- The Plain Style in Southern Poetry
In one of his essays, W.H. Auden reminds us that it is Keats's urn and not Keats himself who says "'Beauty is Truth, truth beauty'" ("Ode" 210). Then, in the next paragraph, Auden gainsays that pronouncement: "Art," he says, "arises out of our desire for beauty and truth [italics mine] and our knowledge that they are not identical" (377). He goes on to establish a dichotomy between truth and beauty in poetry, characterizing the tension between the two as a "rivalry between Ariel and Prospero," with Ariel, The Tempest's airy spirit, whose "glory and his limitation" is that he has no passions, representing beauty, and the shrewd and pragmatic Prospero representing truth. Although, says Auden, all good poems involve "some degree of collaboration between Ariel and Prospero … it is usually possible to say of a poem and, sometimes, of the whole output of a poet, that it is Ariel-dominated or Prospero-dominated" (338).
In fact, it seems possible to make such a claim about an entire group or school of poetry—for instance, contemporary southern poets writing in the plain style. No doubt the poets I have in mind—Dave Smith, Andrew Hudgins, Rodney Jones, Robert Morgan, Betty Adcock, Donald Justice, and others—do not see themselves as part of a school, and it may be that they do not all arrive at the plain style in the same way. But in [End Page 109] writing primarily what Helen Vendler refers to as first-order poems, those with a "first-person, narrative base" (75), and doing so in such a way as to clearly privilege the Prospero- or truth-dominated mode over an Ariel-dominated one—that is to say, by speaking plain—these poets assert the primacy of truth and plainness over beauty in the context of contemporary art, culture, and writing in the American South.
Some are more adamant in their assertion of the importance of truth over beauty than others. Dave Smith is more adamant than most. The first section of his 1985 collection of essays, Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry, constitutes a sort of manifesto arguing, in effect, for the importance of truth in poetry. He reiterates this idea in a number of ways, in his discussion, for instance, of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, who, Smith says, is "what might be called a pure poet" and whose work he describes as "extremely lyrical and melodious." The pure poet is an "escapist," Smith tells us, "all expression." Regarding Tagore's love poems, Smith remarks that "he seems more in love with the idea of love than with any person." He concedes that Tagore's poems are in fact beautiful, but in suggesting "the beauty of a young girl's ankle bracelets … one never quite feels it is a whole, mature vision. One misses entirely the girl's dirty feet, the barnyard smell, even the dailiness of village life. Because of what Tagore does not incorporate in his poem," Smith concludes, "his pure music is finally dismissible…. Tagore's eloquent simplicity and transparent feeling … do not sustain us" (14). Smith sums up his feelings by saying that the "consequences of purity are limited expression, limited knowledge, limited audience, and mere beauty" (14–15).
Of course, nowhere does Smith argue against the need for beauty in poetry, and in fact we find in his reviews of volumes such as David Huddle's Paper Boy a dismissal of that poetry which attempts to be all truth and no beauty, or at least completely fails in its attempts to produce beauty in its search for truth. Smith says Huddle's "compositions … are poems primarily because they have similes and are lined. We are drawn through them not by poetry's compelling sound but by fiction's suspense. The language is too inert to engender either transcendence or transformation of factual and local detail." Smith concludes by saying that Huddle "is rarely a bad writer, but as a poet he has no ear and is mediocre. His poems are, I would say, semitough prose anecdotes" (41). And what is Smith saying here except that poetry demands not...