Michael Simeone: On "Denmark Vesey"

The narrative of Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey” is preoccupied with the hazards of living in a society that communicates largely with the spoken word. In the poem, uttered words are often fleeting and uncontainable. From beginning to end, the ultimate success or failure of Vesey’s revolt depends heavily on the strategic use of closed mouths. But although Kramer convincingly imitates much of the oral communicative mode in the poem’s treatment of rumor and secrecy in the antebellum South, the predominant discursive mode of the poem, at bottom, resembles that of television and radio rather than the spoken word. Like television and radio, the oral communication presented in “Denmark Vesey” facilitates rapid and nearly uniform distribution of information, centralized means of transmission, and negotiation of distance through illusory proximity. Given both the time of the poem’s composition during the 1950s and Kramer’s political affiliations with communism, “Denmark Vesey’s” engagement with contemporary media serves as an investigation and indictment of both 19th century slavery and the prying eyes and publicized spectacles of McCarthyism during the Cold War.

Resembling television and radio in their ability to rapidly distribute information, many of the poem’s instances of oral communication are presented in a way that creates the illusion of information traveling across great distances with electric speed. The spread of information after the Santo Domingo revolt, “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall / to keep the news away, it was not tall / or thick enough—the news reached one and all” (47), abstracts the news from the materiality of its oral channels. As readers, we do not see individuals speaking with one another to mechanically transmit the information. Instead, news of the revolt “reached one and all” in fewer than three lines; the information about the slave uprising achieves total dissemination in an exaggeratedly brief period of time, telescoped and virtually instant.

Similar patterns of (near) instantaneous data travel appear in other parts of the poem. The stories of the Haiti and Domingo plantations “reached like a nightmare into every bed…”(50), indicating that uniform and wide reaching patterns of information have spread throughout the entirety of the white community. Again, as readers we only see the end result of the transmission of the news, casting the illusion that the information travels faster than the material constraints of the spoken word. Furthermore, the paranoid caveat “Beware of the informer moon! / Beware of trees that tell for a price! / Liberty now has no public place” (53) demonstrates the effects of data tranmitted at electric speed. Fear of the sky and trees signals a disintegration of secrecy in the face of an eerily pervasive apparatus of information acquisition, transmission, and distribution. Without the concept of rapid data travel being implied by the rest of the poem, the pan-optic wilderness could not achieve the same terrifying institutional unity. Here, the southern countryside closely resembles the nightmare vision of Cold War America found in Edwin Rolfe’s “Little Ballad of the Americans—1954” where “The chief of all Inquisitors has ruled the wire-tap legal” and “They’ve planted stoolies everywhere” (7-10). Through its characterization communications media in the 1820s, then, the poem can simulteously implicate and criticize Negro slavery and McCarthy-age paranoia.

As perhaps the most peculiar feature of Kramer’s poem, Vesey’s custom-made gallows also participates in a paradigm of knowledge acquisition not characteristic of the 19th century. The gallows itself is huge, “high enough to hang a cloud” (63), making it a public visual domain capable of being “seen for miles around.” Historical accounts of Vesey’s execution do not mention such a grandiose device, making it clear that Kramer specially opted to include such spectacular stage for Vesey’s death. The mythically tall gallows expand the scope of the execution’s audience and transform the isolated demonstration into a televisual event, for the image of Vesey becomes ubiquitous across several miles and is not constrained to a single locality. The way Kramer describes the execution also mimics the television in its mobilization of the spectator’s gaze. We know from the moment the gallows are introduced that they are quite tall, yet those looking on have no trouble discerning the smallest details of the execution: “And when the sun made bright the eyes in Denmark Vesey’s head, / the slavers could not easily believe that he was dead” (63). The distance between slavers on the ground and victims in the sky has neatly telescoped for dramatic effect. The execution is at once removed and apprehendable, locally experienced yet part of a centralized network of information distribution. These are key paradoxes of experience and reception negotiated by televisual communication that are not characteristic of the spoken and written word. Ultimately, Vesey’s death enters public knowledge in a way that only a television audience could fully understand; he is remote but visible, made available to an expanded public through a special device that allows him to be the object of looking.

It’s unsurprising given the historical context of this poem that the narrative is inflected by electric age media, but the influence of media here is not content-oriented (besides the oblique reference to the state, this poem clearly passes as an 1820’s scenario); it seems subtle and structural instead. Relations between characters and the ultimate undoing of the poem’s hero are influenced by contemporary techniques of information collection and dissemination, making this a poem just as much about the human cost of electric-age communication as it is about the evils of slavery. Indeed, it seems the two themes cannot be separated.


Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone


Title Michael Simeone: On "Denmark Vesey" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Simeone Criticism Target Aaron Kramer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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