Green Hills Literary Lantern

Preface to Volume XIX






When I’m not working on GHLL or engaged in the administrivia of a state university, my academic specialty – to the degree that I have one – is probably best characterized as folklore, which I approach from a linguistic point of view. The work I have in hand at present (utterly shameless plug right here) is a particular kind of folk expression, for which there is no consensus name. They might be called “folk comparison,” “folk similes,” or just “colorful expressions” – terms abound. I’ve been collecting these things for many years, but beyond merely accumulating them, and reveling in the exuberance of expression – a worthwhile aesthetic project in itself – I want to make some sense of them as behavior.  A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, and I’m not sure we’re much the wiser. There have been elaborate corpus-based structural schemata advanced, transformational-generative approaches, historic-geographic searches for origins and evidence of settlement-patterns (a process which involves sticking pins of sundry colors into very large maps), and genre-proposals linking the things to proverbs, riddles, and other wisdom-genres. I’m beginning to think we’ve been overlooking the obvious. Suppose we were to recognize that the people who deal in these things – inventing, collecting, elaborating, improving – are showing off? Suppose we consider them as performance? That’s why they get called “Grammaw Kate’s sayings” or “Billy-isms:” these people are piling up rep (however local or ephemeral) for their way with language, some of that language not necessarily theirs, in the sense meant by those who learned to think in an environment governed by copyright codes, but the style, the bodacious, brassy, bawdiness, the willingness to make some noise, to make people sit up and snort – that’s indeed their property and accomplishment. It’s an audacious, raucous reveling in the possibilities of language and image, the sorrowful and joyful mysteries now joined by the absurd or the just plain loud.

I love this stuff, and for exactly the same reason, I love the stuff our writers have dared to bring forward in this issue. I’ve met few of our writers face to face, though I’ve had enough communication with each to sense that, considered as private individuals, there’s a range of personalities, from the rowdy to the retiring. But as writers? I think just about every one of them shows the capacity to put soap-powder into the sugar bowl. That has to be part of the psychological makeup of anyone who launches a text into and onto the world, to see what will happen. Auden wrote famously of Iago as a practical joker, which really makes perfect sense if one thinks in turn of C.S. Lewis’ consideration of the practical joker as essentially an empirically-minded behavioral scientist, someone who simply wants to know, “What will so and so do, if I do, ummm,  this?” Let me put one foot on a shoulder of each of these giants – steady there, fellas – and suggest: that’s what writers do. Don’t you want to know what would happen if you were to take a goat into a saloon and bet the barkeep that…well, read David Salner’s “A West Virginia Walk-Up.” Maybe that’s what suspense is all about; it’s a genre (one GHLL does not deal in) but it’s also part of the narrative toolkit:  a device for putting readers through a particular process of expectations and forebodings, to see, or let them see, what their own imaginings are, and force upon them the task of figuring out just how they came by those projections; Alexandra Flaisher, Randall Gentry and John Flynn do this particularly well.

A poet puts herself, or some self, before readers, and perhaps invites them to try on the mask, perhaps simply challenges them to deal with this sudden being whose words and ways slowly reveal themselves as perhaps disturbingly non-inscrutable. David Lawrence, whose work both appears and is reviewed in this issue, has cultivated a persona over the years – which is not to imply it’s other than authentic, but merely that we readers are powerfully aware we’re in the presence of someone possessed of a very strong sense of self, and in the difference of that self from those it addresses, there’s pugilistic provocation: “here I am; now what are you going to do about it?” The assertiveness might be less aggressive, while nonetheless insisting that the reader is going to have to meet the speaker on her or his own ground; I hear something of Ruth Stone’s self-confident, take-me-as-I-am-or-don’t-let-the-screendoor-hit-you-in the-ass-on-the-way-out attitude in Fredrick Sydek, Terry Savoie, Joan Payne Kincaid, and Robert Manaster.

Olivier said of actors, and I think it can be said of poets too, that at some level, what they’re always saying is “look at me, look at me, look at me” -- in the writer’s case, it's “listen to me, listen to me, listen to me.” But sometimes it’s whispered; there are quiet voices here – Robert Elzy Coggswell, Sudie Nostrand, Deborah Maxey – reflective and ruminative inquiries. If our new gallery feature, with digital paintings by Peter Schwartz, illustrates one kind of poet with ‘tude, our cover artist, Nicole Wong, supports another with … mood.

We’re especially happy to welcome back a couple of special friends in this issue: Francine Tolf’s reflections on a heart attack and its sequelae are seconded by Jim Thomas – a dear old friend of both GHLL and its editors, as is our featured poet – drum roll here – the first poet laureate of the state of Missouri, Walter Bargen. I have known Walter for twenty years, and have worked for ten to bring about the creation of the state PL, and though I had nothing whatsoever to do with the person and the post coming together, I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.

 We hope you’ll enjoy this issue, and please consider joining us for the next, twentieth anniversary number. We've got some big ideas -- maybe you have too.


-ABD, Kirksville, July 2008