When Sterling A. Brown came to read his poetry in Columbia, Maryland, in April, 1980—at age 78—it was a complete surprise to the sponsors to hear him begin by saying that it “felt good to come home again to Howard County.” Timothy Jenkins, the poet’s close friend and former student, reported later that driving up from Washington on Route 29 Brown had asked several times, in vain, for the turn-off to Whiskey Bottom Road. In a much altered landscape he was looking for the site of the family farm where he had spent many summers as a boy and young man.
Though he failed to find the Howard County he remembered, Brown had a warm welcome that afternoon, and seemed to enjoy himself as much as he was enjoyed by others. A number in the crowd of about sixty at Slayton House were former students or had known the professor in their Howard University days. In 1980 HoCoPoLitSo had not yet begun tape recording its readings. But one poem I know Brown included, and talked about, was “After Winter.” The “old scarecrow” it refers to is the lean, spare figure of his minister father, Sterling Nelson Brown. “Butterbeans fo’ Clara / Sugar corn fo’ Grace” were among the vegetables his father tended in his garden at the North Laurel getaway.
The Columbia reading was about six months shy of Harper and Row’s September publication of The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper and selected by him for the first National Poetry Series. Through the following fall and winter the book won a raft of glowing national reviews as well as the Lenore Marshall Prize.
In the Saturday Review Philip Levine called Brown’s Collected Poems a “great book, stunning in its artistry and gigantic in its vision.” Writing in the Washington Post’s Book World, Joseph McClellan observed that Sterling Brown and Robert Frost “share many virtues; a naturalness in the use of colloquial language (spoken black English in Brown’s case) that make them accessible to a readership far wider than the usual audience for poetry; a special talent for narrative verse (a form that has sadly declined in our time, and a serious loss); the ability to portray living human beings unforgettably in a few telling strokes; a grace in the use of traditional forms and an underlying vision that is deeply moral without ever being rigid or shrill.
“Brown’s poems are full of pain and sorrow . . .” he continued, “but the overall feeling that emerges is one of joy: joy first of all in people’s resilience, the ability to endure and persevere and wait for better times. What we have [of Brown’s work] is all we are likely to have, and it is enough to establish this poet as one of our best.” [End Page 870]
In the New York Times Book Review, giving further appreciations of Brown’s form and style, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. declared: “In a life that spans the era of Booker T. Washington and the era of Black Power, . . . Sterling Brown is not only the Afro-American Poet Laureate, he is a great poet.”
After the Slayton House reading, Brown, the Jenkinses and the HoCoPoLitSo board came to our house for a supper of poetry reading rice—a tasty mixture of sausage, shrimp, chicken, onions, peppers, mushrooms. He tucked the envelope with his honorarium check (a check destined never to be cashed) in a breast pocket, eased his tie and shoelaces and gazed out at Wilde Lake. He seemed relaxed, a little tired, but content. Latecomers to the crowd of a dozen or more were the developer of Columbia, Jim Rouse and his wife Patty, who had been at a family gathering on the Eastern Shore. Sterling was feeling mellow, and for the sake of the Rouses, was easily persuaded to read a few more poems.
For months after his visit, and for the next fourteen years, I would wonder from time to time about Sterling Brown’s connection with Howard County’s past—and vice versa. Apart from the reference...