More Than Tourists to Their Woe: Southern Poets of Atonement and the Cultural Legacy of Racism
Belcher, Philip, Southern Quarterly
What does it matter if I heap treasure from the stick people, far off and helpless, fluttering of brown coats?
Their lives are not my life. I come as a tourist to their woe.
"Romance of the Poor"
Like any subculture, the culture of the southern United States consists not only of beliefs and convictions of a diverse group of people but also the artifacts that reflect, mimic, or react against those beliefs, values, and behaviors. There is no cultural grid, which suggests order or logic; a more appropriate metaphor may be a squirrel's nest, with miscellaneous components stacked in no particular order but mutually dependent upon each other. In writing about English and French imperialism, Edward Said has reshaped the basic definition of culture in a way that may be instructive when analyzing Southern culture: "Culture is never just a matter of ownership, of borrowing and lending with absolute debtors and creditors, but rather of appropriations, common experience, and interdependencies of all kinds among different cultures. This is a universal norm" (Culture 217).
Notwithstanding the complexity of cultural development, however, certain strands may be traced with some precision. One of the few clear lines of development in Southern culture has been in its poets, who show a remarkably high level of social engagement. The Southern Agrarians quickly came to define Southern poetics after the 1930 publication of I'll Take My Stand, and the intellectual and literary heirs of the Southern Agrarians, four of whom are discussed here as Southern poets of atonement, have responded to their influence ever since. This idea of a Southern atonement poetry should be distinguished from Geoffrey Hill's exploration of poetry as an act of atonement in and of itself in "Poetry as 'Menace' and 'Atonement'" and was developed independently ofthat work. Hill's description of atonement in its "radical etymological sense" as "an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony," however, provides a useful, albeit generic, introduction of atonement as used in this essay (Poetry 4). More specifically, the Southern poetry of atonement refers to a poetry that works to bring into unity those previously considered to be "other" - African Americans - in a way that minimizes the potential for the poet's appropriation of their experience. At their best, later Southern, white, male poets avoid both nostalgia, the sentimental "longing for something to be as it once was" (hooks 147), and essentialism, that core of "otherness" that consists of a belief or understanding that there is "an ontological and epistemological distinction" between groups of people as Said believes ("From Orientalism" 1992).
The development of the poetry of atonement since the heyday of the Southern Agrarians has been, like so many other elements of Southern culture, inconsistent. The response of contemporary white, Southern, male poets to the cultural attitudes, especially racism, of the Agrarians varies, and the responses chosen by individual poets have shaped their aesthetic accomplishments. Yet many poets seem to consider a response necessary. Moreover, cultural critics whose primary concerns include race, like bell hooks, suggest that such engagement is essential: "Committed cultural critics - whether white or black, scholars or artists - can produce work that opposes structures of domination ... by willingly interrogating their own work on aesthetic and political grounds. This interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fostering a fundamental attitude of vigilance rather than denial" (55).
This essay considers the work of four white, Southern male poets who have dared to accept hooks 's challenge: Rodney Jones, Andrew Hudgins, Jake Adam York, and Steve Scafidi. The universe of Southern atonement poets is much larger and certainly not exclusively male, but looking at these four still-productive poets from two different generations will offer a glimpse of some of the landscapes over which all atonement poets travel. …