Friday, December 2, 2011

Margaret Walker, Struggle & Poetry magazine in the late 1930s

Margaret Walker's poem "The Struggle Staggers Us" appeared in the July 1938 issue of Poetry magazine. Walker's poem expressed a communal view as the "our" and "us" of her poem, for example, signaled a collective struggle.

I've wondered how readers viewed that poem, a sonnet in fact, about "struggle" in 1938. I'm also fascinated by the idea that a black writer interested in struggle would submit her work to Poetry during the late 1930s.

But then, why not submit to Poetry? "For My People," Walker's most famous poem, had appeared there, so why not this struggle poem as well? Maybe she submitted them around the same time since they appeared so close. Her poem "We Have Been Believers" appeared in the March 1939 issue of the publication.

During the late 1930s, Walker was working with the Federal Writers' Project in Chicago. She interacted with artists such as Katherine Dunham, Frank Yerby, and Richard Wright. Talk of various kinds of struggle--economic and political--were a part of the regular conversation. And beyond any concerns about large-scale struggles, Walker acknowledges seemingly small, detailed concerns as well: "There is a journey from the Me to You," she writes. "There is a journey from the You to Me."

Interacting with cultural workers and literary artists in Chicago, Walker was certainly aware that she was in the city where Poetry was based. She could've hand-delivered her poems. The appearance of three of her works in Poetry in the late 1930s was a major achievement for a poet then in her early 20s. The publications likely gave her a sense of confidence and accomplishment; the appearances certainly led to national visibility for her work.

Walker's poem was not the first work to address struggle. But looking back, the poem's focus and its publication in Poetry does seem significant. And as a piece by one of the then emerging black artists working in Chicago during the late 1930s, "The Struggle Staggers Us" is an important literary artifact from a vital moment in African American cultural history.

Related: Margaret Walker Week

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