Texas Review Press (member, Texas A&M University Press Consortium) | Sam Houston State University
volume 3 cover

Introduction to
The Southern Poetry Anthology
Volume III: Contemporary Appalachia

Every place has its own poetry. "The music of what happens," as the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has called it. For some places, the poetry appears in the tones of voice between neighbors in the grocery store, or in the spirit people share when a high school football team brings them out of their houses on Friday evenings, or even through the sounds engines make as they idle in traffic on the road out of the city after a workday. The poetry of Appalachia sings in all those familiar ways, but also in the music of the particular poems collected in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume III: Contemporary Appalachia. This anthology of contemporary poetry arrives from one of America's most vibrant literary communities, an area with a rich storytelling history and beautiful natural landscape, the often-misunderstood Appalachian South. Readers familiar with writing from Appalachia will be pleased to see work from such favorites as Charles Wright, Robert Morgan, and Fred Chappell, yet will be intrigued by the already distinctive voices of emerging talents like Melissa Range and Darius Antwan Stewart. This collection of poems is the only one of its kind, a snapshot album of a timeless place, as it is represented at the present moment.

In the middle and late 1960s, a number of events converged to shape the current Appalachian poetry. The most important of these occurrences was the publication of first books by a group of young writers, including Charles Wright, Fred Chappell, and Robert Morgan, who wrote about life in the region in a style that was unmarked by sentimentality and provincialism. This time period has been called the "Appalachian Renaissance," because it brought a renewed sense of identification with a distinct literary culture, and it held out a promising future. A second important event was the 1967 publication in The Yale Review of Dean Cadle's essay "Man on Troublesome," a brief exploration of Appalachian author James Still's work and life. Although the essay now seems somewhat basic in its analysis, it played a significant role in exposing James Still's thematic concerns and his eastern Kentucky way of life to a new generation of both regional and national readers. To that time, Still, despite such notable works as River of Earth (1940) and Hounds on the Mountain (1937) and inclusion in the Lincoln Memorial University group of Appalachian writers (James Still, Don West, and Jesse Stuart all studied at the small mountain school in northeastern Tennessee in the late 1920s), was largely unknown. The appearance of Cadle's essay helped establish a tradition for Appalachian literature, ushering in James Still as one of its major authors. A third important event is more of a cultural context. In the wake of Theodore Roethke's final collection of poems, The Far Field (1964), American poetry moved away from the urbane (and mostly urban) poetry of the 1950s, and back toward a vision that celebrated the natural world. Poets as different as A.R. Ammons, Gary Snyder, and James Dickey privileged the imagery and mythos of nature in their work, as did the place-based Ohio poems of James Wright and the Kentucky poems of Wendell Berry. A space was now cleared on the national poetry terrain for the kind of writing that would emerge from Appalachia over the coming decades.

A number of themes develop throughout this book, such as the importance of family relationships, particularly across generations, and the need to keep alive a conscientious link with the past. Perhaps no single concern emerges so strongly from these poems as the importance of landscape in preserving a way of life from the past, in the present, and for the future. The two generations of poets represented in Contemporary Appalachia have witnessed transformational changes in both the economy and the environment of the region. Many poems address the impact of coal mining, particularly the stripping away of our mountaintops, as well as the disappearance of family farms as a means of sustenance. If an elegiac note is struck for all we have lost from the past, it is counter-balanced by many joyous sounds of celebration for a rich and expanding culture, still deeply in touch with its natural environment. Note the predominance of landscape in the titles of Appalachian books, both poetry and fiction: River of Earth by James Still; The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox, Jr.; The Landbreakers by John Ehle; The Unvanquished Earth by Wilma Dykeman; Green River and At the Edge of the Orchard Country by Robert Morgan; The Mountains Have Come Closer by Jim Wayne Miller; Ebbing & Flowing Springs by Jeff Daniel Marion; Maggie Anderson's Windfall, and Kathryn Stripling Byer's Wildwood Flower. This continues among emerging Appalachian writers with Silas House's 2002 novel A Parchment of Leaves and Maurice Manning's 2007 book Bucolics, a term which refers to an ancient shepherd's song of the land. Landscape in a general way is central to Appalachian writing, but particular places are just as important, as a quick scan of our table of contents demonstrates. Robert Morgan has talked about the way literature creates "a community across time," the idea that reading allows us to take part in the lives of another place and time. That phrase articulates as well as any what a close look at the poetry of contemporary Appalachia might accomplish, a demonstration of both the continuity and change reflected in a region's way of life in our cultural moment.

Since this collection of poems belongs within the Southern Poetry Anthology series, the poets included have a relationship with mostly Southern Appalachia. We did not take a "Natives only" approach in our selection process, and did not wish to see the birth certificates of the contributing poets. So while we were not "birthers" of any sort, we also did not want tourist poems from afar, so it seemed appropriate to send out a call for submissions that gave poets the opportunity to self-identify with the region. In the editorial process, we wrestled with the boundaries of Appalachia. Questions led to other questions: Is Pittsburgh an Appalachian city? Yes, we agreed. Gertrude Stein was born in Pittsburgh. Is Gertrude Stein an Appalachian poet? That's more complicated. We had already decided to include living poets only, because the picture we wanted to frame with our book is like a large family portrait of writers now at work. We hope that in reading these poems you will feel the spirits of Jim Wayne Miller, Louise McNeill, and Jonathan Williams presiding, not to mention Jesse Stuart, Byron Herbert Reese, and Emma Bell Miles. Those poets, however, belong in a different anthology, a still much-needed comprehensive collection of poems from the region that starts at the beginning, with the myths and songs of the Cherokee, and which ends with poets as recent as Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker. Our classrooms and libraries need that book, and so do our aspiring poets. Snapshot anthologies serve a vital purpose when the material covered changes quickly or exists in a state of flux. The individual volumes in the Southern Poetry Anthology resemble time capsules, or documentaries, in that they present a lasting image, for the public record, of a particular place over a particular period of time.

The voices of the poems represented in this anthology are diverse and multi-layered. The editors hope that you, the reader, will feel as we do: that they belong together. If they are not all blood-kin, they nevertheless form a family through the marriage of a particular place and the inspiration it produces. Poetry remains an essentially solitary engagement, both in the writing and the reading of it, and the strongest poems always emanate from a distinctive individual perspective. Nevertheless, poets and their poems thrive in community with others: Conversations flourish, ideas circulate, arguments occur–this was true of the expatriate American Modernists, the British Romantics, and the Greek lyric poets, and we believe it is equally true of the poets collected here. All kinds of life happens in contemporary Appalachia, and we hope you enjoy the music that rises in the air above so much living, music that our poets have translated into the words that fill these pages.

Jesse Graves, Volume Editor