- Selected Poems
It's remarkable how often the national poetry establishment fails to celebrate the many fine southern poets writing today. Our poets win an oddly small number of major literary awards, and they appear in far too few anthologies of national scope. No informed person could seriously argue that contemporary southern poetry is on the whole inferior to contemporary northeastern or west coast poetry, but the national scene is dominated by poets from those regions. Even when southerners manage to break through to some form of national acknowledgment, the stalwart anthologists often hold the line. The new, third edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry expands that standard textbook to two volumes, but still finds no room for Bollingen Prize-winning Fred Chappell or Pulitzer Prize-winning Henry Taylor. And Maya Angelou and Miller Williams may have built reputations that won them commissions for Presidential Inaugural poems, but neither has ever appeared in the annual Best American Poetry series. The chief tastemakers of contemporary American poetry, Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, clearly believe that American poetic talent is concentrated in the Northeast; when they do exalt contemporary southerners, those poets (chiefly Robert Penn Warren, A. R. Ammons, and Charles Wright) have typically either moved to the Northeast or established second homes there. For recent poets, southernness tends to be a handicap.
All of which makes it especially interesting that James Applewhite, unmistakably a southerner, has managed to win fame at the national level. Born and bred in eastern North Carolina, Applewhite attended Duke University; he began his career as an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and in 1972 he returned to Duke, where he teaches today. The poetry itself is as southern as the man, routinely engaging as it does with the region's culture and landscape. Despite his background in and persistent concern with the South, Applewhite has in recent years been lauded by "national" critics and poet-critics. For instance, [End Page 106] John Hollander included Applewhite's "Botanical Garden: The Coastal Plains" in The Best American Poetry 1998, and in The Western Canon Harold Bloom wagered that Applewhite's book River Writing: An Eno Journal would eventually be regarded as a canonical text. Of the three blurbs on the back of Applewhite's new Selected Poems, one is by fellow southerner Dave Smith, but the other two are by Bloom and New York School poet John Ashbery. Bloom writes that Applewhite "has individuated a logical and meditative voice all his own," and adds that he is one of only "a few living American poets who fuse so remarkably intellect and emotion"; Ashbery says that Applewhite writes "in language whose timeless gravity and sweetness are close to sublime" and deems the Selected Poems "an essential book." A poet must be doing something right to earn such recognition and praise.
And he is. For one thing, these poems demonstrate a genuine gift for figurative thinking and writing; often they provide extraordinary recastings of the extra ordinary. Consider the talk of two tobacco farmers in "Some Words for Fall": Applewhite tells us, "The language they speak is things to eat." (Michael McFee borrowed this line for the title of his fine North Carolina poetry anthology.) Or the poet's response to an altar call in "A Forge of Words": "From the anvil of Christ, I receive my hammered name." Or the onset of evening in "Like a Body in the River": "The sepia light rusted toward oblivion." Some of the book's very best poems—such as "Water," "Jonquils," and "Collards"—are virtuosic exercises in trope-making, one metaphor or simile leading to the next from beginning to end. Ezra Pound's famous dictum, "Make it new," is one that Applewhite follows time and again, hallowing the everyday through his verbal transformations. As he explains in "Prayer for My Son," "any tree is a marvelous city."
Such metamorphosis is valuable in itself, for the way it helps us appreciate things and customs we've come to take for granted—but for Applewhite it also operates...