Margaret Walker: For My People (Yale University Press, 2019 - originally published 1942)

When poet and editor Rita Dove chose to select one poem only by Margaret Walker (1915-1998) for her Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011), she picked For My People. Did she have a choice? For even as Margaret Walker has written a number of significant poems, the majestic and rousing For My People, the title poem of her first book of poetry, has over the years remained her signature poem.

Long out of print, this year, 2019, Yale University Press has re-issued For My People (1942) in a facsimile edition (with only the copyright page and the covers changed). A centenary edition, this slim volume of 40 pages of poetry was originally published as volume 41 in the Yale Series of Younger Poets (Margaret Walker was 26 at the time), a series begun in 1919, the series – not Margaret Walker or For My People – thus celebrating its first 100 years.

In his foreword Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benét (John Brown’s Body, 1928), who served as a judge of The Yale Younger Poets prize from 1933 to 1942, describes Walker’s language as having “something of the surge of biblical poetry.”

The 26 poems are divided into three sections, Part One containing Walker's title poem For My People (".. For my people … washing/ ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing/ plowing digging planting pruning patching dragging/ along never gaining never reaping never knowing and/ never understanding/.."), We Have Been Believers, Southern Song  (“The South is the subject and source of all my poetry” – Margaret Walker) and other free verse poems.  

Part Two is a series of ballads and portraits of legendary figures from black folklore – John Henry, Stagolee – and not least the ‘uncanny’ (Benét) Molly Brown ("Old Molly Brown was a hag and a  witch;/ Chile of the devil, the dark, and sitch. /  ..", Part Three sonnets like Memory, printed in full on the front cover of the 2019 edition  (".. shoulders hunched against a sharp concern; ..").

Even as Stephen Vincent Benét “would be very much surprised if this book were all she had to give”, it would be almost thirty years before she published two new chapbooks of poetry, Prophets for a New Day (1970) and October Journey (1973 – both Broadside Press), revitalized as a poet by the Civil Rights Movement, meanwhile finishing the writing of her civil war novel, Jubilee (1966), essays, and preparing her controversial biography, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988), a writer she had met and befriended on the WPA Chicago Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989), prefaced  and edited by Margaret Walker herself, collects all three published volumes, with 37 previously uncollected poems, including the sequence Farish Street.

The foremost Walker scholar, Maryemma Graham, is preparing a biography tentatively titled The House Where I Live: The Life of Margaret Walker.