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BOOK REVIEWS Six Poets from the Mountain South. John Lang. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. 224 pp. $24.95 paper. IT IS FITTING THAT JOHN LANG USES A QUOTATION FROM THE LATE JIM Wayne Miller to establish the thesis of his study Six Poets from the Mountain South. As Lang is at pains to point out in the beginning of his chapter on Miller, utilizing quotations from Loyal Jones, Fred Chappell, and Robert Morgan, “Miller is widely considered to be the progenitor of the ongoing renaissance in Appalachian literature” (9). If Miller is the progenitor of the Appalachian literature renaissance, then Lang has long been, and continues to be, its best critical popularizer, serving for many years as the coordinator of the Emory & Henry Literary Festival, focusing each year on a major literary figure with ties to Appalachia, and editing the handsome and indispensable Iron Mountain Review, which publishes the festival’s proceedings. In addition, Lang has published Understanding Fred Chappell (U of South Carolina Press, 2000) and AppalachiaandBeyond:ConversationswithWritersfromtheMountain South (U of Tennessee Press, 2006). Now, Six Poets from the Mountain South provides a much needed update to Rita Sims Quillen’s seminal but brief Looking for Native Ground: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry (Appalachian Consortium Press, 1989), which focuses on the earlier careers of four of Lang’s six poets. Lang employs the quotation from Miller’s essay “Appalachian Literature at Home in this World” to explore the oppositional impulse of much Appalachian poetry to “the excessive otherworldliness and the harsh judgmentalism of much mountain religion”(1). Miller states: While the varieties of Protestantism found in the Appalachian region often differ sharply with regard to certain theological points, denominations share a decidedly otherworldly outlook. . . . Yet Appalachian literature is—and always has been—as decidedly worldly, secular, and profane in its outlook as the traditional religion appears to be spiritual and otherworldly. (1) While obviously finding Miller’s statement intriguing and provocative, Lang finds that his “assessment does not do justice to the pervasive role that religious and spiritual concerns play in the work of many of the region’s finest writers.” Nevertheless, the “crucial tension” (1) between traditional mountain religion and the majority of the region’s major 162 Mississippi Quarterly writers is what Lang intends to explore by focusing on these six influential poets: Miller himself, Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, Jeff Daniel Marion, Kathryn Stripling Byer, and Charles Wright. At first glance, this might seem to be an excessively narrow, limited focus for a major study of contemporary Appalachian poetry. However, in Lang’s hands, this lens turns out to be a sufficiently wide-angled one. Lang’s concern, ultimately, is the perennial issue of immanence vs. transcendence, and since all these poets skew pretty decisively, in one way or another, toward immanence—the spiritual inhering and manifested in the material—there is plenty of room for discussion of the material world, or, in the case of these particular poets, Nature. Lang’s introduction is a marvel of economy and elegance. He first sketches the broad outlines of traditional mountain religion, relying primarily on Deborah Vansau McCauley’s Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History and Loyal Jones’s Faith and Meaning in the Upland South. Having established mountain religion as predominantly “otherworldly”—“a viewpoint that tends to denigrate the physical world,” as Lang contends (2)—he then deploys a finely wrought critique of Christianity’s historical tendency of being “insufficiently incarnational” (3), utilizing an array of ecologically oriented critics and theologians such as Lynn White, Jr., Wendell Berry, Larry L. Rasmussen, and Lawrence Buell. With asides to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Vanderbilt Agrarians along the way, Lang concludes that these six poets, in their varied efforts to reconcile the dualism of body and soul, matter and spirit, attempt “to revivify the natural world,” and that Appalachian poetry generally speaking “rooted in both American Romanticism and agrarianism achieves a new level of interest and ‘relevance’” (6). Lang then proceeds to devote a chapter apiece to each of his six poets, briefly sketching their biographies, especially with respect to their religious upbringing and orientation, and then working through their respective publications chronologically, focusing especially on poems that highlight the issues...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 161-163
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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