A Review of Auden, the Psalms, and Me Has Been Posted On The Website of the Florida Diocese of the Episcopal Church. An Introduction To The Review By The Diocesan Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, Precedes The Review. Read The Review Below.
BISHOP HOWARD'S FOREWORD TO THE CHESTER JOHNSON BOOK REVIEW
Chester Johnson and his wife Freda have been dear friends to Marie and me for over 20 years. We first met the Johnsons at Trinity Church in New York City where I was Vicar. Chester and Freda were active members of Trinity, and Chester served for a number of years on the Vestry.
Born in Tennessee and raised in Arkansas and Harvard-educated, Chester has spent most of his life in New York City in the world of finance.
Chester is a gifted poet, essayist and speaker. In the 1970s, Chester served alongside the noted poet W.H. Auden as one of the two poets on the drafting committee which retranslated the Psalms for our Book of Common Prayer. In the years since, Chester has authored a number of volumes of poetry. I am particularly fond of one poem which relates to our time together in New York City: "St. Paul's Chapel." This wonderful poem has been used by Trinity Church and its neighboring St. Paul's Chapel for distribution to those visiting that historic church which was the site of important rescue and relief work during the months following the 9-11 attacks.
I am delighted that Chester has recently visited with us in the Diocese of Florida and spoke at our Cathedral about some of his recent books. I am grateful, too, that Owene Courtney has written the following review of Chester's most recent book, Auden, the Psalms, and Me.
+SJH April 16, 2018
A Book Review of Chester Johnson's Auden, the Psalms, and Me
By Owene Courtney, Director of the Center for Prayer & Spirituality, St John's Cathedral, Jacksonville
Self- described as "bubbly and slightly mercurial" in his 20's, Chester Johnson still charms and fascinates when he discusses his experience on the drafting committee for the 1979 retranslation of the Psalms contained in the current edition of the Book of Common Prayer. If you have ever wondered why the psalms in our prayer book today are slightly different, more accurate and sometimes more lyrical than the ones in the bibles you read, Chester's book Auden, the Psalms and Me is a must read.
In his book, Chester tells the story of how his 'bubbly and slightly mercurial self' became involved with the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Episcopal psalms, and then how he took the place of esteemed 20th century British/American poet W. H. Auden on the committee "at the grand old age of twenty-six, being at least twenty years younger the next youngest member." By no means dry or theological, this delightful book tells the story of a humbly bright and clever young poet who unabashedly offered his services to a more senior and experienced group of scholars, only for them to discover he was the perfect person for the job. Students of Church History and the prayer book will enjoy it for this reason.
Chester explains the reasons the retranslation was so necessary and appropriate as well as W. H. Auden's ambivalent feelings about the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. He also includes correspondence with W. H. Auden, which reveals the origin of those feelings as well as a better understanding of Auden's "friends and influences, mirrored in the realms of literature, literary criticism, and theology." Students of literature, particularly 20th century poetry, will enjoy it for this reason.
As a scholar and a poet, Chester carefully acknowledges the literary devices inherent in the psalms, ones which elevate them to an eloquently poetic level and had to be preserved in the retranslation. Poetic devices from chiasmus to parataxis, possibly not known by name, will be recognized by readers as what makes the language of the psalms so beautiful. Poets and writers will enjoy the book for this reason.
My favorite part of the book is toward the end when Chester compares the Coverdale translations with his retranslations and explains why the nuances of word, punctuation, and syntax change were so important. Having been a young adult in the church as the "new" prayer book was introduced, I was shocked with how poorly received it was and how offended people were by the changes. I worshiped in a church where the clergy taught the 'whys, hows, wheres and whats' of the changes, and consequently the people were less offended. What Chester has done with this book by continuing that explanation is to offer pray-ers and worshipers a gently humorous and humble, yet very scholarly, explanation of why the changes were made and how they make a significant difference in our prayer life.
Whet your appetite for this book by reading the psalms in your bible and then in your Book of Common Prayer. Note the changed words or syntax and then see what Chester says about them. As Chester says, "None of our revised verses have come back to bite us like other revisions have," referencing another translation of Psalm 50 which says, "I will accept no bull from your house" rather than the BCP translation "I will take no bull calf from your stall." Chester Johnson is clever and humble and thoroughly delightful, just like his book.
Auden, the Psalms, and Me(2017, Church Publishing) is available at the St John's Cathedral bookshop and via Amazon.
The Magazine, Talisman, Recently Reviewed Auden, The Psalms, And Me. The Review Appears Below.
J. Chester Johnson, Auden, the Psalms, and Me (Church Publishing, 2017)
As the postmodern fades away together with its notion that there is no essence, no origin, no genesis to which a given word refers or which it perpetuates, it is no longer easy to argue that language is essentially fluid, not a vessel to transport the past to the future, but an unending transformation, ungrounded, too opaque and moving too fast to convey an unchanging essence in the nature of words. The journal in which this review will appear is known for its broad eclecticism and its resistance to any one poetics. The journal has generally stayed clear of theory and works that encroach on territory commonly thought to be theological. Even its well known attention to Gnosticism has been concerned principally with gnostic awareness in a secular poetics. When the editor asked that I review J. Chester Johnson’s Auden, the Psalms, and Me, I hesitated, given what I know of the journal’s history, but after reading the book closely, I realized that it embodied an argument that went far beyond its stated subject — the translation of the psalms for liturgical use within the Episcopal church. In fact, at stake was the very issue of poetic translation and the degree to which, and means through which, any translation might be judged accurate — indeed raising the question, what is meant by calling a translation “accurate.”
At stake is the translation of the psalms by Miles Coverdale, which had long been the “official” version adopted by the Episcopal Church and which were largely incorporated in the 1928 edition of the church’s Book of Common Prayer, but although Coverdale’s translations were expert poetry in English, there were instances where they diverged from the Hebrew originals and, however well they might read in English, were in that way simply wrong. Although Auden’s specific contributions to the new translation were seemingly few, his advocacy of the Coverdale translation had immense importance. Auden was a member of the Episcopal church’s drafting committee for the psalms for the Book of Common Prayer. (Johnson was his successor as a poet on the committee.) Auden was concerned with preserving the Coverdale versions, and he was not alone in advocating Coverdale, but it would seem likely that he spoke with an authority that was not easily challenged. The committee in charge of the translation include scholars focused on a precise literal translation, not necessarily on the more poetic phrasings in Coverdale.
Then what is the lesson that, in this context, Johnson’s book can teach? Is it just a tempest in a theological teapot — a conflict of marginal interest to poets in a secular world? In fact underneath the work of the Auden's position is a major question: what is it that matters more in translation: sound or “accuracy”? The same could be asked of any translation of any poetry. However the church might judge the final, published version of the translations (which in fact has been overwhelmingly positive), the underlying problem of translation will not go away. The committee was fortunate in having Auden and then Johnson among its members. After all, the translators were dealing with some of the most widely read works in any language. In any case, a literal translation, however faithful to the original, does not say what can be expressed through rhythm and sound, and what is expressed depends on matters that mere scholarship overlooks: most importantly, on how what is said is said. A poet should know that; a scholar might.
The following is an excerpt from the review of the presentation by J. Chester Johnson on his two recent books, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems and Auden, the Psalms, and Me, held at The Culture Center, New York City, on November 28, 2017. The review is from Literary Matters – The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers. written by Noah Jampol. To read the full article, click here.
When we turn to the psalter, we do so because it is a part of our current service. But it remains a part of our worship because of the transportive power of the psalms. Because they make us feel a bit less lonesome, they make the abstract more specific.
Chester, speaking on the psalms, noted this very power – that psalms (though most certainly from another time) speak to our time. They speak to both “our individual and collective suffering, the need to praise, the healing power of praise.”
Our moment is one in which the verities may at times seem distant, almost relative. But by connecting our spirit, both individual and collective, back to the headwater of our humanness we may redeem ourselves as well as our fellow man. This is why we go back to the psalms. It was, per Chester’s observation, Psalm 13 (“How long”) that informed the modern civil rights movement.
And he would know. Both as a deft poet and committed heart and hand for the civil rights struggle, Chester’s life has been one of liturgy – one of public service – one of common prayer. The New York Times got it right when covering Chester and Freda working in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Chester observed the “Eucharist as a mode of reconciling.” So is the sort of service practiced by Freda and Chester.
Chester surmised that the audience came out for the Auden, though if you asked, I think most would have said they came out for Chester.
The American Book Review as a literary journal aims to project the sense of engagement that writers themselves feel about what is being published. It is edited and produced by writers for writers and the general public. In American Book Review, Angelo Verga wrote “Johnson’s ‘Saint Paul’s Chapel’ is one of the most widely distributed, lauded, and translated poems of the current century.” In addition, he said of Johnson’s newest poetry book, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems, “I read this book with sincere interest, and frequent pleasure; and I trust others, and not just fellow poets and the usual suspects/poetry buyers, will too.”
J. Chester Johnson was selected to deliver three key lectures as part of the McMichael lecture series. He chose three topics: Commentary on his latest book, Auden, the Psalms, and Me; The Elaine Race Massacre; and Why The Psalms Are Poems. Each of the three lectures by J. Chester Johnson are available by clicking on their respective links below. Courtesy of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
7:00 PM, Saturday, January 27, 2018
10:00 AM, Sunday, January 28, 2018
11:00 AM, Sunday, January 28, 2018
On January 11, J. Chester Johnson appeared as guest for National Radio Interviews on “Ed Tyll Show” of Starcom Radio Network to talk about the status of poetry in the United States, including the relevance of Johnson’s latest books, Auden, the Psalms, and Me and Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems. Also, among the topics covered were the importance of truth in poems, the role of poets in our nation’s arts, and the endurance that poets must exhibit to have their voices heard today. Johnson spent considerable time describing his own journey over many decades following “his own nose” in pursuit of his own muse and voice. Click below to hear the thirty-minute interview.
During calendar 2017, two books, authored by J. Chester Johnson, were published: Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems (St. Johann Press) and Auden, the Psalms, and Me (Church Publishing of the Episcopal Church). On October 29th, 2017, Johnson presented on both books at Poets House in downtown Manhattan in New York City. The well-known and influential writer and poet, Cornelius Eady, introduced J. Chester Johnson and provided associated commentary.
Now And Then is a set of longer poems written by Johnson over a period of approximately four decades. The nine pieces in the volume range from an interracial murder in Arkansas along the Mississippi River Delta to the martyrdom of the 20th century prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. Johnson has called Now And Then “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.”
Auden, the Psalms, and Me is a non-fiction book that tells the story of the retranslation of the psalms contained in the current Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. W. H. Auden served as poet on the drafting committee for this retranslation from 1968 to 1971, at which point Auden decided to return to England and was replaced by J. Chester Johnson, who remained the poet on the drafting committee from 1971-79, when the revised Book of Common Prayer was published, including the new version of the psalms. Among other germane matters, the book discusses the correspondence that Johnson received from Auden on the retranslation project and the history of the psalms that have been incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer since 1549. This retranslation has become a standard with others adopting these psalms for their worship and service books.
Click on the video below for the audio presentation, including Cornelius Eady’s introduction and commentary and the entirety of J. Chester Johnson’s prepared remarks.
J. Chester Johnson has made numerous presentations on his new book, Auden, the Psalms, and Me, published September 15, 2017 by Church Publishing of the Episcopal Church. In advance of his presentation at Trinity Church Wall Street, this video was prepared by the church and placed on its website. In addition, the video was shared with a variety of interested parties.
In advance of 9/11 in 2017, J. Chester Johnson was interviewed about his three recent books by Monsignor Kieran Harrington of The Net, the Catholic Television Network, for the program, ‘In The Arena.’ Special emphasis was given in the interview to “St. Paul’s Chapel,” the poem that became the memento card at St. Paul’s Chapel, which was the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero following the terrorists’ attacks. The poem has been distributed to well over a million visitors and pilgrims to the Chapel. In addition to answering questions about his literary and social action activities, J. Chester Johnson ended the program by reading the entirety of the poem.
Tuesday, November 28, 6:30 pm
The Culture Center, 410 Columbus Avenue, Manhattan (focus on both books – sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers - ALSCW). Introduction by Phillis Levin.
Sunday, October 29, 2:00 pm
Poets House, 10 River Terrace, Manhattan (focus on both books). Commentary by Cornelius Eady. Visit J. Chester Johnson at Poets House for more information.
Thursday, October 19, 6:30 pm
Church of the Heavenly Rest, 90th St and Fifth Avenue, Manhattan (focus on Auden, the Psalms, and Me).
Sunday, October 8, 1:00 pm
Trinity Church Wall Street, Broadway and Wall Street, Manhattan (focus on Auden, the Psalms, and Me).
Sunday, August 27, 10:00 am
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 1 West 53rd off Fifth Avenue, Manhattan (focus on Auden, the Psalms, and Me).
About My Two 2017 Books
NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS
PUBLISHED JANUARY 2017
The journey through Now And Then begins with an interracial murder in Arkansas and ends in the martyrdom of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In between, a delayed conversation between the poet and a long departed father, a poem given timbre by Ida B. Wells, and a paean to Martin Luther King, Jr., among other voices, create worlds where home and exile have much in common.
"The scope of NOW AND THEN is epic. It provides its readers with the same amplitude of intelligence, passion and formal achievement as our great American epics -- Melville's MOBY DICK, Whitmans's LEAVES OF GRASS, and Ginsberg's FALL OF AMERICA. It is a book of fierce spiritual and moral witness, energy and power."
– Lawrence Joseph
“J. Chester Johnson is one of our country’s literary gems. From his work on the Book of Common Prayer with Auden to his chronicling and advocating for civil rights in the American South of his boyhood, Johnson offers rare glimpses into what William Carlos Williams called ‘news that stays news’. Elegant, truthful, heartfelt, spiritual, beautiful. This is a book to savor and admire. Highly recommend this impressive book.”
– Elizabeth Powell, Editor-in-Chief, Green Mountains Review
“In his latest volume, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems, Chester Johnson has pushed beyond the boundaries of his shorter work and yet, happily, none of the qualities that make a Chester Johnson poem so distinctive and memorable—their plain speak and verbal music, their erudition and common sense—have been lost in the transition. Here, we encounter a poet as comfortable with narrative as he is with lyric, a poet working at the height of his powers, a poet challenging himself—and us—with poems that are not afraid to engage with the politics and the issues and the events of our time.”
– Davis McCombs, Director, Program in Creative Writing and Translation, University of Arkansas; former winner, Yale Series of Younger Poets
AUDEN, THE PSALMS, AND ME
COMING IN SEPTEMBER 2017
This book tells the personal, untold story of the retranslation of the psalms contained in the current Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, which version has now become a standard. Johnson describes the role on the drafting committee played by the poet, W. H. Auden, whom the author replaced.
“J. Chester Johnson has written a wonderfully cautious, sensitive, and even-handed book. He is to be praised for his verbal attentiveness throughout, and not least for his orderly and sculpted expository style. He illuminates aspects of Auden’s faith, confronts the sometimes thorny issues that face a church sensitive to accusations of remoteness from the contemporary, and modestly explains his own origins and assumptions. A delightful book.”
–John Fuller, poet and author of W. H. Auden: A Commentary
“J. Chester Johnson tells a remarkable and illuminating triple story: the story of the English psalms in the past and present, the story of W. H. Auden's profound engagement with the language of the psalter, and the story of his engagement with Auden, the psalms, and the church. I hope this well-told story will be widely read.”
– Edward Mendelson, Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University, and literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden
J. Chester Johnson, poet, essayist, translator and University of Arkansas distinguished alumnus, spoke at the U of A Wednesday and Thursday, April 26-27, on two topics, including the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919.
Johnson read from his latest volume of poetry "Now & Then: Selected Longer Poems" at 3 p.m. Wednesday in the Larry E. Coombes Memorial Auditorium in the Plant Sciences building.
On Thursday at 3 p.m. Johnson spoke about the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 in the Center for Multicultural and Diversity Education on the fourth floor of the Arkansas Union.
The Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 is considered to be one of the single most violent attacks against African-Americans in our country's history.
For full article on U of A News, click here.
J. Chester Johnson returned to the site of the 1919 Elaine Race Massacre, one of the deadliest assaults on African-Americans in our country’s history. Mr. Johnson has written articles and other pieces on the event and has presented on the subject in various venues, but this time, he discussed the event and its ramifications in Phillips County, Arkansas, where the Massacre actually occurred. J. Chester Johnson, whose maternal grandfather participated, was joined in the presentation by Sheila Walker, whose family members, including her great-grandmother and great uncles, were among the victims. Since Sheila and Chester had antecedents representing the two sides of the conflagration, they have, over the last several years, committed to a reconciliation of the inter-racial and generational trauma that has been associated with the event. Much in the presentations recited the stories and history in each of their respective families related to the Massacre, but the journey of reconciliation between Sheila and Chester was also given special relevance. A reception was held immediately following the presentation at Beth El Heritage Hall, located at the corner of Perry and Pecan, Helena, Arkansas.
Image Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission
This Literary Work Written by J. Chester Johnson.
Performance Was Held At Trinity Church (Wall Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan):
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19TH.
Many consider the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 to be the single most violent attack against African-Americans in our country’s history – certainly over the period from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. The massacre occurred on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta over the course of several days in late September-early October, 1919, when more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of African-Americans were killed by white posses and federal troops in response to an attempt by the local black sharecroppers to unionize. Out of the massacre, a legal case arose, Moore v. Dempsey, involving six sharecroppers convicted of murder in unfair and rapid trials immediately following the massacre; in 1923, the U. S. Supreme Court decided on behalf of the sharecroppers to expand, for the first time, the federal government’s role in equal protection under the law for all citizens of the nation, pursuant to the 14th amendment. This Supreme Court precedent proved monumental for the civil rights movement and for future decisions that relied on the doctrine of equal protection under the law.
The persona voices heard at the performance included, among others, victims of the massacre, members of the Supreme Court, and the genuine American hero, Scipio Africanus Jones, the African-American lawyer from Little Rock who represented the sharecroppers.
Prose, poetry, music, dance, and visual arts were part of the performance, including Broadway performers.
J. Chester Johnson stands beside the all-weather display of his iconic poem, "St. Paul's Chapel," that has been the memento card since 2002 at the Chapel, located in downtown Manhattan; the Chapel miraculously survived the 9/11 attacks and became the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero. This large display of the poem has been placed on the fence directly across the street from the site of the former North Tower, which received the first attack by the terrorists on the morning of September 11, 2001. Johnson's poem has been published around the world and translated into many languages; one literary group in Italy has recognized "St. Paul's Chapel" and Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" as the poems that demonstrate the American spirit.
J. Chester Johnson reads poetry at Deborah Danner's memorial. On November 3rd, 2016 at the memorial service for the poet Deborah Danner, the African-American woman who was shot and killed in her apartment by New York City police on Tuesday, October 18th, J. Chester Johnson recited pieces of Ms. Danner's verse. The violent manner by which Deborah Danner met her death was publicized, both locally and nationally, and has caused an uproar among many New Yorkers, reflected in numerous marches, calls for increased vigilance and more restrained use of force by the New York Police Department, and a myriad of public statements by many elected officials. At the memorial, Johnson read a sampling of Danner's well-structured and melodic lyrical verse.
Photo Credit: Nina Roberts
J. Chester Johnson reads his widely-known and broadly circulated poem, "St. Paul' Chapel," during the Calling of the Names ceremony at St. Paul's Chapel on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Chapel was the 24/7 relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero, and the Calling of the Names ceremony honored those responders and volunteers who came to help following the attacks and who are no longer alive, many of whom died as a result of exposure to the downtown environment at the time. Johnson's poem has been the memento card since 2002 at the Chapel, where he volunteered during the cleanup. Delegations from Oklahoma City and Boston, both of which have experienced their own forms of deathly and violent terrorism, attended the Calling of the Names ceremony and participated (readers from Oklahoma City called out the first names). J. Chester Johnson read his poem next to the Bell of Hope, which was a gift to the Chapel from the City of London, England, given in person by the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury soon after the end of the cleanup at Ground Zero.
J. Chester Johnson is featured in NBC New York article, which discusses Johnson’s participation at St. Paul’s Chapel, the relief center for the recovery workers after the 9/11 attacks, including the Chapel’s memento card that carries Johnson’s poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” that has been distributed around the world. In addition, the article describes the way that the St. Paul’s Chapel experience has inspired Johnson to pursue the creation of a memorial to the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, which occurred close to Johnson’s hometown in Arkansas. To read the full text of the article, click here.
J. Chester Johnson appeared at the Cornelia St. Café, 29 Cornelia Street, West Village, NYC, at 6:00PM, Sunday, June 26th. His presentation was a key part of the evening’s program devoted to the theme, Why Auden Matters, and examined the famous Auden poem, September 1, 1939, particularly the poem’s strong appeal over the internet to a large number of people following the 9/11 terrorists attacks in 2001. J. Chester Johnson will have two books pubished over the next fifteen months: NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS (St. Johann Press) and AUDEN, THE PSALMS AND ME (Church Publishing Incorporated), the story of the retranslation of the Psalms, now contained in THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER of The Episcopal Church; the Auden book will give particular attention to the participation by W. H. Auden for the retranslation project.
J. Chester Johnson contributed two presentations at the event: one on the collaboration he had with W. H. Auden for the retranslation of the Psalms and the other on Auden’s famous poem, "September 1, 1939". See access to written comments on the Auden collaboration by J. Chester Johnson below. His remarks on "September 1, 1939" will be published elsewhere: the date and venue for that publication will become available on this Blog.
If you wish to see remarks by J. Chester Johnson from the event, click here for a PDF.
Press Release by Brooklyn Social Media:
WHY AUDEN MATTERS
With the BBC’s Graham Fawcett and Poet J. Chester Johnson
Joined by Charlotte Maier, Matthew Aughenbaugh, and singer Lindsey Nakatani
Sunday, June 26, at 6PM, Cornelia Street Café
Cornelia Street Café presents an evening contemplating and celebrating WH Auden and why he matters now. Graham Fawcett, an acclaimed and entertaining Auden scholar, poet, translator, and lecturer, will discuss why Auden’s work has such lasting significance. He will be joined by actors Charlotte Maier and Matthew Aughenbaugh who will read a selection of Auden’s poetry. Poet J. Chester Johnson, a collaborator of Auden’s, will discuss the poem September 1, 1939, and why it became the anthem of 9/11. The evening will conclude with a performance by singer Lindsay Nakatani of Benjamin Britten’s: On this Island,” a song cycle based on Auden’s poems.
WH Auden (1907-1973) was a giant among poets of his generation; a master-craftsman of metrical rhythms, and a wonderfully adventurous organist of the English language. Nourished by his native Yorkshire and the treasures of the Anglo- Saxon and Middle English; traveler to Iceland, China, Spain and Berlin; close quarters commentator on politics, religion, philosophy, art and human relations, Auden translated his gifted perceptions into some of the finest and most substantial poems England and the world have ever seen.
Auden’s “September 1, 1939” become an essential—even prophetic—poem after 9/11 when New Yorkers grieved the sudden loss of nearly three thousand citizens. As Adam Gopnick wrote in the New Yorker. “At the beginning of the new century, he is an indispensable poet. Even people who don't read poems often turn to poetry at moments when it matters, and Auden matters now.” This poem and many others will be read and discussed.
Graham Fawcett tours England giving his poetry lecture-performances-with-readings Seven Olympians (including Dickinson) and World Poets on the life and work of individual poets from Homer to Heaney, among them Whitman, Lorca, Auden and Dylan Thomas. He presents illustrated lectures on poetry and art—from Homer to the present day—and on Dante’s Divine Comedy (The Book You Always Meant To Read). BBC Radio Drama commissioned his verse translation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova. He taught the world poetry canon in English and translation for many years for London’s Poetry School and Italian-English translation at Goldsmiths College. He has interviewed poets in the US including Gunn, Rich, Milosz, Kinnell and Hass, for BBC Radio 3, where he has broadcast for 25 years on literature, music and Italy.
J. Chester Johnson is a poet who collaborated with WH Auden on the retranslation of the Psalms for THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER (book of liturgy for The Episcopal Church). The signature poem, ‘St. Paul’s Chapel,’ in Johnson’s book of verse, ST. PAUL’S CHAPEL & SELECTED SHORTER POEMS (now in its second printing), has been used since 2002 as the memento card at St. Paul’s Chapel, which miraculously stood after 9/11, becoming the relief center (where Johnson volunteered during the cleanup period) for the recovery workers at Ground Zero. He has appeared for interviews and readings on the BBC, the History Channel, and NBC; and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Best American Poetry Blog, International Poetry Review, and Green Mountains Review. Johnson has two books being published over the next fifteen months: NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS and AUDEN, THE PSALMS AND ME, the story of the retranslation of the Psalms for The Episcopal Church, including the participation by W. H. Auden.
Charlotte Maier is a stage, film and television actor. Born in Chicago, she lives in New York City. Her work includes the following: BROADWAY: Act One; The Columnist; God of Carnage; Inherit the Wind; Losing Louie; Dinner at Eight; A Delicate Balance; Abe Lincoln in Illinois; Picnic; Arsenic and Old Lace. OFF-BROADWAY: By The Water and The Last Yankee (MTC); Witnessed by the World (59E59); Balm in Gilead (Circle Rep); REGIONAL: Goodman Theater; Westport Country Playhouse; Berkshire Theatre Festival; Spoleto Festival; Merrimack Rep. FILM: Custody; Two Weeks Notice; The Pink Panther; Music and Lyrics. TELEVISION: Elementary; Person of Interest; Boardwalk Empire.
Matthew Aughenbaugh has been acting for over twenty years in performances ranging from Shakespeare to Musical Theater having trained at The Baltimore School for the Arts, The Boston Conservatory and Emerson College where he studied with world-renowned voice teacher Kristin Linkletter. Most recently he was seen as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Snout the Tinker in Midsummer Nights Dream for New Place Players in Brooklyn, New York. Having taken some time away from the stage to help build a school for orphans in Tanzania and teach English in Bangkok, Thailand, he has returned to New York to pursue his first love, the theater.
Soprano Lindsey Nakatani’s lyric quality of tone and natural stage presence has already marked her as a captivating performer. Last summer Ms. Nakatani returned to the Caramoor Summer Music Festival as an Apprentice Artist where she performed in multiple solo concerts and as Sister Alice in the chorus of Dialogues des Carmélites. Ms. Nakatani was most recently seen in the role of Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo with the Princeton Opera Alliance in New Jersey. In recent performances Ms. Nakatani has also been seen as Serpetta in The Juilliard School’s production of La Finta Giardiniera as well as Rosaura in Juilliard’s production of Le Donne Curiose. In past summers Ms. Nakatani has been a participant of such esteemed programs as the International Vocal Artist Institute, The Franz-Schubert Institute, OperaWorks, Opera on the Avalon and the Caramoor Sumer Music Festival. Ms. Nakatani received her Bachelor of Music Degree from the Juilliard School in 2013 and her Master’s Degree at Mannes The New College of Music in 2015. Ms. Nakatani is a student of Ms. Amy Burton.
On Thursday, April 14 at 6:00PM, J. Chester Johnson read his poetry at the main bookstore of New York University, located at 8th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, as part of a program entitled “FOUR WAY BOOKS AND FRIENDS.” As a “friend,” J. Chester Johnson read alongside several poets at the event who are published by FOUR WAY BOOKS. Among other pieces, Johnson read excerpts from his forthcoming new book of poems, NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS, to be published this coming summer by St. Johann Press.
J. Chester Johnson read his published poetry and talked about his life and work, including, among other things, his writings on the American Civil Rights Movement (several of his writings on the subject now appear in the J. Chester Johnson Collection of the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College – NYC) and his work with W. H. Auden as the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Psalms, which version is now contained in the current Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. His presentation took place on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 25th, 2016 at 6:30PM in the Heavenly Rest Episcopal Church, 90th St. and Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, NYC.
A Reading and Conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts author of Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books)
Chester Johnson, Moderator
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Trinity Parish, 2 Rector Street, NYC
"Fierce, lyrical and unsparing, the poems in Reginald Dwayne Betts' new book, Bastards of the Reagan Era, bear witness to the author's difficult journey from prison to law school, and the experiences of the men he got to know in prison..." – Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, October 2015
Click here for a PDF of the commentary on Betts’ poetry by J. Chester Johnson
At the installation into the 9/11 Tribute Center on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 of a pew from St. Paul’s Chapel, which had been the relief center for recovery workers during the cleanup at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, J. Chester Johnson reads his well-known poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” which has been extensively published, both domestically and abroad. The poem, ‘St. Paul’s Chapel,’ has been the Chapel’s memento card since 2002 for its 30,000 visitors and pilgrims who come weekly. Quotes from J. Chester Johnson have also been permanently placed in the 9/11 Tribute Center alongside the pew from the Chapel.
Johnson’s drama in verse, “For Conduct And Innocents,” about the martyr and 20th century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was presented as a multi-media event (drama, music, dance, film) on Oct. 18, 2015 at Trinity Wall Street with nearly 50 performers participating.
“I love the Bonhoeffer play. . .The whole dynamic of moral indignation and spiritual ardor, combining and recombining there in endless variation – a quality the lyrics also possess – made the reading fascinating.” – Vijay Seshadri
“What an amazing undertaking – so impressive in scope, intent and understanding. This must have taken years of energy.”– Molly Peacock
To watch the video of this performance, click here to visit the Live Works page.
To read the full text, click here.
Set forth below is additional information on the event:
“For Conduct and Innocents,” a multimedia performance, based on the drama in verse written by J. Chester Johnson, commemorating the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German cleric, major theologian and staunch opponent of the Third Reich, had been presented on Sunday, October 18 at Trinity Church, Lower Manhattan. Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for taking part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This event represented part of a worldwide commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis.
The performance was adapted for the stage by J. Chester Johnson from a poem written by him and directed by playwright Alan Baxter. Actors – including Robert Scott, Frank Romano, and Emily Kitchens – portrayed significant moments leading up to the martyrdom of Bonhoeffer; the play’s performance contained expressions by the Trinity Movement Choir, serving as a Greek chorus, whose members provided dance-based commentary on the proceedings, choreographed by Marilyn Green. The production included original music by the composer Paul Knopf for a planned film on Bonhoeffer.
In addition, the Trinity Youth Chorus premiered a work for youth choir, composed by Atlanta-based choral director and composer Diane Abdi Robertson. The composition was based on the poignant poem, “Dream,” the work of a teenage Polish Jew, Abraham Koplowicz, who already had a reputation for lyric poetry when he was killed in a concentration camp.
ABOUT DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
Bonhoeffer, an important 20th century theologian, was born in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) into an upper middle class German family in 1906. He received a doctorate from the University of Berlin and served a German parish in Barcelona before attending Union Theological Seminary in New York. During his time at Union, he became especially involved with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, an experience that profoundly impacted his future activism and theology. Bonhoeffer’s writings trace the evolution of his theologically-based resistance to the Third Reich. He was the first theologian to address the role of the Church in Nazi Germany, concluding that the Church was obligated to object to persecution, to help the victims of injustice, and to take all steps necessary to end persecution. By 1940, Bonhoeffer was a member of the resistance, working to build foreign support for a German plot to overthrow Hitler and helping many Jews escape to Switzerland. As a result of these activities, he was arrested in April, 1943 and, in 1944, was implicated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. He was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
ABOUT TRINITY WALL STREET
Chartered in 1697, Trinity Wall Street is an Episcopal parish offering daily worship services and faith formation programs at Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, and online at trinitywallstreet.org. Trinity Wall Street includes Trinity Grants, providing more than $80 million in funding to mission partners around the world since 1972; St. Margaret’s House, providing subsidized housing to the elderly and disabled since 1982; Trinity Preschool; Trinity Institute, an annual theological conference; an extensive arts program presenting more than 100 concerts each year through series such as Concerts at One, and performances by the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Youth Chorus. Trinity Real Estate manages the parish’s six million square feet of commercial real estate in lower Manhattan, providing funding for the parish’s local and global mission outreach. For more information, visit trinitywallstreet.org.
When the Episcopal Church set about updating its Book of Common Prayer nearly 50 years ago, its committee to retranslate the Psalms faced a daunting task. Not only did it have to re-translate the Psalms, considered by many the "poetry" of the Bible, but it was losing its one poet on the committee who was moving back to England. It's hard to imagine anyone filling the shoes of W.H. Auden, but the young poet and translator J. Chester Johnson did just that.
In the current issue of Illuminations, J. Chester Johnson reflects on that experience--how he came to replace Auden, correspond with the great poet, and then set about helping the Episcopal Church refine the Psalms in the light of new scholarship. Poet and translator Ann Cefola interviews Johnson about the influence this experience with Auden and the retranslation of the Psalms had upon Johnson's literary career; she also discusses with Johnson the principles and practices that guided the retranslation process that lasted for nearly a decade. The interview encapsulates a critical period in Episcopal Church history and valuable insight into translating sacred texts.
Illuminations, the literary journal of the College of Charleston, has published poets such as Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender and Carol Anne Duffy, as well as emerging writers, since its inception in 1982. (Click here to read the interview.)
Sanctuary, Trinity Wall Street, Broadway and Wall, NYC, 10:00AM-11:00AM, Sunday, June 14, 2015
J. Chester Johnson presented a lecture at Trinity Wall Street, New York City, on Sunday morning, 10:00AM-11:00AM, June 14, 2015 on the life and beliefs of the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred at the Flossenburg concentration camp by the Nazis two weeks before the liberation of the camp by American forces in April, 1945. Mr. Johnson discussed the way in which Bonhoeffer’s life experiences impacted his views, as reflected in his significant writings, including Sanctorum Communio, The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters & Papers From Prison, among others. Bonhoeffer, as a principal figure in the establishment of spiritual direction for the 20th and 21st centuries through both his life and word, has helped shape the modern and post-modern worlds. (Click here to read written remarks.)
Introduction by Samantha Madway, Editor, Literary Matters
Both J. Chester Johnson and Kasia Buczkowska wrote articles about the third gathering in the series of talks given by Christopher Ricks at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City during October 2014. Each author took such different messages away from the presentation, entitled "Just Like a Woman? Bob Dylan and the Charge of Misogyny," that to have both accounts appear together is a stunning testament to how literature itself, and works of scholarship about literature, can inspire so many unique interpretations and understandings. How could there be room to debate the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics, and room to debate the merits of the debate itself, if we didn’t all consent—whether explicitly, or so innately that it never needed to be considered before moving forward—to the premise that a work of art doesn’t mean only one thing?
That even if we were to ask the poet or the playwright, what is the meaning of this?, that we might not be satisfied with the creator’s own answer. Once a work is released to its audience, its shape and space and substance are different for each person experiencing it, and even for that person, it may transmute further the next time he or she takes it in. All of these encounters between reader and text generate individual — perhaps conflicting at times — accounts, but we need not select only one to serve as the absolute truth, the authoritative analysis.
Ricks On Dylan (Bob, Not Thomas)
By J. Chester Johnson
The third and last of three lectures given by Christopher Ricks and sponsored by the ALSCW was held at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City on the evening of Wednesday, October 22, 2014. The two previous lectures by Ricks had been wide ranging and illuminative, explicating works by T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot, with frequent and satisfying side trips into the literary landscapes of related writers and poets. The final lecture, entitled “Just Like A Woman? Bob Dylan and the Charge of Misogyny,” dealt with one of Ricks’ favorite subjects, Bob Dylan.
I admit I’m a fan of Christopher Ricks; he’s a treasure for the literary arts of the English language—on both sides of the pond. I read his work and listen to him whenever I have a chance. Having acquired and read much of Ricks’ book Dylan’s Visions of Sin (Penguin Group, 2003) in advance of the lecture, I was especially interested to hear his remarks.
Reflective of both Ricks’ writings on Dylan and the lecture’s title, two areas given special consideration at the third lecture were the poetic construction of the poem-songs and the degree to which Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” bears some prejudicial characteristics of misogyny. Once I had listened for a while to Ricks’ exploration of the former area— Dylan’s poetic construction—it became clear that Ricks has, in fact, done a great service to American poetry; I would also guess he has done much the same for English poetry, but I have less experience in the British venue to conclude that is the case. Through his focus on Bob Dylan, Ricks has given us reason to expand, in crucial ways, our view of American poets and poetry.
For years, I listened to and enjoyed Dylan’s music without thinking that a serious poet— maybe even a major poet— stood behind the songs. Though this notion changed over time, Ricks enabled a number of us to shed more thoroughly the limitation of that earlier impression. Of course, Dylan had, many years ago, told music critic Robert Shelton that he considered himself a poet first and a musician second; indeed, Dylan stretched the geography beyond the traditional pools where convention suggests notable American poets may be found.
Regarding the second way Ricks has, through his work on Dylan, affected positively the American perspective on verse, I have feared for a long time now that we Americans were choosing to narrow both our practice and our appreciation of verse into contemporary bastions to an extent that certain traditional techniques, such as rhyme—whether in the form of line endings or internal or elastic structures—couldn’t and wouldn’t be acceptable at all. By stressing the compositional aspects, dramatized on the evening of October 22 through our listening to Dylan recordings, and delving into the seductive force of rhyme, a theme he also underscores in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ricks provides an attraction to rhyme too often eschewed and discarded. Though a few of us may take some issue with Ricks’ apparent sharp preference for line ending rhyme, as opposed to internal or elastic rhyme, he makes his point effectively nonetheless.
In the end, whether “Just Like A Woman” should be deemed misogynistic isn’t easily confirmed one way or the other—I didn’t leave the lecture with a steadfast conviction. Through my own discussions with folks familiar with the poem-song, I’ve come to find that views vary: I’ve heard it’s a sincere love poem with the woman’s shortcomings recognized and with her vulnerabilities (“but she breaks like a little girl”) accepted for what they are—individual, if not peculiar, vulnerabilities that can undo human beings. At the same time, I’ve been told the poem-song definitely displays misogynistic aspects, not toward womankind in general, but toward a specific kind of woman. These subjects of possible or overt prejudice should rightly occupy considerable attention for those who serve to enlighten through the literary world, whether the focus is on this Dylan poem-song or, by way of another example, on poetic works by T. S. Eliot that may mirror anti-Semitism. Similarly, when poems are used as tools in defense of autocratic political regimes, the practice should also be called out; in this respect, I’m reminded of the debate a number of years ago held in the West that surrounded Yevtushenko’s poem “Bratsk Station”—had it been written by the poet to exalt the Soviet system, and was it being employed internally and externally by the USSR to justify the Soviet State? It is not enough to call a poem or poem-song simply good or great from an artistic or structural perspective; rather, even though a fixed conclusion may not necessarily be "Ricks on Dylan (Bob Not Thomas)" apparent, an obligation still exists for the piece also to be judged by its ethical and human messages.
Personally, I regret that the lecture series by Christopher Ricks has now ended. Still, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to attend, especially on a rainy night in New York City with Bob Dylan playing along.
Click to download PDF of entire Literary Matters Publication. This article starts on page 16.
The Senior Committee of the Harvard Business School Club of New York held an event: "Poetry: Uniting Commerce and Verse to Enhance Life and Work" a discussion with a distinguished panel of business people who have included poetry in their lives, discussing how poetry forms the foundation for their success and how it has enhanced their lives and business careers. It took place on March 4, 2015 at Poets House. Speakers included: Lee Briccetti, Kate Cheney Chappell, J. Chester Johnson and Bruce McEver.
Click here for written remarks by J. Chester Johnson.
Or you can listen to an audio recording of the entire event below.
J. Chester Johnson gave the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday sermon at Trinity Wall Street on Sunday, January 18, 2015 at 11:15AM. Previous speakers for this occasion at Trinity Wall Street have included Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Marion Wright Edelman (founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund), Calvin Butts (senior minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem), among many others, who have contributed meaningfully to the American civil rights movement. Trinity Wall Street, founded over three hundred years ago, is the iconic church with the large cemetery surrounding it (where Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, Albert Gallatin, among others, are buried), located at the top of Wall Street on Broadway in lower Manhattan (New York City).
In the late 1960s, after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and near the height of the civil rights movement, J. Chester Johnson left New York City, returning to Monticello, Arkansas in the Mississippi River Delta, where he had grown up before leaving for college, to teach in an all African-American public school in advance of integration of the education system in southeast Arkansas. In 2008, he wrote the litany of offense and apology in prose and poetry for the national Day of Repentance, when the Episcopal Church formally apologized, with the presiding bishop officiating, for its role in transatlantic slavery and related evils. He has also written on the American Civil Rights Movement, several pieces of which are contained in the J. Chester Johnson Collection of the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City), the school Andrew Goodman attended before joining Freedom Summer when he was martyred, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Click here to download a transcript of the sermon.
This article, “Auden: Defender at Dusk,” was originally published in an early 2014 volume on W. H. Auden in Spain as part of the Papers de Versalia project on major poets; the previous three poets included in the series, published by Papers de Versalia, were Rainer Maria Rilke, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Emily Dickinson. Additional American and British writers who contributed to the Papers de Versalia book on W. H. Auden included Edward Mendelson, Jonathan Culler, John Fuller, among others. A reprint of this article by J. Chester Johnson on W. H. Auden was published by Green Mountains Review in late 2014 (Volume XXVII, No II).
Click here to read the full article.
A packed-house symposium on the Elaine Race Massacre, which occurred in the fall of 1919 on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta and in which more than hundred (and possibly hundreds of) African-Americans were killed, was held at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City on September 20, 2014. Subsequently, an article entitled, “After Sins of the Fathers, Steps Toward Reconciliation,” was written by Lynn Goswick, associate editor of Trinity Wall Street, and published in THE EPISCOPAL NEW YORKER, fall 2014; the article describes, among other matters, the reconciliation journey that J. Chester Johnson, whose grandfather, Lonnie, joined in the Massacre, and Sheila Walker, whose great-uncles were victims, have taken together to dispel any remnants of adverse human and spiritual consequences from the racial conflagration.
Click here to read the full article.
The literary journal, Illuminations, will publish a long interview of J. Chester Johnson by Ann Cefola in its upcoming June, 2015 edition. Over the years, the pages of Illuminations have included the works of such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender, Nadine Gordimer, James Merrill, Carol Ann Duffy, Allen Tate – just to name a few. Ann Cefola, an accomplished poet and translator, is author of the poetry volumes, Face Painting in the Dark, St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped and Sugaring, and has translated Helene Sanguinetti’s Hence This Cradle; among other notable achievements, she was awarded the Robert Penn Warren Award, judged by John Ashbery. The interview to appear in Illuminations is wide-ranging and covers Johnson’s own poetry but also focuses significantly on his participation, along with W. H. Auden, as the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the psalms, currently included in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (USA), which version has also been adopted by Lutherans in the United States and Canada and by the Anglican Church of Canada.
LOWER MANHATTAN — Descendants on both sides of one of the country’s deadliest racial conflicts, a massacre that took place nearly a century ago in a little Arkansas town along the Mississippi River, will gather in Lower Manhattan this weekend to discuss the riot and its tangled legacy.
The Elaine Race Massacre, which involved days of murderous riots in September 1919 — and left hundreds of African Americans dead — stirred advocates to fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where they ultimately helped lay the legal groundwork for the civil rights movement.
On Saturday, (September 20th) a descendant of the one of the riot’s victims, as well as relative of the one of the massacre’s perpetrators, will gather for a panel talk at St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway to discuss the mob violence and its implications in the continued fight for racial justice.
The free talk, at 2 p.m., will feature historians and authors, including New York City poet J. Chester Johnson, who’s written about grappling with his own grandfather’s involvement in the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan and his likely role in the killing spree that overtook the town for two days.
"Working through what my grandfather had done was particularly grueling," said Johnson, an Arkansas native who began to research the massacre several years ago, unaware of his grandfather's involvement, or the scope of the riots.
"I adored him, and there was no way, ultimately, to reconcile what he had done with the man I knew — they were just two different Lonnies [Johnson's grandfather's name]."
To read more go to DNAinfo New York
In the fall of 1919, a brutal race massacre occurred on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River delta, constituting perhaps the most deadly race massacre in the nation’s history, but also resulting in a Supreme Court decision in 1923 that provided legal underpinnings for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The symposium examined both the massacre and its aftermath. (see videos for the symposium below)
A special event, sponsored by Trinity’s Task Force Against Racism and described below, was held at St. Paul’s Chapel on Saturday, September 20th, 2014. There were numerous visitors for the occasion, and a hearty Trinity welcome was experienced by our guests. The symposium was videotaped by Franzi Blome (see note below), an Emmy award winner for her documentary work.
Symposium on The Elaine Race Massacre
The Racial Conflagration That Changed American History
Date: September 20, 2014
Place: St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street
Location: Broadway between Fulton and Vesey Streets In Lower Manhattan (New York City)
Sponsor: Task Force Against Racism (TFAR), Trinity Wall Street
In the fall of 1919, a race massacre broke out on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta with more than a hundred (possibly hundreds of) African-American deaths, constituting one of the most deadly racial conflicts – perhaps, the most deadly race massacre – in our country’s history. In addition to the sheer number of African-Americans who perished, the significance of Elaine also rests on the legal case that rose out of the massacre (Moore v Dempsey), decided by the Supreme Court in 1923 with Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the majority opinion, which gave life to the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (equal protection and due process under the law) and created legal underpinnings for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The conflagration and the legal ramifications of Elaine have only begun to receive the attention they deserve.
Robert Whitaker: author of the definitive work on the Elaine Race Massacre and its aftermath, ON THE LAPS OF GODS.
J. Chester Johnson: author of the four-part article, “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” published by the literary journal, Green Mountains Review, that describes a likely role the author’s grandfather played in the massacre.
Sheila Walker: relative of Albert Giles, one of the Elaine 12, African-American sharecroppers who were convicted of murder in speedy and unfair trials immediately following the massacre and one of those ultimately freed as a result of progressive litigation efforts.
David Solomon: member of a pioneer and prominent family in Phillips County, Arkansas where the massacre occurred and who is working toward the creation of a memorial for the massacre and greater recognition of the event at both the national and state levels.
NOTE: The symposium was videotaped by Franzi Blome, an Emmy award winner for documentary work. Also a credit goes to BlueSpark Collaborative. (By being in attendance, you consented and gave permission to record your image, likeness, and voice in photograph and video, for use in any program, media, or other use of any kind in perpetuity in any manner worldwide with no compensation.)
"In The Rows": A Poetic Tribute written by J. Chester Johnson to a friend, as it appears in the program employed for the ceremonial celebration of the friend’s thirty-four years of service as an Episcopal priest at Trinity Wall Street, the venerable, iconic church located in lower Manhattan in New York City. To read full poem Click Here.
The map depicts important scenes of the Elaine Race Massacre.
Published on Best American Poetry Blog
A year ago, Green Mountains Review Online featured, in a four-part series, "Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre". The article, which I wrote, describes a forgotten massacre of more than a hundred (maybe even hundreds) of African-Americans in the fall of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River Delta. The massacre resulted in a 1923 Supreme Court decision, which gave life to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution (equal protection and due process under the law) and helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In Evanescence I portrayed the personal conflict I experienced in discovering, during my research, that my maternal grandfather, whom I adored (and who adored me) and with whom I lived for several years from age one, upon my own father’s death, more than likely joined in the massacre. He lived most of his life along the Arkansas Delta, as did I for most of the first two decades of my life.
During Black History Month this February, speaking on more than one occasion about the Elaine race massacre, I was often asked to concentrate on the personal conundrum of my grandfather Lonnie’s participation in the event. On the face of it, the rendering could purely be factual, as much as I discovered of a credible nature; however, in the larger sense, while I could indeed conflate the convincing pieces that led to the conclusion that Lonnie took part in the massacre, I could not reconcile my love for him and his apparent views about and role in racism, as practiced in the Arkansas Delta by whites during the first part of the 20th century.
Young children do not have the wherewithal to calibrate direction from a moral compass for the placement of their love. When protection and habitual endearment are present, children do not adhere to any such standards at all and will, without qualms or conscience, show affection to or receive affection from racist and saint alike. At the same time, I realize my response to Lonnie would have been entirely different had I been older and known of his violence and racism; with age, our moral compass filters and refines the focus of our affections. I would, of course, not choose to share my life with a racist, but, as a child, one doesn’t have the option to make that choice.
In my examination of the period in which the massacre happened, I recall the references to the Arkansas Delta as the heart of darkness, and it may have been – with my own grandfather’s propensity adding, in good supply, no doubt, to the pool of darkness that spread murderously and perniciously over the land. Yet, he was always kind to me – much kinder than virtually anyone else. So, I cannot reconcile the two – it would be false, serpentine and artificial. But maybe he couldn’t reconcile the two either. He was who he was, and now that he has been dead for several decades, I can only ponder the questions – with the answers secluded and forever distant. Still, I know unreservedly my own path to the Elaine race massacre was, in part, to discover a slice of him that eluded my awareness and baffles my personal conscience.
In August, 2012, I traveled from my home in New York City to Phillips County, Arkansas to explore the site of the massacre – maybe even to find that a note of reconciliation with Lonnie lay in the Delta land. I was joined by a director from the University of Arkansas Center for Arkansas History. As we surveyed the killing fields and adjacent areas in the fierce and thick summer sun and Arkansas humidity, guided mostly by the eerie notion of a concealed necropolis underfoot, two striking and related conclusions sprung to mind. First, little change to most of the landscape or along the narrow, dirt roads had taken place over almost 100 years. Second, no one ever intended to set any historical reminder in this place – a marker of explanation, a monument, a memorial of any kind – for notable exposition so future generations could know, with a degree of certainty, that several whites and an untold number of African-Americans died in these humble and unremarkable fields and in like spaces within Phillips County as part of one of the most important racial conflagrations in our country’s history.
In my quest to sight an existential piece of Lonnie among those unnamed and silent ruins of the Elaine Race Massacre, I had, after all, concluded that history can be doubtless. Too much and too little abided in the fields and fury of Phillips County for Lonnie and me to inhabit any amicable turf there – too much intervening and unsympathetic time, too much dismay as I turned the leaves of record, which bore too much descent and strife and turpitude, too little comity, too little heart.
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist and translator. Johnson has published numerous volumes of poetry, most recently St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (second edition). His writings have been published domestically and abroad and translated into several languages. He has also composed many works on the American Civil Rights Movement, six of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City).