Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Corresponding with the Fugitives

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Corresponding with the Fugitives

Article excerpt

In May of 1964, I wrote a letter to each of the four main Fugitive poets--John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren--to ask whether I might be permitted to compile a new anthology of their work. As an indication of what might eventually be produced, I sent them each a copy of my earlier anthology, The Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature. The four principal Fugitives took to the idea immediately, the others (except Laura Riding) proved equally agreeable, and in 1965 the first anthology of Fugitive poetry since 1928 appeared, under the title of The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective, in the Dutton Paperback Original series, with an original painting by Paul Davis on the cover showing The Fugitive as a weathered granite Confederate soldier whose eyes were alive. No new edition appeared until 1991, when I was invited to make a revised and expanded edition, with the same portrait of the Fugitive on the cover, for the fledgling publishing firm of J.S. Sanders & Co. of Nashville, as one of the first entries in its new Southern Classics Series. By then, most of the Fugitives were dead, so I could not resume my correspondence with them, which had proved so fruitful during the fashioning of the first anthology. But I still had their letters, and as I revised the anthology I re-read them, reminding myself of how generous all the Fugitives (but one) had been to me.

Altogether, I received close to fifty letters and other written communications from the Fugitives, including a number of new poems and altered versions of old poems. The response to my first letter of inquiry had been enthusiastic, and in the course of producing the anthology I found the Fugitives were responding eagerly to the prospect of a new collection of their work by sending me poems or commenting on my choice of their poems. We did not always agree, but they gave me the liberty to be the judge of their work, and in the end they all seemed satisfied with the result. I had known two of the Fugitives, Davidson and Tate, before I broached the possibility of a new anthology, and I met a third one, Ransom, soon afterward. My acquaintance with the other Fugitives was mainly through correspondence, though I had seen and heard most of them read from their poetry.

In the period of less than a year that I worked on the anthology, I received many letters from the living Fugitives (Merrill Moore and Sidney Hirsch, who had attended the Fugitive Reunion at Vanderbilt in 1955, were no longer alive). Tate proved the most encouraging and prolific correspondent; I received a total of fifteen letters and postcards from him over the years. Warren was next in responsiveness, with nine letters and cards, Davidson next with seven, and Ransom last of the major Fugitives with only three letters. Ransom, however, sent me more poems than any of the other Fugitives--including so many versions of one poem, first called "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son," but retitled "The Vanity of the Bright Young Men," that I later wrote a comparative study of it called "Metamorphosis of a Poem." I remember being surprised that Ransom, who had stopped writing new poems years earlier, was still doing revisions of his poems, and even seemed to like his later versions better, though I did not always agree with him.

When I had finished writing my introduction to the anthology, titling it "In Pursuit of the Fugitives," I sent carbon copies to the four major poets, drawing lively responses from three of them--Davidson, Tate, and Ransom. None replied in greater detail than Davidson, who wrote six pages in longhand of what he called "Small Corrections." But at least I had the benefit of editorial comments on the poems and the introductory essay from some of the best qualified living judges of poetry.

My most voluminous correspondent by far, however, was one I did not finally succeed in including in the first anthology: Laura Riding. …

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