I don’t know what exactly is the South. Part of it might be the strange syntax of this first sentence that seems like a question. The way we talk betrays where we’re from. Ending on a preposition or leaving a fragment hanging in thin air. Shifting the emphasis on the usual order of words to create a tone, perhaps one particular to a region. Robert Frost calls this “the sound of sense,” though I believe he’s specifically talking about New England English. Frost says that “much meaning is carried in tone”, and those of us who listen for it know so many examples of how tone varies regionally and is often shaped by a slight shift in the usual order of words. So the South is not just a grouping of geographical states but also a kind of language.
A few years ago, I was asked to write some paragraphs for the Oxford American special issue featuring Texas Music. I’m no expert in music, but I know a thing or two about the lyric, so I agreed to scratch out a few thoughts. Here is a part of what I wrote for that little essay:
Texas demands a fierce independence whereas the South hunkers down into a forlorn neighborliness. I feel a shift in consciousness when I leave Lake Charles and cross into the Lone Star State. And when you leave Farwell, drifting past Clovis toward an even drier open space that is the otherworldly Southwest, something else shifts. Let’s not even talk about the disappointment Texans feel when they cross north into Oklahoma.
In a place where we have few trees and a lot of wind, I’ll risk it and go out on a limb to say that Texas may be a part of the New South. Texas doesn’t believe that, but still, there’s a common bond. Almost. I think it was Leon Stokesbury whom I first heard define the Southern poem. He thought such a poem likely included a big dose of heartbreak and comic sensibility featuring family, landscape, and religion in varying degrees and combination. I hear these same quirky, dusty, open-sky, heartfelt mixtures in the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks (don’t judge), and more recently, Amanda Shires.
Are music lyrics poetry? Is Texas part of the South? Both of these questions must be answered: Yes. And also, no. It’s complicated.
My time growing up in the South from twelve till my early twenties was in general an experience of fine neighborliness. I was a scrawny, lower-middle-class boy who got pretty good grades in school and was decent at sports. I was fairly privileged, no doubt. I can’t speak for others (especially those of other races) as to their own social interactions, but I can say that many years later when I moved from the South to Scottsdale, Arizona, for a year, it was a bit of a shock to me that in the grocery store people, in general, didn’t look me in the eye and weren’t accustomed to a stranger saying hello how ya doin. In fact, many looked at me downright offended, as if I wanted something from them.
What is the South? It’s harder than ever to say. Nowadays, people don’t often stay put for a lifetime or even a decade. We’re mobile and so few of us are bound to the land as most of our forebears were for the last few hundred years here. When our conversations happen at the speed of light over phones, computers, etc., the distance between us evaporates, in a way. Place mostly becomes irrelevant, and region can hardly seem what it was twenty years ago. Friends certainly aren’t what they used to be. In the past we had a few, and now we have perhaps thousands whom we might “unfriend” with a click. The South isn’t just the land south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River, the slave states, Dixie, these southern United States. A Facebook friend sent me an image of a map of the south, and it seemed convincing to me, geographically, and only after I saw the land mass did I notice that the color of the mapping was defined by the popular presence of Baptist churches. Is the South Baptist? Immersion in water rather than sprinkling?
What about race? Is the South racist? Obviously, not all the South. And racism thrives in the North and West, as well. But there is no denying that the South is largely comprised of what were formerly known as the slave states. People who deny Texas is part of the South might forget that Texas was a slave state. Despite the recent removal of confederate monuments across the South, the 2017 white nationalist march through the University of Virginia campus and the murder of a peaceful protestor re-opened old wounds. A Democrat was recently, surprisingly, elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama, and yet the election was won by only a few percentage points. In this election, 68 percent of whites voted Republican and 96 percent of blacks voted Democrat. Southern poets feel these pains and tensions acutely, and many confront them head on in their work. The Henry County, Georgia, of my high school days and the Fulton County of my college days were nothing like Forsyth County (less than an hour north) which, all the way into the late 1980s, terrorized any black person merely passing through. I witnessed very little racism, and yet we were racist in many ways, I now realize.
My first poetry teachers were Southerners: Leon Stokesbury and David Bottoms at Georgia State University. Later it was William Logan at the University of Florida, then Austin Hummell, who was from Florida. After my M.F.A. I followed Hummell to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of North Texas where he, perhaps more than anyone, taught my ear to hear. Bottoms had sung the praises of his Southern heroes, Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey; and Stokesbury had turned me on to Frank Stanford and Miller Williams and more obscure formal writers who seemed completely out of fashion.
Leon Stokesbury put together the last good (to my mind) Southern anthology, The Made Thing, published by University of Arkansas Press in 1987, two years after I graduated high school. I was unaware of it till several years later. In 1989, I’d abandoned a study of nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech for a pursuit of poetry at Georgia State. It was a big deal for me to be suddenly in a place where poetry was vibrant and important. Revised for a second edition in 1999, The Made Thing has long been the standard of the late 20th century Southern poem. The poems are mostly free verse, and they are usually established in a clear physical setting and not too experimental. What Stokesbury himself has termed “narrative—almost”. Narrative refers to a story that moves through one place and time to another, and many of the poems in his and my anthology don’t do exactly that. They have the trappings of narrative, perhaps the setting and/or the characters, but perhaps not that movement in time—rather a spot in time or what we might call the lyrical moment. Things happen within that one moment, and we might think of this vertically as opposed to being strung along a horizontal timeline. These poems often have some kind of “epiphany” or flash within them that points us to a deeper meaning or set of meanings, often paradoxically. When I have to give an example of paradox, I often think of the physical example of baptism. Yes, the Baptists and immersion. The drowning of the body which results not in death but new life.
Stokesbury’s selection was based upon “poets who have published at least one full-length book” and “who were either born and raised in the South or who have lived in the South at least since they began publishing their mature work.” That’s as good a starting place as any. He also says that his intent “was not to verify any restrictive definition of Southern poetry”, though he noticed in the poems he selected “a preoccupation with the past as history” and “a profound relationship to the natural world.” These statements seem to me vague and even romantic. How is the past ever not history? Especially if written down. And when has the natural world not been profound? Even Scientific American is deep, though it may lack poetry. My criticism is only of the description of the anthologist’s net here and not the contents. Many of the poems in The Made Thing helped to shape my aesthetics and poetics, and I am grateful. However, so as to not create overlap, in this anthology I exclude all but one of the poets from the second edition of The Made Thing. Alicia Stallings is one of the best poets of my generation (as well, we both are from Georgia, though we never knew each other back then, and we are serious practitioners of traditional forms), so I have included her.
The Made Thing is comparable to the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets edited by David Bottoms (along with Dave Smith) in 1985. The poems are stylistically similar in their post-Confessional, mostly meditative, image-driven styles. Surely, my own early tastes were formed in the kitchen between these two cookbooks. Most of the poets selected for those two anthologies were teaching in the creative writing programs across the country, and the same is true of this book. One can’t really make a living solely as a poet, though certainly poets can do other things besides teach poetry. But it is the vocation that most aptly aligns with the writing of poetry: the sharing it and the studying it. Due to the importance of these two anthologies, my own “past as history” is undeniable in relation to how I see American poetry. Between twelve and my mid-twenties, I grew up in the South. Even though I believe Stokesbury and Bottoms have not received the national recognition they are due (I have to wonder if they have been limited by their very association with Southern poetry, as merely Southern poets?), they both were two of the primary taste-makers of the late twentieth century. We might look at two of their own best-known poems to see where they’re coming from:
Unsent Message to My Brother in His Pain
Please do not die now. Listen.
Yesterday, storm clouds rolled
out of the west like thick muscles.
Lightning bloomed. Such a sideshow
of colors. You should have seen it.
A woman watched with me, then we slept.
Then, when I woke first, I saw
in her face that rest is possible.
The sky, it suddenly seems
important to tell you, the sky
was pink as a shell. Listen
to me. People orbit the moon now.
They must look like flies around
Fatty Arbuckle’s head, that new
and that strange. My fellow American,
I bought a French cookbook. In it
are hundred and hundreds of recipes.
If you come to see me, I shit you not,
we will cook with wine. Listen
to me. Listen to me, my brother,
please don’t go. Take a later flight,
a later train. Another look around.
Under the Vulture-Tree
We have all seen them circling pastures,
have looked up from the mouth of a barn, a pine clearing,
the fences of our own backyards, and have stood
amazed by the one slow wing beat, the endless dihedral drift.
But I had never seen so many so close, hundreds,
every limb of the dead oak feathered black,
and I cut the engine, let the river grab the jon boat
and pull it toward the tree.
The black leaves shined, the pink fruit blossomed
red, ugly as a human heart.
Then, as I passed under their dream, I saw for the first time
its soft countenance, the raw fleshy jowls
wrinkled and generous, like the faces of the very old
who have grown to empathize with everything.
And I drifted away from them, slow, on the pull of the river,
reluctant, looking back at their roost,
calling them what I’d never called them, what they are,
those dwarfed transfiguring angels,
who flock to the side of the poisoned fox, the mud turtle
crushed on the shoulder of the road,
who pray over the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost,
with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.
The themes of death, resurrection, a chance at redemption, and landscape de-familiarized keep me returning to these poems years later. I show them to my students, and they love them. They love the humor of the Stokesbury poem married with the dark sensibility which lies just under the surface, or is it vice versa? And they love the religious connotations of the Bottoms poem pitted against the repugnance of the vultures and their seemingly cursed existence. These strong juxtapositions create imaginative dissonances that result in startling ironies. Surprisingly, there is a kind of hope in many of these poems. It’s certainly not true of all Southern poems, but you can see that these verses don’t make their dwellings in the darker despairs of the previous generation of Confessional poets.
My teachers, William Logan and Austin Hummell, never expressed to me great interest in geographic or cultural Southern-ness, but they drilled into me the importance of tradition and criticism, of knowing where you came from as a poet and also as a person. And tradition, especially the notion of family (whether genetic or literary), certainly has something to do with the South. Logan grew up in New England and spends half his time now in “Old” England, and Hummell has ended up far north in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Are they Southerners? In many ways, they are.
For the purposes of this anthology, I’ve defined the South as no farther west than Texas, and no farther north than Virginia/D.C. But I include even Southern Indiana, because one of the most Southern poets (and best) I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, Carrie Jerrell, is from there, and she seems more Southern than anybody I know in Florida. Of course, I’ve included Florida, too, as it is a kind of peculiar South unlike any other. It’s important to understand that Jacksonville isn’t Tallahassee, and Tallahassee is nothing like Miami or Orlando. The further South you go in Florida, the less Southern.
Can living in a contemporary city like Atlanta or Tampa, perhaps in a high-rise apartment building, count? Must we write about eating barbecue or speaking in tongues, and will we have some measure of trucks or dogs or whiskey? I go back to what I think Leon Stokesbury told me: family, landscape, religion, and some important tension between comedy and heartbreak. And plainly, we should probably just admit there’s something a little bit “country” about the South when we think of it. Something rural. Though even that is constantly shifting. The piney woods of Stockbridge, Georgia, where I grew up, hardly exist any more; the landscape of my youth is now subdivisions as far as the eye can see. Is Stockbridge still the South? It definitely isn’t the same South where I grew up. Was the South where I grew up even the South? Though then we were surrounded by pine woods, it was still, where I lived, a 1980’s typical American subdivision.
Though it is hard to define, there exists this thing we call Southern poetry. Much more so than Midwestern Poetry or Poetry of the Northwest or California Poetry. While the South, itself, might defy definition, poetry is even more seditious. Any poet must admit there is no clear definition of the word, poem. This is because poetry, a rebellious or merely curious child, always challenges its own making, testing its parents (while looking just like them) and striking out for new territory. Poetry’s anxiety of influence is undeniable, and this Freudian complexity is in some ways comforting, in others terrifying. Nevertheless, each poet is blessed or doomed to define a poem—by writing the next poem. Or by creating the next poetry anthology.
An anthology may pretend to be a house whose inhabitants seem to be familiar, but it is only a door, an entrance to the house of any kind of poetry. I hope that readers might walk through this doorway, make themselves at home, get to know the family, friends, and ghosts herein, and take a look around, or even find some secret passageways to another land altogether. My primary purpose for this anthology is simply to gather together a lot of my favorite poems that happen to be written by Southern poets. Almost arbitrarily, I have excluded anyone born before 1950. I have tended to include primarily shorter lyric poems because this has been and remains the primary mode of poets in the South. No doubt, in a few years I will have discovered an entirely new collection of fine Southern poems and perhaps feel the need to expand this edition.
A few poets who knew of my plans for this anthology suggested that I lay out the poems thematically, but I found this arrangement would limit the poems in the most obvious ways. And it would skew poems toward singular readings, as if this poem is about race or that one about cooking or Georgia or dysfunctional family. My intentional arbitrariness of alphabetical arrangement results in poems or poets that might not normally be grouped together, and readers of this book surely would do well to make their own categories of subject matters, themes, tones, forms, styles, etc. that characterize any given set of poems. The way we have it here, if one wants to find a particular poem, it can be accessed quickly. You will find at the back of this anthology an appendix. The poets were asked to contribute, if they liked, a paragraph of less than 150 words, their answers to the questions “What is Southern poetry?” and/or “What is the South?” I hope the variety of responses satisfy, surprise, and even dis-satisfy the reader so that new conversations open, even while simplistic notions of the South fade. This said, I have no doubt that the best poetry of the South is more honest and truthful than any prose statement in getting at this appraisal of Southern identity. It just takes a little more concentration and more time to fathom the depths of the verse. Poetry has a way of getting at the heart of the matter. It tells us who and what we are, and at its best maybe it even points us to who we might become.