Rising Above 

Modern-day Southern poetry offers a new generation of cultural elders

Modern-day Southern poetry offers a new generation of cultural elders

Southern anti-intellectualism has been around as long as the Southern classical tradition, which exalted learning and contemplative thought in stately architectural settings. Indeed, as recently as this past fall’s presidential debates, we witnessed the clash of these two convictions on a national scale, as the newest variations of Bubba and Mr. Smartypants participated in televised face-offs. While such contests are useful in curbing the excesses of each type, they also generate behavior that’s just plain depressing. For a particularly unfortunate example, we need look no further than the rumored leaking of some of Gore’s report cards—the ones bearing C’s—by top Democratic advisors who believed that such a move might assuage the public’s suspicion of their candidate’s high IQ. It’s also undeniable that Bush’s pandering to our own region’s anti-intellectual elements helped him win the presidency. Which indicates that intelligent, sensitive, and bookish men in the South—and South-by-Southwest—aren’t made to feel much more at home than were their forebears 50 years ago.

For reasons better left to psychologists, when some of these guys attempt to pass for normal, whether in Texas or Arkansas or Georgia, they “overshoot” and behave in ways that range from the contradictory to the bizarre to the downright embarrassing. The late James Dickey is a timely case in point. The Southern poet/novelist—brilliant and at times outlandishly boorish—has recently attracted his largest degree of publicity yet, an array of warm testimonials and vituperative attacks fueled by the publication of his letters, selected works, a mammoth biography, and his son Christopher’s none-too-flattering memoir, all released since 1998.

None of these books contains any startling revelations. It’s well documented that Dickey could descend and did descend to the lowest levels of Dumb-Ass Male Jerkdom when he was drunk, a state in which he had been for 25 years, “more or less,” as he admitted toward the end of his life. But when Dickey was sober, he wrote not only Deliverance, but also some splendid poems that draw their energies from the very same myth-drunk machismo that fueled his famous antics. In other words, Dickey was inhabited by both Bubba and Mr. Smartypants; his best work comes from the struggle between these forces, a struggle Dickey resolved in the moments of grace that genuine art produces.

For example, one of Dickey’s best and least-anthologized poems, “The Bee,” concerns football and what is learned—particularly about being a father—from running speed drills and tackling dummies. Seeing his son in danger from a bee on one side and “the sheer / Murder of California traffic” on the other, Dickey calls upon memories of long-ago football practice sessions at Clemson, while he simultaneously prays for the strength, speed, and visceral wisdom he learned therefrom:

Dead coaches live in the air,

son live

In the ear

Like fathers, and urge and urge. They want you better

Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream

When something must be

saved.......

[or smile with] the smile of some kind

Of savior—

Of touchdowns, of fumbles,

battles,

Lives. Let me sit here with

you, son

As on the bench, while the first

string takes back

Over, far away and say with

my silentest tongue, with the

man-

creating bruises of my arms

with a live leaf a quick

Dead hand on my shoulder,

“Coach Norton, I am your

boy.”

Dickey’s most genuine masterpieces—Poems 1957-1967 and Deliverance, amply represented in the recent James Dickey Reader (Touchstone, $16), and now heightened by Crux: The Letters of James Dickey (Knopf, $35)—are narratives of male initiation in a nature whose energies are being drained away daily by the assault of suburbia. Such narratives are neither anti-intellectual nor anti-feminine; instead, they insist on the need for complementarities: mind/body, male/female, manufactured/natural, earth/water, predatory/prey, and a million other variations on the principle of balanced-but-colliding energies. It’s impossible to imagine a man more obsessed by the border country in which these meet—and the outlaws who live therein—than Dickey.

Whatever the Atlanta-born poet’s failures as a man—and as an artist who succumbed to alcoholism, careerism, and serial adultery—Dickey was the kind of teacher from whom legends arise. The useful legends are hardly distinguishable from Dickey’s most important and salubrious lessons—which, as is often the case, traveled far beyond his University of South Carolina classroom. Three of these lessons, Dickey would doubtless be pleased to know, are now integral to any discussion of contemporary Southern poetry: First, leaving the South, as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren had done, was no longer de rigueur for the serious poet. Second, the South as a political and cultural entity cursed by history, especially by the sin of slavery, no longer had to be granted pride of place among the Southern poet’s subjects. Third, the kind of rough-and-tumble masculinity of Bubba’s South didn’t have to exclude poetry, and vice versa.

If Dickey’s own origins were suburban rather than working-class, and if he was afflicted with some of his era’s attitudes toward women and African Americans, it’s worth remembering that he championed the work of many female poets when serving as judge for the country’s most prestigious first book award, the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and that he despised social snobbery. Indeed, though Dickey graduated from Vanderbilt and later became a protégé of Andrew Lytle’s, he was far less a Fugitive than a descendent of Faulkner. Dickey learned from Faulkner that a certain amount of good ol’ boy posturing, especially when baited by non-Southern literary types, was useful; he also seems to have adopted the Mississippian’s belief that respectability kills artists.

Sense of place

Some argue that Dave Smith—who now teaches and co-edits The Southern Review at LSU, in addition to founding and editing the Southern Messenger Poetry Series at LSU Press—is Dickey’s most logical heir, while others attempt to dress the Virginia-born Smith with Warren’s mantle. But influences seem irrelevant when a writer creates, over the course of two decades, work that possesses the uniquely monumental force of The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970-1990 (LSU, $19.95). Reynolds Price, who gave last year’s Robert Penn Warren lecture at the Southern Festival of Books, rightly states that Smith’s poetry “has reached a threshold of bulk, capacity, and excellence which raises the ultimate kinds of questions. For me, the answer lies in the word giant. His long, full probing and broad achievement has earned that much gratitude, that much praise.”

The total effect of The Wick of Memory probably won’t be stated more eloquently or accurately, but what Price fails to mention is that the book’s newer poems—those from Fate’s Kite (1996) and after—are inarguably Smith’s best. They take up the challenge not only of remembering but also of going forward, as a man, as a poet, as a father, as a husband, as a person at home in nature but wary of its dangers, as a Southerner with the salt marshes of his native Tidewater now mingling their pungency with the Gulf Coast’s breath, its “rot fertile enough to root the lush / cycling of the short-lived and the hopeless.” These lines constitute part of a 13-line sonnet, the second half of which reads:

Twice annually our people

cry out and binge

for lives drained in the torque

of a death

that clings like sodden summer

shirts: Mardi Gras,

Christmas balance priests

and bare-breasted women.

The winter sun yanks orchids

from the darkness.

Men drift past the levee like

beer cans, our mothers,

our daughters rasp “Throw

me something Mister.”

History, religion, birth, death, nature, city, the rapacity of eros—it’s all present in “The Louisiana Sea of Faith,” the title ironically recalling Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. The allusion is weighty enough to drown most contemporary epics; Smith’s sonnet doesn’t even get damp.

Forces of reconciliation

The body of work created by Yusef Komunyakaa has, from its start, drawn its style and meaning from the fructive collision of American English—especially in its Southern, King James Bible-inflected modes—and the imported rhythms of African music. That collision, according to the novelist and the social/music critic Albert Murray, created Southern culture and made it “mulatto”—its elements mixed—as opposed to “mosaic.”

The latter term privileges the boundaries between different groups of Americans, emphasizing how each group is distinct from all others, rather than emphasizing what the members of any American subculture share with each other. Such boundaries, like related concepts of the “tribal,” are swiftly being obliterated by exigencies of global politics, not to mention the global economy. Having survived the carnage wrought by German, Russian, Serbian, Rwandan, Chechen, and Chinese forms of nationalism, the world’s very survival may depend on its ability to become a global community. That doesn’t mean that the choice is painless or without enormous cost, as Komunyakaa’s work has strongly implied for the past decade.

The tension between the desire for belonging and the desire for autonomy, which might also be defined as the tension between the South and Africa, or between the Western concept of manifest destiny and the tribal concepts of what the West refers to as “the Third World,” is almost excruciatingly resonant in Komunyakaa’s work. His latest two books, Blue Notes (Univ. of Michigan)—comprised of critical essays, interviews, and notes on several of his poems—and Talking Dirty to the Gods: Musicians (FSG, $23), should make it clear that Komunyakaa, like Smith, is both a major writer and a de facto elder for whatever attenuated tribe Southern poets may now be said to constitute.

Also like Smith, Komunyakaa has continued to widen the scope of his poetry from the very beginning of his artistic career, moving from New Orleans hip in Copacetic to the shocked, battle-weary, and yet somehow gorgeous tones born of the Vietnam War in Dien Cai Dao. The title of the latter book is from a Vietnamese phrase meaning “crazy person,” and it’s a tiny example of how Komunyakaa has absorbed, in the post-Vietnam years—which include time spent in the American West, Australia, and back in the Deep South as well as teaching stints in Indiana, Manhattan, and Princeton—something of the indigenous vocabularies of each place.

Nashvillians who haven’t read a poem since high school could have no better introduction to contemporary Southern letters than Smith’s and Komunyakaa’s newest books. The Virginian and the Louisianan are not only major writers, but their very presence gives us, by positive example, some idea of just how traumatic the loss of Southern cultural elders has been for many regional artists who belong, roughly speaking, to the baby boom/early Gen X years. Particularly during the civil rights era, apologists for the status quo lost any pretense to moral authority, and thus lost any pretext for imparting the kind of wisdom granted only by experience and history. This is precisely why these two men, with their depth of wisdom and experience, are so important to our cultural legacy—they’ve experienced the South (and the world) in all its complexity and have proved more than willing to grapple with the contradictions found therein.

Neither Komunyakaa nor Smith places poetry in the service of politics; rather, their respective bodies of work place the self squarely in a real world often made murky by the confluence of everyday grace and the terrifyingly random. Nor are these two poets alone in their contributions to Southern and American letters: Ellen Bryant Voigt, who read at Vanderbilt in October, is only one example of other poets belonging on anyone’s list of hypothetical elders, even though all three defy simple characterization as “regional writers.” We’re lucky to have them at the head of the table, which they share quite comfortably—a sign in itself that tedious, politicized habits of rank and hierarchy have waned, and that the best revenge remains writing well.

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