Voice of the South: Putting the Poe into Poetry


From the cold hills of New England, we can look south to that part of our country often called Dixie. What do we see? A warm haven for snowy northerners, a well-deserved reputation for hospitality and fine dining, some happy memories of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, and some unique offerings: college athletes who border on professional and an array, past and present, of America’s finest poets.

Wow. Oh good? Well, can I just mention Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, William Faulkner, Dubose Heyward, James Dickey, and yes, Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston but adopted by a family in Virginia when he was n was only two years old.

To note: For the purpose of delimiting the South, I use the line established by two fellows sent from England: Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (hence Dixie). It extends mainly to southern Pennsylvania. (Typically British, a pair of land surveyors had been requested, and those two who arrived were both astronomers.)

* * *

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is universally admired as the inventor of the detective novel and a master of the mysterious and macabre; but his poetry is also remarkable for its artistry and inventiveness. His best-known poem named the Baltimore Ravens football team; but his best lyric in my opinion is “To Helen” with its beautiful classical allusions to Helen of Troy. He may have written this when he was still a teenager.

Helen, your beauty is for me
Like those Nicene boats of old,
That gently, on a fragrant sea,
The weary and worn wanderer
Towards his own native shore.

On the desperate seas long accustomed to roam,
Your hyacinth hair, your classical face,
Your nymph tunes brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the greatness of Rome.

Lo! in your shining niche
As I see you standing like a statue,
The agate lamp in your hand!
Ah, Psyche, regions that
Are Holy Land!

A daguerreotype portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

There’s a musicality to Poe’s writing that has inspired many classical composers and dozens of pop and rock bands to set his verses to music. Debussy, Bernstein and Rachmaninoff are among those who have responded to his writing, especially those colorful and very musical stanzas from “The Bells”.

Hear the sleighs with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of gaiety their melody predicts!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy night air!
While the stars that water
All the skies seem to twinkle
With crystalline delight;
Keep time, time, time,
In a kind of runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation which so well musically
Bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the tinkling and tinkling of bells.

Hear the sweet wedding bells,
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness heralds their harmony!
Through the soft night air
How they sound their joy!
Molten golden notes,
And all in agreement,
What liquid ditty floats
To the dove who listens, while she jubilates
On the moon!
Oh, from the sound cells,
What a burst of euphony bursts out at the top of your lungs!
How inflated!
How does it live
In the future! how does it tell
Of the rapture that grows
To sway and tinkle
Bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
To the rhymes and the chime of the bells!

Despite the jubilation of this poem, Poe led a difficult life and died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore.

One last note, which probably only interests me. At some point in his life, Poe took the alias of Edgar A. Perry.

* * *

Now let’s look at other poets who established a beautiful southern tradition.

DUBOSE HEYWARD, (1885-1940), born in Charleston, South Carolina, was a poet and novelist. In 1925 he published a novel called “Porgy”, which he and his wife would later adapt for the stage. George Gershwin thought it would be a rich subject for an opera, and so “Porgy and Bess” was born. For this masterpiece, Heyward was co-lyricist with George’s brother, Ira, but one of the most memorable lyrics was entirely by Heyward.

Summer time,
And life is easy
The fish are jumping
And the cotton is high
your daddy is rich
And your mom is beautiful
So hush little baby
Do not Cry.

One of these mornings
You will wake up singing
So you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take the sky

But until this morning
There’s nothing that can hurt you
With mom and dad standing.

Poets of the South: DuBose Heyward between George and Ira Gershwin
George and Ira Gershwin with DuBose Heyward in between

* * *

JOHN CROWE RANSOM (1888-1974) of Tennessee was called the dean of 20and Poets and critics of the century. Renowned teacher at Vanderbilt and Kenyon, with students like Robert Lowell, EL Doctorow and James Wright, his own poetry is precise, ironic and often whimsical. This sonnet is called “Piazza Piece”.

—I am a gentleman in a coat trying
To make you heard. Your ears are soft and small
And don’t listen to an old man at all,
They want the whispers and sighs of young men.
But see the roses on your trellis die
And listen to the spectral song of the moon;
‘Cause I’m soon to have my fair lady,
I’m a gentleman in a coat trying.

—I am a beautiful young woman waiting
Until my true love comes, then we kiss.
But what a gray man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and weak as in a dream?
Back from my fatigues, sir, before I scream!
I am a young woman in beauty waiting.

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (1871-1938) was a lawyer and prominent NAACP official, diplomat and, in our interest, a writer of rousing verse. (Watch the video) Born in Jacksonville and raised in Georgia, Johnson has spent a lot of time in the North, and that’s where the local pride takes over. Johnson purchased a property called Five Acres along Alford Creek in Great Barrington, and wrote most of his famous book, “God’s Paper Clips” there. His writing booth still exists.

Southern Poets: James Weldon Johnson and his writing booth in Great Barrington, Mass.
James Weldon Johnson. His writing booth in Great Barrington.

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ALICE WALKER (1944 – ) comes from Georgia. The first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction (“The Color Purple”), she has a long name in stanza: Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker, and a rare poetic gift. Here is an excerpt from his poem, “What Do I Get for Getting Old?”

I can spend time with myself
when I want.

i can eat chocolate
with my salad.
Or even as a starter.
I manage to forget!

I manage to paint
with colors
I mix.
I’ve never seen

I manage to sleep
with my dog
& pray never to survive
my cat.
I manage to play
without reading
a rating.

I can spend time with myself
when I want!

i can greet
people I don’t remember
as if I knew them
very good.

I manage to grow
all my
in some

I feel
more love
that I never thought
everything seems to be done

I feel that
especially for you.
even if i don’t remember
exactly which one you
you are beautiful.
How cool!

Still, I can spend time with myself
when I want!

And that’s just a taste
as the ancients said
in Georgia
when I was small
what you get
to grow old.

Southern Poets: Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni
Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni

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Among modern Southern poets, I particularly like Nikki Giovanni, who teaches at Virginia Tech. Nikki, now 78, is still making headlines and was featured in a New York Times article just this last Christmas. Candid as always, she said, “I hate the little drummer boy. This girl just had a baby, she’s in a nursery, she’s got a bunch of animals, and he walks in saying ‘Can I play my drum?’ No, shit! Do something worthwhile. If it had been the little drummer girl, she would have helped to clean the crib.

Here is one of his most famous poems, “Love Is”.

Some people forget that love is
tuck you in and kiss you
‘Good night’
it doesn’t matter if you are young or old
Some people don’t remember
love is
listen and laugh and ask
whatever your age
Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
not fun at all

love is
You and me

So it’s true! And now to our video.

VIDEO. From a concert in Atlanta, GA, the First Poetry Quartet with guest Ruby Dee presents:

“Southward Returning” by Donald Davidson (Tenn.)

“The Celebration” by James Dickey (Ga.)

“Crepe de Chine” by Tennessee Williams (Mlle.)

and for a breathtaking and foot-stomping finale, “Judgement Day” by James Weldon Johnson (Florida and… Great Barrington!).



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