The Poetry and Poetics of James Matthew Wilson

Last fall, I took a graduate class on literary criticism and poetry research.  I am both astounded at how much I learned and was exposed to and humbled by how little I know.  Critiquing the class itself, I don’t think it was a good idea to try to study poetry as poetry and then work in the different fields of literary criticism.  In several cases, we read short stories or essays to grasp or apply the schools of criticism.  And much of literary criticism is bogus.  And bogus is one of the nicest words that I can think of to describe it.  Karl Marx’s followers should have stuck to doing bad economics.  Freud’s followers should have kept their thoughts to themselves.  And people with agendas other than literature should have kept their grimy fingers off the literary works, anthologies, and minds of people who love reading.

When I finished the course, I resumed reading and studying my collection of books by James Matthew Wilson.  He should have taught my class.  Or at least, we should have been reading The Unmaking of Poetry along with one or all of his collections of poetry.  (Side note:  the Norton’s Anthology of Poetry that we used was quite good, as are most Norton Anthologies, but why do we  buy these monstrously big books and only read a few snippets from them?  And why do the publishers keep dropping out the old and adding the newer, usually inferior, selections to satisfy some advocacy literary shams?)

Wilson is a modern poet.  That should offend some.  But just in case you prefer the modern poets, he is a traditionalist writ large.  Wilson is also a Christian.  But fellow Calvinists, just to make you gnash your teeth a bit, he is a Catholic.  He is also a scholar of immense learning and depth of thought.  You might try rushing through a few hundred pages of Immanuel Kant before tackling Wilson’s essays, just to get your mind revved up for the challenge.

Wilson’s poems are not going to satisfy a desire for beautiful lyrics about flowers or sunsets.  There is a lot of grit and grime in his writing, as though he actually believes in Original Sin, which he does.  The lyrics hurt, confuse, question, and affirm, as good poetry should.  Then there is this personal problem:  I find poetry collections nearly impossible to read and finish.  Wilson’s books are short, if we are simply looking at the number of pages.  And some poems only cover a portion of a page.  But as much as most useful or necessary books, books of poetry require not just reading but rereading, and then rereading faster, and then rereading more slowly than ever, poetry books do that even more.

I never glance at the Robert Frost poem “Birches” and think, “Oh, I have read that.”  It is a favorite, and I can even quote a few lines and could probably explain it (which we never really do) to a class.  But it is there to be read again and again.  Poems age alongside us,  As I heard Louise Cowan say, “Hamlet changes” as she described her lifelong experiences with the play that reawakened her faith and continued to witness to her through the years.

James Matthew Wilson has purposely and deliberately chosen to conform his theory of poetry in his essays and in his actual poems to the forms and meters of old.  Robert Frost once lamented that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net.  My athletic abilities are so bad that I don’t object to the removal of the net (or of tennis balls and rackets and of the whole game).  My poetry skills, likewise, delighted in being able to skip the syllable counting, the measures and sound, and to just focus on the feel of the words I called poetry.  I would fail Wilson’s class and deservedly so.

In my poetry class, we read a selection while studying Queer Theory.  Yes, that is what it is called and what it is.  This is not just a recognition that some great artists and poets have been homosexuals.  It is an attack on “hetero-normative” sexuality and thinking.  One such poem dealt with the truly tragic murder of a homosexual couple, but the poem was a blank page with footnotes.  Innovative to be sure and haunting, but like John Cage’s “4:33,”  this is not art.

Poetry, like all of art, history, theology, philosophy, and literature, has to exist at two levels at least.  It has to have the pleasing aesthetic appeal to those who read, look, or listen.  Those who walk through an art gallery, listen to a concert, or read a book of imaginative thought should be able to enjoy such creations at a pedestrian level.  But the internal subject must reach must higher standards.  The poet cannot simply be a person who finds rhyming words, nor can the artist just be someone holding a paint brush.

For these reasons, those of us who are called to labor in the field of literature (what a labor of love it is!) must be willing to forego simply just the fun of figuring out something of what a poem says.  We must question, to use John Ciardi’s title phrase, “how a poem means.”  The vocabulary of the specialist is, as is usual, hard to grasp., but necessary.  The skill of the literary critic, like that of the preacher-theologian, is not one easily picked up.  But it is necessary.

If you are not enrolled to study directly under Dr. Wilson, invest in these books and begin the long trek to a better understanding of poetry and the humane civilization that poetry both sustains and feeds itself.

The Vision of the Soul:  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition is published by  The Catholic University of America Press.  Essays on broader issues of culture and life.

The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking is published by Wiseblood Books.    This work is a collection of essays that describe, lament, critique, and condemn much of what is found in poetry in our times.  The last part of the book is basically a handbook of tools to use in understanding the mechanics of traditional poetry.

Favorite quotes from the book:  “I hope the readers of this book will find something in it worth the knowing, because it seeks to defend something they love, the art of poetry and all that it does to enrich human experience, to form it and orient it to the permanent things.”

“We can say that contemporary poets acknowledge a poem as a poem so long as it meets the following definition of form: the lines do not look like prose on the page.”

 

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Some Permanent Things is published by Wiseblood Books.  This is a lengthy collection of poetry that reflects Wilson’s labors to rewrite and bring more into conformity with traditional standards the poems he had earlier published (with a few additions).

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The Hanging God is published by Angelico Press.  This is a collection of poems.  Selections include decidedly religious poetry and some shocking poems that remind us that not all poems are about pretty things.

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The River of the Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books.  This is my favorite book, with my biggest criticism being that it is too short.  The title poem deals with French explorers who traveled the rivers of North America.  While loving older historical narrative poems, I have often wondered how such could be done in our time.  This book shows how.

Favorite lines:  “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/ That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”

This time, like all times, is a great time to read some poetry and a new author.  Get James Matthew Wilson’s books and read–slowly, repeatedly, and lovingly.

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New Year Morning Reads–2020

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I recommend my method of reading for only one person:  Me.  It might work for you, but most likely, everyone will find their better times, places, and selections that suit their style and needs.  But for me and for the present, this is how I am doing my morning reading time.  I am also using this as a way of promoting some of the all-too-many review books that I need to read, review, promote, and share.

One of my resolves for 2020 is to read and use more Bible commentaries.  Since I left the pulpit, I have largely ignored commentaries on the books of the Bible. Even when I was preaching, I was often hastening through a commentary more in search of a quick fix to my pulpit inadequacies than in growing in Bible understanding.  Amos, Jonah, & Micah is by JoAnna M. Hoyt and is published by Lexham Press.

This is a massive book and is a part of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) series edited by Wayne House.  Twelve volumes are currently available in this series.

I am studying the last part of this commentary–the Book of Micah.  I determined to read it from beginning to end and that meant plowing through the technical and background information.  Did I enjoy that part?  Not much, but I agree with what Matthew Kim said in his book titled A Little Book for New Preachers (IVP).  He says that the preacher must immerse himself in the background and setting of the book.

I am now going slowly through the commentary portion of Micah, chapter 1.  Small bits of study each day so far.  It will take a while, but I am determined.

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Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity by Herman Bavinck and edited by John Bolt is published by Baker Publishing Group.

I was so excited when this volume finally came out.  I was even more excited when my copy arrived.  And then…it sat on the shelf, it got covered up by other books, it enjoyed only a passing glance or two.  In my feeble defense, I did plug away at the background information, usually on Sunday mornings.

A second resolve I have this year is to read the longer and weightier books that often get started, but never finished.  I like the thought of getting a 5 books read instead of 1.  For that, I must repent and change.

Now that I am into this book, I am truly enjoying it.

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg is published by Regnery.

This is the kind of book I love.  It is a survey of history, philosophy, and theology that all tends toward an apologetic defense of the Christian worldview I embrace, teach, and read about.

The gist of this book is a refutation of a long-standing trope that reason contradicts faith.  Along with that is the notion that faith is a heart and emotion based feeling while reason is spawned by the mind.  Of course, Christianity gets jabbed in the process.

Building upon the work of men in the past like Christopher Dawson and Herman Dooyeweerd, echoing works like Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and R. J. Rushdoony’s The One and the Many, this book reclaims Western Civilization and its accomplishments.  The thought patterns of the West built upon Greek and Roman heritage in part, but even those civilizations had to be filtered through the lenses of Christendom.

Today, I was reading the portions of the book about Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.  Like any short treatment, more can be said, but we have to be grounded in the grammar of the subjects before we can delve more deeply.

America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts is edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles.  It is published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Here is another case of combined loves.  This book deals with American history, particularly the wars that have been waged, and it is written from a Christian perspective that examines the Just War Theory.

I recently discovered Mark Hall’s scholarship and writing as a result of reading Did America Have a Christian Founding?  Determined to read more of his writings, I discovered this book.

I am still in the introductory essay which Hall and Charles wrote.  This is good, but slow going.  More details later.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans by Robert Elmer is also published by Lexham Press.

I reviewed this book a few days ago.  I try to read only a page or two of it with the hope of making the Puritan prayers my own.

The Hanging God: Poems and The Fortunes of Poetry in the Age of Our Unmaking are both by James Matthew Wilson, one of America’s premier contemporary poets.  The Hanging God is published by Wiseblood Books, and The Fortunes of Poetry is published by Angelico Press.

I am reading these two works for a number of reasons beyond just my responsibilities as a book reviewer.  I am using these two works as therapy so that I can recover from the often disastrous graduate course I took in the fall on poetry and literary criticism.  Let us just say that the study of literature is in danger in the modern secular universities, assuming that my experience was common and not unique.

The Fortunes of Poetry is tough reading at many points, so I suspect that I will need to re-read portions or get instruction from someone named Wilson on how to assimilate the information.

Note to blog readers:  Please don’t speculate that I am neglecting the foundational parts of morning reading:  The Bible and strong coffee.  The Book of Common Prayer is also being kept close at hand so that this Presbyterian who is a member of a Baptist church will be a better Anglican. (Thank you Zachary Jones.)

Also, thanks to my sister-in-law Toni Lemley who gave me the coffee cup with the old pickup truck on it.  I am not going to stop using it just because Christmas is nearly over. I also got a wonderful picture of old pickup trucks from my other sister-in-law Marla Robert.

 

One of my favorite teacher/authors

Books written by, contributed to and edited by, and often taught by Dr. Louise Cowan.

Books written by, contributed to and edited by, and often taught by Dr. Louise Cowan.

We have had a very consequential election this past week.  (And I am still celebrating the results.)  But the nation is only minimally changed by politics and politicians.  Whether good or bad, liberal or conservative, effective or incompetent, political leaders are like canoeing.  You have a paddle, but it can only direct the boat with the currents.  Paddling upstream is a metaphor for being totally ineffective.

The changes in our nation and culture will be effected somewhat by what happens or doesn’t happen in Washington or our state capitals.  The real force for change is the culture.  The classroom, the pulpit, and the keyboard are all more central, more important, more dynamic for cultural change than anything that happens in the halls of Congress.  The role of the family, the congregation, and the community, likewise, are all central to the direction of the nation.

The right books and the classics will not save our civilization.  The brutal Assyrians amassed the greatest library of the ancient world.  The Nazis never lacked cultural refinement as they looted the art museums and collections all over Europe.

The right books and a foundation in the classics will refine, smooth out, enhance, and beautify a good, humane, and Godly culture.  Shakespeare and Faulkner won’t save your soul, but they both can widen the vision, enlarge the heart, and fill the deeper longings within a good and Godly culture.

Dr. Cowan, now in her late nineties, continues to lecture on poetry and literature.

I have recently had the honor–once again–of writing about a great teacher, scholar, and writer, Dr. Louise Cowan.  The article can be found here at the Voice of the South website.

For those who squinch their eyes to read the titles in a picture featuring books, I will make the task easier.  Now, I cannot begin to list all the titles on the shelves back behind the frontpiece.  You will have to visit my heavy-laden bookshelves in my ever-cluttered office to see those.  But here are the titles from left to right, from bottom to top, of the books seen above.

The Fugitive Group by Louise Cowan.  (The brown book lying flat.)  This book grew out of Dr. Cowan’s dissertation on her teachers at Vanderbilt University.  This book is absolutely essential to anyone pursuing studies in Southern literature, the Fugitive poets, and the Agrarians.

The Southern Critics by Louise Cowan.  (Small tan book lying flat.)  This short study is “an introduction to the Criticism of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Andrew Lytle.”  When I start a college–in my imaginary world–the study of these literary men and this introduction will be required of all students.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  (Big colorful book at the bottom of the stack at the back.)  Dr. Cowan has taught Shakespeare and written quite a few essays on Shakespeare’s plays.  As it happens, my Humanities class is currently working through several of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, and now, King Lear).
Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Dr. Cowan has taught classes on Russian literature, including and emphasizing the works of Dostoevsky.  Not only has that Russian impacted her teaching, his faith impacted Dr. Cowan’s commitment to a Christian view of things.
The Odyssey by Homer.  One of the most important essays by Dr. Cowan is “Epic as Cosmopoesis.”  She has heavily emphasized the foundational importance and application of the great epics of the Western tradition, beginning with Homer’s two epics and Virgil’s Aeneid.
The Fugitive Poets by William Pratt.  This is a great collection of the poems by Ransom, Tate, Davidson, Warren, and others of the Fugitive movement.  Dr. Cowan studied under these men and has written about and taught from them throughout her career.
 Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness.  (Colorful standing book with pictures of Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare seen on the bottom of the cover.)  This book first introducted me to Louise Cowan.  This is an absolutely essential collection of short essays about the great literary classics.  The contributors include a number of Dr. Cowan’s former students, along with other literary thinkers, such as Leland Ryken. I have read repeatedly from my autographed copy of this book.  
 The next four books, standing with white covers, are part of a series of literary studies called “Studies in Genre.”  I would not expect everyone to want these books, but certainly every literature teacher and student needs all four of them.  They are as follows:
1.  The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums.  This book contains Dr. Cowan’s essay “Epic as Cosmopoesis.”  I re-read that essay every year or so as I try to grasp and teach epics.
2. The Tragic Abyss, edited by Glen Arbery.  Too often people think tragedy in literature means a story where something bad happens.  That is not the nature of tragedy (as a literary genre).  This is a great book.
3.  The Terrain of Comedy, edited by Dr. Cowan.  Likewise, people think comedy in literature means something funny.  There is much more to it than that. The Bible, for example, is a grand comedy, with particular books like “Ruth” or the Gospels being comedies within the comedy.
4.  The Prospect of Lyric, edited by Dr. Bainard Cowan, the son of Louise and Donald Cowan.  This book on poetry is itself at many points poetry.  The essays by mother and son (the Cowans) are transforming.
What is a Teacher?, edited by Dr. Claudia Allums.  I recently reviewed this wonderful collection.  It is dedicated to the Cowans and includes an essay by Dr. Louise Cowan on Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”  This book is absolutely vital to teachers and teachers of literature.  It includes essays on Greek drama, Dickens’ Hard Times, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, and more.
 
(Sorry for these Italics.  I cannot get my computer to cooperate.)

Overdue Book Reviews, #2 Heaven and Hell

“Teacher, I didn’t exactly finish the book.”  I have endured that excuse from miserable underlings for years.  The unbending rule of my classroom, borrowed from some scholastic environment of yesteryear, is “Learn or depart.  A third alternative is to be flogged.”  Floggings and canings are regular occurences in my classroom.  Many are the times when a student has to stand because sitting is uncomfortable due to the recent administration of violent instruction upon the hinder parts.

Actually, none of the above is true, except the part of hearing excuses from students for not getting assignments done.  They don’t always realize it, but I truly understand.  With the necessity of checking everyone’s FaceBook status, upgrading their own status, listening to and downloading music, watching movies, texting endlessly, tweeting and eating, shopping and bopping, who has time to plod through a tome.  Besides, reading makes you sleepy.  Or what if, horror of horrors, an assigned reading bores the student.  Quick, administer the Detergent novel series—the students are bored.

All of that paragraph is true except for using the Detergent series to cure an outbreak of literary boredom.

“Of the making of many books, there is no end,” said Solomon on the occasion of perusing his Wish List on Amazon.  I read books; I reread books; I study books; but I also scan books, survey books, and glance at books.  I review books as a part-time job.  It pays well, if you think of pay as something other than money.  It is a free service to the blog reading community.  It is a sharing of a gift and experience.

All of this is to say that I am going to comment upon a book I have not read.  About a year ago, I received a review copy of Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetric Tradition by Louis Markos.   I have scanned the book, read portions, and eagerly thumbed through it.  But since it did not directly fit into last year’s teaching schedule, it did not get the needed cover to cover read.  But I highly treasure and recommend the book.  There were two reasons for my endorsement–the title and the author.

First the title:  Heaven and Hell…Visions of the Afterlife…the Western Poetic Tradition.  Point blank, we must say, there is no understanding of literature without an understanding of theology, primarily Christian theology.  Agrarian poet, novelist, literary critic Robert Penn Warren told his students, “Read the Bibles and mark them well. I mean the King James Version.”  To start naming the literary works that borrow from, build upon, allude to, use and misuse the Bible is synonomous with listing the books in the canon of literature.

Markos includes chapters on Dante (actually 9 chapters), John Milton (2 chapters), John Bunyan and John Donne (who share a chapter), William Blake and C. S. Lewis (one chapter each).  He also has seven chapters on pre-Christian Greeks and Romans.  But they too “borrowed from” Christian theology.

This theological bent is not just toward old and ancient epics.  William Faulkner’s books are suffused with Biblical imagery and Christian references, as well as Christian characters.  John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath builds it theme upon Biblical motifs.  Hemingway’s title The Sun Also Rises is from Ecclesiastes.

Every work of fiction is a commentary upon some book, passage, or teaching of the Bible.

Continuing with the title, every piece of literature deals with some vision of Heaven and/or Hell and some sense of the afterlife.  Even the most cynical, skeptical, Nihilistic, atheistic piece of fiction opens up a discussion of the afterlife.  Maybe the door is one that closes and the theme is that all is meaningless.  Maybe there is No Exit (to borrow from Satre) or maybe we are Waiting for Godot (to borrow from Beckett).  To say that “this is all there is” is to posit a view of the afterlife and how we should view such.  The fact that the novel ends, but is expected to still be living in the mind of the reader is the testimony to an afterlife.  The book, any piece of fiction, roadmaps to somewhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere.

Along with that, Heaven and Hell imply justice, rewards, a reckoning, hope, fear, triumph, defeat, and meaning.  The author may believe that the only heaven we can find is here on earth.  Maybe heaven in some literary experiences is “I and Thou, here and now, Wow.”  Maybe they think, like the speaker in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” who consoled his lover in a time when faith had receded.  That momentary love experience was the only solace:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain….
From this, you can surmise, I hope, that this book is on target.  To again recap what is covered, the topics, works, and authors include the following:
Hebrew and Greek Visions of the Underworld
Homer’s Odyssey
Plato
Virgil’s Aeneid
Dante’s Divine Comedy, which consists of three parts–Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
John Milton’s Paradise Lost
John Bunyan  (author of Pilgrim’s Progress)
John Donne (poet)
William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (and I confess to finding William Blake an enigma)
C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce
What a great college course that would be.  What a good list of books and authors to plunge into.  Certainly, literature students should be grounded on these works.  But what about pastors and theologians?  I am convinced that pastors, theologians, doctors, lawyers, accountants, politicians, moms at home, scientists, and zoo keepers all need to be grounded in literature.
But the Ancient Tome of Wisdom asks, “How shall they learn without a teacher?”  Enter the author Louis Markos.  (You can find his blog here.) Dr. Markos is a professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University.   He is a Christian and a scholar, a literary teacher and a theological guide.  He has written several books on literature.  My favorite is From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics.  That is a book I often use when teaching ancient literature.  I have also enjoyed listening to Dr. Markos lecturing on C. S. Lewis from the Great Courses lecture series.  He has also written several books on C. S. Lewis, along with books on Tolkien, literature in general, Romantic poets, Tennyson, and Christian apologetics.   (I admit poverty in lacking several of his books.)
There are both elements of renaissance and reformation going on in our world.    Certainly, one can look at the news and world events and conclude that these are “the worst of times.”  (Historical ignorance reinforces that hasty conclusion.)  But it is the world of pagan thought, rebellion against God, immorality, governmental overreach, materialism and poverty, and more than engulfs us.  But we can rejoice in the collapse of those kingdoms in the sand.  God is building His kingdom.  Certainly and centrally, He raises up churches, pastors, Christian men and women, and Christian families.  But Christ died for, redeemed, and rose from the dead for all of creation.  Salvation is not just personal and otherworldly.  It is cultural and cosmic.
There is notable progress among Christians in the field of philosophy.  There are plenty of names in other academic areas, but literature is a vast field of opportunity for both Christian scholars and students.
So, God is teaching us literature.  In the not so distant past, it was the Fugitive Poets, the cultural Agrarians, the literary New Critics who opened the door to rediscovering the world of fictive and imaginative thought.  In more recent times, it was such literary giants as Mel Bradford, Cleanth Brooks, Louise Cowan (retired, but still teaching), and Leland Ryken (also retired, but still instructing).  Currently, it is teachers like Louis Markos.

Dr. Markos, surrounded by a books and Raphael’s classic painting The School of Athens.

Man With a Bull Tongue Plow

More sonnets that most people ever read.

I received a copy of Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow by Jesse Stuart a few years back from the Jesse Stuart Foundation (http://www.jsfbooks.com/).  Originally published in 1934, the book brought attention to the young writer, who would go on to write many novels, short stories, poems, and other works.  In 2011, the book was reprinted by the Jesse Stuart Foundation in an attractive hardback edition.  

Once or twice I started the book, and many times I shuffled it from one shelf or stack to another, but always kept it close by.

This summer, I am reading it in earnest.  This book is a collection of 700 sonnets that Stuart wrote when he was a young man.  His ability to turn a rhyme was incredible.  Stuart was a farmer in eastern Kentucky, who imbibed the native beauty of the land, the invigoration of the cycles of plowing, planting, tending, and harvesting, and the music of the hills.  He was something of a transplanted Robert Burns.

Stuart’s teacher and mentor Donald Davidson of Vanderbilt University called Stuart, “the first real poet…ever to come out of the southern mountains.”  When Stuart submitted these 703 sonnets to a publisher, he received a contract and a letter saying, “This is a great book of poems.  It is like a big river with tributaries of life entering in. It is like a symphony of wind.”

At first, I thought that this collection would be a number of random poems. But there is a story line to the collection of poems.  They give a picture of rural, agrarian life.  Yes, it is romantic, idealistic, and heart-warming.  But Stuart also notes the hardships, the fears, and the failures of farm life. He describes himself and the energy of youth, but he writes a part of a community, a participant in a way of life, a sharer of the struggles and dangers, as well as joys of life. 

In some of the recent poems I have read, he described the different people who lived and died in his community.  Their hopes, fears, dreams, and struggles are powerfully captured in these sonnets.

Just a sample:  Here is the first sonnet:

I am a farmer singing at the plow

And as I take my time to plow along

A steep Kentucky hill, I sing my song—

A one-horse farmer singing at the plow!

I do not sing the songs you love to hear;

My basket songs are woven from the words

Of corn and crickets, trees and men and birds,

I sing the strains I know and love to sing.

And I can sing my lays like singing corn,

And flute them like a fluting gray corn-bird;

And I can pipe them like a hunter’s horn–

All of my life these are the songs I’ve heard.

And these crude strains no critic can call art,

Yours very respectively, Jesse Stuart.

 

A young Jesse Stuart, a native of Kentucky

In that opening poem, I sense the impulse of both independence (as fitting a Scot) and connection. These are the songs he has heard.  This is what fellow Kentuckian and Bluegrass music creator Bill Monroe called “ancient tones.”  This is a man growing food, not shopping for it, but actually connected to the process.  It is a poem about hearing:  crickets, men working, birds, and the corn itself.  

There is a connection to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, especially as Stuart identifies himself and disclaims that his work is art.  (And that is without Whitman’s weirdness and perversity.)  There is a connection to Robert Frost, who so aptly sensed the connection between the land and the human inhabitants.  Then there is a connection to the Agrarians, the Fugitive Poets, who moved toward the modern, but kept looking back at what was left behind.

Jesse Stuart’s farm as pictured in Life magazine in 1943.