STEPHEN SMITH: Anthology's Selections are a Treat
Gathering and selecting poems for a poetry anthology presents the editor with multiple opportunities for failure.
Regardless of the quality of the material selected for the anthology, the volume's success has to be judged by the extent to which it fulfills its stated purpose -- and far too many anthologies fall short of those expectations.
Then there's the risk of omitting important potential contributors, as with Emily Dickinson's (relatively unknown) and Walt Whitman's (too experiential) exclusion from period anthologies.
Too often contemporary anthologies reflect cronyism, prejudice, jealousy and outright poor judgment. And there are collections that poets have prided themselves on being left out of (excuse my syntax), as with the 1965 publication of the much disseminate and much maligned "A Controversy of Poets," which fell with a predictable thud in the postmodern halls of academe. So haphazard is the history of poetry anthologies that reviewers are often tempted to overlook them.
The recent publication of "Southern Appalachian Poetry: An Anthology of Works by 37 Poets" (McFarland and Company. 257 pages. $39.95) edited by Marita Garin is a much welcomed collection that avoids the usual pratfalls.
Garin's excellent "Introduction" (I'm assuming Garin wrote it; the piece is unsigned) clearly states her expectations for the collection. "To describe a region: that is my purpose in bringing these poems together. The area was to include north Georgia, western North Carolina, east Tennessee, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and a corner of southwest Virginia, all of which share an historical and cultural identity apart from the rest of the Appalachian Mountains."
And she rightly identifies isolation, a strong sense of place, a strong sense of family, religion, the pervasiveness of physical violence, humor, dialect, etc., all of which might be counted as characteristics of Southern literature.
But it's the poems themselves that speak the truth of Appalachia. Fortunately for the editor, the region has produced some of America's finest poets: Fred Chappell and Kathryn Stripling Byer (both former N.C. Poet Laureates), Mary Kratt, Hilda Downer, Michael McFee, Jim Wayne Miller, Robert Morgan, R.T. Smith, John Foster West, Charles Wright and Isabel Zuber. With a lineup of poets of this caliber, it's impossible to produce a bad anthology.
Fred Chappell is never anything less than spectacular in "Remembering Wind Mountain at Sunset," "Remodeling the Hermit's Cabin" and his short "Here":
Burdened with diadem, the
Queen Anne's lace overhangs the ditch.
The lace is full of eyes, cold eyes
That draw a cold sky into their spheres.
The ditch twinkles now the rain has stopped.
And the ground begins to puff and suck
With little holes. A man could live down here forever,
Where his blood is.
And surely there is no better Appalachian poem than the late Jim Wayne Miller's "How America Came to the Mountains," quoted here in part:
He recollects it followed creeks and roadbeds
and when it hit, it blew the top off houses.
shook people out of bed, exposing them
to a sudden black sky wide as eight lanes of asphalt,
and dropped a hail of beer cans, buckets
and bottles clattering on their sleepy heads.
Children were sucked up and never seen again.
All the poems in Garin's anthology shine, as does her own "15-Year-old Mother Killed"
Wind rock between the hills.
In a hollow of twisted metal, the child
beside her is trying to breathe--
the tiny mouth laboring
the way she strained three months ago
for air. The radio still plays--
country music, faint as a heartbeat.
Small stray lives are busy in the field.
If you're looking for an anthology that's completely satisfying, "Southern Appalachian Poetry" will not disappoint. You'll come away with a true sense of what mountain culture used to be.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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