NC’s former poet laureate honors Whitman but stays grounded in his farm country

NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

Watch North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson read from his poem "Etchings" in 2015.
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Watch North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson read from his poem "Etchings" in 2015.

In his 2006 essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland rues the emergent period style of American poetics — variation on the experimental lyric — for its “emotional removal,” its resistance to “straightforwardness and orchestration,” and its detachment from “accountability.”

“The one thing [those who write such poems] are not going to do,” he observes, “is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.”

More than a decade later, it is possible to argue that many of our notable poets have reckoned with the well-established contemporary bias against and devaluation of narrative verse, and they have reestablished such poetry as a flexible site for shaping personal and public tensions into art. That is to say, commitment to telling stories in poetry is, once again, hip.

Of course, like Robert Frost during the height of the experimental Modern Era, or Natasha Trethewey during more recent decades, some poets never abandoned narrative for what was trending at the moment. Shelby Stephenson, whether it be with poet’s pen or guitar in hand, has stayed true to his artistic driving wheel: “to feel the world’s parcel” and “shake the pain out.” Stephenson excels at telling tales specific to the North Carolina farm country in which he was born and raised, allowing that intricate particular to stand for the macro. As current North Carolina Poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green has said of Stephenson’s poetry, “He has a way of bringing the ghost back to all of us, and inviting everyone in.” “Small is my theme — yet has it the sweep of the universe,” wrote Whitman.

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In “Paul’s Hill: Homage to Whitman” (Sir Walter Press), Stephenson self-consciously dons Walt Whitman’s bardic persona, incorporates his familiar cataloging technique and even, at times, ironically mimics some of Whitman’s most famous lines. The speaker seems to desire celebrating his America as straightforwardly as Whitman did; however, personal grief, a mournful sense of complicity, and his pervasive grounding in country blues — how it processes trouble, betrayal and regret — won’t allow an uncomplicated song of himself to emerge. As a child, “I used to kill every snake I saw,” Stephenson writes; the implied suggestion, of course, is that the reflective narrator now knows there are too many snakes on the property to do away with, so we have to live with them. Lines that bring to light his family’s implication in slavery complicate the potentially sentimental narrative (“The slave-loft where you must have sat — July — was empty that day. / When the grass grows over me I will not be over you.”), as do moments that bring to bear Stephenson’s grief about his ailing wife, Nin: “She wears depression like a cloak. / She does not want to button it. / That’s a good sign.”

These checks against Whitman’s ecstatic romanticism serve to balance and create a more ambiguous space from which the speaker might poke among the barns and fields of memory, even as he realizes such reminiscence offers no escape from that which burdens the present: “Grieving’s real — better than nothing. / I hold the chipped ice in the cup for her. / What a blessing, she says.”

The great specificity of imagery and detail, the skillful shading of tone, the quietly dramatic orchestration of the poem’s movement, and the speaker’s soulful credibility allow the world of Paul’s Hill to lift off the page and into our heads to stay. This is our former North Carolina poet laureate at his finest.

John Hoppenthaler Professor of Creative Writing and Literature East Carolina University. His most recent collection, “Domestic Garden,” was published by Carnegie-Mellon University Press and received the 2015 Brockman-Campbell Award for the best NC book of poetry.