“The Structure of Opposition”: The Poetry of Rodney Jones

by Billy Reynolds & Patrick Phillips

Rodney Jones, born in Alabama, is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has published eight books of poetry, including Salvation Blues (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Among his many honors, Jones was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award, and a Harper Lee Award.

Billy Reynolds: Your poetry is often associated with a southern narrative vernacular tradition, with the likes of Robert Penn Warren and Dave Smith (never bad company), but, to my mind, you have never been, strictly speaking, a narrative poet. There is an emphasis on the “spoken word” in your poetry, but many of your poems work associatively and in many of them you assemble seemingly disparate narratives.

Rodney Jones: In truth, it doesn’t bother me, being compared to Warren and Smith. They’re poets that I admire. I read Warren a good deal in the seventies when I was living in East Tennessee and Virginia, and Smith has always embodied an ideal of language that has proved instructive. But neither, to my mind, has been more of an influence on me than Ashbery or Stern or James Wright or Bishop or C.K. Williams or Robinson Jeffers or Levine or Lowell or Bishop or Levis or Justice or (fill in the blank) or Neruda or Rilke or Transtromer or Milosz, etc. Doubtless, I’m a subprecinct of many pre-existing poetic templates, but I’ve tried to get involved with each instance, with the idea of writing the only poem that I could write. I’ve felt contempt for myself if a poem has seemed too indebted to another poet.

BR: In many of your poems, the blues is both a source of inspiration, a companion if you will, and even an analogue for your poetry. How did you come up with the idea for the book Salvation Blues?

RJ: Salvation Blues came into my head after I had finished the poem with that title, not a great poem, but one that accurately represented a long thought that happens to be the foundation for many of my poems. Harold Bloom once said that “we know a poet by the poet’s complaint.” As for themes, I don’t hold to them, but when they occur, I do not doubt their hold over me, and when they crop up a number of times, I recognize an obsession and sometimes a complaint. Salvation, where I grew up, was not an idea, but a way of life, and it goes on to this day. For me, it is woven deeply in the fabric of my seeing and speaking, and I suppose that it does not matter that I philosophically question “salvation,” or, for that matter, any meaning that takes the form of social convention. After all, the structure of opposition is confined by what is opposes. I share a religion with Wallace Stevens, the most articulate spokesman for an imaginative vision that opposes American puritanism, and with James Wright. I am all for life, not death, and I trust that my poems suggest that. The blues form is natural to me, a kind of American Zen, a yang to the gospel’s yin. I chose the title because it seemed right for the work. Then I googled it and discovered that it had been used many times, most notably by a band in St. Paul, Minnesota, The Front Porch Swinging Liquor Pigs.

BR: Looking back at my copies of your books, I was surprised at the number of incredible poems not included in Salvation Blues (“The Weepers,” “The Privacy of Women,” “Second Nature,” “A Story of the South Pacific, “Waking Up,” just to name five) How difficult was it for you to decide which poems to include and which to omit? Was there a criteria for selection, either by you or your editor at Houghton Mifflin?

RJ: The choices were my own, though Michael Collier, my editor and a fine poet in his own right, made several suggestions that struck me as right on the mark and I took them. The choices were difficult. In general, I have not been a hit or miss kind of poet. I’ve meant to hit the target every time, and I’ve worked hard to acquire the necessary art to do that and to practice it and then to dispose with it and find other ways of writing. Assembling the book presented a number of problems. If many poems struck me as powerful, putting them all together sometimes seemed like fielding a backfield of all fullbacks. My chief concern was to make a book that would be better than any of the individual books from which it was chosen. “Two Girls at the Hartselle, Alabama, Municipal Swimming Pool,” for instance, obviously lacks the dimension of “The Privacy of Women,” but I have other poems with that dimension that I prefer. In truth, I suspect that I might have chosen another one hundred poems that would represent me nearly as well as the selection I made. And, of course, poets are not definitive judges of their own work. David Lehman chose “My Manhood,” another poem that I omitted, for The Oxford Book of American Poetry. That does not suggest either that I should have included it in Salvation Blues or that Lehman should have chosen another poem. All of us with choices must believe, at least for the moment, that we married well.

BR: “No human just language grinding against the shackle of quotation.” This comment is from the last section of your “Elegy for a Southern Drawl,” in which you suggest a tension between the spoken word and the written (in this case, a recording of Faulkner’s famous 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature speech, in which he famously declares that man will not only endure but prevail) is something you have been preoccupied for quite some time. Another way to say this is that you distrust eloquence—that you more than accept the “botch on the surface” because it is all you have to affirm the deep fluency below, as you wrote in “On Pickiness.” Could you talk about the connection between the botch on the surface and fluency?

RJ: A number of one-liners. Robert Hass says in one of his gorgeous fluent poems, “When you’re smooth, you’re dead.” I read numerous poems every year that work as soporifics, if not as embalming fluids, and I write a few myself. The poet’s fluency is much like the guitarist’s speed. It is a very desirable quality, but there needs to be a cop on that beat, someone to rough it up a bit, or it may not seem to tell the truth.

When I began attempting to write poems, Everette Maddox, my first mentor, suggested humility. It would be good, he advised, to attempt one good line at a time, to revise that line many times before going to the next, and to continue until I had made a poem of all good lines. He also suggested that I might discover great poems with no lines that were either particularly memorable or remarkable for their prosody or overt originality.

A poem is language, but it also evokes the character of an animal that cannot speak. In many ways, the unspeaking animal must come out of the poem; else the poem seems all surface, all fluency: no temperament, no drama. This seems obvious. A poem is behavior or nothing. “A poem,” as Archibald MacLeish says, “must be palpable and mute…”

Patrick Phillips: This question is related to Billy’s idea about fluency. You have written a lot about the role of the poet, and the act of writing poems. I am thinking, for example, of “The Work of Poets,” “A Defense of Poetry,” and “A History of Speech,” in which you write:

                                                  … Listen:
whenever I hurt, the words turned their heads;
whenever I loved too much, they croaked and hopped away.
At my luckiest, I’m only saying the grace
the hungry endure because they’re polite.

It would be more polite for us to extol the power and relevance of poetry, but there are many moments in Salvation Blues that confront the inadequacy of the art itself. Do you ever lose faith in poetry? If not, what sustains you, and if so, how do you find your way back to writing?

RJ: Questioning the place of the art in contemporary culture differs from questioning the art itself. The environment in which poetry thrives often feels like trompe l’oeil to me. The classroom, which prizes difficulty, and the barroom, which demands humor and raunchiness, are faux. The individual reader, on the other hand, who relishes or needs poetry, remains.

Obviously, poetry is sufficiently limited in its popular or cultural appeal that it need not be defended. The people at West Point told me that they insisted that freshman cadets read poetry books because they wanted them to understand ambiguity. Well, poetry persists, keeping its secrets, doing its lovely ambiguous thing, and I happen to love it, but I have had questions since my first involvement in poetry. A big one would be, “Why are you doing this when almost no one reads it.” Why should that question be limited to our mothers? The year that I won the National Book Critics Circle Award, a nameless stranger at the party before the presentation asked me what I did. “I’m a writer,” I answered. “What do you write?” she asked. “Poetry,” I said. She replied, “How sad for you.”

But poetry still seems to me nearly impossible, the greatest of arts. When I lose faith in that notion, as I do periodically, I do not write.

PP: There is a religious undercurrent in many of your poems. I can hear the music of the King James Bible in so many lines, and sense a kind of vestigial yearning for grace—for what Flannery O’Connor called “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Country churches, radio preachers, and sacraments appear in these poems, and yet the speaker makes it clear that his is a “post-religious” view of the world. Could you talk about the role of poetry in the wake of belief?

RJ: Stevens writes somewhere in Opus Posthumous that poetry created the gods and now, when we do not believe in the gods, poetry must find a new project. Well, obviously, some of us are not at the end of belief. The mischief continues. As for ecclesiastical religion, I had the complete installation: Sunday morning and night services and Wednesday night bible study or prayer meetings in addition to numerous singings. My paternal grandfather wrote gospel songs, and my paternal grandmother, my great champion, was a devout fundamentalist. She told me that, given the state of my soul, I was going to spend eternity in hell. On the other hand, my mother was not a conventional believer. She made it clear that my object as an adult would be to determine the nature of my own belief. I came to it in time. I believe in the natural world and that the social value of any belief system that emphasizes the supernatural is harmful. On the other hand, once inculcated, that dream proves a canny foe. I have attempted looking at the world uninstructed and untutored, cross-examining every thought about the cosmos, especially those that I have believed to be my own, but I do not find that my belief or absence of belief is necessarily relevant to the quality of poetry of individual humans. I appreciate deeply the poetry of Les Murray and Franz Wright, poets of unabashed religious faith. Language being what it is, the resident gods may not hear a distinction between announcements of belief or disbelief, but surely they must hear the heart in the language, and the creature behind it, and appreciate language’s music at least a little more than its meaning or meaninglessness. To have been given the language of the King James Bible was a great privilege. For all the tedious sermons and scripture reading that W.S. Merwin endured as a child, we have those poems.

BR: I have to admit that in reading parts of “Elegy for a Southern Drawl” to a group of first-generation college students enrolled in Basic English that I felt, for the first time since I was a struggling college student, the tremendous conflicts the poem enacts, in particular the tension between the language of the country and the language of the educated. I guess I clearly understood for the first time perhaps the ways we all juggle various discourses and the ways we tend to value one discourse over another. But in the ending of the poem, you seem to suggest that you never lose the language of the country and in fact you shouldn’t because it suggests the ways in which we are everything at once:

I feel odd hearing a tape of my own voice
That marks wherever I go, the sound

Of lynchings, the letters of misspellings
Crooked and jumbled to dupe the teacher,
Slow ink, slow fluid of my tribe, meaning

What words mean when they are given
From so many voices, I do not know myself
Who is speaking and who is listening.

RJ: Voice need not seem complex for some, and they do fine. For others, and I am one of them, to call on one register instead of another may be play, but it marks betrayal or loyalty. The large fabric of a voice includes each voice that a writer has heard or read that has made an impression. I spent a lot of time as a kid playing in a British accent, a lot of time in tongue-tied redneck. Almost everyone that I have heard or read has left some track, from Alastair Cooke and John Cage to Richard Pryor and Richard Nixon. No claim on the language is exclusive. Americans are free to sound British and vice-versa, but the community implicit in each sentence must be beholding to a tone that characterizes a single speaker and behavior. That seems the essential thing for a poet.

PP: In “The Poetry Reading” you wonder if “perhaps the university is not the place for poetry,” and dwell on the hope that after a typical college reading “someone still unheard from / May actually go into a room alone and read it.” At a time when it is fashionable to lament the influence of the M.F.A. programs, you are upfront about working in “the academy”—a place you refer to as “My Monastery.” Could you talk about the risks and rewards of being a poet and a professor?

RJ: Contemporary poetry in the college or university, or, for that matter, in high schools, is often studied as something other than poetry. As a means, for instance, of exhibiting our plurality, or of articulating a political ideal, or of encouraging self-expression. It takes up a very small portion of a bewildering curriculum, and it has, of course, provided many of us with a livelihood. At one end of the spectrum, poetry’s sponsor is a democratic ideal, and, at the other end, we find a poetry of such difficulty that it requires a seminar with a trained guide, a search party. Poetry can be written to fit any of these templates, just as it can be written as a wedding toast, eulogy, or antiquated form of courtship.

Older poetry tends to be treated a little differently, the idea being that Paradise Lost or King Lear should be preserved. Older poetry is like a patient in a nursing home. Older poetry needs the breathing machine and feeding tubes of the university. In contemporary American culture, it obviously has a little less economic value than Apocalypse Now or Chinatown and much less value than the video game, which the market can depend upon to make a living for many.

Are human beings better for studying poetry becomes the main issue, and if we are improved, how? The poem in the institution and the poet in the institution are different issues. Tom Disch told me fifteen years ago that he almost wished that I could continue to work in factories, on farms, or on construction crews, so that I could stay in touch with the sources. While I’m glad to be relieved of that work, I understand the point. Universities and colleges, so full of admirable, learned people, tend to be insular, rife with guarded remarks and anecdotes of European travel, and the teacher of creative writing has trouble getting away from poetry. People hand you manuscripts when you’re walking in the woods. I find it essential to get away from the atmosphere of the university, and of poetry, for that matter. In general, my best friends are not poets or academicians. Last week my wife and I had dinner at Crazy Joe’s Catfish House with a wise beautician and her husband, who sells John Deere tractors. Such moments give me hope.

PP: I first loved your work because it is so often funny. Deeply, seriously funny, in poems like “Pussy,” “Elegy for the Southern Drawl,” and “Sacrament for My Penis,” which begins:

How do I approach it, bald as it is, dangling
Over the urinal to some golden expression
Of lemony bitterness, an old Trappist,
Blind in one eye, kneeling to his paternosters?

What do you think is the relationship between the joke and the poem? My question is, as they say, how come you write so funny?

RJ: I would hope that poets do not have a choice about being funny. Certainly, many great poets are not funny: Whitman is never funny; Eliot is occasionally funny; Rilke does not seem to have a funny bone in all the body of his work; Rich is not funny; Robert Bly is rarely intentionally funny; C.K. Williams is nearly always serious; Neruda is not consciously funny, but his great faith in the alchemy of the unconscious mind produces humor as a byproduct. I’m very drawn to the humor of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, who wrote “Sometimes I think that seals must live as long as the scholar gypsy.” And I’m also fond of the outrageously funny poets like James Tate, Russell Edson, Albert Goldbarth, David Kirby, and Denise Duhamel or the more darkly funny poets like Louise Glück, Charles Simic, Sylvia Plath, Alan Dugan, and John Berryman. For the connoisseur, there’s John Ashbery. Billy Collins, of course, cans fun like peaches. My funny poet is James Wright. His comedy derives from Mark Twain.

The joke, as Charles Simic reminds us, is no joke.

I do not generally set out to be funny or sad when I write a poem, but I have pledged allegiance to honoring the natural eventfulness of the mind. Of course, it can get crazy. There’s the ironic take, and there’s the ironic take on the ironic take. I’m not fond of glibness, or poetry that’s merely entertaining, but I am in one of those bodies that wants to laugh, sometimes at funerals, often inappropriately. So be it.

PP: Billy has already mentioned Robert Penn Warren, a poet with whom it is natural to associate your work. Who are your other influences and heroes? Are there things you tried to learn from particular poets? Poets against whom you rebelled?

RJ: Poets dodge talking influence. No wonder. I asked William Stafford about influences once, and his answer suggested that I was conducting a tax audit. I’ve fallen under so many spells, many of them contrasting, that it’s hard to single out the primary influences, but early obvious influences would be Dickey, Warren, Frost, Wright, and Faulkner. They inhabited a country and a language that I knew, and they showed me how rural experience might be appropriate for poetry. Other early influences would be Eliot, Crane, Snodgrass, James Tate. I attempted surrealism for many years before I published a book. I read Sylvia Plath always, and Philip Levine, and Adrienne Rich, and Hugo and Roethke and Neruda. In my late twenties, I discovered two poets whose work energized me: Gerald Stern, who still seems the most open American poet, and C.K. Williams, a great narrator of consciousness, who has such a pure and undiluted habitation of language. They were my muses when I was writing the poems in The Unborn. After that, I began to read Milosz, and he stopped me dead. He was so unromantic, so transcendently practical in his political vision. He and Robinson Jeffers were the sparks for Transparent Gestures. After that, it gets more complicated. Ashbery was always with me. Merwin and Kinnell buoyed me when I was writing Things That Happen Once. Olds, Graham, Ammons, Wilbur, Koch, Gallagher, Tranströmer, Dennis Johnson, Louise Glück, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass. Always Kunitz, always Jarrell, and Bishop. Always Whitman and Dickinson. Shakespeare. Marlowe and Chapman. Eliot. Rilke. Always Heaney. Lately Ann Carson. The American poet that I love most and return to most often is James Wright, not because I consider him the best, but because he is a very smart guy who values the heart more than the brain, a very funny guy who values seriousness, and a very articulate guy who values expression.

I have often loved the work of other poets more than my own. When I write poems, I have, in some part of my mind, an ideal, not my own poem, but some version of a poem that might have been written by someone else. I recognize that version and approve of it, but, of course, achieving that version is not the thing. Originality is the benchmark, and not an attempt to be original, but an embodiment of character. Every successful poet fails to be another poet who defines the work’s aesthetic aspiration. Such failure is crucial. Critics often ask one poet to be another poet, but any real poet is writing the only poem that might be written at that level. The poet could write various poems at a lower level, but only the one at full tilt boogie.

PP: Putting together a twenty-year retrospective like Salvation Blues is clearly a milestone, and an act of reflection. It raises the obvious question: What next?

RJ: I might spend the rest of my life revising drafts that I have abandoned. I have several large boxes of them. I have three hundred pages of an unsuccessful novel. I have a book length dramatic monologue. At the present, I’m working on two projects: essays and poetry. There are many kinds of poems that that I have not yet written. Putting together Salvation Blues made me realize that. I kept looking for those poems. But for me, it is never a thing of thinking about a poem and then writing it as planned. I’m not that good. It is about taking the pen in hand and seeing what emerges that characterizes a world that I can believe.

Billy Reynolds lives in Tifton, Georgia, where he is an assistant professor of English at Abraham Baldwin College. His poems and reviews have been published in CutBank, DIAGRAM, New Orleans Review, storySouth, and Third Coast, among others.