In 1979, in the preface to An Anthology of Mississippi Writers, Noel Polk and James Scafidel observed, “It is simply incredible to consider even the sheer number of writers that in one way or another are products of this state, not to say the number of really first-rate ones: Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner; Pulitzer Prize winners Eudora Welty, Hodding Carter, and Tennessee Williams; National Book Award winner Walker Percy; as well as a host of established writers of national and international literary significance—Stark Young, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Spencer, Irwin Russell, and Shelby Foote—and younger writers like Barry Hannah . . . looming large on the literary horizon.” An observer of Mississippi’s literary landscape in the early twenty-first century would no doubt agree with this assertion made in the latter part of the twentieth. Of course, the later observer would no doubt add a number of names to the list, among them Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, Ellen Gilchrist, Larry Brown, and John Grisham. But of all these writers, only one, Irwin Russell, is a poet. The others are noted for their prose fiction, their nonfiction prose, or their plays. And Russell, a nineteenth-century poet who died at the age of twenty-six, left behind fewer than fifty poems. Though Faulkner, Carter, Gilchrist, Wright, Williams, and others published poems, their reputations clearly rest on their successes in other genres. To most of the world’s readers, the literature of Mississippi is a literature of prose and drama.
But Mississippi has produced a number of outstanding poets. And while their poems may not have garnered the prestigious prizes ticked off by Polk and Scafidel, the cumulative effect has been impressive.
Russell had at least as much influence on later authors as any other nineteenth-century Mississippi writer. His best-known poem, “Christmas Night in the Quarters,” with its use of African American dialect and its depiction of plantation life, was acknowledged by both Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris as a guiding light in their work. Indeed, Russell’s poem may be said to have played a part in the continuing tradition of plantation literature and its various offshoots, and his influence, filtered through Page, Harris, and others, resurfaces in a number of later writers.
Another nineteenth-century poet of considerable importance, Eliza Jane Poitevant Nicholson, published under the pseudonym Pearl Rivers, which she adopted from the river that she knew as a youngster. Like Russell, Nicholson did not live a long life (she died in her late forties), although her literary influence cannot be compared to his. However, Nicholson’s achievements as a newspaper editor, a traditionally male-dominated profession, point to some of the salient themes in her poetry. In “Hagar,” her best-known poem, she provides the biblical outcast with a strong, vibrant, and denunciatory voice. Hagar decries the wrong done to her, and her words speak to the struggles women faced in Nicholson’s time.
The twentieth century produced a good many more notable Mississippi poets. Arranging these writers into groups eases the task of grasping their varying achievements and shared affinities. One such grouping would include William Alexander Percy, Hodding Carter Jr., Charles G. Bell, and Brooks Haxton, all of them natives of Greenville except for the Louisiana-born Carter, who moved to the Mississippi town in the 1930s and lived there for the remainder of his life. Percy, a lawyer, played an active role in the affairs of his city, his state, and indeed his country. His best-known literary achievement is undoubtedly Lanterns on the Levee, his autobiography, but he also published poetry throughout his life, and The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy appeared in 1943, a year after his death. Although Percy’s interest in classical literature can be seen in the title of his first volume, Sappho in Levkas, and Other Poems, he turned often to the Delta for subject matter. Carter, an award-winning newspaper editor, also used the Delta and events there as material for his poetry. Some of his poems, such as “Flood Song,” use dialect and owe a debt to Russell; other poems draw on the Delta social and political happenings that Carter chronicled in his newspaper.
Both Bell and Haxton have spent their adult years away from Greenville, but it and the Delta figure in their work. Bell devotes a section of his “The Journey Down” to “The Queen City of the Delta” and in other poems writes of “The River” and “The Flood” and “the glimmering swirls of Delta night, our home.” Haxton, son of novelist Ellen Douglas (Josephine Ayres Haxton), has taught for many years in New York, and his poems, often long, deal with a wide range of subjects, most notably Mississippi and in particular the civil rights struggles of Greenville in his youth. “Limpopo, Orinoco, or Yazoo,” the first poem in The Sun at Night, demonstrates Haxton’s wide-ranging imagination as well as his use of Delta material. His poems “Justice” and “I Live to See Strom Thurmond Head the Judiciary Committee” explore the tensions of Mississippi in the 1960s.
If Percy can be seen as the patriarch of the Greenville poets, then Margaret Walker Alexander is the matriarch of a lengthy list of poets, many of them still working today. Inspired and encouraged by Langston Hughes, Alexander embarked on a long and distinguished career as a poet while still in her teens. In 1942 Alexander’s For My People was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The title poem begins,
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
Alexander spent the remainder of her career chronicling the African American experience in verse (and in her 1966 novel, Jubilee). Poems such as “Jackson, Mississippi,” “For Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney,” and “A Poem for Farish Street” show her continuing engagement with her chosen subject matter. In addition, her work and career as a teacher influenced other African American poets.
While Alexander remains the best-known African American poet with Mississippi connections, a number of others achieved recognition in the second half of the twentieth century, following the injunction that concludes “For My People”: “Let a new race of men now rise and take control.” Etheridge Knight, Al Young, Sterling Plumpp, and Jerry Ward Jr. are four such men. A quick survey of titles reveals the direction of their work: Knight’s “A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy)” and “Once on a Night in the Delta: A Report from Hell”; Young’s “Pachuta, Mississippi/A Memoir” and “The Blues Don’t Change”; Plumpp’s “Blues” and “I Hear the Shuffle of the People’s Feet”; and Ward’s “Don’t Be Fourteen (in Mississippi)” and “Jazz to Jackson to John.” Nayo-Barbara Watkins and Angela Jackson (another poet born in Greenville) have also heeded Alexander’s advice and have earned distinction with their poems about identity (Watkins’s “Do You Know Me?” and “Mama’s Children”), music (Jackson’s “Make/n My Music”), and place (Jackson’s “Greenville”).
The careers of Hubert Creekmore, Charles Henri Ford, J. Edgar Simmons, and Turner Cassity occurred largely outside Mississippi. All four traveled far from their home state, and those foreign travels played a role in their poetic achievements. Creekmore, a novelist, translator, and editor, wrote most of his poetry in the early part of his career. His best-known book of poems, The Long Reprieve and Other Poems from New Caledonia, reflects in its title his experiences during World War II. Ford is remembered for his connections to Gertrude Stein, Paris, and the literary and artistic avant-garde in the early 1930s. After returning to the United States, Ford lived in New York City, where he continued his career as a writer, editor, and translator and developed an interest in the visual arts. He has been hailed as the first surrealist poet produced by the United States. Simmons studied in Paris and traveled throughout the British Isles before teaching at various US colleges and universities. His poems cover such topics as a Mississippi feed and seed store, William Faulkner, and a deranged GI named Osiris. Cassity, born in Jackson, credits his time in the US Army, his stint as a librarian in South Africa, and his love of travel as major influences on his work, an assertion supported by such poems as “Manchuria 1931,” “Two Hymns” (with its subsections “The Afrikaners in the Argentine” and “Confederates in Brazil”), and “In Sydney by the Bridge.”
Two poets with strong ties to Northeast Mississippi are James Autry and Elmo Howell. Autry’s poems, built on the roots of his Benton County past, examine the rituals and everyday events of a largely disappearing rural world. His poems show the rites of a baptism in the country as well as an “All Day Singing with Dinner on the Grounds.” “Genealogy” contrasts the ways of life and the interconnections of old families and old times with “new families and new names.” Howell, a native of Itawamba County, taught for many years at universities in Alabama and Tennessee. After retirement he produced several travel books about Mississippi that focus on the state’s literature and history. Howell’s poems also deal with villages and hamlets and with their associated characters, some famous, some not. For example, Tuesday’s Letter features William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Miss Sudie from Maben, who flew with Lindbergh in 1923.
William Mills, James Whitehead, James Seay, T. R. Hummer, John Freeman, and D. C. Berry came of age after World War II. All are clearly products of the state, although their styles and subject matter vary. Perusing Mills’s “Our Fathers at Corinth,” Whitehead’s “Delta Farmer in a Wet Summer,” Seay’s “Grabbling in Yocona Bottom,” Hummer’s “The Rural Carrier Admires Neil Varner’s Brand New Convertible,” and Freeman’s “A Barn in the Morning Light” provides the reader with a thumbnail sketch of Mississippi’s social and natural history. Likewise, Berry, another poet with connections to Greenville, deals with landscape and destiny in his “Dusk between Vicksburg and Rolling Fork” and with nature in such poems as “Bass,” “Setter,” and “Quail.” Berry’s first volume of poems, Saigon Cemetery, grew out of his stint in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
Two other poets who were born outside the state have developed strong ties to Mississippi. Ohio native Angela Ball has taught at the University of Southern Mississippi since 1979; her poetry ranges over a wide field of topics. In The Museum of the Revolution Ball creates fifty-eight “exhibits” that provide a tour of the controversial island nation of Cuba; Quartet includes four long poems in the voices of Sylvia Beach, Nora Joyce, Nancy Cunard, and Jean Rhys. Elsewhere in her work, Ball writes about Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire, among others. But she also “studies the habits of rivers,” both those far away (“The Seine draped in its heavy jewelry”) and those closer to Mississippi (“The Leaf, striated and mysterious / Plied by pairs of beavers.”) Born in South Carolina and raised in Kentucky, Aleda Shirley lived in Mississippi for nearly two decades before her death in 2008. Her three volumes of poems contain images from various parts of the world, including the South. Mississippi appears in lines that describe driving “at night along the Gulf Coast, through Bay St. Louis / and Pass Christian and Biloxi.” The first poem in Dark Familiar, “The Star’s Etruscan Argument,” set in Neshoba County, “in the hotel of a casino / on an Indian reservation in the deep south,” reveals significant changes in her adopted state.
Near the turn of the twenty-first century, two Mississippi poets launched promising careers. Published in 1998, Claude Wilkinson’s Reading the Earth won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award. The poems explore nature and place and are products of Wilkinson’s early years, spent on a farm in DeSoto County. The title of Wilkinson’s next volume, Joy in the Morning, indicates the continuation of his interest in biblical imagery and religious activity. Wilkinson is also a visual artist whose paintings and drawings have been exhibited widely.
Natasha Trethewey has published four volumes of poetry since 2000. Her third collection, Native Guard (2006) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Trethewey’s poems explore in various ways the African American experience in her native Mississippi and in the South. Domestic Work, her first volume, offers poems about the Owl Club in North Gulfport in 1950 and the Naola Beauty Academy in New Orleans in 1945. Her second volume, Bellocq’s Ophelia, chronicles the life of a mixed-race prostitute in New Orleans’s infamous Storyville. Native Guard includes poems about the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black regiments called into service during the Civil War. Other poems in the book depict her family and its history, while “Southern History” and “Southern Gothic” continue her exploration of the past. In 2012 she was named poet laureate both of Mississippi and of the United States.
Perhaps the fact that a Mississippi poet rather than a Mississippi novelist is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize indicates that Mississippi poets are finally earning wider recognition and respect. Their accomplishments over the past 150 years should draw more readers. Their poems show the harsh history, the natural beauty, the songs and stories, the blues and the jazz, the voices and faces and places, the bitter defeats and the human triumphs of this always fascinating state.
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: An Anthology (1991)