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Nashville Scene Whistlin' Dixie

Anthology attempts to define the state of contemporary Southern poetry

By Diann Blakely

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  The highly respected University of Arkansas Press has just issued its fall catalog, which features the establishment of a new series called "The Sweet Science Boxing in Literature and History."

Randy Roberts, who will serve as general editor for the series, argues convincingly for the body of work devoted to pugilism; writers on the subject include Homer, Lord Byron, George Bernard Shaw, and Joyce Carol Oates. Initial Sweet Science offerings are The Black Lights Inside the World of Professional Boxing, by Thomas Hauser, and Heavy Justice The Trial of Mike Tyson, by Roberts and J. Gregory Garrison. Other Press titles include Heresy and the Ideal On Contemporary Poetry, the newest of Arkansas' excellent volumes devoted to the art, and The Apple That Astonished Paris, an early collection from the now wildly popular Billy Collins.

Among the University of Arkansas Press' literature offerings, however, no book provokes as much recognition and argument as The Made Thing, probably the best-known anthology of contemporary Southern poetry. One of the chief values of this second edition of the book is its addition of 12 new poets, including Vanderbilt's Kate Daniels and Mark Jarman, as well as recent work by Betty Adcock, James Applewhite, David Bottoms, Margaret Gibson, Andrew Hudgins, T.R. Hummer, Rodney Jones, Yusef Koumunyakaa, Dave Smith, and Richard Tillinghast, to mention some of the attendees of Vanderbilt's Millennial Gathering last spring.

The anthology's editor, Leon Stokesbury, expected to find that much had changed in Southern poetry since 1987, the year of the anthology's debut, but instead he found that much more had remained constant. "Indeed," Stokesbury states in the second edition's preface, "those themes that have always dominated Southern poetry, the past as history, often personal or even elegiac history, and a profoundly close relationship to the natural world, seem more prevalent today."

But an anthology reflects the tastes of its editor(s) as much as it reflects the essential nature of the artists it anthologizes. Stokesbury doesn't limit himself to Southern poets' poems about the South, as evidenced by the inclusion of some of Koumunyakaa's work on the Vietnam War; thus it seems logical to infer that Stokesbury chose the anthology's poets on the basis of excellence and representativeness. Which raises a question: Do the themes he lists above truly define the continuing preoccupations of Southern poetry, or do they merely define prevailing notions of those themes with which Southern poetry should be preoccupied? The latter part of this question bears also on the dominance of narrative poems--first cousin to what Nashville calls "story songs"--in The Made Thing. Those attempting to define Southern poetry should remember that for every Southern versifier influenced by stories told on the porch (or in the woods or by the stove), there's another who was influenced by the inestimable riches of Southern music, and yet another who was influenced by the silence that was long considered the proper state for white ladies and African Americans. Most Southern writers are influenced by all three.

Broadening the established definition of Southern poetry doesn't mean surrendering to the armies of Political Correctness. It simply means, in practical terms, that even the most partisan Dixie reader realizes the problem of lazily continuing to limn regional essence in terms of snake handlers, Mama, Elvis, good old boys, wisteria, grits, belles, strip malls, fishing, iced tea, Baptist preachers, squirrels perched on dead logs, kitchen chatter, and--of course--the Land. It means that even the most confirmed story-hound tires when linear narrative becomes a tic, when anecdote becomes a facile, reflexive means of reporting material rather than a path to transforming real or imagined experience. This path demands discovery and the willingness to veer off course, and thus Faulkner remains Southern literature's chief exemplar. Indeed, the Mississippian's genius lies partly in his stubborn failure to adhere to conventional narrative form--he veered, circled, and transposed the present and its past at every opportunity--and his refusal to rely on conventional Southern imagery.

Faulkner, the blues, and that silence mentioned above are the forebears of The Made Thing's best work; fortunate are the poets represented here by verse that busts the mold and thereby kicks a little Parnassian ass: Andrew Hudgins, Rodney Jones, Koumunyakaa, C.D. Wright, and James Dickey, especially in his middle, voyant period of poems like "Falling" and "The Sheep Child."

If some first-rate Southern poets are ill-served by The Made Thing, some aren't served at all. Writers whose work would have doubtless enriched and enlivened the anthology include Natasha Tretheway, whose first book, Domestic Work, will be published next month; expatriates Molly Bendall (After Estrangement and Dark Summer) and Harryette Mullen (Muse and Drudge), both of whom draw upon the means by which public discourse--including down-home belle-speak and blues talk--defines and distorts our conceptions of the "feminine"; Patricia Storace, former poetry editor of the Paris Review; Forrest Hamer, author of Call and Response; David Berman, author of the much-praised Actual Air and frontman for the Silver Jews; Joe Bolton, whose collected work, published by Arkansas, was reviewed in this column last year; R.T. Smith, whose work riffs energetically in recent issues of the Oxford American and other venues; and last, Eleanor Ross Taylor, one of the South's few women elders in the art and so generally esteemed that her absence here seems particularly glaring. Despite these omissions, this new edition of The Made Thing gives hope that the door whose sign reads "Southern Poetry--Welcome, Y'all!" will continue to open a little wider with each new generation of Dixie versifiers and editors.

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