Pain, pleasure, and Spottswood Styles

Ghosts of poetry: once, on the current site of Washington and Lee University’s theater, there stood a brick house with a stone fireplace “so large that we could burn whole railroad ties without having them cut.” It belonged to Spottswood Styles, 1869-1946, “Lexington’s Negro Poet.” I’m quoting from volume seven of the Rockbridge Historical Society Proceedings, provided to me by Tom Camden, Lisa McCown, and Seth Goodhart, who staff Special Collections. An introductory note signed “A.B.H.” informs us that Styles, one of fourteen children and father of ten, was born west of town near the Lucy Selina Furnaces, to John Robert Styles, formerly an enslaved person who worked forges that supplied iron to the Confederacy. Spottswood Styles probably obtained only an elementary school education, but he was a good mechanic who provided for his family by working at a “wood, coal, and machinery yard,” and he directed his creative energy in all kinds of ways. Deborah Sensabaugh, who wrote about Styles for the Lexington News Gazette in 1990, cites a grandson’s recollection of how Styles rechanneled a small stream from Woods Creek and “placed little waterwheels that turned mechanical items.” There were swings and see-saws, too, and “carved wooden men with jointed arms.”

Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report
Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report

Styles’ poetry was read aloud in church and published in the newspaper. Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Styles wrote both in vernacular and standard English, and was particularly cited locally at this time of year for a piece called “Dat Ground-Hog Day.” “Some say I’m Juverstetious,” it begins, a comic error reprised suggestively in the next stanza: “Well, yes, I’m superspecious.” Several lines down he rhymes “Door” and “Low” to highlight the intensity of the accent. It’s an appealing poem that resonates strongly with the trickster tradition Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identifies in African-American literature: not only is the Ground-Hog an underground character whose “Ebry Little Sign” needs attention and decoding, but he even prognosticates an upsurge in coal and wood orders, benefitting the author’s business interests. (Tom also sent me a 1997 ad from the same paper sponsored by Herring Real Estate. “In Honor of Black History Month and Spottswood Alexander Styles, a Lexington Poet,” the ad quotes a drastically changed and standardized version of the “Ground Hog Poem”—I can guess why someone erased the dialect, but I’d still very much like to know who did the rewriting.)

I don’t have access to the ledger in which Styles transcribed his poems, and maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore, but it would be fascinating to examine the source of the few poems preserved by the Historical Society. (Sensabaugh says Styles wrote his poems on delivery tags for coal customers, too, but those must be long vanished.) An essay prefacing the short selection, by Houston Barclay, is fond but condescending: “What would our history be without the Negroes who added so much to our way of life!” Hmm. More tactful is a comment from Robert Frost, who visited the university in 1941 and remarked of Styles, “His work, judging from the few samples I have seen, shows a very poetic mind.” But genuinely, I like this work, and have so appreciated these glimpses of a talent who lived a few blocks from me but in a profoundly different world. The vernacular poems are spirited, sly, and very much in conversation with nineteenth and twentieth-century verse: they are, in short, a pleasure to spend time with.

In a more solemn mood, “Uncle Henry,” recounting Styles’ grandmother’s story of a son sold down the river, gives testimony of pain. His grandmother responds to this terrible rupture in her family by praying, “Lord break the Chains of Bondage, and set the Captives free./ Bring back my boy, dear Jesus, be merciful Lord unto me.” In the final couplet, breaking the chains of his own quatrains, Styles observes: “‘Twas at Appomattox Virginia when God through Grant had spoken,/ And General Lee gave up his sword, the slavery Chain was broken.” Writing from Lexington soon after Lee-Jackson day with its parade of flaggers, I feel relieved by this alternate vision. Styles honors Lee, not Grant, through the title “General,” yet God speaks via Union forces. This heathen could almost say: amen.

I’ve been haunted by the nineteenth-century U.S. South lately in my reading, my teaching, and the historical flashbacks enacting themselves around me. I’ve also been managing my own small, personal pain—as the doctor just confirmed, sciatica. But there’s been a lot of joy lately, too. It was such a pleasure to take my class to Special Collections—Tom handed around an 1802 New Hampshire edition of Phillis Wheatley, for heaven’s sake. What a privilege.

And at the doctor’s office, the nurse said she’d been waiting for me to have another health problem for months, because she’d fallen in love with Mary Oliver’s verse and could explain the experience only to me. She and I had previously talked about poetry helping to make contemplative space in life, I guess—as she put it, “one of those crumbs you drop sometimes, not knowing where they’ll lead.” She had said she was intimidated by poetry and I answered that everyone is entitled to like what they like, although it can be hard to find the poetry that will really help you. She then went on vacation and took a yoga class with a teacher who read aloud “Why I Wake Early.” Afterwards this nurse who didn’t really read poetry bought the book, memorized the poem, and now says it to herself every morning, cultivating gratitude and kindness with the help of Oliver’s lines. “We run around chasing things,” she said, “but you can find what you need if you just stop.”

It moves me to have played the tiniest role in that discovery—Mary Oliver and the yoga teacher really deserve the credit, and the nurse herself does, too, for being open and thoughtful despite a million pressures to the contrary.  Maintaining openness despite pain is the trick, isn’t it? This winter, I seem enmeshed in surprising connections. Juverstetious, too, and alert for signs.

*For the story of unlikely coincidences behind the photograph, see The Rockbridge Report. The woman who must have been his wife–I don’t know her name–has been appearing in my dreams.

Family syllabus

Reading is often a business of following trails for the love of it. In preparing to discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar with my African-American Poetry course last week, I reviewed Meta DuEwa Jones’ wonderful study The Muse is Music—inspired by that book’s introduction, in fact, I extended our conversation about Dunbar’s vernacular verse by playing recordings of “When Malindy Sings” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1909) and the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln (1961). Jones quoted an essay called “Dunbar Lives!” by Elizabeth Alexander, so I looked it up and it’s wonderful, too. Alexander describes her father reciting Dunbar’s “The Party.” The 19th century poet was on her 20th century “family syllabus.” The same is true, she discovers, for lots of other African-American poets, although reading Dunbar’s work in school seems to be rarer.

I reported Dunbar’s influence to my wonderful students then surprised myself by asking, “What was on your family syllabus?” Blank looks.  I don’t entirely believe them; I bet some of their parents and grandparents said, “oh, you have to hear this song/ watch this movie/ read this book,” even if there wasn’t any oral recitation happening in the rec room. I’m sure my spouse and I are more professorial with our kids than many parents, but privilege and education are only part of what might drive family members to share the art they love. My mother and grandmother received half as much formal education as my father or I did—around ten years vs. twenty-plus—but they transmitted much more culture than my father, with the result that, growing up on Long Island and in New Jersey, I felt more connected to my mother’s Liverpool than I did to my father’s childhood home of Brooklyn. My mother handed me books she grew up on, including Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and much odder bits of British children’s fiction (one of these days I have to find and reread Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest). My grandmother also brought books from England (I’m pretty sure Enid Blyton collections were packed in those suitcases alongside the chocolates), and she taught me old songs like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Neither of them recited poems unless in half-remembered fragments, but my mother recalls the childhood entertainment of her father’s rendition of “Casabianca.” I memorized poems for fun back then, including nursery rhymes and songs from Tolkien’s books; it didn’t seem so weird.

Well, my mother grew up without electricity or indoor toilets, much less television, so through her I’m a generation closer to a necessary, vibrant oral culture than many Americans my age, and perhaps multiple generations closer than most of my students. My own kids were never interested in learning my grandmother’s songs (my off-key singing helped discourage lessons), but they hear Louis Armstrong recite “The Night Before Christmas” every year, and I whiled away many hours of baby-care by singsonging rhymes I’d learned by heart decades earlier. And, by accident and design, sometimes successfully and sometimes to hoots of derision, we introduce them to books and movies and music that shaped us. Sometimes we track down references together: after watching Boy in New Zealand, for example, we showed them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In a more deliberate way, I read aloud authors I’d loved as a child—Lewis, Le Guin. We played Joss Whedon’s television canon (delight!) and my collection of David Bowie on vinyl (not so much!). My husband indoctrinated the kids in arcane superhero lore and makes CDs of Not to Be Missed Songs of the New Wave. An exclamation such as “What? How can you not know Billie Holiday/ The Matrix/ ‘Kubla Khan’?!” still interrupts dinner pretty often, and out comes the laptop or the anthology. I’m not sure to what extent these family texts teach them who they are, except they surely know they’re nerd-spawn.

I’ve introduced poems, though, less often than you might expect. Setting out a family literary syllabus with educational intent rarely works. My children did not want to hear Yeats before our Ireland trip, although they showed more interest afterwards. My recommending a novel can guarantee the kid won’t read it. Bringing up a poem in a spirit of play, as Alexander’s father did, is much better. What I enjoy most of all is helping my kids follow their own leads. They don’t read a ton of poetry at school, but there was one memorable night they realized they’d learned slightly different versions of an Emily Dickinson poem. I explained about her variants then they immediately launched into an argument about which word choices were better. Voila! Instant English class!

This was a rough week for me—I’m enjoying a bout of sciatica and by the time evening comes, I’m exhausted by pain. (Yoga, heat, and rest this weekend have helped a lot.) It’s been a pleasure, though, to talk books through the haze. A few days ago, Madeleine explained over pasta why Toni Morrison is her favorite author (“the way she gets into the heads of even the most terrible people—a lot of my moral education has come from her. Plus, the sentences”). I suggested to my son, who was between books, that he might be old enough now to enjoy Lev Grossman’s novels, and he announced that, nope, he planned to remain loyal to Austin Grossman, “the superior twin” (every conversation also occasions sibling rivalry). And while taking a practice AP test, Madeleine became distracted by the beauty of “Dover Beach” and wanted to talk to someone about it, so I read it aloud and chatted. “You have a good poetry voice,” my son commented, while apparently absorbed by Terraria on his phone.

And Friday morning, after a week skim-reading a book required for her English class, Heart of Darkness, in a rage over its offensive treatment of Africans, my daughter came downstairs and remarked, “I read this amazing essay by Chinua Achebe and I feel much better.” She resolved to reread Conrad more carefully, adding, “I didn’t know famous authors wrote criticism, too.” “So your teacher didn’t assign the Achebe essay?” we asked. “How did you know about it?” Apparently she just went looking.

Good reads

One of my 2014 resolutions was to track my reading via Goodreads, and I’m here to say I hated it. Record-keeping in itself is a good thing. It’s interesting to know I read or reread at least 95 books last year (a few weren’t in the Goodreads system and I can remember a few more I seem never to have logged), in addition to the beginnings of many books I didn’t finish; a ton of journalism and literary magazines; articles, blogs, and posts; and many manuscripts and student papers. That’s 36 poetry books, 11 books of nonfiction, and the rest fiction, including a few YA titles, lots of genre and literary fiction, and one short story collection (George Saunders). 55 were authored by women—phew—but only 8 by nonwhite authors (excluding a few multi-author anthologies), a number that shocks me with its single-digit lameness and teaches me I have to do better. A third were books I taught; the rest I read for pleasure or, as described in my last post, from professional curiosity about contemporary prize culture.

Unless I have a major obligation bearing down, I won’t finish a book I don’t find engaging, so almost everything on my 2014 list was worth attention or at least fun. Some of it was outstanding, but then, I reread Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve also been on a classic-mystery kick so I plunged into Wilkie Collins and P.D. James for the first time. The Moonstone was one of my favorite books of 2014 (and 1868), but mentioning that probably doesn’t do the contemporary publishing industry much good.

Some recent books I loved: a week or two ago I praised two 2014 National Book Award poetry choices: the long-listed Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, and the finalist Citizen by Claudia Rankine. However, lots of less-recognized books offer the NBA selections serious competition. A few comparisons among books that share affinities: Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance rivals Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood in eerie resonance. Rafael Campo’s Alternative Medicine is just as skillful, high-stakes, and risky as Spencer Reece’s The Road to Emmaus. Martha Silano’s Reckless Lovely outshines Maureen McLane’s This Blue. I was moved by Sally Rosen Kindred’s Book of Asters and Laura Gray-Street’s Pigment & Fume. A couple of 2013 poetry volumes I didn’t finish until 2014 but admired were Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Maria Hummel’s House and Fire.

My favorite new literary fiction this year was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book that has earned plenty of attention. In nonfiction, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is pretty extraordinary. I was really looking forward this year to new speculative fictions by Lev Grossman, Jo Walton, and Stephen King, and I liked them all, especially Walton’s My Real Children. I got even more of a kick, however, out of slightly older books I didn’t get to until 2014: Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet has stayed with me and, older still, Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount. And I loved spending time with Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s in preparation for his fall visit to campus.

In other words, 2014 brought lots of good reads. I can also see a tilt towards British fiction and U.S. poetry, as well as towards white authors generally, so I’ve learned I need to widen my range. I just don’t find the Goodreads platform convenient or useful as a way of discovering personal trends. There are too many clicks to enter and date titles. Nor does the year-in-review feature sort titles by the factors that most interest me.

And then there’s the tyranny of the rating system. I gave precious few threes, which to me means “a decent book but not my cup of tea,” and I wouldn’t even bother to finish the ones and twos. Which leaves me the grand range of four and five to handle poetry books I admire and would recommend as well as, you know, Sylvia Plath. The same binary system has to handle the last in Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy, the Tina Fey memoir that cracked me up as an audiobook, and Jane Austen. I feel mean giving fours to contemporary books I hope others will invest their time and money in, but shouldn’t five stars be saved for must-reads, the most powerful works around? Maybe the problem is that I’m temperamentally more critic than booster.

At any rate, this year I’m listing books in a word processing document. I’ll still give you the upshot next January, but without that gold star for stress.

In the meantime, the new term is grinding into gear, with classes beginning Monday. I owe a couple of shout-outs to the Tahoma Literary Review for publishing “Sticky” (a poem about reading and teaching!) and nominating it for a Pushcart; and to editors Albert Bendixen and Stephen Burt for including my essay “The Formalist Modernisms of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Helene Johnson, and Louise Bogan” in the new Cambridge History of American Poetry. And I’m looking forward to hearing unfamiliar poets and meeting old friends at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival next week (I read on Friday afternoon).

I feel like hibernating with poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, but apparently work must be done. Zero stars for the weather and one for the month of January in principle. I’m saving the rest of my shiny stickers for spring.