Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Preface to Volume XXV

Twenty-five years. A quarter century. Silver Anniversary. We're still selling the same tasty wares from the same cozy stand. Now, just what is it that makes it all so great?

Emerson spoke of the importance, to the Poet, of having “an original relationship with nature.” The young writers I see in my workshops have an existence yet more media-mediated than my own pop-culture-drenched upbringing in the 1960s, and if I'm thinking of them as the before-picture, it's not that I have any case to make against oh-those-kids-today (hear those words coming out of your mouth, go ahead and fill out the paperwork for the Old Fogeys Home). It's just where I read a lot of work, I mean a lot of work, by people who are still learning how to do it. So what characteristically lacks there illuminates empirically what it would mean to be able to do it.

Failure to make any sense of the lovely but obscure line “sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine” is no cause for blame. It’s far-fet vocab and obsolete technology, and it was archaic and precious even when Hopkins penned it (and he did “pen” it in 1877). But there really is no excuse for not knowing, as apparently not one of my group one semester knew, that, when you walk from the new Busch Stadium to the cobblestone levee on the Mississippi, you descend precipitously, and that there are rich, rank odors of mud and oil, and you’ll see blackened stonework from which nobody ever bothered to scrub the soot in which a century’s soak in the fumes of soft Illinois coal coated all. Or maybe they did know, but it just didn't seem to them relevant to the story. But there's no being in that spot without smelling and feeling and hearing.

So, for the would-be writer, I would counsel alertness. “Only connect” “Be one on whom nothing is lost.” Learn to see.

I have a colleague whom I regard as one of the greatest teachers at a school that has made its name with great teaching. Here’s what he does – and this is not even his credentialed specialty: he brings students (and any who care to tag along) literally on a walk, yes get out of your seats and come with me, it’s a nice day, downtown’s only a couple of blocks away, through a familiar townscape most of us would pre-judge as dull. Nothing but Midwestern frame boxes, red brick blocks, unornamented. And then he starts showing us how the courthouse square remembers the medieval cathedral and the Greek agora; the width of the streets, so a teamster can turn a wagon around (you won’t be backing one of those up, will you? Something to know about life as it was lived long ago). Banks on the corners, where a lawman in the cupola could keep an eye, if necessary draw a bead on them. He whips out copies of ancient images, showing how this space looked when it was pedestrian, wild with painted signs, festooned in drooping wires – and things make a great deal more sense. Down alleys, where we realize these were thoroughfares in a world that didn't have all its rules written by and for cars, and you can still see the mounting blocks, the windows where hay was forked to horses, the hatches where coal was shoveled into furnaces.

Interesting in itself, but the key thing is, the dull town will never look the same. You see things you’ve never seen before, though they were there all along. It has depth, meaning it lacked before (though of course nothing at all has changed about it). You will look at another Midwestern town, and find it rich. It will be readable. That’s what this colleague does. He makes the invisible plain. He teaches you to see what you couldn’t before. He leaves you richer.

Here’s plenty in this anniversary issue to open your eyes, and give you new powers of observation. You could hardly ask for a more authoritative guide to the pitch and roll of rural Irish English than Thomas Rice, and the voice of the bayou country is memorably rendered by David Langlinais. Jean Hart presents the idiom of urban South Africa. But I think each of these writers, and most of the rest of this year’s honored roster, do something yet more compelling and impressive. They take us into intimate worlds, workplaces, mostly, and show us how people relate to other people over their shared (or contested) tasks and obligations and ambitions and authority. Sometimes these worlds they bring us to know are historically remote, as for Karl Harshbarger’s Casey O’Brien in the early fifties, for Grant Flint’s nameless child in 1937, more so still for Daren Dean’s Civil War narrative. These are people in a world where a trip over a nearby hill is a genuine burden, where the weather actually has a say in whether you are going to be able to do something important, like staying alive.

Jack Smith made those choices in fiction, as always, judiciously. Joe Benevento selected the poetry with equal eye and ear for people who take us to the data of life lived, with the sometimes disturbing intensity that is often our reason for reading poetry. Breast milk overlaid with cigarette smoke in the intimacy of the bedroom. Water splashes into a tall clear glass in the light of an open refrigerator door. An old barn has splintery textures, smells of silage and dust and sunlight entombed. Even a somewhat cerebral meditation like Nicola’s cerebrates in sounds and smells: bees, bubbles, tumbles, applause. Our memoirists too contain multitudes, imply endlessly.

I will be using this issue in my next workshop. It’s easier to show young people how actually to engage than to tell them. What makes this issue strong is what has always distinguished good writing, and what young writers, all, perhaps as a diagnostic condition of being young, have to learn: the whatness of the world’s whats, the thereness of everyone’s there.

 

 

Adam Brooke Davis teaches folklore, medieval studies, writing and linguistics at Truman State University.  He has published fiction, poetry, essays and scholarship, and serves as managing editor of GHLL.