In his introduction to The Yellow Shoe Poets, an anthology of poets published by Louisiana State University Press since 1964, George Garrett claims that the second half of the century has seen "a virtual uprising, a revolution in poetry, the likes of which has not been seen since the final decade of the rule and reign of Queen Elizabeth I." This declaration comes in response to critics Garrett says disparage our age for engendering only minor poets. He holds up the LSU anthology as both triumph and defense. In other words, it is not enough to say this is a great anthology of poetry. Instead, Garrett pronounces that poetry is great in our age because of poets like these.
LSU has an impressive list. Since the publication of Miller Williams' Circle of Stone in 1964, the list has grown to include 191 books by 93 poets. Two collections have won the Pulitzer Prize, The Flying Change (1986) by Henry Taylor, and Liesl Mueller's Alive Together (1996). Other awards abound, but more importantly, the press has supported authors who have gone on to have long and rich careers in poetry--who have contributed to and changed American letters. These include Dave Smith, Fred Chappell, Dabney Stuart, Gibbons Ruark and many more. North Carolina hosts at least a dozen of LSU's literary lights and a small band of them will be making an appearance at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m.
The anthology also documents the rise of the university presses as one of last and best bastions of poetry publication. George Garrett explains that before the middle of the century, to bring out a book of poems with a university was only a half-step above vanity-press publication. This began to change with the Wesleyan Poetry Series, the Contemporary Poetry Series at University of North Carolina Press, and others. Many of these series, underfunded or underorganized, have fallen by the wayside, but LSU Press has been a major player since the late 1960s, and consequently provides an excellent window on the subjects, themes and styles of American poetry in the latter part of the century.
What are these subjects and themes? Many are familial, domestic, like Kate Daniels' "Funk," which begins "Opening the diaper, each morning/becomes the third day, when God/created the earth"; or Roland Flint's "Easy," which starts with a couple cooking dinner, each at their separate tasks. In the best of these, the poems rise from their ordinary subjects and into the universal themes of love, time, death and memory. Stanley Plumly's "Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me" makes that leap almost instantly with his initial lines:
We lie in that other darkness, ourselves.
There is less than the width of my left hand
between us. I can barely breathe,
but the light breathes easily,
wind on water across our two still bodies.
The poem goes on with its swaying, tender imagery until readers become unsure if it is elegy or dream that Plumly writes about, if the ache of his final lines, "And I would not touch him/who lies deeper in the drifting dark than life," are about a loss or a return.
A number of Yellow Shoe Poets (named thus by a young friend of LSU poet Elizabeth Seydel Morgan who heard in the Southern drawl of "LSU" an image that stuck as the informal moniker of the press) return to the South as their subject, as if driven by an urge to preserve what might be lost. "Weep-Willow" by Kathryn Stripling Byer uses a North Carolina mountain woman's persona not only to shape her reflections on time and change, but to keep their inflection, the way an Appalachian woman would speak:
clear back I hear her singing me to sleep.
"Come down" she trolls,
"Come down among the willow
shade and weep, you fair
and tender ladies left to lie alone,
the sheets so cold,
the nights so long."
Only when the poems begin take on the largest of themes, the fate of humanity, handled with interest and apparent ease by the masters of past generations, do the Yellow Shoe Poets seem to squirm a little. Poems with the largeness of Yeats' "Second Coming" or Frost's "Fire and Ice" are rarely found in this anthology, and when they are, the poet often defers to a previous masterwork rather than striking out on his or her own. Kelly Cherry's poem "The Revelation at Hand" is one example, where the imagery of Yeats' poem repeats itself in Cherry's, twisted gracefully to make a new point. Yet much more original is Betty Adcock's "Digression on the Nuclear Age," which opens the anthology. Adcock painstakingly builds an image of termites in Africa erecting piles of earth that eventually bridge toward one another, then uses the arches of the termites to make a chilling commentary on the fatal constructions of humankind.
Despite a few direct and rather limp homages to Berryman, stylistically, most Yellow Shoe Poets have chosen to strike out on their own rather than strictly echo the work of others. If LSU's list is truly representative of the best American poets in the last 30 years, then free verse, rather than form, now dominates, and the visual character of a poem--how it looks on a page--is growing to be as important as its metric character.
Consider how long lines and complex sentences affect Anthony Petrosky's "Goodbye on the Wind," a poem about a busy man's life, into which barrels headlong, "biggest and most beautiful sadness, the one all mine." The five- and six-beat lines trail nearly from margin to margin and within them streams an inexorable current of images: "The old Jew, Heime--the one who carved meat,/who carried my father home, who buried his wife/and two sons, his father and mother, the carcasses/of bulls and children," and on it goes until the sentence ends 11 lines later. Petrosky's poem works not only because it unites ordinary details with this inexplicable advent of grief, but because the rhythm and shape of the poem juxtapose its sound, and sight, with its sense.
It is the unique pleasure of alphabetical anthologies to be able to flip indiscriminately, without worrying about an author's sequence. You can travel instantly from Bin Ramke's humorous meditation on men's fascination with women's breasts to Robert Penn Warren's painfully beautiful "Trying to Tell You Something," which begins:
All things lean at you, and some are
trying to tell you something, though of
The heart is too full for speech.
He goes on to depict an oak tree, "older than Jamestown or God," which wants, in its fullness of years, to describe "What happens on a December night when/It stands alone in a world of snowy whiteness." To launch a poem this way is to encapsulate the very act of poetry, the work of the Yellow Shoe Poets for the past 35 years. These 173 poems are all trying to tell you something about those things of which the heart is too full for speech. The best of them rise in the mind like Warren's oak tree--alone in a world of absolute purity--where the inexplicable, rather than being explained, actually happens before your eyes, and no one, as Warren says, can predict the consequences.