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becomingapoet

becomingapoet

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Published by Angela J. Smith

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Published by: Angela J. Smith on Apr 14, 2011
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CHAPTER 4: BECOMING A POET
In the winter o 1923, John Beecher changed his career goals. At Cornell University, where he hadstudied engineering and hoped to ollow his ather into the steel business, he almost ailed physics andound little that sparked him in the engineering courses. His academic interests shied to liberal arts,and there he embraced literature and language. Tis allowed him not only to pursue the creativity that hecould not fnd in the sciences, but also to bond with his mother around a shared academic interest. At theend o the term, he returned to Birmingham and to his job as a helper on the Number 8 urnace—a jobthat in the previous summer had inspired him and his creativity. In his autobiography, he noted that heliked the men on the job and elt a sense o pride in the work. Tus, the catalyst or the new personal di-rection began the summer beore while he worked at the steel mill. One evening aer a long shi, poetry came to him or the frst time:“One Saturday when I was on night turn, Number 8 tapped outits last heat o the week at three in the morning and went on bot-tom. I was through and ree to leave. I had already worked 87½hours that week. But I was in the grip o a curious possession. Ielt a terriying emotion. It was like talons seizing my chest. Teopen-hearth oce where I used to work was deserted. I wentin and grabbed a shea o scratch paper, which I attached to my clipboard along with my notes on the operation o Number 8. Isat down on the parapet outside and began writing with my stubo pencil. Every so oen, a dinky engine would storm right by me with a string o charging pans. It would spray me with smokeand cinders. Te line o urnaces stretched away down the oor,their peepholes winking in the gloom, the helpers marching withtheir scoops, inging loads o dolomite against the backwalls, theoor crane tilting a hot metal car into Number 9, light burstingwhere the molten stu owed through the spout. When I fn-ished writing the sun was high in the sky. It was eight o’clock. Ihad been writing or fve hours. In the dining room at home, wehad a grandather clock rom Scotland dated 1810. Te ace borea primitive painting o the Muse accosting Bobby Burns at theplow. It was not so strange to me thereore that the Muse shouldhave grabbed me on the open-hearth oor. I had written my frstpoem. It was about the steel mills.”
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John Beecher believed that at this point he became a poet. He ound inspiration at the mill, and he al-lowed the muse to ow through him onto the paper. Tough he did not realize it, the event marked a newdirection or him. By winter, he no longer saw himsel as a uture steel engineer or metallurgist or a bigboss or CI; he saw himsel as a poet.During the late winter and spring o 1924, he worked ull-time at the mill and continued to take cor-respondence courses. Te courses contributed to his transormation rom aspiring engineer to a poet. Hecompleted courses in English literature, German, history, and creative writing. For the creative writingcourse, he made his frst attempt at an autobiography, which he called “Te Fading Margin.” His par-
 
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ents were so proud o the result that his ather’s secretary typed copies, and his mother sent them to her literary riends. In return, they sent letters o praise to Isabel, who showed great pride in his new direction.John’s next signifcant writing accomplishment was the poem “Big Boy.” He returned home rom his shi atthe mill one day and sat down to complete an assignment or a correspondence course in English, but instead apoem came to him. “In less than an hour, I had written it out. … Te speaker was a steelworker talking to anoth-er. It was composed o fve stanzas o six lines each with a regular rhyme scheme which somehow imposed itsel on the material. Te language was steelworker’s lingo, very rough or those times and exceedingly anti-poetic.Te general thrust was stoical but angry and bitter, proto-revolutionary even. I called it “Big Boy”, a commonorm o address out on the oor. “Big boy, come help me ram out this tap-hole.” “Big boy, grab your scoop. We’remaking backwall on Number 8.”
Big Boy 
Skirt turned you downBecause you worked in a steel mill?old it over town,Gave you the gate, laughed ft to kill?Hell, what do you expect?You can’t help this big boy!Burns on your eye,On your arms, your chest, your hands?Goin’ to cry?Tem things an open hearth eller stands.Damn, snap to, you buck up.make the best o it, big boy!Can’t stand the work?Back sore, shovel handle cuts like a knie?How can you shirk?You got to eat, ain’t you, in this dirty lie?Hell, swing on to that hammer.Put your back into it, big boy!Hop on a reight?Go some place where a man’s got a chance?Tat ain’t your ate!Weak head, strong back, and you got on pants.Why, you’re as dumb as me!What else can you do, big boy?Wish you could die,Wish ‘twas pneumonia ‘stead o smoke has got you to coughin’?Wish you could lieUnder the ground in a varnished pine con?Christ, you wish you were dead?Huh, you ain’t got nothing on me, big boy!
Ensley Steel Works, 1924
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When John fnished the poem, he immediately showed it to his mother. She was shocked by its common
 
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tone and pessimism, but that did not stop her rom sending it to her accomplished literary riends. Isabelknew some important fgures in poetry circles because o her work in the Chautauqua, and she used hercontacts to promote her son. One such riend, poet Lew Sarett, who was a speech teacher at Northwest-ern, sent the poem to Harriet Monroe, the inuential ounder o 
Poetry Magazine
and an important voicein the burgeoning modernist poetry movement.
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Monroe had beriended many o the most renownedpoets o the era, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and .S.Eliot.
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Monroe wanted to publish “Big Boy” i John would make some changes. She wanted him tochange the title, eliminate proanity, and soen a ew o the words. He reused. Writers and artists hadembraced modernism, and the movement set aside the old rules and shaped a new cultural era.Modernism, a movement that maniested itsel in art, literature, and architecture, is considered by most scholars to have begun in December 1910 and continued through the middle o the twentieth cen-tury. Te 1920s was a particularly rich time or artists o all kinds in the states and in Europe. Te move-ment was characterized by a recultivation o past orms into new styles in art and literature; Robert Ad-ams described this idea as the use o “the past structurally, not or decorative end.
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Adams also notedthe movement emphasized grotesque disparities, dehumanization with a sexual presence, concerned withMarx, Freud, science, and technology, exhibiting an anti-rationalist vane, as well as an absence o politi-cal engagement. Well-known artists that practiced in the modern style were Picasso and writers .S. Eliot,Ezra Pound, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Franz Kaa.
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 Tough John did not write in a modern-ist style—his work is in the mode o traditional Americanists like Walt Whitman—his early, reeormexperimental style shows the inuence o the modernists.While John had been introduced to the movement and to modern literature and began to see himsel as a poet, he was still a young man in Birmingham, torn between personal passion and parental expecta-tions. Aer a ew months in the mills, John traveled with his parents to dierent places. He and his atherwent on a tour o U.S. Steel plants in Pittsburgh and Chicago, where his ather tried to convince himto return to Cornell and continue to study engineering. Aer they returned to Birmingham, John only became more convinced that he wanted to be a poet. His mother, thrilled that he was pursuing art andliterature, oered to accompany him to Ithaca. Tey could rent a house together and John would enrollin summer school at Cornell while she kept the house or him and audited courses. Isabel was eager toescape the heat o Birmingham in the summer and longed or the intellectual companionship that a uni-versity town oered. John readily agreed.It was also during this summer session at Cornell that John met his frst great writing mentor, Pro-essor William Strunk, co-author o the now classic little book,
Te Elements of Style
. Strunk was a well-respected, longtime proessor o composition at Cornell, and that summer John enrolled in two o hisclasses, Advanced Composition and Shakespearean ragedy. According to John, his encounter withStrunk was a turning point in his lie, and he discovered himsel as a writer. “He intervened at just theright time to teach me restraint, directness, a stripped, lean style,” John explained. “At the same time heencouraged me, saying I was a natural writer and one o the most promising students he had ever had.”
161
 Te relationship with Strunk was the most important tie he made at Cornell—even more important thanhis raternity or any o his other classes.
162
 

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