Monday, April 14, 2008

Maurice Manning on Elizabeth Madox Roberts

Maurice Manning's Poetry Month Pick, April 14, 2008, from Poetry Daily.

"Father's Story"
by Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941)

We put more coal on the big red fire,
And while we are waiting for dinner to cook,
Our father comes and tells us about
A story that he has read in a book.

And Charles and Will and Dick and I
And all of us but Clarence are there.
And some of us sit on Father’s legs,
But one has to sit on the little red chair.

And when we are sitting very still,
He sings us a song or tells a piece;
He sings Dan Tucker Went to Town,
Or he tells about the golden fleece.

He tells about the golden wool,
And some of it is about a boy
Named Jason, and about a ship,
And some is about a town called Troy.

And while he is telling or singing it through,
I stand by his arm, for that is my place.
And I push my fingers into his skin
To make little dents in his big rough face.

* * *

Maurice Manning Comments:
This is a poem that makes me smile, because beyond its sweetness, I think it’s also slyly subversive. How many other poems put an American folk ballad like “Old Dan Tucker” and the Greek myth about Jason and the Argonauts in the same hopper? In “Father’s Story,” the presumed high meets the alleged low through song and tale. Notably, the poem is in the same meter and stanza as “Old Dan Tucker,” that is, the poem is a kind of ballad itself. Is it a ballad about story-telling or a story about ballad-making? I don’t think the poem resolves that question, which seems right, since the reader can enjoy seeing it both ways at once. The mixture subtly implied in this poem—the good humor of the ballad meshed with the tragic journey of the Greek myth, the local and domestic merged with the hoary weight of the classical—creates a spirit I can only call democratic.

I’m drawn to this poem for many reasons, some are personal. Where I come from, Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941) is one of the people we call “a Kentucky writer.” We’re sort of proud of her. Though she is best known for her novels, particularly The Time of Man (1926) and The Great Meadow (1930), she continued to write poems over her career. I happen to have grown up about 10 miles from where Miss Roberts was raised, near the still-tiny town of Perryville, which, a few years before Roberts was born, was the site of the only major Civil War battle fought in Kentucky. Like Roberts, my own early exposure to literature didn’t come through reading; it came from sitting beside my grandmother or great-grandmother, begging for one more family story, or catching my father singing a song he’d learned as a child from an old banjo player or some such other local troubadour.

The provenance of “Old Dan Tucker” like most folk ballads is obscure; various versions of the song exist, but it seems to have come into the world in the early 1840s. Blackface minstrel groups certainly performed the song and first made it popular, though it has remained a standard in mountain and bluegrass music through the years, growing in length and adventure along the way. In most versions of the song, Old Dan is both notorious and hilarious, a prankster, sometimes a rake, but a pretty good guy beneath it all. One verse goes something like this:

Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man,
he washed his face in a fryin’ pan;
he combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
and he died with a toothache in his heel.

Most recently, Bruce Springsteen recorded “Old Dan Tucker” for his 2006 album, The Seeger Sessions.

In addition to underscoring my feeling of kinship with Roberts, this poem also appeals to my interest in the always strange intricacies of literary history. “Father’s Story” was first published in the January 1921 issue of The Atlantic Monthly as part of a group of what the editors called “Children’s Garland. II,” a sampler of poems aimed at younger readers. The previous issue included a few other poems by Roberts in its first portion of “Children’s Garland.” The contributor’s note for Roberts in the December 1920 issue says: Roberts’s poems “are autobiographical, and that the people in them belong to the old Kentucky town which is her home.” At the time, Roberts was a student at the University of Chicago, where she began studying in 1917 at the age of 36. During her time in Chicago, Roberts became an acquaintance of Harriet Monroe (she published poems in the July 1921 issue of Poetry), and probably was introduced to other luminaries associated with the dawn of modern American poetry. “Father’s Story” was eventually published in a book, Under the Tree (1922). It seems outlandish, now, that The Atlantic Monthly would publish poems for children, and Poetry, in its earlier years often published a summer issue of poems written by children!

But Roberts accomplished something more than simply passing the muster of a couple of magazine editors. The April 1922 issue of Poetry includes an essay co-written by Hervey Allen and DuBose Heyward called “Poetry South,” which takes the poetic pulse of the various regions of the south. Allen and Heyward were members of what was known as The Charleston Poetry Society, apparently no slouch of an organization. Allen later wrote novels, Anthony Adverse probably the best-known. Heyward went on to write the libretto for Porgy and Bess. Preceding the essay, is an admiring introduction penned by Harriet Monroe, in which she says: “Today especially art needs to concentrate on the local against the generalizing, scattering tendencies of the age; else it is in danger of becoming vague and diffused and theoretic, of losing precision and vitality.” The essay Allen and Heyward write is frustrating—it’s certainly patronizing, and to our contemporary sensibilities, at times offensive—yet, from a historical perspective I think there are some accurate claims. Take what these two have to say about the absent poetry of Appalachia:

Certainly nowhere else in the America of today can one find conditions so favorable to the development of genuine folk-expression; with the background of an old, but still remembered civilization, and an absolute isolation which encourages crystallization, by word of mouth, of the idea into the story. [Yet] the mountaineer responds but little to beauty. In his great tumble of hills . . . amid a flora that is bewildering in its pageantry of color, he is stubborn, vindictive in anger, elemental as a child in his amusements, shrewd, silent, and unerring in his estimate of the ‘furreners’ he may chance to meet. . . . In spite of the fact that the southern mountaineer is probably the most interesting and least known figure in our national life, it will be many years before he will write his own story, if ever. The lack of schools, and his rooted indifference to educational advantages, will keep him much as he is . . . .”

There is the sting of truth in such a statement. Elizabeth Madox Roberts herself had to leave her home in order to attend a high school (as did my grandmother and many other family elders). At the time Allen and Heyward wrote their essay, it could be argued that literature from the Appalachian region didn’t exist, and from a technical perspective, such a claim is valid. But practically speaking, an Appalachian literature did exist: the stuff that makes literature—the story and song that comes out of a community and gets passed on in order to bind that community together—was always there, as with any community, it just wasn’t written down. Elizabeth Madox Roberts is one of the first writers from my little pocket of the world to put our literature on the page. More than a few of us are grateful.

About Maurice Manning:
Maurice Manning's poems have appeared in the Southern Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the New Yorker, and his first collection of poems was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Award. He teaches English at Indiana University. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and Danville, Kentucky.

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