New Fugitives: Contemporary Poets of Countermemory and the Futures of Southern Poetry

Article excerpt

Those people, black and white, who care about their particular South should take heart from a vision in which regional identity is continuously being replenished even as other forms, older forms, erode and mutate. Anything that has happened and is happening in this corner of the country rightfully belongs to the South's past, whether or not it seems to fit the template of an imagined Southern culture. There is no essence to be denied, no central theme to violate, no role in the national drama to be betrayed. The South is continually coming into being, continually being remade, continually struggling with its pasts.

Edward L. Ayers, "What We Talk about When We Talk about the South" (1996)

AS LEWIS SIMPSON NOTES IN THE FABLE OF THE SOUTHERN WRITER (1994), modern Southern poetry has its own fable attached to it, that of having sprung full-grown from a coherent Southern culture bound together by a seamlessly integrated, spontaneous, and vital form of collective memory--what Donald Davidson termed the "autochthonous ideal" of Southern cultural heritage in Southern Writers in the Modern World (1958). Although the Vanderbilt Fugitives were writing against the melodramatic impulses of a trite and dated Southernism left over from the nineteenth century, they often replaced the excesses of a dying Romanticism with those of a burgeoning modernism. The poetry of the Fugitives and their more contemporary poetic heirs soon developed its own checklist of modes and themes: a distinctively Southern voice, a strong narrative impulse, an emphasis on community and family ties (even alongside the standard modernist angst over individual isolation, most evident perhaps in Allen Tate's verse), an attention to the past--especially the Lost Cause of the Civil War--and an inalienable connection to place. Following Davidson, these motifs are often seen as natural outgrowths of a cohesive social environment. Such an arrangement would qualify as what Scott Romine defines as a Southern "community of rhetoric": a social hierarchy that appears unified because the cultural codes of value have been so deeply naturalized that they are asserted without self-consciousness--they go without saying--thus creating the illusion of a strict and absolute referentiality. (1) Contemporary Southern poetry, on the other hand, has existed in a critical void and is in need of a fuller account of its value to American literary criticism as well as Southern literary studies. Most Southernist critics have concentrated their work on post-World War II literature almost exclusively on fiction. Besides the occasional survey of the state of contemporary Southern poetry, typically provided by one of the poets themselves, the bulk of the criticism resides in reviews and single-author studies. (2) There is a need for a critical revaluation of the poetics of the current South, one that takes into account its cultural and historical value on regional and national levels.

This article serves as a starting place for redressing this imbalance in Southern studies by focusing on a range of current poets--Kate Daniels, Judy Jordan, and Harryette Mullen--whose work redefines the traditional borders of Southern poetics. These three female and feminist poets demonstrate that there is considerably more diversity within current Southern poetry than the critical consensus has typically allowed, thereby dismantling the traditional equation of "Southern" poet with the privileged white male writer. Daniels, Jordan, and Mullen reinvent Southern poetry not merely after the desiccation of the mythos of the autochthonous ideal, but also after the post-Southernist watershed. (3) Indeed, their contrasting poetic styles and subjects reflect the workings of an increasingly trans-Southern South. (4) In their critique of Southern literary and cultural history, their poems can be read as acts of countermemory, which invoke "residual or resistant strains that withstand official versions of historical continuity" (Davis and Starn 2). …