SIX POETS FROM THE MOUNTAIN SOUTH was recently published by LSU Press. As my last Poet of the Day feature, I'm including three poets from that volume--Jim Wayne Miller, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Fred Chappell. The LSU catalog copy appears below.
In the most extensive work to date on major poets from the mountain South, John Lang takes as his point of departure an oft-quoted remark by Jim Wayne Miller: “Appalachian literature is—and has always been—as decidedly worldly, secular, and profane in its outlook as the [region’s] traditional religion appears to be spiritual and otherworldly.” Although this statement may be accurate for Miller’s own poetry and fiction, Lang maintains that it does not do justice to the pervasive religious and spiritual concerns of many of the mountain South’s finest writers, including the five other leading poets whose work he analyzes along with Miller’s.
Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, Jeff Daniel Marion, Kathryn Stripling Byer, and Charles Wright, Lang demonstrates, all write poetry that explores, sometimes with widely varying results, what they see as the undeniable presence of the divine within the temporal world. Like Blake and Emerson before them, these poets find the supernatural within nature rather than beyond it. They all exhibit a love of place in their poems, a strong sense of connection to nature and the land, especially the mountains. Yet while their affirmation of the world before them suggests a resistance to the otherworldliness that Miller points to, their poetry is nonetheless permeated with spiritual questing.
Dante strongly influences both Chappell and Wright, though the latter eventually resigns himself to being simply “a God-fearing agnostic,” whereas Chappell follows Dante in celebrating “the love that moves the sun and other stars.” Byer, probably the least orthodox of these poets, chooses to lay up treasures on earth, rejecting the transcendent in favor of a Native American spirituality of immanence, while Morgan and Marion find in nature what Marion calls a “vocabulary of wonders” akin to Emerson’s conviction that nature is the language of the spiritual.
Employing close readings of the poets’ work and relating it to British and American Romanticism as well as contemporary eco-theology and eco-criticism, Lang’s book is the most ambitious and searching foray yet into the worlds of these renowned post–World War II Appalachian poets.
John Lang, professor of English at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia, is the author of Understanding Fred Chappell and editor of Appalachia and Beyond: Conversations with Writers from the Mountain South.
(Jim Wayne Miller)
At 9:42 on this May morning
the children's rooms are concentrating too.
Like a tendril growing toward the sun, Ruth
moves her book into a wedge of light
that settles on the floor like a butterfly.
She turns a page.
Fred is immersed in magic, cool
as a Black Angus belly-deep in a farm pond.
The only sounds: pages turning softly.
This is the quietness
of bottomland where you can hear only the young corn
growing, where a little breeze stirs the blades
and then breathes in again.
I mark my place.
I listen like a farmer in the rows.
from The Mountains Have Come Closer, 1980 ©
Last night in a dream
you came to me. We were young
again and you were smiling,
happy in the way a sparrow in spring
hops from branch to branch.
I took you in my arms
and swung you about, so carefree
was my youth.
What can I say?
That time wears away, draws its lines
on every feature? That we wake
to dark skies whose only answer
is rain, cold as the years
that stretch behind us, blurring
this window far from you.
from Ebbing and Flowing Springs
Only the page of numerate thought toils through
The darkness, shines on the table where, askew
And calm, the scholar's lamp burns bright and scars
The silence, sending through the slot, the bars
And angles of his window square, a true
Clean ray, a shaft of patient light, its purview
Lonely and remote as the glow of Mars.
from Shadow Box, LSU Press