As I go back and forth between the news and archived essays by Jeremy Ingalls, some of which were written before our current president was born, I can’t help wondering what Ingalls would have thought about Barak Obama as the first African American president. Prior to the announcement that Ingalls was the Yale Younger Poet Prizewinner for 1941, she wrote in an essay, “The Road Beyond Violence,” that “part of the informing spirit of every poet ‘out of the ivory tower,’ [is] the poet seeing himself once more a legislator with a post to fill in society.” Before poets were invited to speak at presidential inaugurations, and before we had women in the U.S. legislature, Ingalls became one of those legislators of poetry, extolling the work of Margaret Walker, the first African American to win the Yale Younger Poet’s prize for her collection For My People (1942) as “a genuine poetry of indignation and challenge.” Walker’s “cadenced verses ripe in imagery,” were, according to Ingalls, written for a people “indicting the world they never made,” while also challenging people to undertake “that world’s re-making through strength born of their long endurance.” Indeed, the final poem in Walker’s collection, “The Struggle Staggers Us,” speaks of the endurance “for pride, for simple dignity,” that is an ongoing struggle, begun long before the emancipation proclamation and the battle for civil rights and continuing today among many different people and cultures, throughout the world. “This is more than fighting to exist;” Walker declared, “…more than revolt and war and human odds. /There is a journey from me to you. /There is the journey from you to me. /A union of the two strange worlds must be.”
In their parallel journeys toward poetic self discovery, it seems that Ingalls and Walker had more in common than the distinguished prize they shared in consecutive years. Walker, whose poetry manuscript was the basis for a Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa Writer’s Program before it was published by Yale University Press, also juggled the hats of poet, scholar, and eventually, professor. Walker returned to the University of Iowa for a PhD, and, like Ingalls, taught literature for 30 years before retiring to write full time. Both poets published several books in their lifetime, and yet neither poet seems to be as well known or remembered today as many of the poets who influenced and inspired them. Perhaps their legacy remains, more humbly, among the generations of students and scholars whom they taught.
Jeremy Ingalls’ essay “The Road Beyond Violence” was written in praise of younger poets—among them Muriel Rukeyser, Dylan Thomas, and Delmore Schwartz—all of whom Ingalls, who was 30 at the time, accurately felt were “significant spokesmen for their times.” Switching hats from scholar to poet, Ingalls concluded her essay with a poem of her own, which she felt developed some of the themes she saw in the poetry of her contemporaries. “An age of violence,” Ingalls wrote at a time when the U.S. was on the cusp of entering World War Two, “begets its own philosophy of redemption.” The themes she examined in her essay attempted to find “the urgent need…among ‘the just men,’ for the recovery of justice in our times.” Her poem addressed the “present impasse in personal, national, and international problems,” which she offered as “a challenge on three levels, religious, political, and literary,” because it “poses the total problem of physical and spiritual survival in a world deformed by violence.” In a world which remains deformed by violence, perhaps Walker’s “journey” and Ingalls’ “road” have converged, and are redeemed in a modern-day “recovery of justice”—the election of Obama—that happened just beyond their lifetimes, but which they each would have whole-heartedly embraced.
The Road Beyond Violence
The road beyond violence will be taken.
That we go between the legs of Hell to find it
Is little enough and not enough to say.
Cancerous flesh, lack-blood, and ague-shaken,
Maimed, mute, blinded, plunged on terror,
Nevertheless are some will find the way.
There is a heart which does not die of bleeding.
Not a gentle excursion chance-chosen,
Not gentlemanly, not footsoft or gay.
A martyr’s goatpath and the mind ascending
Every negation but one and that affirming
A sun to reach more bright than planet day.
Not a road to be found by cautious verging
Little retreats from horror falling later
And less gently to the ready slough.
This heart I speak of is a mightier urging,
A road to be taken by some and not later
The path of the burning footsoles taken now.
Jeremy Ingalls, 1941