Lattice Work: Formal Tendencies in the Poetry of Robert Morgan and Ron Rash
Graves, Jesse, Southern Quarterly
Since the publication of Robert Morgan's first widely distributed book of poetry, Red Owl, and Fred Chappell's first collection of poems, The World between the Eyes, both appearing in 1972, the genre of "Appalachian Poetry" has experienced a Renaissance unique in its history. Soon to follow were first books by Jim Wayne Miller and Jeff Daniel Marion, and then within another decade, early books by Maggie Anderson, Ellen Bryant Voight, and Michael McFee would help to carve out a significant corner of American poetry for a group of voices distinct from "Southern Literature" at large, that found its roots and subject matter in the Southern mountains. Formally, however, there was great diversity within this group of poets, with Morgan and Marion electing to write in the spare, often short-lined, free verse driven by closely-examined images and landscapes, whereas Chappell put a variety of forms and rhyme schemes to use, often to highlight his caustic wit and narrative sensibility. Increasingly, Appalachian poets have moved toward formal designs in their work, and the more frequent usage of syllabics, the controlled repetition of syllable counts within individual poetic lines, unaccompanied by metrical or rhyme patterns, suggests an interesting case study as to the goals and outcomes of these recent formal directions. Perhaps the only Appalachian poet who has been as visible as Morgan and Rash over the past decade is Charles Wright,1 who has written, "In poems, all concerns are concerns of form" (3). I would like to consider the poems of Robert Morgan and Ron Rash as illustrative examples of why syllabics and other tendencies toward form have become important elements in the poetry of Appalachia, and also as models by which to examine the impact of this movement.
Less than a decade separates Rash and Morgan in age, but Rash's first volume of poems Eureka Mill, appeared in 2000, while Morgan's chapbook, Zirconia Poems came out in 1969, placing a full generation of readers between those debut books. One might call Ron Rash a member of the "second Wave" of the Appalachian Literary Renaissance, because the surge that began in 1972 has not declined even momentarily in the 35 years since, but has simply been followed in to shore by younger group of writers of potentially equal ability. The two writers share a number of qualities beyond their usage of formal poetic devices; both grew up among extended family in the western Carolinas (North for Morgan, North and South for Rash), and they come from families that survived on rural farm work as well as labor in cotton mill towns. Both are better known as fiction writers, publishing novels and short story collections, though each first gained wide recognition for their poetry - the precedent for multi-genre Appalachian writers traces back to the first generation of Southern mountain poets who earned a national readership, including Jesse Stuart and James Still, both accomplished poets, who are best remembered for their fiction. Morgan and Rash are also both narrative poets who rely on one of the cornerstones of the lyric mode, an unswerving attention to the minutiae of particular moments in time, to center the emotional resonance of their work.
Another common trait is that neither poet began his career writing syllabic verse. Robert Morgan's first three books, Zirconia Poems (1969), the chapbook The Voice in the Crosshairs (1971), and Red Owl (1972), present poems of such compressed lucidity that they seem to have been formed by underground pressures exactly as were the zircons dug from mines in Morgan's native Henderson County, North Carolina. Morgan's early poems were spare, tight, and primarily concerned with embodying the object in their crosshairs. In an unexpected turn, as Morgan's poems became more conversational, more about people and their stories, they also assumed more regular formal designs, countering the standard claim that free verse more closely resembles spoken language. …