hearty Trinity welcome was experienced by our guests. The symposium was videotaped by Franzi Blome (see note below), an Emmy award winner for her documentary work.
Symposium on The Elaine Race Massacre
The Racial Conflagration That Changed American History
Date: September 20, 2014
Place: St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street
Location: Broadway between Fulton and Vesey Streets In Lower Manhattan (New York City)
Sponsor: Task Force Against Racism (TFAR), Trinity Wall Street
In the fall of 1919, a race massacre broke out on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta with more than a hundred (possibly hundreds of) African-American deaths, constituting one of the most deadly racial conflicts – perhaps, the most deadly race massacre – in our country’s history. In addition to the sheer number of African-Americans who perished, the significance of Elaine also rests on the legal case that rose out of the massacre (Moore v Dempsey), decided by the Supreme Court in 1923 with Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the majority opinion, which gave life to the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (equal protection and due process under the law) and created legal underpinnings for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The conflagration and the legal ramifications of Elaine have only begun to receive the attention they deserve.
Robert Whitaker: author of the definitive work on the Elaine Race Massacre and its aftermath, ON THE LAPS OF GODS.
J. Chester Johnson: author of the four-part article, “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” published by the literary journal, Green Mountains Review, that describes a likely role the author’s grandfather played in the massacre.
Sheila Walker: relative of Albert Giles, one of the Elaine 12, African-American sharecroppers who were convicted of murder in speedy and unfair trials immediately following the massacre and one of those ultimately freed as a result of progressive litigation efforts.
David Solomon: member of a pioneer and prominent family in Phillips County, Arkansas where the massacre occurred and who is working toward the creation of a memorial for the massacre and greater recognition of the event at both the national and state levels.
NOTE: The symposium was videotaped by Franzi Blome, an Emmy award winner for documentary work. Also a credit goes to BlueSpark Collaborative. (By being in attendance, you consented and gave permission to record your image, likeness, and voice in photograph and video, for use in any program, media, or other use of any kind in perpetuity in any manner worldwide with no compensation.)
"In The Rows": A Poetic Tribute written by J. Chester Johnson to a friend, as it appears in the program employed for the ceremonial celebration of the friend’s thirty-four years of service as an Episcopal priest at Trinity Wall Street, the venerable, iconic church located in lower Manhattan in New York City. To read full poem Click Here.
The map depicts important scenes of the Elaine Race Massacre.
Published on Best American Poetry Blog
A year ago, Green Mountains Review Online featured, in a four-part series, "Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre". The article, which I wrote, describes a forgotten massacre of more than a hundred (maybe even hundreds) of African-Americans in the fall of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River Delta. The massacre resulted in a 1923 Supreme Court decision, which gave life to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution (equal protection and due process under the law) and helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In Evanescence I portrayed the personal conflict I experienced in discovering, during my research, that my maternal grandfather, whom I adored (and who adored me) and with whom I lived for several years from age one, upon my own father’s death, more than likely joined in the massacre. He lived most of his life along the Arkansas Delta, as did I for most of the first two decades of my life.
During Black History Month this February, speaking on more than one occasion about the Elaine race massacre, I was often asked to concentrate on the personal conundrum of my grandfather Lonnie’s participation in the event. On the face of it, the rendering could purely be factual, as much as I discovered of a credible nature; however, in the larger sense, while I could indeed conflate the convincing pieces that led to the conclusion that Lonnie took part in the massacre, I could not reconcile my love for him and his apparent views about and role in racism, as practiced in the Arkansas Delta by whites during the first part of the 20th century.
Young children do not have the wherewithal to calibrate direction from a moral compass for the placement of their love. When protection and habitual endearment are present, children do not adhere to any such standards at all and will, without qualms or conscience, show affection to or receive affection from racist and saint alike. At the same time, I realize my response to Lonnie would have been entirely different had I been older and known of his violence and racism; with age, our moral compass filters and refines the focus of our affections. I would, of course, not choose to share my life with a racist, but, as a child, one doesn’t have the option to make that choice.
In my examination of the period in which the massacre happened, I recall the references to the Arkansas Delta as the heart of darkness, and it may have been – with my own grandfather’s propensity adding, in good supply, no doubt, to the pool of darkness that spread murderously and perniciously over the land. Yet, he was always kind to me – much kinder than virtually anyone else. So, I cannot reconcile the two – it would be false, serpentine and artificial. But maybe he couldn’t reconcile the two either. He was who he was, and now that he has been dead for several decades, I can only ponder the questions – with the answers secluded and forever distant. Still, I know unreservedly my own path to the Elaine race massacre was, in part, to discover a slice of him that eluded my awareness and baffles my personal conscience.
In August, 2012, I traveled from my home in New York City to Phillips County, Arkansas to explore the site of the massacre – maybe even to find that a note of reconciliation with Lonnie lay in the Delta land. I was joined by a director from the University of Arkansas Center for Arkansas History. As we surveyed the killing fields and adjacent areas in the fierce and thick summer sun and Arkansas humidity, guided mostly by the eerie notion of a concealed necropolis underfoot, two striking and related conclusions sprung to mind. First, little change to most of the landscape or along the narrow, dirt roads had taken place over almost 100 years. Second, no one ever intended to set any historical reminder in this place – a marker of explanation, a monument, a memorial of any kind – for notable exposition so future generations could know, with a degree of certainty, that several whites and an untold number of African-Americans died in these humble and unremarkable fields and in like spaces within Phillips County as part of one of the most important racial conflagrations in our country’s history.
In my quest to sight an existential piece of Lonnie among those unnamed and silent ruins of the Elaine Race Massacre, I had, after all, concluded that history can be doubtless. Too much and too little abided in the fields and fury of Phillips County for Lonnie and me to inhabit any amicable turf there – too much intervening and unsympathetic time, too much dismay as I turned the leaves of record, which bore too much descent and strife and turpitude, too little comity, too little heart.
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist and translator. Johnson has published numerous volumes of poetry, most recently St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (second edition). His writings have been published domestically and abroad and translated into several languages. He has also composed many works on the American Civil Rights Movement, six of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City).
J. Chester Johnson was the featured poet appearing at the Kairos Poetry Café, St. John’s Lutheran Church, 81 Christopher Street, on Sunday, November 17th. Johnson read a number of his shorter poems – some older pieces, some new. His reading was entertaining as he introduced each poem with a short comment on the event or salient motif that inspired the creation of the verse.
If you have any questions, concerns, etc., please do let me know. Thanks. Chester
Published in Literary Matters
On Tuesday, October 1, the ALSCW cosponsored a local meeting in New York City with the Center for the Humanities and the PhD Program in English at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center. The event, which consisted mainly of a reading by and conversation with poet Tom Sleigh, was moderated by the poet Phillis Levin, who currently serves on the ALSCW’s Council.
The evening started with remarks by the critic and writer Morris Dickstein, who discussed the interdisciplinary alliance that must be fostered between the worlds of poetry and scholarship, which are inextricably linked; he referenced the CUNY Graduate Center as a place that exemplifies and empowers this important alliance.
After an introduction by Levin—which evoked Sleigh’s “double life” as both poet and essayist and the special qualities found in Sleigh’s verse, including the demonstrable reverence in his poems for the work and techniques of previous poets—Sleigh read for about forty minutes from both his older and recent poems. This afforded me the opportunity of hearing once again some verse he had read a few months ago at a poetry festival in New York City where Sleigh was the featured poet and I a guest poet.
As Sleigh read this time, I was once more reminded of the poetry of James Dickey by some of Sleigh’s “home-choice,” muscular poetry of analogous subject matter and texture— in particular, doubtless personal struggles frequently given vent by both poets through physicality. For example, in “Self Portrait With Shoulder Pads,” which Sleigh recited at both readings, the métier is a high school football scrimmage in which Sleigh has been set apart in non-verbal interrogation, testosterone-centric combat, nose-to-nose on all fours, crashing away over the turf against his twin brother— Timmy and Tommy, identical gladiators—while attendant coaches and gridiron teammates encircle the two warriors and vociferously incite, encourage the physical eruption of doppelganger battle. Now that’s an artistic, poetic scene James Dickey would have envied and glorified.
The second part of the program began with a series of questions posed by Levin that dealt with the confluence of the two parts of Sleigh’s “double life” and the impact of non-fiction writing and related experiences on his verse, especially the evolution of lyricism in his poetry. Following those exchanges, Sleigh described the provocative events and intense dangers involved in getting to and being in Mogadishu, Somalia and those surrounding his time at Kenyan refugee camps—parts of writing a realtime nonfiction article. During the interface between audience and poet, much dialogue centered on the dynamics and fusion of forces driving the composition of verse and nonfiction. The expositive journey into eastern Africa was often hypnotic and benefitted from the curiosity of members of the audience and Sleigh’s obvious regard for individual Africans and fascination with the challenges associated with the front line.
On my way to the subway after the ALSCW event that night, I pondered the seeming absurdity of connecting the art of poetry—or any art, for that matter—to survival in Somalia and concluded that a line I wrote some time ago was, unfortunately, still valid: “the god of art is
no match for the god of survival.”
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist, and translator.W. H. Auden and Johnson were the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Psalms, which version is contained in the current edition The Book of Common Prayer (The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979) of The Episcopal Church (USA). Johnson has published numerous volumes of poetry, the most recent being the second edition of St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (Saint Johann Press, 2010); the collection’s signature poem remains the memento card for the 30,000 weekly visitors to the chapel at Ground Zero that survived the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He has also composed several works on the American Civil Rights Movement, six of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City).
– Published on Best American Poetry Blog
A few months ago, as guest author, I posted several articles here, including “The Double Life For Poets,” which discussed the double lives (i.e., concurrently writing verse and working in an unrelated occupation) of so many major and not-so-major American poets. The following piece could accurately be depicted as a variation on the same “double life” theme, albeit with singular twists.
In its description of the award, the Yale Series of Younger Poets emphasizes the proud point that it is the oldest annual literary prize in the United States and lists some of its previous winners, citing specifically Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, William Meredith, W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, John Hollander, James Tate and Carolyn Forche – all well-recognized names in American poetry that are often anthologized. It is fair to say that over the history of this award that began in 1919, many of its recipients constitute a veritable gallery of some of our country’s finest poets.
Read full article on Best American Poetry...
Around the same time, across the Big Muddy, another poet and writer of about the same age as Spencer didn’t seem to be bothered at all by the appellation of “poet” or “writer.” While Spencer was representing Drew County in the Arkansas legislature during the early 1920s, William Faulkner, future griot of the Delta and permutated poet, held the only civilian public service office he appears to have ever had – postmaster for the University of Mississippi – a position from which, after a couple of years, he would be summarily fired for drinking and writing on the job, for cronyism and for often simply throwing away pieces of mail.
Faulkner, artist and quintessential observer, apparently had no desire whatsoever to be party to the power fulcrum; Spencer would, on the other hand, exhibit a commitment to public service throughout his life, though reconciliation between the artistic life and a pragmatic, political one proved uneasy, to wit: Henri Faust.
Read full article on Best American Poetry...
Spencer was, at least, equally affected by William Alexander Percy, the well-known poet, who lived much closer in Greenville, Mississippi, situated right on the Big Muddy. Even though Percy remained associated with the Fugitives, he, as a result of the geographic distance from Nashville and his slightly older age, represented more of an outlying god-father or mentor to them. In turn, it would therefore not be surprising that Percy also took a liking to and spoke well of Spencer’s verse, including, as Percy put it, the quality of Spencer’s ear and “subtle reaction to the impressions of beauty.” I find it intriguing to speculate whether Spencer in the title of the Yale prize volume, Half-Light and Overtones, consciously expressed homage to Percy whose poem, “Overtones,” is one of Percy’s most widely anthologized pieces of verse. Perhaps of consequence is the fact that during the years, 1925-32, William Alexander Percy edited the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
I also cannot evade a sneaking suspicion that Spencer, as a young man, read the Arkansas poet, John Gould Fletcher. By the 1920s, Fletcher had attained a crest of fame, though almost two decades would thereafter pass before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – becoming the first Southern poet to receive the award. While living in Europe, Fletcher joined Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell in the Imagist poetry movement, but his Imagist period seems to have expired by the early 1920s. Still, enthusiastic flares and gyres of imagery in nature and the combination of nature and various musical allusions and intimations, so present in Fletcher’s Imagist verse, find venue in Spencer’s Half-Light and Overtones.
Read full article on Best American Poetry...
Maybe just one of these exceptional forces or maybe an aggregation of a few or possibly all or maybe none caused the poet, William Edgar Spencer, then to seek a life outside of Arkansas. We do know that armed with a law degree from the University of Arkansas and with additional, advance legal studies in hand from Northwestern University, Spencer went to Washington, D. C. in 1938 as personal secretary to U. S. Congressman W. F. Norrell, long-term representative from southeast Arkansas and who, more than twenty years later, would appoint the author at age fourteen to be a Congressional page. Subsequently, Spencer held the position of administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D. C., and then in California, where he ultimately retired.
Between 1930 and 1975, even though Spencer continued to write verse – still, in the name of Henri Faust – and publish poems in newspapers and poetry magazines, he did not produce another volume of poems. It should nonetheless be mentioned that Half-Light and Overtones was reissued by the AMS Press of New York in 1971. Then, in December, 1975, a new book of his verse appeared, entitled Sharecropper Sonnets – at last, under his real name; Spencer was finally freed from the encumbrance of his vassal, the long-tendriled Henri Faust. Not withstanding the fact that decades had passed since Spencer lived in Arkansas, he chose, once again, southeast Arkansas, not northern California, where he had been living and working, as the campestral setting for his new book of verse. In the Introduction to the Sharecropper Sonnets, he states, “Many of the poems that follow were written in my late teens and early twenties when, following my mother’s death, I lived alone with my father on his hill farm of several hundred mortgage ridden acres near Lacey, Arkansas (Drew County).”
Read full article on Best American Poetry...
About the Author
J. Chester Johnson, Guest Author, Best American Poetry, July 1-5
This week we welcom back J. Chester Johnson as our guest author. Chester has written verse for over forty years. His work received praise from writers and poets spanning several decades...
Read bio on Best American Poetry...
– Published in Literary Matters
During a short period a number of years ago when I corresponded with Robert Graves, the poet and classicist, he declared in a letter with considerable certitude and a touch of impish hyperbole that he had never won any literary prize of any kind in his entire life. While this pronouncement wasn’t completely true, he nevertheless solidified a valuable point: one does not need to rely on prizes to justify works of art. Notwithstanding Graves’s cautionary note on the subject, C. D. Wright's One With Others (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010) deserves all the notice and prizes it has thus far received, including its selection as the winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize in 2011.
I attend many poetry readings, from those convened in cramped taprooms to those sponsored by any one of the several national poetry organizations located here in New York City. I also read a good deal of contemporary verse. One flaw I discover among some current verse more often than I would like is the absence of big ideas in favor of what one literary critic terms “regretful isolation.” This fault will not be detected in One With Others. Never steeping herself in subjective ambience and private revelation, Wright forges ahead in establishing for the reader an environment in which both writer and reader face translucent choices for responsible attention, if not action. Thus, the poet acknowledges and confirms her and the reader’s role as citizens in and of the world.
At the outset, the reader should know One With Others is a story—actually, three stories told in tandem. Of course, the work has features of a long poem, but it would be a mistake to come to this book expecting the conventions typical of a long piece of verse. First, it is part of the story of the 1960s’ civil rights movement in the American South at a time when many whites there responded manically, “with fear and trembling,” and, on occasion, violently to the threat of compulsory integration and an imminent end to Jim Crow. Second, One With Others is a narrative, reflected in memories, ruminations and testimonials, about the March Against Fear that occurred in the summer of 1969, with protesters walking from West Memphis, Arkansas to Little Rock, Arkansas. Indeed, I remember the end of that summer well. I had begun, in an effort to help black students become more familiar with whites in advance of desegregation, to teach in an all–African American public school on the cusp of the Arkansas delta along the Mississippi River, south of where the march took place, the last year before school integration; the region was on the verge of embarking on a new way of life, and harsh predictions were pervasive everywhere, among both blacks and whites. Third, One With Others is intrinsically the story of a Wright mentor, Margaret Kaelin McHugh—a white woman, a mother and wife— who lived at the time along the route of the march. She carried the moniker of “V” for Wright—drawn from Thomas Pynchon’s title for his debut novel—and joined the march only to be expulsed from her Arkansas town and family. Multidimensional in its reach, One With Others is a social commentary on the endangered and affronted racism of the 1960s in the South, a carefully assembled diorama of the March Against Fear, and a buoyant and memorable biography of McHugh all enveloped in a saga told with cogency, élan, humor, and unrelenting and unforgettable verse.
The challenge Wright places on herself as guide for a citizen’s journey is surely not inchoate for her. She previously tasked herself with similar undertakings in One Big Self (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), her long witness poem about those persons who endure substantial stretches of confinement in the Louisiana state prisons, and in Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), her cross-border outreach to evince the limits, controls, and effects outside the United States of recent versions of Pax Americana.
Although unfair and amiss to characterize C. D. Wright as a distinctly Southern writer, she nonetheless does continue to rely on a transported treasure trove and sundry accoutrements from her Arkansas roots as inspiration for vivid incidents and vivid characters to fuel her art. In this respect, she and James Joyce, with his transmutation of Dublin to Europe, share a bit of a common, homespun Muse. References to Arkansas, locations within the State, and vignettes of Arkansas events emerge in both her short and long poems. In One With Others, she also inserts a little Southern gothic, such as the matter-of- fact comment about a sheriff who always kept a man’s testicles in a jar on his desk. In this work, Wright ventures back into this Southern territory— both geographic and existential—fraught with the consequential forebodings of memory through expressed and ineffable, arresting and evading, words.
Though akin to the poetic design of certain other long pieces by Wright, especially to that of One Big Self, the line structure in One With Others is often, however, more truncated, with thoughts and recalls becoming virtual snippets in much of the poem. This occurs most frequently in depictions and recollections of various aspects of the march and in the exposition and evidence of the vicinal racism. I wonder whether Wright, either consciously or not, employs more abbreviated lines to communicate the strain, the qualms, the intimidation, and the risks of disclosure—that is, the telling, the verbal exposure, in a precarious, easily conflagrant environment that insists little be said publicly about the racial dysfunctions, domination, and duress.
Another technique, present in One With Others and utilized in prior Wright poems, is the repetition, the recycling of moments, remembrances, impressions, and phrases that appear early in the poem and rise again recognizably at another later time or phase. I cannot help but think that this echoing style of Wright’s derives from William Faulkner’s technique of manipulating time intervals and gamboling around with interludes, reacquainted consciousness, and resurrections of scene and language. This feature of One With Others adds comfort and familiarity to the reader engaged in a story that contains a multiplicity of voices, sources, and episodes.
Auden once defined poetry as “memorable speech.” A number of lines from One With Others—quotes from individuals in the story or passages from Wright’s own poetry—happen to be quite “memorable” for me. At the least, several lines insisted I remember them well after I closed the book. Here are a few: “If religion is the opiate of the masses fundamentalism is the amphetamine” (p. 35); “Mind on fire, body confined” (18); “Nothing is not integral” (149); “Any simple problem can be made insoluble” (75); “Whoever rides into the scene changes it” (116). Of course, some readers may consider these simply aphorisms; even if that is true, I still do not wish to forget them.
One With Others takes on big issues, and the reader— the citizen, if you will—departs from a work about unusual times and people with incontrovertible insights and sensibilities. In exploring a book of verse, I often search for the right excerpt that can summarize both the poet’s intent and much of the volume. The idiom of Wright’s voice for the citizen in One With Others is, I believe, largely embodied in this one short melodic selection: “It is known that when a blackbird calls in the marsh all sound back and if one note is missing all take notice. This is the solidarity we are born to” (107). And so we are.
About the Author
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist, and translator. He has published twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which is St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 2006). His work has been published in the New York Times, Best American Poetry, International Poetry Review, Twin Space (Italy), and elsewhere. Johnson has also composed numerous pieces on the American Civil Rights Movement, five of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College. In February, his article “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre” was featured in Green Mountain Review.
As a result of numerous requests to repost this article out of the site’s Archives, we have given renewed emphasis to Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre on this BLOG. Immediately below are excerpts from the notes of the Green Mountains Review editors set forth as an introduction at the time of the article’s publication; those excerpts will be followed by the entirety of the article, beginning with the Preface – just click on the link below at the appropriate location to link to the consolidated Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre.
– Published on Green Mountains Review
Green Mountains Review Online presented in four installments J. Chester Johnson’s groundbreaking essay “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” which probes deeply into one of America’s deadliest and least discussed race massacres–an event that also directly led to a more progressive U.S. Supreme Court judgment toward equal protection and thus helped usher in the civil rights movement. Driving Johnson’s exhaustive research is a personal connection to the massacre and its mysterious circumstances that bring to the fore those powerful emotional questions that lie always beyond the larger historical ones.
Across the sweeping canvas of American history, two markers–inherited and ineluctable–from the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas of the Mississippi River Delta invite a degree of attention to the episode yet to be received from public consciousness. First, the sheer number of persons who died in the massacre–-more particularly, the countless African-Americans who perished-–would certainly cause this massacre to be judged one of the most deadly racial conflicts–-perhaps, the most deadly racial conflagration-–in the history of the nation. Second, the wellspring of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s drew constantly from the 1923 U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Moore v. Dempsey that emerged out of the legal proceedings in Phillips County against African-American defendants, charged with the murders of whites allegedly committed during the massacre. The ruling in Moore v. Dempsey broke a long chain of Supreme Court decisions brutally adverse to the safety and rights of African-Americans.
Two heroes whose individual backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar share in this American saga. Most apparent, Scipio Africanus Jones, African-American lawyer, who started as a laborer in the Arkansas fields to become a 20th century Moses, climbed, through brilliance and tenacity, to forensic heights to free the black sharecroppers, unjustly found guilty of crimes in the aftermath of the massacre, and, at the same time, developed the legal strategy that, ultimately, through the intervention of the U. S. Supreme Court, altered the application of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution to protect the individual rights of and due process for American citizens. The other hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston patrician and distinguished jurist, who wrote the majority opinion for Moore v. Dempsey, not only opened the door to freedom for wrongfully convicted Arkansas sharecroppers, but also articulated a new judicial precedent and principle under which the federal government would more forcefully thereafter engage in the constitutional protection of its citizens.
Read full article on Green Mountains Review
Published on Best American Poetry Blog
Is there reason to be especially concerned should, for economic or other reasons, the number of available teaching jobs in creative writing be increasingly inadequate to accommodate new MFA graduates with a concentration in poetry? Let me suggest this outcome will not be an entirely dire circumstance for the future state of poetry or for the poetic future of those most affected, when we take a retrospective look at the output and careers of poets who have lived the double life – that is, those who wrote verse at the same time they held down non-poetry occupations. The double life has served many poets quite well.
Emily Dickinson helped maintain the Dickinson household in Amherst and did the baking for the family. Walt Whitman wrote copy and editorial commentary for newspapers; he and C. P. Cavafy worked as government employees. There was William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine, and, for eight years, T. S. Eliot chose to be a banker. Marianne Moore and Edna St. Vincent Millay were employed in various, unrelated positions while still writing. Pablo Neruda, a diplomat and politician; Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, farmers.
I’m judging that young poets do not need to get hung up on teaching as the narrow means open to them for a successful poetry career. Indeed, Wallace Stevens felt strongly the lessons he learned in business – he ran the surety claims department for the Hartford Insurance Company – improved his verse. When offered a poetry chair at Harvard, he turned it down in favor of the double life.
Is the Wallace Stevens precedent counterintuitive? I think not, and not because he didn’t care deeply about the part of his life that dealt with poetry. No, there is a more subtle reason. Most serious poets write poems for those surprises through which verse should always lead. Why would it therefore be confusing that someone who constantly traveled someplace unusual through the venue of his verse could also behold the other side of his double life being both surprising and inviting as well? After all, we do not merely leave who we are on the page; rather, we bring who we are to the page.
It’s often not a freedom of choice to adopt a double life, for many poets must accept that path before a career break or an accumulation of breaks occurs. Today, there are known poets who have, along the way, been an accountant, a biologist, an administrator, a musician; in fact, there are still others, including this author, who permanently choose a double life.
If this course seems necessary or opportune, I offer a few guidelines. First, let your poetic side help you select a non-poetic job. You can’t go home at night with verse on the agenda and be befuddled or burdened by an unhealthy and severe day at work. Second, pick a job that will not wear you out physically. Have energy remaining to respond affirmatively to the siren call of your verse. Third, make sure your daily job is not jejune or vapid, for that will surely convey itself into your writing. Finally, give yourself moments of recovery during each work day to jot down a thought or two or three related to your verse – for, believe me, the thoughts will come.
Once developed with flexibility, practicality, and a little elan vital, the double life can become a durable answer to the many questions hovering around a commitment to the writing of verse.
Published on Best American Poetry Blog
On the afternoon of September 10th, 2011, seven poets participated in a reading, held for the 10th commemoration of 9/11 and sponsored by Poets House, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Trinity Wall Street. The reading, convened in the cavernous sanctuary of Trinity Church at Wall and Broadway, two blocks south of Ground Zero, attracted approximately 300 persons. Poems of grief, remembrance and reconciliation were presented by the poets.
During their readings that day, both Cornelius Eady and Mark Doty referred to difficulties they each had faced in writing about the 9/11 experience. I believe the obstacles they confronted in writing about the event spoke for many poets, who had dealt with similar demons in the aftermath of 9/11.
The impediments are patent. Instinctively, we know words cannot and do not supplant reality; words, even if crafted well, can only make damnable reality more understandable. Subtlety is, as a matter of course, the mother’s milk of a poet’s craft; and those immediate and uncorrectable 9/11 experiences of inescapability, unconditioned desperation, palpable incomprehension, and uncompromising exposure, whether one were actually present that day in downtown New York City or not, simply countervail and explode a poet’s natural field of responsive behavior. The veins and nerves are torn. One cannot be subtle in the face of impossible violence and destruction, which immediately rip away at words attempting to make meaning out of meaninglessness. The events were too much with and part of us – words could not compete with the visions and imaginings we all had of both Ground Zero and those whose partial remains created the indescribable personality of the Pit, the Pile.
The most notable verse to surface on the subject of 9/11 came from the marvelous poet, Galway Kinnell, whose poem, “When The Towers Fell,” was published in September, 2002 by THE NEW YORKER. The verse put the events elegantly, evocatively and soberly in a context of something larger than the moment and its specific characteristics; rather, the poem put 9/11 seriatim in a long line of indiscriminate horror and violence that have too often proven to be humanity’s bedfellows over millennia. We seven poets ended the program with a reciting of the poem – each of us taking a part of “When The Towers Fell.” Reading this work alone or together with other poets, I could not help but recall Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” and Whitman’s Civil War poetry.
My own poetic attempts fell principally to a piece, albeit an important piece, of the 9/11 story. St. Paul’s Chapel, located within yards of the North Tower site, served as the 24/7 relief center – a respite of peace and refuge – for the recovery workers, who toiled in the savage Pit during the nine-month, clean-up phase. I volunteered part-time there, sometimes during a day, but mostly overnight on a weekend. This experience translated into a poem I wrote, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” which has been, for the last ten years, the memento card for the approximately 30,000 visitors who come weekly to the Chapel. Though a mere few yards away from the unspeakable, there was in the Chapel at least air to breathe, a place to think, and enough people to hug – not an unfair amount of essence for verse.
– Published on Best American Poetry Blog
When the article, "On Working with W. H. Auden on The Psalms," appeared here, I received a number of questions and requests for more information. So, I’m taking this opportunity to respond – at least, in part.
I’ve noticed it came as a complete surprise to many persons that W. H. Auden was so fully engaged, intellectually and emotionally, in the Episcopal Church’s revision of THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, begun in earnest in the late 1960s. While a portion of his views on the subject was included in the article, associated material by and about Auden on the revision project is also contained in the final pages of Later Auden, the most recent biography by Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and principal biographer. To receive a little more flavor of the intensity of Auden’s perspective toward the subject, add the following excerpt from one of his letters:
"What has happened over the last few years has made me realize that those who rioted when Cranmer introduced a vernacular liturgy were right. When this reform nonsense started, what we should have done is the exact opposite of the Roman Catholics: we should have said 'Henceforth, we will have the Book of Common Prayer in Latin.' (There happens to be an excellent translation.)"
These views were further clarified and emphasized in the considerable communication that exists on various aspects of the revision process between Auden and Canon Charles Guilbert, who was, at the time, the Custodian of THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER of the Episcopal Church. The basis for Auden’s fundamental aversion to the revision can be summed up, I believe, in this thoughtful and quite eloquent excerpt from a letter, dated March 19th, 1968, to Guilbert:
"We had the Providential good-fortune, a blessing denied to the Roman Catholics, that our Prayer Book was compiled at the ideal historical moment, that is to say, when the English Language was already in all essentials the language we use now – nobody has any difficulty understanding Shakespeare’s or Cranmer’s English, as they have difficulty with Beowulf or Chaucer – at the same time, men in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries still possessed what our own has almost totally lost, a sense for the ceremonial and ritual both in life and in language."
– Published on Best American Poetry Blog
(Ed note: A few months ago, David Lehman met Chester Johnson at an event that featured a discussion about W. H. Auden. During the post-event dinner, he and David got to talking about Auden, with whom Chester had worked on the retranslation of the Psalms for THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER (book of liturgy for The Episcopal Church). David asked Chester to write about the experience for our readers. We're thrilled to bring you this exclusive. Thank you J. Chester Johnson -- sdh)
The 150 mostly short poems constituting the psalter (the body of psalms) have engendered admiration, emulation, and enduring precedent for a long line of English and American poets. Like so many of those poets before and after him, W. H. Auden regarded the psalms as a special body of memorable poetry. Indeed, during the last years of his life, he was engaged, as a member of the drafting committee, in the retranslation of the psalms, as contained in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the famous book that serves as the liturgical guide for The Episcopal Church (USA), which had, at the time, authorized a complete overhaul of the entire book.
While the form for the psalms evolved through our language into different applications, their original construction influenced the direction of our verse. For example, though the ancient Hebrew ear apparently enjoyed more truncated lines and fewer cadences, the English-American ear, as a general matter, extrapolated verse structure into longer lines and more cadences.
Not withstanding many other adaptations, including major adjustments to subject matter and tone, the model of the psalms has persisted to effect a stylistic reference point among English and American writers of verse – in innumerable cases, no doubt, without the literary practitioner’s conscious knowledge of the association.
Read full article
– Published on Best American Poetry Blog
We should not suppose this return connotes a literary topography akin to PARADISE LOST, BHAGAVAD GITA of the MAHABHARATA, or THE ILIAD. Of course, we don’t think of ourselves as poets engaged in preserving, in verse, traditional epic contests with warrior battles, supernal interventions, or topical armageddon between conspicuous forces of good and evil. Rather, a more modern epic form of poetic relevance establishes a consequential context for the events explored and also reflects the values of the particular time and place.
There are recent longer poems or collected series of poems that capture the values of an age, which values often oppose each other within the poem, and do so through an unusual telling of remarkable, singular events. Examples that immediately come to mind are C. D. Wright’s ONE WITH OTHERS and Cornelius Eady’s BRUTAL IMAGINATION. Wright wrote this book-length poem about the way a mentor and others conducted themselves in the midst of civil rights events, more particularly, the 1969 March Against Fear (from West Memphis, AR to Little Rock, AR). In the work, we learn much about complicity without redemption and courage with redemption. Previously in ONE BIG SELF, Wright relied on a similar approach (accompanied by photographs – applied, in an adjacent style, by James Agee and Walker Evans for LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN) to communicate life in the Louisiana prison system. With a different structure, Eady employed a long cycle of related poems that discover and explain the environment in which a white mind invokes an imagined black man to cover up a murder; the cycle conveys, among other things, the perspective as shown through the eyes of that fictitious black man whom Susan Smith tried to blame for the killing of her two sons in South Carolina. Both of these longer works qualify as epic pieces, not simply for the length of each, but also for the considerable examination into the complex and extensive worlds that produced the events on which these poets relied.
It would be incorrect, however, to surmise that Eady and Wright are working alone in this new epic verse mode. Several other American poets have claimed it in their own discrete styles. Kindred examples include: Nicole Cooley in BREACH, which examines in a cycle of numerous poems the immediate effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans (Cooley’s hometown) and the concomitant aftermath; and Van Brock’s UNSPEAKABLE STRANGERS, a book-length set of poems “about and related to the Holocaust, its causes, and the persistence of its causes and effects” – in the words of Brock.
Some poets, on the other hand, alter the epic mode through intriguing and surprising methods to produce a unique slant. Kimiko Hahn in TOXIC FLORA probes science (actually, articles on science that appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES) as the underlying universe for a long set of inter-connected poems. At the same time, Davis McCombs chooses in ULTIMA THULE the interiors of a network of caves, located in south central Kentucky, to extrapolate into epic dimensions an almost endless context of history, vistas, conflicts and death.
So, who says that Homer and Virgil do not live? Undoubtedly, they do; it’s just they now choose another means of travel. While I’ve tried my own hand at various applications of the latest use of the epic verse form, it’s best and most prudent for this poet to let the pieces cited in this article stand for the conclusion that long sets of linked poems or single, expansive poems, composed in the new epic verse mode, embolden and enrich the current American poetry world in ways that are both original and convincing.
– Published on Best American Poetry Blog
Let me propose an additional instrument to the array we poets already enjoy at our disposal when we put our poems together. I call it “elastic rhyme,” and I’ve been using it here and there for years. Simply put, elastic rhyme, which is especially suited for prose-leaning styles that characterize much current poetry, supplies a flexible order for the writing of verse; while rhyme occurs systematically, the point at which it actually occurs varies – thus, the term, elastic rhyme.
Rhyme can be magic – frequently, subtle magic – that beguiles readers and listeners even today and seduced their forebears from the time poetry enticed early devotees and an audience around a fire to be word-comforted. So, I’d certainly not suggest a terminal scuttling of rhyme, but I would espouse an emendation to soften overtness of hard rhyme – mitigating, if not removing, monotonous, singsongy instances that can repel poets and readers or listeners alike.
Rhyme in elastic rhyme will normally strike, but not always, between alternate lines. One can choose from a vast assemblage of applications – use of measured feet (i.e., pentameter, trimeter, etc.), blank verse, free verse – in combination with elastic rhyme. For example, a poet may assign a certain number of words per line – with variation, if preferred, per line throughout the poem even to that number – depending on the tautness desired, and then select any one of the first few words in every other line to rhyme with any one of the last few words in each succeeding line. The approach could be modified to substitute a syllabic scheme for the word system, just described.
At present, some verse continues to rely on rhyming techniques at the end of lines, utilizing sonnet, sestina, terza rima, or other style arrangements. Elastic rhyme can break the line ending adherence and foster more diversity in rhyme composition. In much earlier verse, poets often found the use of shorter lines more effective, but, over time, extended lines were enlisted; elastic rhyme builds on this liberalization without rejecting order or rhyme altogether. Steadfast fidelity to tight and repetitive elements in poetic form is a scary regimen for most of us – we’ve learned to be dutifully chary of devotion to such methods, for they
become more than a bit boring to the poet, and, even more to the point, they contribute to disinterest, if not to downright agitation, by the audience in the midst of oppressive monotony.
For generations, poets supported, by their practice, the thesis that lines of verse are joined, solidified or emphasized at the moment rhyme is finalized. In responding to one of my longer poems, which employs elastic rhyme, the poet, Molly Peacock, made a separate and quite discriminating observation when she concluded that elastic rhyme can actually serve the purpose of "stretching and contracting language." She thus underscores the benefit that by adjusting rhyme completion away from traditional placement, the poet can, through elastic rhyme, actually stretch and contract signal moments of verse.