Contemporary Southern Authors Honoring a Literary Legacy
The Fugitive Poets consisted of a select group of poets and scholars whose progressive ideals challenged the social norms of racism during the rule of the infamous Jim Crowe laws. Southern culture has a knack for following tradition, and the legacy of this poetic collective is no different. Southern history provides readers with a combination of ideals, including freedom, advancement of equality, and the pursuit of what the Constitution calls “happiness.” Yet, these ideals experienced an incredible amount of resistance. Still, they offer a backbone of the equality for which the South ought to stand in the current. The South still fights for such equality through literary tradition. Authors continue to generate works appealing to stubborn minds still clinging to dying politics.
The original collective of the Fugitive Poets regarded nature as the driving force influencing Southern literature. They fueled a new generation of culture. Artistically, the South could not continue to clutch the Civil War as a commemorative relic. Different writers aimed to prove such a notion. Some authors clung to the previous ideal of nature making the man. Others would create new ways to view the South. These writers should be included in the history books, too. Recognized—not only for following the original theme of ‘man influenced by surrounding nature’—but by subjects relevant to today’s audience.
Terrance Hayes’ poetry offers glimpses of a man caught solely in his present identity, whether a grieving son, loving husband, or another reference to the personification of the narrator. The primary focus of his verses is current emotion in the given situation. Stylistically, he uses verbs in the present tense:
“Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.”
Hayes writes of the cityscapes that have overtaken the South. Nature no longer rules the entire landscape. The push of industry owns a part of it. Yet, the writer discusses how sin comes from action. ‘His sin’ refers to the mistakes of the past left behind so that future generations may learn.
As industry rose along the Southern horizons, the fight against nature would prove futile and foolish. To seek urban advancement offers society a push further in its evolution. But to forget one’s primordial roots allows for the past mistakes to continue haunting future generations. Where Terrance Hayes warns of shying from advancement and remaining with the bare skeletons of the past, another relishes it.
Maurice Manning, a Kentucky native, “has been inspired by the lives of his grandmothers, great grandmothers, and a great-great grandmother” (Poetryfoundation.com). The subject matter of his poetry often revolves around the rural lifestyle of ranching and farming and the importance of remembering the past in depth.
“… she’s bound for yonder when the day
Arrives will make the river glad
When she tests it with her baby toe
And strides across it, or her wake
Will be remembered by the river
As a joy, the likes of which would be
Untelling if it ever was
Before, but sure to be back then
When God was just a little thing.”
A modern collective of Fugitive Poets would seem incomplete without a writer who tied the future and the past together. Although not a poet, Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones contains an aura of similar elegance. She writes of Hurricane Katrina, which smote the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. The storm’s destruction provided a devastating reminder that civilization’s advancement can only push so far before meeting its fate with nature. The narrator of the novel, a teenaged girl named Esch, desperately clinging to the memory of her dead mother while coming to terms with the fact she bears an unplanned child. In the wake of the destructive storm, she must confront the losses of her past as she fights to survive the baptizing waters flooding her home at the moment. “The hurricane enfolds me in its hand. I glide. I land on the thickest branch… The bare bones of Mother Lizbeth’s house are so far away… Daddy saw it… the curve of a waist, the telltale push of a stomach outward” (232-234).
Thus, the modern Fugitive Poets have a collision of advice for our advancement in the South. Manning advises that we do not forget where we came from, clinging to the stories from generations past. These stories and the history behind them hold wisdom. But, as admonished by Hayes, some of these stories we should not seek to duplicate or relive. They are sins, meant to be remembered only as a way to avoid making the same mistakes again. Ward, gravitating both themes toward her own novel, shows us that mutual acceptance and respect of both inevitable progression and past materials are necessary for survival in the ultimate storm. Whether that storm comes by the pull of a trigger or two winds colliding at just the right time and temperature remains a mystery.
– Hayes, T. (1981). “The Golden Shovel.”
– Manning, M. (May 2007). “A Lexicon for People Who Don’t Talk Too Much.”
– Ward, J. (2014). Salvage the bones. London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks.