Monday, May 2, 2016

Margaret Walker and exclamation points in African American poetry

Here's a message that Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, who's also a relentless poetry news information sharing machine, sent out on Twitter yesterday:
I've been aware of Walker's poem for as long as I've been reading consciously poetry; thus, I did not expect to encounter anything I had not seen. Nonetheless, I've been inclined to follow Share's poetry links, so I decided to re-read Walker's poem just for fun.

Everything about the poem was as I'd always remembered it. Well, everything but one minor punctuation mark. The end of the original reads, "Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control!" The end with various online sources and books reads, "Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control."

No sources I consulted beyond the original included the exclamation point at the end--a notable omission or shift. I'm not sure if Walker or editors made the change over the years. With the exclamation point, Walker's poem has a more forceful closing than with just a period.

Furthermore, restoring the exclamation point places Walker's poem in closer conversation with a few of our most anthologized poems. Phillis Wheatley's "To His Excellency General Washington," Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel," and now Walker's "For My People" all include exclamation points in the closing lines. Amiri Baraka's poem "Black Art" does not include a formal exclamation point at the end, but his capitalization of the last word "LOUD" suggests strong emphasis.

I'm pleased to have stumbled upon this new and initial way of reading the closing of "For My People."   

Margaret Walker

1 comment:

jward said...

The exclamation point was retained when the poem was printed in The Negro Caravan(1941).

J. W. Ward, Jr.