- Robert Hass
Wyatt Prunty tends to khakis, unpleated, with a crisp crease in each leg. And polo shirts, freshly laundered and well-pressed, or fabricated from some synthetic miracle cloth that replicates that effect. And he always looks cool in the God's anvil of the summer heat in Tennessee. I mention this because the Writers' Conference at Sewanee is a complicated operation. It involves lots of scheduling: not just the lectures and the readings and the appearance of guest editors who come and go; the novelists and poets and essayists and [End Page 716] playwrights need to be fed, and they need to sleep, and they like to socialize, and all this must occur inside the green given hours of a Sewanee summer day, and it mustn't—couldn't—look like military clockwork because this is a gathering of writers we are talking about—I will bypass here clichés about herding animals with a feline disposition—and it does happen with an apparent casualness and in a relaxed and orderly fashion, rather like the casual dress of a man in khakis and a polo shirt, or the occasional short-sleeved, plaid shirt with a button-down collar.
Which suggests that Wyatt is very good at delegating worry to very competent people (and for that to work in the way it works at Sewanee, they have to be people who like each other or at least get along with each other, and getting along with each other and making things work in what anxious people call "real time" involves taking a broad view of human nature). And even with the best of help, things are occasionally going to go wrong, given the vagaries of weather (the leisurely drip of raindrops from the leaves of the live oaks after a summer shower), and human and animal nature, and the proclivities of writers when they are not at their work, and the natural apprehensions of the young writers who come to Sewanee with a young writer's apprehensions, but I have never in my several summers on the Cumberland Plateau seen things go very wrong or seen Wyatt respond as if they had when they had. Which means, first of all, that he must out-anticipate most forms of anxiety. And it also means having some expectation that things are, from time to time, going to go wrong. And here two themes converge. Because "taking a broad view of human nature" is another descriptor for persons endowed with a sense of humor. And it might also be thought of as the descriptor for a person who understood that things are going to slip a cog or two from time to time and who has decided to cultivate a style that takes that fact and its consequence in stride. [End Page 717] That's the idiom: "in stride." Not necessarily to be associated with the metrical foot, but rhyming with it nevertheless. And the convergence of these two dispositions may be why Southerners are so good at telling stories.
Which brings us to Wyatt's poems. And the relationship between temperament and technique. Maybe just one instance for this brief note. "Haying" is the first poem in The Run of the House, Wyatt's fifth book, published twenty-five years ago. The poem is a description in a sort of blank verse of a boy's experience of the farm work of haying. Wyatt is an acutely literate writer and an American poet and he probably would not mind if his title called up for readers the gently ecstatic description of haying in the ninth section of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." We might as well have it in front of us:
The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready,The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,The armfuls are pack'd to the sagging mow.
I am there, I help, I come stretch'd atop of the load,I felt its soft jolts, one leg reclined on the other,I jump from the cross-beams and seize...