But You Can’t Take the South Out of the Girl

Ok, so “tomorrow” came a few days later.  Sue me.

It’s weird.  My head is full of ideas–places I want to go in these poems, lives I want to explore.  I’ve been reading Southern history and articles about Northwest Louisiana, and I just joined the North Louisiana Historical Association and am looking forward to receiving their journal and reading things about where I’ve come from.

And I feel all of it’s enriching me, giving me insight into a place that’s always been home, but that is also “unknown country” as it were.  What do I really know about my home state?  What do I know about Shreveport?  I mean, in the 8th grade, everyone takes Louisiana History, but a) that was 100 years ago, and b) I was a kid, and didn’t give a crap.  (And c) everyone cheated like murder in that class, so I’m not even sure how much I actually wound up reading.  I might just have copied answers–I know, it’s a scandal.)  I don’t know why, but I just feel poetically rejuvenated.  Like I’ve been looking for something to inspire me, and something about poetry and Louisiana and now… well, it’s all clicking.  Of course, at some point I need to put the books aside and do some writing… I’ve been reading too much lately.  (Not like that’s a terrible thing.)

Something that just occurred to me:   Karen and I once talked about needing to be out of the South in order to see it properly.  Being in Nebraska was that lens for us.  And I think that’s really true, because until this recent kick, all of the “Southern” poems I wrote were when I was away from Louisiana.  It’s as if being in the milieu, I’m just too close to really have any kind of poetic vision about it.  Now plenty of Southern writers might not have that issue, but I did.  (And maybe do… we’ll have to see what the DYPS think of the poems I’m writing before I can see if my Southern myopia is corrected.)

We are reading R.T. Smith’s Brightwood in class.  Initially I wasn’t too keen on it–it seemed a little too deliberate.  Karen’s Colin’s word for it was “mannered.”  To me, there is just a bit of him trying to be overly studied in “down homeness.”  (Speaking of a put-on.)  This is not to take away from some fine poems and the very wonderful interconnections between poems (including the repetition of words/ ideas that operate as leitmotifs), or to discredit the craft that’s gone into them.  But the problem is the craft is obvious, when it should be invisible and organic.  You don’t want to feel, as a reader, that you’re being manipulated, especially not by a poet.

But the book has grown on me, the further I got into it.  I think what I do like is that Smith is a good story teller, as Southern writers ought to be.   You see these people he’s writing about, and the language that he uses to describe them, the scene, the time, the place, etc., is always on target.

I don’t like that most of the poems are too long–for someone who’s an editor, he shows a surprising lack of judiciousness when it comes to editing his own work (isn’t that always the way?)–his poems are routinely more than a page, when a page would suffice.  That’s what I mean about the issue of craft; it’s as if the attitude is, “Well, my words and technique are so good, I’m going to beat you over the head with them, and write 60 line poems when only 42 of them are great.  (But you won’t notice, because I’m so good at it.)”  Ok, ok, maybe that is being unfair.  I like the book more than I dislike it, but it has problems.  We are looking at Brightwood again on Thursday.  It will be interesting to see how my feelings about the book evolve as the class discusses it more.

Bye for now.

2 thoughts on “But You Can’t Take the South Out of the Girl

  1. Well look who’s complaining about long poems now. Smith’s poems in Brightwood tend to be very similar in effect at least in a first reading so why leave one to enter the same atmosphere in the next? Most of the poems are stories, some longer than others. I’ve also just been reading Tony Hoagland’s latest. The two books hardly seem to describe the same planet. What are your thoughts about Brightwood after digesting it for a while?

    • As an aficionado (and writer) of long-ish narrative poems, I appreciate the kind of language, momentum, and care a long poem must demonstrate if it’s going to sustain itself–and the reader–over a page. But I don’t think 95% of Smith’s poems need to be more than a page long. For one thing, I don’t think most of his stories are worth 2 pages, with exceptions for “Voices, Traces, the Whip-poor-will’s Plea,” “Egg,” “Wakerobin,” and maybe “Queen City, Skins.” For another, I don’t think that Smith shows nearly the control he needs to keep that momentum going. Sometimes, what happens after the turn doesn’t seem nearly as compelling as I expect, and need, it to be, to continue being invested in the poem.

      That said, I’m still glad that we read Brightwood, and might be inclined to read another of his books. You know, if someone gave it to me. 😉

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