In the super popular, critically acclaimed, and award-winning NBC series “This is Us” Randall aka “Number 3” of the triplets is named after a poet.
We learned this namesake in Season 1, Episode 3: “Kyle” when we see William give Rebecca a copy of Poem Counterpoem by Dudley Randall. William says that Kyle/Randall’s birth mother read this poetry to him while in the womb. Rebecca then takes William’s suggestion to “give him his own name” and changes Number 3’s name from Kyle to Randall. “Maybe you’ll see fit to give it to him someday,” William says, and in fact later we see this book on Randall’s shelf.
I don’t watch a lot of TV because I am usually reading, so a show has to REALLY be worth my time. Obviously this show is. In fact, “This is Us” may be my favorite show ever…
And when I see a “literary cameo” in a show, I like to dig a little deeper to pay tribute to it – both the cameo and the show – and learn more myself.
So I decided to investigate Dudley Randall, Poem Counterpoem, and the lines of his poetry quoted in Episode 7 “Best Washing Machine in the World” when Beth (Randall’s wife) and William (Randall’s birth father) gaze up at the stars after eating pot brownies (did I mention I love this show??).
What I found out about this “literary cameo” surprised me!
My literary investigation into Poem Counterpoem
First let me tell you that Poem Counterpoem is extremely hard to track down. It doesn’t even (currently at time of this post) exist to purchase on Amazon. I initially saw one copy (now gone & not purchased by me) there for $50.
Randall’s work is featured in some other anthologies, including The Black Poets.
Luckily I was able to get my hands on a copy of this (obviously very rare!!) Poem Counterpoem thanks to having access to one of the best and most extensive libraries in the world at the University of Illinois.
Poem Counterpoem was published in 1966 and is marked at $1 a copy. It is a thin pamphlet. I took a photo of it, see above. It was published by Broadside Press, where Randall was also the publisher from 1965-1977.
Although the book we see in Episode 3 has the same cover art (I can’t for sure tell if it’s the same color or not; mine is yellow with red type) there are some striking differences between the two.
First, the thickness. The book we see in both of these episodes is fairly think, not a pamphlet. But even more interesting is that the Poem Unpoem I have in my possession has two authors, again as shown in the photo above. Margaret Danner is in fact the first author listed. Randall and Danner each have 10 poems in this book. I read all of them. The poetry by both is beautiful. Randall’s is more storytelling while Danner’s is more abstract, and both write on the themes of civil rights, racial violence, black identity, southern roots, and passive resistance. The format of this book is interesting as their poems sit on opposite pages for each of several themes.
When a “high” Beth and William are stargazing, William starts reciting a poem, and Beth joins in:
“Splendid against the night
The searchlights, the tracers’ arcs,
And the red flare of bombs
Filling the eye,
And the brain.”
(They only recite the first two lines.)
“How do you know that?” William asks.
“It’s in this book of poems Randall’s had since he was a baby,” Beth replies.
William replies “That’s right the one I gave Rebecca back in the day,” and BOOM…a storyline blows up.
But guess what? This beautiful poem quoted above, titled LUZON, is not actually in Poem Counterpoem. From what I can find, it seems this poem is in a collection called “Pacific Epitaphs” where Randall pays tribute to WWII servicemen with a series of 17 short poems.
I love the writers of this show sooo much I am not trying to discredit them (and maybe there is something I am missing here). Maybe changing the cover of Poem Unpoem to be only by Randall makes for a better story (and cameo) but at least I can give Margaret Danner her due here, as co-author of this book. The poem they recite is for sure by Randall but it is not in this collection I have in my hands. But being about the night sky it fits in this scene nicely.
I am not sure if this bothers me or not…I mean it all fits nicely for the story but I feel like it is unfair to Danner. Perhaps this is addressed in the credits; I would need to watch it again to see.
Ultimately I am thankful this investigation led me to some affecting poetry by both in Poem Counterpoem especially “Ballad of Birmingham” where a mother won’t let her child march and sends him to church instead only to have the church bombed. Also “Booker T and W.E.B” which contrasts their views on black identity.
I will continue to enjoy the current season of This Is Us and conduct further literary investigations, on this show and the few others I watch, as needed.
If anyone has additional information or insight on Poem Counterpoem I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Does this bother you at all or is it acceptable as part of creative choices?
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