A poet’s question: Is God done with man? Part 2
The buffaloes are gone. And those who saw the buffaloes are gone. — Carl Sandburg
Hal Sieber’s first collection of poetry was released in 1955, to widespread acclaim, particularly in North Carolina. It would be nominated for a National Book Award. The preface outlined the poet’s primary theme: “In that we are still in the Sixth Day of Creation and it is rumored that God has not yet finished with man, there is hope. In this the Marian year, there is only hope.”
Carolina Quarterly assessed Sieber as “a vividly perceptive poet whose sense of the foibles and problems of humanity is an incitement for the mind and not merely a peyotl trance.”
The distinction appears to allude to one of the significant literary movements of the 1950s, that of beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and others, whose postwar revolt emphasized spontaneous prose and included a chronicle of its members’ experimentations with sex, drugs and language. The beats would leave their mark on the counterculture youth movement of the 1960s and on popular music artists such as Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Doors and Leonard Cohen.
Notwithstanding a reading at Black Mountain College, whose faculty members are sometimes associated with the beats, Sieber to this day regards them with disdain.
“An illiterate combination of words that rhyme are a rhymed telephone directory,” he said. “And they don’t have much influence. Because it’s not the rhyming of fact situations. It’s the created poeticization of the soul, of the soft places in the universe where love and theology and all faith and communion come together. In other words, if you pretend to write poetry about facts, you’re off base because historians can do it better than you, teachers can generally do it better than you, politicians can do it, they think, better than you. But when it comes to the possible fiction that touches the wings of angels, they can’t do that better than you.”
Yet Sieber would be the last to concede that he was swimming in the cultural mainstream in the 1950s, a decade marked by Eisenhower complacency and McCarthy anticommunism paranoia.
“I didn’t like the fact that poetry, for the most part, stayed away from controversial subjects,” Sieber said. “The poets stayed away from controversial subjects, were afraid to do anything. I didn’t like the fact that the publishing industry was getting too concerned with big business for money rather than big business for the broadening of the human heart and the broadening of the human mind. I didn’t like the fact that the black poets were unrecognized. I didn’t like the fact that the schools were so parochial in their appreciation of writers. I didn’t like the fact that music, which was akin to poetry, and art, which was akin to poetry, were so much under blankets and tents and closets and basements. Have I said enough?” The cultural and intellectual merry-go-round of Chapel Hill in the 1950s was largely a white world, and blacks, as Sieber noted, were largely relegated to low-paid positions in “the tourist and university service industries.”
Sieber had maintained a concern for equality from childhood, and it would later manifest in an official role in easing in the desegregation of public schools in Greensboro; still later, in an almost wholesale immersion into black life as the husband of a black woman, and employee of black institutions such as NC A&T University, the Carolina Peacemaker newspaper and Project Homestead.
A lot was happening in his life, along with an acclaimed poetry collection: The birth of his son (named after poet Dylan Thomas), his first wife being seriously ill, and his work in Washington on the Ezra Pound treason case. Sieber maintained a concern for and engagement with civil rights and the affairs of black people throughout the 1950s, but it played out differently than later in the 1960s when people who supported desegregation demonstrated their beliefs through marches. In the early 1950s, Sieber joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. He was also a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Asked if he had contacts with black North Carolina poets in the 1950s, Sieber searched himself.
“I knew them as anguished people working in fields and trying to make a living,” he said. “I knew them as people that wrote silent rhymes, silent verse that shrieked sometimes but mostly was silent. The answer is no.
“Most black poetry was expressed in the anguish of soul music, the clanking of chains, the babbling in the courtrooms, the grave markers, the prayers, the sermons,” he added Later in his life, Sieber would make amends for the omission of his personal associations by publishing a poster featuring a portrait montage called “Famous Black Writers” that showcased Phillis Wheatley — a slave carried over from Africa who is known as “America’s first black woman poet” and lived from 1753 to about 1784 — among other literary luminaries.
The poet’s concern for civil rights would emerge later in simple and accessible verse that stripped away some of the intellectual sophistication of his earlier work.
A poem, “Sit Down,” about David Richmond, one of the four NC A&T students who initiated the desegregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, needs no explanation:
“Downtown/ At the Woolworth/ Five and Dime/ Dave Richmond/ Tendered/ Two buffalo/ Nickels/ And pretty/ Please with sugar/ On it for a cup/ Of freedom/ And a cashier’s receipt/ Marked paid.”
Now 79, Sieber still displays turns of optimism, for poetry and for the world. He doesn’t care any more for rap than he did the beat poets. And he said he believes young people are beginning to grasp a truer form of expression.
“They see that hunger and anger are things to write about, do something about,” he said. “And I do believe, not in a hundred years, but before, poetry’s going to make a difference, and people are going to start defending their neighbor rather than themselves again.”
The poet-prophet has seen and been through so much in eight decades. The wear of life and experience gives him pause to revise the text.
“When you’re old and all you have is a memory of the buffaloes or the artificial recreation of buffaloes, and the ponies on the islands off the coast of North Carolina, and the mammoths — all you have is a vestigial — you feel that mankind’s gotten pretty old and God’s gotten pretty old,” Sieber said. “And I wrote in In This the Marian Year that we are in the sixth day of creation, and God has not finished with man. Well, I think he’s about to wipe his hands, and say, ‘That’s it. I’m all finished.’ “I don’t know,” he continued. “I just know we’re at the edge of an infinity — in this inning of infinity, in this inning of our affinity, which creates infinity.”
A story in the Aug. 25 issue of YES! Weekly, “A poet’s question: Is God done with man? Part I,” misidentifies Greensboro resident Hal Sieber’s late mother. Her name, in fact, was Paula Sieber.